October 18, 2015 | 1 Kings 3: 1-15 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
A couple weeks ago, on September 30th school children across the country commemorated Orange shirt day. Named in honour of Phyllis Webstad who was stripped of her brand new orange shirt when she was taken to an Indian Residential School, orange shirt day honors the value of all children and provides the opportunity for students to learn about the legacy of Residential Schools. As a clergyperson in the United Church and therefore someone who is part of an institution that was an active participant in running those schools, I heartily support this opportunity for my own children to learn about this important piece of our Canadian history. I celebrate the doorway it opens for discussions on this topic in our homes.
The other day I had one of those discussions with my son Nathan and I mentioned to him that one of the many unfortunate things about the Indian Residential School system is that many well intentioned people thought it was a good thing to run those schools, when in fact it was not.
If we had taken that conversation to a more sophisticated level, which hopefully I will do sometime when he is a bit older, I would have explained to him that sometimes in life it, despite our best intentions, it can be very difficult to determine right from wrong and good from evil. Rarely is something or someone purely good or purely bad. Most life experiences and most life choices are made up of both, because we as human beings are made up of both.
We know this from our own experience don’t we? We thought it was a good thing to take a particular job and it turned out to be a disaster. We thought we were making the perfect choice in a partner when we got married and then we discovered we weren’t so perfect for each other after all. We thought that political leader was an honest and upright citizen and then we found out later that he wasn’t quite so honest.
Often it can be quite difficult to tell the difference between a good choice and a poor choice at the time when we are making a decision. Which is why we say, hindsight is 20/20, foresight is not always quite so clear.
So how do we make good decisions in life? How do we know when something’s right or something’s wrong; when someone is being genuine or not; when we are being honest with ourselves or taking ourselves for a ride? How do we know which person to choose, which path to follow, which way we should go?
In our Ignatian Spirituality circle which meets here on Monday evenings, we’ve been talking about how St. Ignatius believed that the more in tune we are with our deepest desires, the more in tune we are God’s will for our lives. If you understand God or the Divine in a more non-theistic way you might be more comfortable with Frederick Beuchner’s definition of vocation which says that it is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.
But we’ve also been talking in our Monday night circle about how often our desires conflict with one another. I want to be a good parent, and I also want to reach my potential as a great business leader. I want to use my voice to inspire others, and I want to be self-sufficient. We want to have a church that honours those who are already here and we want a church that is attractive to those who aren’t here.
St. Ignatius talked about there being two kinds of desires in life. Ordered desires which expand us without diminishing the object of our desire or ourselves; and disordered desires which often look like something good on the surface but once you dig down deeper have a way of diminishing the object of our desire and often diminishing us.
He said that the primary way to learn the difference between these two types of desires is to pay attention to the way we have made choices in the past and the end result of those choices, and to pay attention to the way we make day to day choices making note of the direction, sometimes subtle, sometimes grand in which they are leading us either towards or away from greater peace, greater service or a greater sense of who we truly are meant to be in the world.
In other words, he encouraged us to pay attention to our lives so that we might develop wise and discerning hearts and minds.
In today’s scripture reading we heard the story of King Solomon who it is said came to the throne of Israel after taking over from his father King David when he died in and around the year 970 BCE. It’s thought that Solomon was only about 20 years old at the time of his father’s death and in keeping with what we now know about the underdeveloped nature of the 20 year old male brain, when Solomon came to power he started making choices which weren’t very wise. He married numerous foreign wives and he worshipped foreign idols and even though he succeeded in many battles against his enemies it wasn’t long before he realized he was making a mess of his life and his leadership.
And so this morning’s reading tells us how in the middle of the night Solomon’s subconscious awakens him to his fear, as so often happens to us when we are feeling insecure about ourselves and he dreams that God is asking him a very important question: “Solomon, Solomon” God whispers in his ear “Ask what I should give you.” “What is it that you want?”
Now if Solomon had been asked this question in a conscious state he might very well have blurted out “a few more wives, a bit more cash and some victories on the battle field.” But somewhere in the depths of his being, Solomon knew his heart desired something more. If he was to be the leader that he really desired to be, he would need a wise and discerning mind and so he responds: “give to your servant an understanding mind and the ability to discern between good and evil.”
