Her Strength. Now.

August 19, 2018

Series: August 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Ephesians 5:15-20

15Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

Her Strength. Now.

I wonder how many of you have followed the story of the mother orca whale carrying her dead calf. It is common practice for whales to lift their newborns to the surface so they can breathe, but this calf had died and yet the mother persisted. Over the last twenty years, three-fourths of the newborn orcas have not survived in the endangered Southern Resident orca population.[1] Some wondered if this mother didn't know, if she was confused or somehow deranged. It's hard for me to think any mother doesn't know.  Others attributed it to some kind of mourning behavior. Orcas have been known to do this for as long as a week, but this mother did so for 17 days before finally letting go.

It's a story that touches the heart. I share it here because it really hit me as it was one of the first news stories I encountered coming off some time away on the East Coast.  Part of the gift of being away is avoiding the news. Two weeks of vacation and a week of continuing education that was as refreshing as vacation left me feeling restored.  Getting away for an extended amount of time allows you to truly let down, unwind the tightened places of body, soul, and mind. For me, that takes a while.  I find I come back with a more settled and grounded disposition, less thrown or frazzled by the busyness that accompanies the fall. I don’t know how those who only slip away for a day here or there, or take their work with them wherever they go get a break long enough to let down.  Moreover, what about those who are not afforded or cannot afford a break from their work. In some places of the world it’s the law, but here for many it’s a luxury. We tend to define strength by the ability to power through and not stop, but wouldn’t society be better if we all had this yearly reboot?

I've come to realize there is something else that happens when I go away for a significant amount of time and let down.  Things come up.  When you make room in your life, it is amazing what comes to the surface.  My spiritual director helped me see this after going on pilgrimage once. Finding myself in a funk, she encouraged me to continue to make room in my day for whatever was trying to emerge to surface, but is normally drowned out by daily life.

This time, on our trip home air traffic control delayed the flight because of the smoke from the wildfires.  I could feel myself tense up as I anticipated descending into the hazy skies of California.  Whether it’s because we have a child with asthma or simply because we’re not used to them, having grown up in the Mid-West, the fires always unsettle me.  Something was coming up in me and trying to get my attention. Maybe it’s just me—the firefighters we know seem to get excited at the prospect of being sent out to battle them, and yet even they have noticed the fires have gotten stronger.

We have been breaking records and scientists tell us that hotter and drier conditions have exacerbated "normal" wildfire patterns.  Smoke from our fires has now been detected as far away as New York polluting air in states in between. At the same time, we are in touch with friends and family in Florida and so we have been following a similarly extended and intensified red tide season. There, toxic algae blooms have contaminated both air and water, leaving the beaches littered with the bodies of dead fish, dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees. As of last Thursday, 605 sea turtles and 100 manatees and washed up dead. Friends in Sarasota said you can smell the death the moment you open your door. Here again, warmer sea temperatures coupled with fertilizer run off have amplified this natural occurrence.

Could this be what Ephesians means by “evil days?” Surely, it was not predicting these particular circumstances, and yet this ancient letter knows a thing or two about troubled times. “The times” is a difficult subject to understand in Ephesians and is worth unpacking. Ephesians, like many New Testament writings is infused with the topic of what we refer to in Christianity as eschatology, matters of the end times and the beginning of a new reality. That’s tricky enough, but to complicate the waters even more, scholars tell us that in Ephesians we see streams of two approaches to eschatology, one that seems to think that with the return of Jesus a definite end was coming, followed by the ushering in of something new. This is called a “future eschatology” and is present in some of Paul’s earliest writings, such as 1 Thessalonians, where some Christians get the concept of the rapture.

The other kind of eschatology is known as “realized eschatology” and it understands Christ to have already ushered in a new reality. When Christ did not return, at least in the way they expected, these early followers evolved in their thinking. To them while the new reality was not perhaps fully complete, it was already underway, and we are living into even if we do not fully perceive it. This is characteristic of either Paul’s later writings or those written in his name that followed. Ephesians may have elements of each of these streams though it seems to lean more toward the realized eschatology, and therefore the question of how to live in this moment.  

All of this is to emphasize that there was an urgency associated with the times. I believe that can be instructive to us because we too are in urgent times. In fact, sitting with my spiritual director this past month, the question arose as to whether we are carrying an appropriate level of urgency about our own times. I don’t mean anxiety. My guess is many of us are carrying around more than our fair share of that. I mean urgency, which is taking concern and translating it into constructive and productive action. Do we carry an appropriate level of urgency about whether and to what degree there will be clean air for our children to breathe, whether and to what degree there will be clean water for our children to drink, whether and to what degree we will be able to feed our world without spoiling the land and sea in the process?

