Rev. Jonathan C. Shenk, came to a corporate lecture that Jerry gave in New York City and was inspired to preach this sermon at The First Presbyterian Church of Dutch Neck, NJ on World Communion Sunday October 3, 2004.
Only God is Real
by Rev. Jonathan C. Shenk
The First Presbyterian Church of Dutch Neck, NJ
October 3, 2004 (World Communion Sunday)
Text: 2 Timothy 1: 1-14
A wealthy woman wanted to hire a chauffeur to drive her two children around in the family limousine. So she devised a driving test. Four drivers applied and they all drove in the limousine to a cliff on the outskirts of town. And there she instructed them to show her, one by one, how close they could back up to the cliff without driving off.
The first driver carefully backed up to within 10 feet of the cliff. The second driver, wanting to outdo the first, backed up to within five feet of the cliff. The third driver, wanting to outdo the previous two, backed up to within one foot of the cliff. And now only one driver remained, but he refused to get anywhere close. He parked a whole 25 feet away from the cliff.
They were clearly surprised when the wealthy woman offered the job to the fourth driver. She explained that the fourth driver demonstrated, by his caution, that he was the superior driver. She said, “I don’t want anyone taking chances with my children.”
Caution and prudence might get us a cushy job as a chauffeur. But it won’t take us very far along the journey of faith. The biblical witness is clear about that. If God is the wealthy woman administering a faith-driving test, she’s looking for some disciples who will fearlessly spin that limo around in the direction of the cliff and race full speed into the unknown void of radical trust. Only in that helpless, empty, unknowing space do we truly and powerfully experience the magnificent embrace of God’s everlasting love.
“God does not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.” This is the challenge Paul presents to his young disciple, Timothy. Apparently Timothy, who is young, has become intimidated by the influence of the elders in his community. And so he has silenced his voice. Wrapped his gifts inside the security of his cloak. Paul wants to awaken Timothy from his cocoon of insecurity. “That’s why I remind you,” Paul urges Timothy, “to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you.”
The question for Timothy -- and for us -- is: what is real? What is true and lasting? How do we know when we are hearing the voice of God and when we are hearing the voice of convenience or fear or popular opinion? Perhaps Timothy believed that God’s voice had been coming to him through the influence of his elders (sometimes that’s how God speaks). How could he have known that their influence had actually caused him to squelch God’s gifts within him -- to the extent that his gifts had become like dying embers in a fire, neglected and growing cold.
Sometimes we too might think that we are being good Christians by keeping silent or conforming to people’s expectations or obeying the rules when, in actuality, God might be urging us to burst forth with the insights and questions and giftedness bottled up within us.
How do we know what is real? What is true and lasting?
“Only God is real.” This is the discovery Jerry Wennstrom made during his 15-year sojourn into the void of unknowing. Jerry is an artist who, in the 70s, as a rising star in the New York art scene, destroyed all his paintings, gave away all his belongings, and embarked on an incredible spiritual journey in search of the heart of God.
I heard him speak recently at a luncheon in New York. He said that the reason he destroyed his art is because he realized that he had been clinging to his art out of fear, fear of what he would be left with if his art was stripped away from him. And so, as a kind of test, he decided to see what would happen if he had nothing; he wanted to discover if there was a God, a being, unseen, who would uphold and care for him.
So he shed himself of everything his identity had depended on -- financial security, art. He even stopped speaking for awhile. The food he ate, the money he spent, came to him only from the kindness of friends and strangers. He would fast for long stretches of time, sometimes by necessity. As he continued to shed his vestiges of fear and want, he began to open himself fully to whatever life sent his way. From within this open, un-needy space, he experienced miraculous signs of God’s presence in his life, which he describes in his book, The Inspired Heart: a $5 bill hiding in a library book when he was desperately hungry; a gang of would-be muggers who become friends.
His courageous journey led him to the powerful realization that only God is real. All other forms of security are, in reality, “the agents of a slow and sorrowful death.”
“Only God is real.” We all have security blankets we cling to out of fear. Friendships we hang onto for fear of being alone. Jobs we hang onto for fear of being unemployed. Ideas and beliefs we cling to for fear of being shut out. And then gradually, if we nurture and water these fears, they become our surrogate gods, directing our lives. It’s a subtle and seductive switch. At some point we start paying more attention to the voices of approval, the performance reviews, and the pursuit of excellence and success than we do to the deep voice of God within.
What is real? What is true and lasting? We might ask this question in relation to the war in Iraq, a conflict which was the main focus of the first presidential debate this past Friday.
On the one hand it seems quite obvious that what is real is that soldiers and civilians and insurgents are caught up in a conflict where many people on all sides are dying. It also seems real that we, in the U.S., are still traumatized by terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and many of us are still living in fear.
That’s one kind of real. But if we continue to focus our attention on that reality, a reality which thrives on fear and aggression, we quickly lose sight of a deeper reality, which is where God dwells. And I believe this deeper reality is emerging, even at this moment, from the ashes of death and destruction in Iraq and the United States.
This emerging reality is ultimately a mystery, so it’s hard to determine exactly what God is unfolding. However, I sense God’s presence in a couple of areas. I believe, for example, that this deeper reality is the catalyst behind the many Muslims and Christians and Jews and others who are reaching out across the void of ignorance and unknowing to discover common bonds built on peace and trust and mutual respect. I believe this deeper reality might also be the unseen force behind the countless people both in Iraq and the United States who are beginnning to relinquish their grip on the false gods of aggression and security, and learning to fall, helpless into the grace of God’s everlasting arms.
What is real? Only God is real. And God does not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.
On this worldwide communion Sunday we refocus our attention on what is real. A God who, through Jesus, transformed a shameful death on a criminal’s cross into the deeper reality of life and joy eternal. On this worldwide communion Sunday we refocus our attention on celebrating communion alongside Christians from every tribe and nation on the planet, including 50 million Arab Christians and -- in Iraq alone -- 1 million Christians, including 5 Presbyterian congregations.
And how do we connect with God’s reality? How do we know what is truly real?
Once a man came to a great Hindu saint asking the same question, “How do I find God?” The saint held the man’s head under water until he was gasping for air! Then the saint said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, you will find God.”
We are, each one of us, gasping for God as if our lives depended on it, because our lives depend on it. God is the only reality who can carry us through the turbulent waters of life. As we release our fearful clinging to the banks of the river and drift out into the center, we become free to glide along the strange and wild waters of God’s abundant grace.