Oh that this would be the same prayer on the lips of whoever it is that is elected to be our nation’s leader tomorrow night. Give to your servant an understanding mind and the ability to discern between good and evil.
American theologian Walter Bruggeman says a better translation of what Solomon asks for is a listening heart: the capacity to be open to hearing the voice of the Divine, the voice of Love whispering in our ear.
Some of you will be familiar with the work of brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor who on the morning of December 10, 1996 suddenly realized that she was having a stroke. You may have read her book “A Stroke of Insight” or listened to her very popular TED talk. As a brain scientist Jill was so fascinated by the thought that of what was happening to her that day that as the stroke was taking over her body she became consciously aware of what was happening to her. She was actually able to track when her thinking was shifting from one side of her brain to the other. When she was using the left side of her brain, the side of our brains that categorizes and organizes information and thinks in language and projects into the future and manifests itself as brain chatter in our lives, she was very aware that she was in trouble, that she needed to get help and that she needed to figure out how to dial the phone to get the help she needed. But when her thinking shifted to the right side of her brain she entered into what she refers to as a state of nirvana. She felt enormous and expansive and connected to every living thing. She felt a deep inner peace. After she recovered from her stroke she realized that if she could go to that place in her being, then anyone could go to that place. She realized that more we are able to choose the deep inner peace of our right hemisphere, the more peace we can project into the world.
Now it might sound contradictory to say that being in her right brain on the day of her stroke helped Jill Bolte Taylor make good choices when it was actually the moments when she was using her left brain thinking that spurred her to get the help she needed. But I wonder if that shift between her right and left brain thinking is what kept her calm and centered enough to make the call she needed to make.
Psychologist and spiritual director Dr. David Benner says that taking time for quiet contemplation is the one of the only way he knows of to truly come to know, to confront and embrace the false voices of our lives, so that we can truly listen for and follow our authentic voice, so that we can become more fully alive, more whole and more deeply human, more firmly on the right pathway in life.
That’s why the practice of paying attention to our lives, the choices we are making and the direction in which they are leading us is so important. Many of the world’s great spiritual teachers agree that its only through really listening to what is life giving in our lives , to that inner voice of love, that we find the way to abundant life for ourselves and others for which I believe we are so deeply longing.
And yet what is also true is that sometimes even after we’ve sat in silence and paid attention we can be still be uncertain if the voice we are following and the direction we are taking is the right voice and the right direction.
I love to tell the story of how just under 11 years ago now, when I was serving a congregation in North Delta, I received a phone call to tell me about a congregation in North Vancouver that was looking for a minister. I read the packet of information that was sent to me about the congregation and I threw it on my coffee table and said “I’m not going there, there’s way too much work to do in that church.” I made up my mind not to apply for the position. But thank goodness the search committee persevered and after a lot of prayer and contemplation I found myself saying yes I’ll come and serve your congregation. But even after all that prayer and deep listening, in my heart, after I said yes I was still unsure if I was making the right decision, if this was really God’s desire for my life. And that’s when I came to realize that no matter where we go in life and no matter what we do, even if the voice we are listening to is not the right one, love and wisdom and grace do not abandon us, we are not alone, God is with us on the way.
And so to close, one of my favourite prayers from Gerard Hughes:
“Holy One, Great Mystery, Caring God… Now I know that you are always greater than anything I can think or imagine, and for this I am most grateful. I am glad that I cannot locate you, define you, describe you… I do not know if the way I am trying to live now really is your will. You have shown me something of the depths of self-deception that are in me, and I may still be deceiving myself. But what I do know is that you are the God of every situation, God in our darkness drawing us to light, God in our sinfulness offering us healing. God in our self-deception leading us into truth, God who is for us, even when we are against ourselves
So I know that even if I am unwittingly deceiving myself, if I follow what truth there is in me, then you will draw me further into your truth, and there is no situation, no state, no place I can reach where you will not still be closer to me than I am to myself.”