I can remember the actual day I learned about climate change. Then we called it “The Greenhouse Effect.” I was a 5th grader and it was the 1987-88 school year. Not a day has gone by that it hasn’t occupied some part of my mind. Coming back from my time away, I realize more of my energy as a person of faith needs to go toward caring for what God has made, what God loves, and what God has freely shared. Otherwise, my claim to love God and what God loves has no integrity.

A number in this congregation share this concern and commitment. They have worked hard on it and I plan to come alongside them more fully. As I started to think about what this could look like, I started to explore natural partnerships. Doing so led me to California’s chapter of Interfaith Power & Light, an organization that has worked for a lot of good in a lot of places. As I browsed their web site, looking at their work, wondering how to kindle a new partnership, I found a link to member congregations. I hesitatingly clicked on the one labeled “Marin,” anticipating feeling guilty about finding others doing more. I was surprised to see Westminster Presbyterian in Tiburon listed! I probably knew we were members at one time and forgot, but it was a pleasant reminder that there are already relationships and tools in place, as dusty as some of them may be.

Moving forward can be hard. It can be easier to instead bury one’s head in the sand or drown out the noise and bad news on any number of issues. This is precisely what Ephesians is attempting to address. I know it reads like a Puritanical temperance rant: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery” (Eph. 5:18). Who knows it might even lead to dancing! It is easy to dismiss this as stuffy moralizing, but that would be a mistake. What does drunkenness do, literally and figuratively, but allow us to numb ourselves, to be less attentive to what’s happening around us and within us. When people are drunk, they are loud; they stumble around why? Because they have lost touch with their surroundings. The opposite of drunkenness is being in touch with what is happening around and within. Sobriety is clarity. Sobriety is being of sound mind and judgment. Ephesians is trying to say that the moment is calling for clarity and wisdom, not numbing our minds from realities we may not want to face. Our time has a preciousness to it, something to which people in recovery can bear special witness.

I have noticed over the last year a number of my colleagues have given up drinking. I can’t help wondering if this is not only about personal challenges, but also a recognition of the times, that something greater happening now. Now is important. Now is powerful. So would say one of the preeminent spiritual writers of our time, Eckart Tolle, whose best-selling book The Power of Now has been transformative for many, including those I know personally. Part of what shields us from the now, says Tolle, is what he calls the “pain-body,” which he describes as “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field.”[2] The pain-body becomes debilitating when we ignore it or try and deaden it rather than simply give it its due attention, listen to what it is trying to say. When we attend to it, it loses its power over us and is dismissed. Another way of saying it is when you face that which is causing the suffering and start to work on it, the anxiety and suffering diminish. I wonder if communities or societies carry pain bodies too, and if faced and addressed, of they could find a new measure of power and vitality.

Interestingly, Tolle grounds his teaching in the temporal realm. It’s called The Power of Now for a reason, for in being stuck in the past or captive anxiously to the future, we create some of our own suffering. In other words, we can lose a lot when we lose the preciousness of the moment. Tolle speaks of the illusion of believing the next moment will always be better. It seems our culture is particularly susceptible to this, as we sacrifice scores of presents for some un-promised future, all the time chasing, and burning up our resources in the present, literally and metaphorically. Tolle is not telling us to forego responsible planning or engaging in meaningful reflection, but rather that fully inhabiting the moment, or as Ephesians puts, “making the most of the time,” this time, we are most likely to limit regrettable actions and be in the best position to make good decisions about the future. Whatever we can do to support our presence in the now, whether it’s slowing down, taking a break—you can’t be very present if you’re tired or strung out—or adopting simple practices that return us to the moment, will heighten our awareness of what is going on around us and within us and tell us what needs our attention. I ran across someone with a practice of taking one deep breath every time they passed under a doorway (breathe) to reset, to be called back into the moment. It can be that simple.

Let’s return to our mother orca whale. Might she be a model for us? Maybe her unwillingness to let her calf go was just the right thing for her to be doing. Her act was illogical by a future orientation, but for the moment, on some level, she knew it was what she needed to be doing, perhaps even if it killed her. “Don’t worry about tomorrow…tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today,” Jesus said in the “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt. 6:34). Stay with the troubles of today. Maybe our mother orca wasn’t deranged or confused that her calf was still alive. Rather, maybe she was enacting that her connection and commitment to her calf still lived, and only when she had expressed that to the full extent could she release it and be released by it. Wouldn’t you know that after 17 days when she finally did let go of this painful body, and she was seen healthy and playing in the water of San Juan Island last Saturday. Will we have her courage, her presence, and her strength now?


[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/08/12/orca-mom-releases-dead-calf-two-weeks-later/972143002/

 [2] https://www.eckharttolletv.com/article/Awakening-Your-Spiritual-Lifes-Purpose/