(Read Matthew 14: 22-33 and Matthew 6: 25-34)
Life is “The property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition). This is the definition of “life” from the American Heritage Dictionary.
To put it more simply, what makes you and I different from a rock or a chair? Our metabolism, our ability to grow, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and in our interactions with one another, also our ability to reproduce sets us apart, and the fact that we can respond to stimuli and adapt to our surroundings. These are the characteristics of life. These abilities set you and I apart from a rock or a chair, and maybe even from some lower life forms.
One other very important way to describe what it means to live is to say that living organisms have awareness (having knowledge or cognizance). Or at least, we have the capacity to be aware, to know what is going on around us in the physcial world, as well as to know what is going on inside of us, whether it be the feeling of our heart pumping or the feeling of being embarrassed, for example.
Now, some people might argue that even rocks and chairs have awareness. This I do not know. What I do know is that awareness or consciousness (having an awareness of one's environment and one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts) is our gift from God as created beings, and the more awareness we cultivate in our lives, the more truly alive we become.
And the hope of the followers of Jesus Christ is to become truly alive. You know the Scriptures. He did not come to the earth, die on a cross and rise from the dead so that we would remain in captivity to sin and death. By no means. Jesus Christ came to give eternal life to the world. He said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
We are all on this spiritual journey seeking abundant, eternal life together, and our active participation requires us to be right here, right now. We experience each moment of life as we live it, and the degree to which we experience each moment of life is the degree to which we have lived it. A simple example: How many times have you read a page, even a paragraph, even a sentence, in a book and had no idea what it said? One minute you’re reading about Chuck and Nancy driving through the country on the way to Chuck’s family reunion, and the next, you’re off in your own world, on some tangent, thinking about who knows what. Perhaps the story caused you to think about your own last family reunion? Or how you wish your family had reunions? Maybe, right then and there in the middle of reading this book, you will begin to plan the very first reunion your family has had in years!?
Or maybe while reading this book, your mind will wander to something totally unrelated, something in your subconscious. Maybe its work your mind goes to, or you will think of the past, or think of the future. Whatever you think of, at least for the purpose of today’s sermon, is not significant. What is significant is that you are no longer paying attention to what you are actually doing, which is reading a book.
In this example, present moment awareness, or simply presence, is lost. The person is not aware of or awake to those words on the page. In a sense, this person is not alive to this moment. If you intend to be reading a book, and yet, you do not know what the book says, how alive are you?
Or how many times have you driven in the car, gotten totally lost in your own thoughts, and then all of a sudden, you have arrived at your destination? In a sense, you missed the whole drive. Is that living a life of abundance? And where were you?
The simple answer is, in your thoughts. Most of us spend a very large majority of our time, of our lives, in our thoughts, thinking about the past, thinking about the future; meanwhile, missing the present moment where abundant life can be found.
Not being truly alive to a couple pages of a book or a car ride is not such a big deal, but what if you do that for your entire life, missing one moment after the next? The danger is that we could spend our whole lives in our heads, not present to any thing we are doing, or any one we are with. Not present to the Living God, who is here with us, guiding us, speaking to us, inviting us to be co-creators in our destinies. And not just ours, but God in Jesus Christ has made it clear to us that we are called to be co-creators in all of our destinies as we develop the kingdom of God together.
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.” Our task is not simply to pray for the kingdom to come, but to help it come.
Last week, I preached on, The Desire for Transformation; Cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit. Part I: The First Step – Saying “Yes.” My position was that first and foremost, we have to want to walk this path; we have to want to take this journey with God. We have to accept that life is about growth; it is about change, and we have to be willing to be changed. Even to desire it! To say “yes” to what God is doing in your life and in the world!
The place where all this stuff (God’s action, growth, change, transformation, the development of the kingdom of God) is happening is right here, right now in the present moment.
