Habits of Suffering

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, August 28, 2016

Matthew 6:24-34; Heb 13:1-8, 15-16

How many saw the Tragically Hip concert last Sat. night? You’re in good company with almost 1/3 of the Canadian population. I was particularly struck by Gord Downie’s song, Machine:

I’m a real machine. Follow?

You’re a real machine; we’re fed on shadows.

I return your gaze and I wait in the rain

All inchoate desires, I do what I hate.

I remain aloft and I forget a lot

Then I try not to try and I can remember, or not.

While Gord was singing this song, a video behind him showed workers in a factory line repeating the same task over and over again.

How often do we find ourselves slipping into the robotic rituals of mindless tasks? It feels like we’re stuck in the spinning wheels that take us nowhere. Even more, we find ourselves doing over and over what we hate, caught in the endless repetition of what Buddhists call “habits of suffering”. We’re easily frustrated and express our exasperation or impatience or anger or fear in ways that hurt others and ourselves. We know this, we don’t like it and yet we keep doing it over and over. We are creatures of habit, but these habits of suffering feed on shadows, not on light—shadows of past regret, and future worries. They keep us from enjoying the sun-blessed present.

Paul often wrote about this dilemma of doing what he hates. He urges us to let go of that which burdens the soul so that we can be free of our old habits of suffering. Jesus also tries to set us free from the prisons of the mundane so that we can focus on what really matters. But how do we do this? What can we loosen the chains of our soul’s unrest? What can move us out of our seasons of discontent? What can set us free to fully love without reserve; to find deep peace? We all long for this—why is it so hard to find?

Our passage from Hebrews gives us a long list of what we should be doing as Christians, but when our motivation is shrouded in shoulds, we have not found the freedom to love. What can help to set us free so that compassion for the stranger, support for others who are suffering, faithful love for our spouse, contentment with what we have will naturally spill forth from a deep well of peace?
Throughout the gospels, Jesus gives us teachings that can help us find this freedom. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus tells us, “and your needs will be met; you will be set free from worries about tomorrow.”[1] I have found that when I’m preoccupied with basic needs—whether that be physical, emotional or relational—I don’t have any mental space or energy left to focus on the bigger questions of our purpose in life: why are we here? what does God want us to do with the rest of our life? who are we? Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh believes that if we can’t answer these questions, we will never have peace; we will never be set free to fully love.

So how can we find answers to these bigger questions? How does one seek the kingdom of God? How can we keep the clamour of our basic needs from drowning out the call of the heart?

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we can find answers to these questions of ultimate concern only when we make space for silence. He writes, “Silence is essential. We need silence, just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with words and thoughts, there is no space for us.”[2]

Jesus understood this. He regularly sought time away from the pressing crowds, with their relentless needs, to pray.  In this oasis of quiet, Jesus could still his mind and his emotions enough to be able to wait on God. There, in sacred space, he could focus on his own purpose and find courage to follow the Spirit’s call.

With the remaining days of our lives, what is the Spirit calling each of us to do? Do we feed our bodies and minds with things that enhance our purpose? Or do we waste our days feeding on the shadows of regret, hurt, fear and anger? What would happen if we found even a few minutes of silence every day just to be still before God, to free the mind from its habits of suffering and make space for God’s still, small voice?

I offer, at this conclusion of the sermon, a chance for all of us to practice stilling the mind. I will give us one minute for silent prayer. During this time, I invite you to simply observe every thought that arises as if it is a boat that passes by. Do not judge it or become emotionally attached to it. Try not to climb aboard that boat, but stay on the shore and watch it disappear. This is a meditation technique that helps us quiet our mind and our bodies, releasing our fears and worries, making space for the sacred. Breathing slowly and deeply, with our spines as straight as possible and our feet on the ground, let us now wait upon God for one minute of silence…

…May God help us glimpse through the cracks in our habits of suffering another world radiating compassion and peace. With God’s guidance, another world is possible. Amen.

[1] paraphrase of Matthew 6: 33-34

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World full of Noise (New York: HarperCollins, 2015): 22.