By Rev. Sarah Buteux
Transfiguration Sunday, Year C
Exodus 34:29-35 & Luke 9:28-43
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
― Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Although we had many technical difficulties this morning and the sound is very wonky, you can still watch the service here. The sermon begins at the 40 minute mark.
One of my great joys when my children were small, was reading to them at bedtime. And one of my favorite books took place: “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines (where) lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. They left the house at half past nine in two straight lines in rain or shine- the smallest one was…(anybody know?) … Madeline.” That’s right.
Well, these 12 little girls were watched over by nun who would wake from a dead sleep if Madeline was in trouble or about to cause it -usually the latter. If I remember correctly, the plot of each book takes a turn “In the middle of the night (when) Miss Clavel turn(s) on her light and sa(ys), ‘Something is not right!’”
Well that phrase, “Something is not right,” has echoed in my head ever since, and I’ve been feeling more and more like Miss Clavel of late. As I talk with colleagues in the ministry, parents, teachers, social workers, doctors, and all of you here in our congregation, as I read essays and book reviews and news articles, I am acutely aware that no one is alright.
And the primary symptom, as far as I can tell, is exhaustion. Most everyone I know is tired. Really, really, tired. But it’s not a good kind of tired.
Did you even know there’s a good kind of tired? Perhaps it’s been so long since you felt it you don’t even remember, but there is. Good tired is the tired you feel after a long but productive day. Good tired is when your body and mind are sorely in need of rest but your heart is light because of all the good you experienced or accomplished.
It’s the sort of tired that causes you to fall asleep the moment your head hits the pillow and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to meet the day ahead. I love that kind of tired. I long for that kind of tired. But that’s not the kind of tired I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the kind of tired Ruth Haley Barton calls dangerous. “Dangerous tired,” she says, “is an atmospheric condition of the soul… (just sit with that a moment). “Dangerous tired, is an atmospheric condition of the soul… It is a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months and months, and it does not always manifest itself in physical exhaustion. In fact it can …manifest (in) excessive activity (or) compulsive overworking.
When we are dangerously tired,” she says, “we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses we may not be aware of.”
When we are dangerously tired, we can’t sit still, but we can’t seem to get going either. We work long hours but fail to get much of anything done. We stress about not having enough time and then fritter away hours scrolling away on our phones.
Does this kind of tired feel familiar to any of you? It does to me.
When we are dangerously tired we might try to take the night off and relax, but we can’t watch TV without also responding to texts. We can’t stop e-mailing because e-mail never stops. We can’t go to bed without checking the news.
And is the news ever good? No!
Does knowing what’s going on in the world ever help you sleep at night?
Not the last time I checked.
And yet, we can’t seem to help ourselves, can we?
When we are dangerously tired, we’re not really going anywhere or accomplishing much, and yet we can’t stop whatever it is we’re not really doing long enough to do what really needs to be done.
“(And) when we do have discretionary time,” says Ruth, “we indulge in escapist behaviors – such as compulsive eating, drinking, spending, or watching screens – because we’re too tired choose activities that are truly life giving” like going for a walk or having a deep conversation, enjoying a good meal or simply focusing in on the people we love (p 59).
We all know we need to rest. We’re tired after all. But when you are dangerously tired, the idea of taking Sabbath, a whole day off, let alone a vacation, can feel impossible. We know we need to unplug and disengage, but the idea of missing out or not knowing or immediately responding to what’s going on at work or in the world or with family or friends, fills us with deep anxiety.
And these phones – Oh, my goodness, these phones – no matter how intentional you are about setting them down or putting them away, these phones have this diabolical way of re-appearing in your hand so you can just… confirm the date, the time, what other film that actor was in, and 45 minutes later the movie is over, but you missed the end because you’re so deep into Facebook you’re seeing posts from someone who went to high school with your second cousin once removed.
Am I right? When you’re dangerously tired it’s like you can’t help yourself. When you’re dangerously tired you can’t stop the scroll.
And I don’t blame you. In fact, I don’t want you to hear an ounce of judgment in what I am saying today because it’s not our fault. There is a reason your screen time was up 2 hours and 45 minutes from last week and yet you didn’t have time to pray or the energy to exercise or the existential will to make a salad.
Something is not right. Can I get an amen? And we’re all suffering because of it. We are all caught up in this perfect storm of real world problems like war and climate change and covid, white supremacy and income inequality, misinformation and polarization, coming at us 24/7 through technologies specially designed to manipulate our attention, distort our reality, stoke our outrage, and keep us coming back for more.
It’s no wonder we’re all a mess, and the worse we get the more we turn to the source of our malaise for relief.