Think about Jesus in the Gospels. He changed lives in an instant. He was completely with and present to the people who needed him. He sat down and talked with the woman at the well. He put his hands on the little girl who had died and brought her back to life. He was perfectly present with his disciples in the upper room as he gave them the bread and the cup to remember him by.
Matthew 6: 25-34 is the best example I could think of in which Jesus’ preaches on the importance of presence. I think of the lilies of the field and how they grow. They are just there, in the sun, in the wind, in the rain, growing. They neither toil nor spin, and never in the span of their lives is there a time when they are not there. Jesus also tells us not to worry about tomorrow because he knows that today matters more in determining the future than does tomorrow.
But in truth, I do not think Jesus preaches on the importance of presence as much as he exhibits the importance of presence in his life and actions. This is the message underlying all stories about him. He was truly with us, truly the Son of God.
I picked Matthew 14 as our other Scripture today because Peter is interesting to explore in this story. Peter becomes captivated by Jesus walking towards him and the other disciples out on the sea. They “saw him walking on the lake” (Matthew 14: 26). Peter is rapped up in the moment. First, terrified that a ghost is coming towards them; then, riveted that it is Jesus.
First, the disciples cry out in fear, “It is a ghost!” But immediately, Jesus replies, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” The whole mood of the story changes once the disciples realize it is Jesus. Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” Jesus answers. Then, Peter gets out of the boat, walks on water and comes towards Jesus (Matthew 14: 26-29).
Can you imagine it? Peter is right there with him. He is captivated in the present moment, intent on going to Jesus out on the water.
Then what happens?
He gets distracted. Peter feels the wind. He turns his awareness away from Jesus. When he sees the wind, he becomes afraid, and he begins to sink.
In a way, one could say that this is what happens to us. We get distracted, lose sight of Jesus, and begin to sink. When our awareness of the Living God diminishes, so do our lives.
Meditation is the spiritual discipline to help us learn to be more present to God and to life. For some reason, it takes great effort on our part to remain fully conscious of the present moment. Inherent in the message of this sermon is an invitation for each of you to try to remain present to whatever it is you are doing, to whomever it is you are with, throughout each day. I would also encourage you, especially if you are not good at being present, being awake, being aware, to meditate.
Meditation is another “thing” we can do, a practice, with the purpose of teaching us to be mindful or present. Mindfulness meditation is exactly what it sounds like. You sit or lie in one place with as little distraction as possible and just pay attention to what is. The simplest way to do this is to concentrate on your breathing because your breath is always with you, existing only in the present moment, rhythmic, coming and going. Another way to practice mindfulness meditation is to concentrate on sounds because they too are always there in the present moment, coming and going. There are several other techniques that I could teach you about in a smaller group setting, and I also recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn if you need help developing the practice of meditation.
The reason one would actually take time to meditate during the day is to learn how to stay present. As you intentionally attempt to be present for 20 minutes or so at a time, first of all, you realize how difficult it is; second of all, you train your consciousness. The more you practice, the more you learn to stay present in everyday life.
I also find meditation an excellent practice to do before prayer because it helps you concentrate and focus on your prayer, so that you are not always getting distracted as you try to speak to God. It also helps to raise awareness of God’s presence in and around you.
Ultimately, there are many reasons why meditation, mindfulness, and present moment awareness are important. They increase focus and concentration. They decrease stress and promote relaxation. Actually, many studies and books now focus on the health benefits of mindfulness, from decreased blood pressure to decreased depression to the ability to break addictive cycles.
Mindfulness teaches us to respond rather than to react in our day to day interactions, and in doing so, helps us to break out of habitual ways of thinking, speaking and acting. Let me give an example. Let’s say it is your habit to wake up in the morning, get dressed, brush your teeth, and then go have orange juice and a bagel for breakfast. You do this every morning. And every morning, you wince as you take that first sip of orange juice.
All it takes is a small bit of awareness to realize, “Hey, I should brush my teeth after breakfast.” Then, the next time you are doing your morning ritual, after you get dressed, it only takes another small bit of awareness to stop yourself from going straight to the bathroom as you normally would, and head to the kitchen instead.
