Delight and Sanity

From the poem "Mindful" by Mary Oliver

The Rev. Bob Holum

Psalm 119

Romans 13

Matthew 18

I want to begin today’s meditation with a quote from my colleague Tyler Montgomery’s end of season pastoral letter, which will be published this week on the excellent website he’s designed and constructed: Tyler offers this comment about the season just concluding:

“Sometimes these days it feels as though our desire to stay informed is at odds with our ability to remain sane!”

I could’t agree more. Our scripture readings today touch on dark prophesy of judgment in Ezekiel, on rules for communal living, in Romans, and on specific procedures for restoring balance to the community when members are at odds with each other, in Matthew’s gospel. But, as I look back over the summer we have shared together, and ahead to the monumental challenges we face, as believers, as individuals, and as a society, the word that draws me is the fulcrum of Psalm 119: “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart/lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.”

Going forward, our capacity for delight may be the key to staying sane.

That word -- “delight” -- catches me and holds me. It’s not a word we commonly associate with rules, statutes and commandments. “Thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” are solemn, brow-furrowing, stand-at-attention verbals signals, whereas “delight” is a smile, a sigh, maybe even a relaxed giggle or guffaw kind of word. In a season of quarantines and cautious behaviors, of shootings and reciprocal blame, of deep searching and dialogue to find a fragile common direction, “delight” can sound flimsy, frivolous, inappropriate, like putting frosting on a tragedy, like comparing a police overuse of deadly force to a golfer choking on a putt.

But, in the midst, as we are, of tragedy, consternation and transition, the Holy Spirit bids us to consider adopting a posture of delight: “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” “Let me observe your law with my whole heart.” for “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Lead me in the path, for I delight in it!

It seems to me we are being called to a very serious kind of delight. A reminder from poet Mary Oliver:

Every day

I see or hear


that more or less

kills me

with delight,

that leaves me

like a needle

in the haystack

of light.

It was what I was born for -

to look, to listen,

to lose myself

inside this soft world -

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy,

and acclamation.

Oh, good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these -

the untrimmable light

of the world,

the ocean's shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

Have you every watched a hummingbird ZOOM down from the top of a towering hemlock tree, halt, a perfect 16th of an inch from the tiny opening on the feeder, shoot wary glances left and right, bury its shapely beak in the nectar, take its perfect sips, and then ZOOM back to its exact same branch to wait while another member of its tribe takes its turn in the great, infinite and intricate dance of life? Serious delight! Then remember the sugar you tasted in that apple tart last night, or in in your coffee this morning and the burst of energy it gives and how you and that hummingbird are first cousins, equally marvelous, equally at home in the world God is making, equally important to each other, dependent on each other, loving each other by sharing one neighborhood of space, and I think you are catching the spirit that the Psalmist is after.

We live in a world where there is pattern and order, cause and effect, truth and consequence, When we shape our lives in accordance with God’s patterns, when we love one another, forgive one another, balance freedom and responsibility, consume only what we need, share the leftovers, then we are capable of mutual delight. And we humans, unlike hummingbirds, or squirrels, or fungus, or hemlock trees, have minds that can put the pattern together, we can get a glimpse of the whole, the direction and the divine purpose in creation, what Mary Oliver calls “the oceans shine/the prayers that are made out of grass.”

Serious delight is what I think we need to survive and to thrive and to face the challenges the world is presenting to us. “You know what time it is,” as Romans reminds us. It’s a time of crisis! The future of democracy is being called into question. The rule of law is under attack. Humanity’s ability to live in sustainable harmony with nature, natural forces and natural resources is being stressed as never before.

Some of you know I’m heading off on a big road trip this afternoon. Got my face shields, my supply of masks, my disinfectant wipes, my bottles of lysol, and my reservations along the way at hotels that promise vigilant virus protocols. Headed for Denver, and family, then a roundtrip flight to Seattle, where our aunt Dagny died in a nursing home in June, to officiate at her funeral - outdoors, masked, socially distanced, family only. I’m off on a mission.