Exhaustion makes us want to pick up our phones because we’re looking for something to wake us up and make us feel better. The discomfort of not knowing the future keeps us scanning the headlines or glued to CNN because the answer might just be out there.
We take refuge in workaholism or compulsive activities because they give us some illusion of control or at least provide a welcome distraction from the worries that weigh us down.
The truth is, we could spend all day talking about the biological and evolutionary realities that got us into this mess, but what I really want to talk to you about today is how we can start to find our way out.
Back in January, I knew I was dangerously tired and that I needed to stop. I knew I needed to get help, because a dangerously tired pastor isn’t just in danger of burn out or a danger to herself; a dangerously tired pastor is a danger to her congregation. And the last thing I would ever want to do is harm any of you.
So I gathered my Bible and a candle, some good books and healthy food, and I literally ran for the hills to rest and heal and pray. I took Ruth as my guide because she’d been where I was. In her book, “Invitation to Solitude,” she writes:
One of the most sobering things I learned as I listened to my exhaustion and allowed God to minister to me is that when I am dangerously tired I can be very, very, busy and look very, very important but be unable to hear the quiet, sure voice of the One who calls me Beloved. When that happens I lose touch with that place in the center of my being where I know who I am in God, where I know what I am called to do, and where I am responsive to that voice above all others.
When that happens I am at the mercy of all manner of external forces, tossed and turned by other’s expectations and my own compulsions. These inner lacks then become the source of my frenetic activity, keeping me forever spiraling into deeper levels of exhaustion” (“Invitation to Solitude and Silence, p 59-60).
Back in January, I hit a wall and realized that I hadn’t heard or felt or really spoken with God in a long, long time. I’d simply been running too fast, reacting to crisis after crisis after crisis. Two years into Covid, I wasn’t pivoting anymore, I was pirouetting.
But as I delved into Ruth’s books – “Sacred Rhythms,” “Invitation to Solitude and Silence,” “Strengthening The Soul of Your Leadership,” – I realized that a pastor who can’t still her soul long enough to come into the presence of God, can’t lead her people into that presence.
A pastor who can’t quiet her mind and calm her heart enough to hear that still small voice, can’t help her people hear that voice either. I realized that a very productive pastor is not the same thing as a very good one, and First Churches, you deserve a good pastor.
What I learned up in the hills was nothing new. In fact, the wisdom I gleaned is as old as the scriptures before us this morning. If you want to experience God, know and be known by God, hear a word from God, feel the love of God…if you want to meet with God, you need to make time and space for God to come and meet with you.
Moses went up on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus, himself, often withdrew to pray. And in today’s story, like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus headed for the hills as well. If Moses and Jesus needed to walk away every now and again, set aside time, and create the space to meet God, then we do too.
And so that’s what I’ve been doing. Since that retreat I’ve made some simple shifts that have had a profound impact on my overall sense of wellbeing, really basic things like drinking more water, getting more sleep, and walking everyday.
But the biggest shift has been removing the phone from my bedside table and replacing it with a prayerbook. Now I begin my morning with prayers and scripture and silence and often end my days that way as well.
I spend time with God and it is time well spent. I read the scriptures and then sit in silence waiting to see if God has a special word for me, some word or phrase that stands out or draws me into a deeper awareness of God’s loving presence.
And I’ll tell you, sometimes God does and sometimes God doesn’t. Sometimes it feels about as holy as brushing my teeth. I mean, I know it’s something I should do, but it’s not all that exciting. And other times I’ll go back over the scriptures a second or third time and be stunned by the way that still small voice leaps off the page straight into my heart such that I can barely breathe and don’t want to move and want to sit in the light of that love, tears streaming down my face, forever and ever.
I’m re-learning what I knew all along, that God is there just waiting for me. The bush has been on fire this whole time, I just needed to turn aside and look in order to see it. And if God is just waiting for me, I know God is just waiting for you too.
Dear ones, as we leave Epiphany behind and come into Lent, I want to invite you to take time for God. If you’re feeling like something is not right, make some space for God to come and help make it better. Charge your phone in the kitchen and put a Bible on your beside table. Invest in a really nice candle.
On Ash Wednesday, you’ll receive prayers from me via our emailing that you can use to get you started, but all you really need to do is be intentional about making space and taking time. Trust me, God will do the rest.
There is an old story about a disciples who asked his master what he could do to make himself grow spiritually.
The master answered: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
Disconcerted, the disciple asked what then was the use of all the spiritual exercises the master had taught him.
And the master replied: “to make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise” (p 225 of “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership” by Ruth Haley Barton, from the afterword by Leighton Ford). Amen.