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Anthony de Mello

sermon on Habakkuk 1-2

Let me tell you about the prophet Habakkuk.
First, awesome name. Tried and failed to name my youngest that.
Second, his book is very violent
—apparently using up 10% of all the uses
of the actual word “violence” in the Bible.
There are other books arguably more violent,
but Habakkuk’s book is short
and has little comfort to balance it.
His basic point is that invading armies are a punishment from God,
but for what?
He doesn’t say clearly.
And in the end, the good news
is that God will destroy those invading armies.
It’s not bad news, to be sure,
but how many of us find a bloody battle to be good news?
It’s even less clear on what it is God or even Habakkuk
wants us to do with it all.
It’s more the Cliff’s Notes of biblical prophecy
—y’all are terrible sinners for keeping your wealth to yourselves
so imma gonna smitcha.
Let’s talk then about biblical prophecy.
Lots of people both inside and outside the church
think prophets are like Nostradamus, seeing the future,
prognosticating events through the veil of time.
Lots of folks then think they can correctly interpret various prophets
or apocalyptic scripture to tell them
when the Antichrist is coming or the Rapture or whathaveyou.
But that’s not the point of prophecy.
The point of biblical prophecy is this: WAKE UP.

When Hosea writes that God commanded him to take a prostitute as his wife
and to name his kids Punishment,
No Pity,
and You Are Not My People,
(I didn’t try to name my youngest any of those)
whether or not he actually did it is beside the point.
Hosea is saying to the people of Israel WAKE UP,
you’re asleep, you’re comfortable in your nice houses
and you’re missing it.
When Ezekiel cuts off his hair and burns some and cuts some up with a sword
and releases some to the wind and binds some in the hem of his robe,
he’s not just being weird.
He’s saying WAKE UP, people, you’ve fallen asleep.
People are dying.
You are obsessing about reality TV or what color the drapes are
or which school to send your kids to
and you don’t even know you’re asleep.
They say that no one translates Ezekiel accurately
because he had such a foul mouth.
Consider what it would be like if I stood up here
and released a flood of swear words about you,
your mom, and everything you hold dear.
And don’t even get me started on Ezekiel’s poems
about Israel as God’s lover—puts Miley Cyrus to shame. A lot.
The prophets use extreme, violent, sexual, bizarre language
to talk about God, about what God wants from us,
about what it’s like for God to draw near,
about what will happen when we don’t pay attention
—because that’s how to get through our thick heads.
You think we’re inured to violence in the media now;
it was the same back then.
—they talk about rape and human excrement
and widespread destruction of cities
to jolt us out of thinking everything’s fine.
Because everything’s not fine.
It’s meant to be a slap in the face.
“You can’t talk about rape in church!”
And suddenly, just for a second, you’re awake to the world,
to the women in India who live in fear of rape on the commute to work,
to the men and women here in America who fear their spouses,
to the violence we perpetrate on one another
from something that big to something small like a lie.
For a moment, the prophets insult your sense of what’s proper
and you’re awake.
Here’s what a 20th century prophet said about that.
His name was Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest who died in 1987.
He says,
“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence…Most people tell you they want to get out of kindergarten, but don’t believe them. Don’t believe them! All they want you to do is to mend their broken toys. ‘Give me back my wife. Give me back my job. Give me back my money. Give me back my reputation, my success.’ This is what they want; they want their toys replaced. That’s all. Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. [advance slide] What they want is relief; a cure is painful.”[1]