But - there’s been a weird kind of rumble or thump in the front end of my truck when I pass over highway joints, and a scary throb and a catch and pull to the right when I press on the brakes, and, so, there I was at Carcuzzi Care Care Center Wednesday morning waiting for four new rotors, two new brake pads and one tie rod end to get installed, I’m working on my sermon notes while the TV up in the corner is pumping a shower of controversy and spin, trying to jack up my anxiety, pretending to inform me while driving me quietly insane.

Just when I think I’m going to have to go sit outside McDonald’s to regain some peace of mind, Bob Carcuzzi pops in from the shop area carrying my rusty, worn break rotors to show me where the problem was and how the repair is going to make my driving safer and my life better. Suddenly, I experience an unexpected balance -- why I like coming to Saranac Lake for almost 50 years, why capitalism works, and how nice it is when rules of accountability are observed -- all fall into place, and I feel, as the psalmist does, the possibility of obeying a law with my whole heart, the possibility of taking delight in the pattern and in the rules that govern human affairs. It’s a Bob and the hummingbird moment.

It is inevitable, the voice of Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s gospel, it is inevitable in human relationships as in the relationship between a break rotor and a brake pad, that things will break down. When that happens, here’s a way to get it fixed. Go and talk to the person who has done something to harm you and ask them to make it right.

This is called de-escalation. So often our tendency, when someone hurts us, is to talk, not to them, but to someone else, to gain sympathy, to put our twist on what has happened, or to gain some hidden advantage. In conflict management theory, that’s called case-building, and it’s almost universal. It’s the cause of much of the polarization we experience, and the escalation, and the anxiety. No, says Jesus, go first to the one with whom you have the problem. If there’s no resolution, go back with a neutral third party. Still no resolution, submit the problem to judgment or agree to disagree and go your separate ways. Very practical rules for the messy, imperfect process of life together in community. It’s called neighbor love - the tough love variety. When everyone has the common purpose of maintaining the bonds of community and telling each other the truth in and with neighbor love, it’s the building block of a sustainable society. Like honest auto repair. Like the serious delight we get in watching hummingbirds do their thing.

Right now we’re living through a time of enforced isolation, due to the virus, which is extremely painful. And this period of isolation comes on top of an internet revolution which has depersonalized and distorted a huge amount of interpersonal communication. A lot of the rules are being renegotiated, and it's very disorienting. It often seems as though truth is whatever you can get someone to believe and that facts are like soap bubbles that change colors depending on which side you stand.

But I also think that this time of enforced isolation is offering us an opportunity to think deeply and slowly and carefully about what really matters. Is it my freedom to have face to face encounters with lots of friends and to meet new people? Or is it to take time to get along better with that family member or friend I don’t really see eye to eye with and to try and iron out differences. Is it to score political points against someone online who seems spoiling for a fight, or is it listening and hearing behind someone’s anger to try and understand the pain that must be motivating that anger.

I’ve loved the way we’ve been together this summer in this little church on the hill. I feel very lucky to be partnered with Tyler, who, I believe, is a logistical genius as well as a wise preacher and priest. The signs, the baskets, the masks, the gentle rules have made it possible for us to gather, in relative safety, to hear God’s word, to share a quiet time of peace, love and joy, and to be refreshed. With Tyler’s help and the guidance of the trustees, this quiet time has also been a time of taking inventory of our human and physical capital to prepare for the next century of service here on the hill.

Thanks in part to the possibility of giving on line - again, thanks to Tyler and the website - we are already beginning to flex some financial and relational muscle and to prepare for some major rebuilding and repair - like getting new pads and rotors for my trip across country. As Joe Rollins reminded us, The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord, but the physical foundation needs attention too or the walls and the floor may start to change locations. Please stay tuned and be ready to lend a hand as plans unfold during the fall and winter.