To change your usual ways of doing things requires present moment awareness. When you brush your teeth is a minor example. But how do you respond to situations that make you feel threatened? Do you fight? Do you flee? How do you respond when someone yells at you? Yell back? Ignore them? When someone hits you? Hit back? Hide? It takes a wise, aware person to break unhealthy cycles.
You see, many of us react rather than respond, and our reactions are often ones that we developed very early in life, and so they are often not mature or constructive. When you were yelled at by your parents as a child, seemingly for no reason, you probably felt hurt and wondered what you did wrong to deserve such treatment, even if you did not do anything wrong, even if your parent just had a bad day and was taking his or her anger out on you for no good reason. But this can scar a person and affect the way you act for the rest of your life.
Let’s say you become an adult, and let’s say your boss gives you a poor review on your work performance. Now this is a totally different situation than when you were a kid, and yet, many people will react to both situations in similar ways. Why is that? Because most of us have not cultivated the presence of mind to respond to each situation as is appropriate. We learn 10 ways of being as a kid and act them out for the rest of our lives.
Another point is that people often inherit their parents’ beliefs and emotional reactions without even realizing it. If your parents fought about money, arguing how there was never enough, chances are, you worry about money too. You probably fight with people about money. Or you have taken the exact opposite approach and you do not want to have anything to do with money. On the other hand, if money was never even mentioned in your house; it was a secret, you might grow up without learning how to handle money in a responsible manner. One day you might finally wake-up and ask yourself, “How did I get 30,000 in credit card debt?” All this can happen because you never brought awareness to your inherited beliefs.
The point I am trying to make is that people need to acknowledge that our pasts and the conditioning that we received because of what happened to us in our pasts carries itself into our present moment. How you act, unless you have done a lot of soul searching and therapy, probably resembles your parents and how you were raised. It could also be just the opposite of your parents if what they did really bothered you, but to an overcompensating extreme.
One could even say that your past has created your present situation. Who you are today, your clothes, your friends, your work, your church, attitudes, etc, is the result of years past. The good news is that if we act differently in the present moment, we can change our future because Just as the past created the present moment, so also does the present moment create a new future. In this way, mindfulness has the power to transform our lives.
Last week you were asked, “In what areas of my life (actions, thoughts, emotions, relationships, physical health, mental health, spiritual health), do I desire transformation?”
Whatever you chose, if you truly want this aspect of your life to change, than you have to feel, think, speak and act differently when it comes to situations that revolve around this particular aspect. None of us is just going to wake up tomorrow a different person. We need to learn to respond differently, not out of habit, to each and every new moment as it presents itself to us. We also need to make choices that reflect our hopes and desires. This is called mindful living.
This is more than psychology I am talking about here. This is a spiritual understanding of how we can work with God to change our lives and the lives of those around us.
Once we have chosen to walk the path of discipleship, it is crucial that we remain present in everyday life. If we are not present, we end up acting or re-acting in the same ways we always have, often in unconstructive or hurtful ways, with the same result, to the same end. But if we respond instead of react as usual, we can break the bad habits, the destructive family cycle, the negative attitude, and so on. We can break the cycle of suffering, our own and others, but awareness to each new moment is crucial. As you learn to respond to similar situations in different ways, your life will change, your future will change, and so will the lives and futures of those you come in contact with.
Last week, all of you were asked to ponder the question, “Do I desire transformation in my life?” For those of you who answered “yes,” living in the present moment, being mindful, learning to respond appropriately to each new situation instead of acting out of habit can help, tremendously.
Jesus said to us, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” And he was right in the sense that worrying does us no good at all. Do not worry about today either. Instead of putting your energy into worry, put it into present moment awareness. Live your life well in the present moment, make healthy and loving decisions, and the future will take care of itself. Your future will reflect the life you live today. And in this way, God invites us to be co-creators with the Holy Spirit in developing our own destinies and bringing about the kingdom of God.