Ain’t that the truth.
Two of the Edge House students who are in addiction recovery programs
would be nodding vigorously right now
—their addictions were their minds trying to create relief.
Being cured of their addictions is much more difficult
and much more painful.
What are you addicted to? What do you need to wake up from?
I’ve started a morning practice of the Ignatian examen
—it’s a form of prayer where you slowly consider
the day that has gone before,
what you did, who you talked to,
and notice when you felt particularly grateful or loving.
You also notice the other side, when you were not grateful,
when you were not loving.
You spend some time confessing those last ones
as well as time dwelling in the more positive ones.
The more I practice it, the more I notice these things during the day
—being more present to what I’m saying and doing
when it’s happening.
It feels like I’ve been asleep and I’m groggily looking around
after a late night.
It’s a calming yet uncomfortable feeling.
“Why did I say that?” I think.
Reread Jesus’ words and you’ll find that
we Christians are not called to be comfortable.
God calls us to be faithful not successful,
to be fruitful, not productive.
These are the language of the world
—success, productivity, prosperity—
not the language of the spirit.
Jesus tells us in his every word and every action
up to and including the empty tomb
to wake up from the nightmare of things being comfortable.
Did you see the video that was going around recently
of comedian Louis CK on Conan O’Brian?
It was brilliantly truthful but too much swearing for church
—ponder that for a moment…
Louis CK spoke about how addicted we are to our cell phones,
though I imagine there are other things in your lives
which might follow this same function.
He said, when he’s feeling sad, he immediately texts a bunch of people
and suddenly he doesn’t feel sad anymore.
But that’s the problem.
Everything’s not fine.
We don’t feel sadness in any deep way.
 We run away from it, refuse to allow grief
for the ordinary bits of our day to be real.
When there’s a big tragedy, there’s a bit of an emotional relief
because it’s okay to be sad about that.
But just existence being sad—nope.
And he says we go through our lives just being comfortable,
but not really experiencing what’s really happening.
Don’t get too excited about things because they could fail.
Don’t get too sad about things because no one wants to see you cry.
We’re asleep.
The lives we’ve been given by our Maker are terrifying and invigorating
and we’re standing on a ledge
struggling to maintain balance.
This [I used slides throughout and here I put up some of his photos.] is photographer KerrySkarbakka who photographs himself
in perilous situations.
He calls the series “Struggle to Right Oneself”
and this sense of being entirely off-balance,
being about to crash
is exactly what we hide from ourselves.
Everything’s not fine.
We construct elaborate facades
so as not to let anyone in to the messy, empty, angry, unattractive
real self.
We set up safety nets so we don’t have to see
the depth of the pain of the world.
Maybe you’re one who feels that pain deeply much of the time.
Good. And yet not good.
That sadness might itself be a façade
to keep you from seeing the great joy of the world.
I still haven’t seen any images
from the earthquake in Haiti several years ago
—I couldn’t bring myself to.
It was too overwhelming.
And did I respond to that situation at all? Nope.
I mean, I cried. And we sent a little money to the Red Cross.
And then I went back to my life. Went grocerying.
Do you see? Do you do that as well?
We’re all teetering
on the edge but we convince ourselves
that it’s a comfy armchair. Wake. Up.
Who calls to you now?
Who makes you uncomfortable when they talk about what you hold dear?
Liberal comedian John Stewart?
Conservative columnist Mark Steyn?
Atheist Christopher Hitchens?
Activist Dorothy Day?
Or is it that much easier now to just change the channel
and not listen to someone with whom we don’t agree?
What is God calling you to do or be?
How do you tell that’s what’s happening?
What have you loved for years but never did?
What have you noticed coming up in conversation or on the radio a lot
that has gotten you thinking?
What do you avoid thinking about?
Maybe that’s God calling you.
This is your 8am wake-up call, friends.
This is your 2013 wake-up call.
Wake up from our partisan political assumptions that we have the answers.
Wake up from resentments
Wake up from our need to be liked and do what is right rather than what is easy.
God’s calling, what are you going to do about it?

[1] De Mello, Anthony. Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. Doubleday, NY:1990. pp. 5-6.

the myth of multitasking

National Public Radio has recently had several articles about multitasking. Essentially, it's a myth.

We can't actually do two things at once but switch very quickly from one task to another. You may say this amounts to the same thing, but I don't think it does. The researchers who were interviewed noted that neither of the tasks being worked on in a multitasking situation are done very well. That is, if you can't be entirely present to a thing--driving, a conversation, eating, reading a book--neither you nor the task will benefit. More to the point, in the above-referenced story, it was found that drivers who were talking on the phone (hands-free or not!) had the same affect as drivers just over the legal limit of alcohol. You simply cannot concentrate on both things at once but switch your attention between the two. If you're talking on the phone, you're not paying attention to the road. And let's not even get into texting while driving--no one I know does that...especially not myself...

That multitasking is a myth is both obvious and epiphanic. Of course we can't really do more than one thing at a time, but we've been getting away with it for so long, calling it better productivity or higher efficiency, that it feels like we can. Yet when I heard the story, it cut right into my marrow. I know full well that my attention is not on the road when I'm texting...that is to say, when I'm talking on the phone. I know full well that typing an email while talking to my Loving Husband on the phone means the email takes twice as long and probably has to be rewritten and Loving Husband gets the benefit of long, awkward pauses. I know full well that attention is what God calls us to.

Anthony de Mello was Jesuit priest who wrote many books about the spiritual life. One of my favorites is Awareness, his lectures about paying attention to the world, to our souls, to our justifications for what we want to do rather than what God is pushing us towards. In the very first chapter, he writes:

Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing we call human existence.

It's brilliant and abrasive and eye-opening. Every time he says "Wake up!" I physically start. Our lives are so fast-paced, so unfocused, so overwhelming. We don't help things by trying to be more efficient--all we're doing is sinking deeper into sleep.

I have stopped talking on my phone in the car. Texting, too. I am trying to focus on one task at a time, doing it well, and moving on to the next thing. It's hard to retrain myself, but so far it's been worth it.