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Sunday, October 2, 2016 | 4:00 p.m.

How Long, O Lord?

Nanette Sawyer
Minister for Congregational Life

Psalm 37:1–11
Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4


This Habakkuk reading speaks to my soul. I want to add my voice to the voice of the prophet, saying, “How long, O Lord?” How long, how long, how long before you help us?

Habakkuk does not sit by silently while the people suffer. The prophet cries out and, in that act, invites us to cry out too. We don’t have to keep our dismay and our distress inside ourselves; we can bring it to God. Lament. This is lament.

Lament is an important part of grieving, and when we see the kind of violence we are seeing in our world right now, we need to grieve that. We need to grieve the fact that so many people are experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty and food insecurity right here in our city of Chicago as well as many places throughout our country and our world.

We need to grieve the bombing in Aleppo, Turkey, this weekend that killed 100 children along with innumerable adults. We need to grieve the deaths of our own children in Chicago by gun violence.
We need to grieve and be angry and frustrated and afraid and all the feelings. God can handle all of them.

Sometimes I know that I can fall down the black hole of lament. I am prone to it. I know for myself that I can get lost in lament and I need to get found again. I need to find my way back to hope, back to God’s love, back to possibility. I need something practical that I can do on a spiritual level to help me find my center again.

How can we make space in our hearts and minds to hear and feel God’s hope and God’s love?

Today I am going to teach a couple of spiritual practices that help me. I shared these with the staff of the church at this week’s all-staff meeting. We called it Sacred Pause, because that’s what we’re calling our new Tuesday morning prayer time in Stone Chapel.

Both of these practices are practices for becoming friends with our minds and our bodies. In our minds and bodies we experience the jumble of thoughts that sometimes get stuck on auto-repeat, and we experience our emotions that wash over us like waves that sometimes enliven us and sometimes deplete us.

We want to become friends with our minds and our bodies so that we can be open to and aware of God’s presence with us in all times.

These will be short—thirty seconds each. It’s very doable.

The first one is a focusing and awareness practice. Start by noticing where you are sitting and noticing your body. Take a deep breath. Allow that breath to pass out of your body.
As you breathe, notice where you feel your breath. Do you feel it in your chest and your belly as they expand to make room for the air? Do you notice it along the rim of your nostrils as the air goes in and out of your body? Pick one of these sensations to focus on for the next thirty seconds.

After a little while you will be distracted, and that’s fine. When you notice your distraction, just turn your attention back on the sensation of breathing.

I’m going to ring a bell at the beginning and another bell after thirty seconds . . .

Thirty seconds is a very short time, and yet notice how much your awareness can be changed in only thirty seconds of focusing on your breath. You can do this. You can take a sacred pause anytime during your day.

Our second practice is called Centering Prayer. It’s a method in which we focus on a sacred word or phrase. This word or phrase can be very religious, like “The Lord is my Shepherd” or it can be a symbolic word like “love” or “peace.”

My favorite word for this kind of prayer is “open,” because it’s a very simple word, and it reminds me that I’m practicing being open to God. I don’t get distracted by ideas about what it means—and every time I do, I just go back to focusing on the word: Open.

So pick the word or phrase that you will use today. And let’s begin again with a bell . . .

In both of these spiritual practices we are making space in our life for God to speak to us.

After Habakkuk cries out to God, he waits to see what God will say. Habakkuk says,

I will take my post; I will position myself on the fortress.
    I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me
    and how God will respond to my complaint.

To hear God, sometimes we need to position ourselves for listening. We need to get quiet in ourselves.
While Habakkuk waits and listens, God answers. “There is a vision,” God says, “even now, even in times of destruction and suffering and violence.” Even now, there is a vision. Trust it, and wait for it. “If it delays,” God tells Habakkuk, “wait for it.”

Waiting can sound very passive, but waiting does not mean accepting what is now as it is and waiting for things to be made better in the afterlife. God says, write the vision big so a runner can see it. Write it big so that, no matter how fast people are running through their lives, they can see the vision that God has given you. That’s not just waiting passively; that’s doing something.

In 2 Peter 3:12, Peter says disciples should wait and hasten toward the coming kin-dom of God. Wait and hasten.

It sounds like a contradiction if you think that waiting is a passive thing. But if we’re waiting for something, it means we believe it will come. Otherwise we wouldn’t be waiting. We have expectation, and that expectation is a hope.

Jürgen Moltmann, a great theologian, has said that to hope is an act of protest. To hope is an act of resistance to the injustice we see in the world (Jürgen Moltmann, “Protest Hope”).

To wait is not to be passive; to wait is to actively resist accepting what is that is not right. To wait is to protest by holding on to hope and holding on to the vision that God has for us, the dreams that God has for the world.

Similarly, to hasten toward the kin-dom of God is not only to imagine a far-distant future; it’s to move toward it; it’s to anticipate it in our actions now. We embody the future by doing it now, in whatever small degree, in whatever one next step we can take.

When Rosa Parks sat down in the front of the bus, which began the Montgomery bus boycott, she was anticipating a world in which black and brown persons could sit anywhere on the bus. She was waiting for that day by believing in it. That was her Protest Hope. She was hastening toward that day by anticipating it, by precipitating it in her actions.

That is protest hope. That is waiting and hastening toward the kin-dom of God.

When Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream, it was not yet manifest; it was not achieved. But he waited for it by hoping on it, and he hastened toward it by anticipating it in his actions on that day and all the days of his work for civil rights.

He had protest hope. He had a vision that God had given him. In the words of 2 Peter, he was “waiting for and hastening toward the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12).

And we can do the same, in our own ways, in our own lives. We can’t make it all happen right now, but we can take up our post; we can position ourselves on the fortress and keep watch to see what God may say to us about the vision that can be trusted, the vision that will not deceive. Hope is resistance.

As Cistercian monk Thomas Merton once said, “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there.”

He was talking about God being in this cosmic dance with all creation, recreating it continually, always being in relationship with us. The cosmic dance. It’s there. Our despair can’t touch it; it can’t take it away; it can’t hurt it.

“Indeed,” Thomas Merton went on to say, “we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 303).

So let us wait for it in protest hope, and let us hasten toward that vision of God with anticipation. Let us hope in that God who is always there for us and always there in us. Let us hope in that God in whom we live and move and have our being.

When we start to get lost, if we start to tumble down in that dark hole of lament, let us take a sacred pause. In silence, at the center of our being, we open ourselves to the presence of God.

When we are under stress, we can open ourselves to the presence of God. When we are afraid, we can open ourselves to the presence of God. When we are overwhelmed, when we are looking at how big the world is and how deeply entrenched injustice is and when we see how small we are in relation to the problems of the world, the systems of violence—in all those times still we can open ourselves to the presence of God.

We can wait for the kin-dom in protest hope, and we can hasten towards it. There is a vision, God told Habakkuk, that does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it, for it is surely coming; it will not be late. Let us have protest hope.

May we wait and hasten toward the kin-dom of God. May it be so. Amen.