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Streams of Living Water: The Contemplative Spirit

February 24, 2008

John 15:4-8

We continue a series of sermons, Streams of Living Water, which we started the first Sunday of Lent. We continue today with the topic “The Contemplative Stream.” I want to call your attention to the Gospel of John, Chapter 15, Verses 4-8. I am reading from the New International Version, but I want to change one word back to the wording found in the King James Version. That word is abide. Hear now the Word of God.

“Remain in me (or abide in me), and I will [abide] in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must [abide] in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you [abide] in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man [abides] in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not [abide] in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you [abide] in me and my words [abide] in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

I have been swimming in many different places. I like to swim. Especially when I was a boy, I enjoyed swimming. I have been swimming in some very cold mountain streams, but I have also been swimming in some local fish ponds. Some of those ponds had so much mud in them that I was yellow all over when I came out of the water. I have been swimming in the Dead Sea, if you can call it swimming. It is pretty much just floating.

By far and away, my most significant swimming experience happened when I was in the tenth grade. One early spring day, my grandfather drove his 1955 Oldsmobile up to the parking lot just outside the office at Spartanburg High School. Driving an automobile was difficult for him because he had had two heart attacks and a stroke. His right side was paralyzed; but he drove, using his cane to press on the accelerator and brake. You wanted to give him a wide berth if you saw that Oldsmobile coming. He had only one wreck after the heart attacks and stroke. He ran one of his cars into another car parked in his own driveway. The insurance did not want much to do with that.

Pappy pulled up into the front of Spartanburg High School and blew the horn on the automobile. Dr. Spencer Rice, the principal, came out and saw this elderly man blowing the horn. Of course, Dr. Rice knew my grandfather.

He asked, “Mr. Neely, is anything wrong?”

“No, there’s nothing wrong. Send that boy out here.”

Dr. Rice said, “Which boy are you talking about?”

“My grandson. Send him out here.”

Dr. Rice asked, “You mean Kirk?”

“Yes, send him out here.”

“Mr. Neely, is there some emergency?”

“No. Go get my grandson and send him out here.”

Dr. Rice went into the school and paged the English class where I was at the time, as I recall. He told the teacher, “Please send Kirk Neely to the office.” That kind of message is just what every tenth grader wants to hear. I had not been sent to the office since I was in the sixth grade for singing, “Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I guess I’ll go eat worms.”

When I got to the office, Dr. Rice said, “Kirk, your grandfather is out in front of the school. He wants to see you.” I went outside to the parking lot, and Dr. Rice followed.

By the time I got out there, my grandfather had moved over into the passenger’s seat. He told me, “Get in here and drive me.”

As I was going around to the driver’s side, Dr. Rice asked, “Mr. Neely, are you taking Kirk out of school?”

“No, I’m not taking him out of school. I’ll bring him back.”

“When can we expect him back?”

“In about a week.”

“Do you have an excuse?”

My grandfather, who could be pretty salty, made it very clear that we did not need an excuse. I will delete the expletives here. “We don’t need any excuse. We’re going fishing.”

We pulled off and my grandfather told me, “Take Highway 56 South.” In the rearview mirror, I could see that Dr. Rice was completely baffled by this experience.

I protested, “Pappy, I have to go home and get some clothes.”

“No, you don’t. I went by your house, and your mother has already packed some things for you. They’re in the trunk. Head for Augusta.”

Once out of Augusta, we drove on a road called the Woodpecker Trail. It goes right through the middle of Georgia, the “bowels of the earth,” he called it. That is a biblical term. I drove all the way to South Georgia before we stopped. When Pappy saw a place that had a lot of pickup trucks, he said, “This is going to be a good place to eat.” We stopped there and ate.

During this trip, my grandfather and I did not talk much. We never did, but on this trip we had very little to say to each other. I paid close attention to the silence.

We drove on to Daytona Beach, Florida, and fished for a week. His doctor had told him that he could only fish every other day because of his heart; so on the off days, we drove all over Florida, going to spring training camps for major league baseball teams. I do not know how those trips were supposed to be restful for him.

My grandfather had chartered a boat for the days we went fishing. We would go to the Gulf Stream and fish for red snapper, bottom dwelling fish. We would bait our double hooks with squid, drop those weights down to the bottom, and reel the line up a few turns.

My grandfather was a good fisherman. He could catch fish out here in this parking lot. By the time his line had dropped to the bottom and he had cranked the line up a few turns, he would have caught a fish. He would hand me his rod and reel and say, “Here, reel this in for me.” I would hand him mine, then reel in his fish. Many times, two fish would be on that double hook. By the time I got these snappers reeled in, he would have another fish on the rod I had handed him. I spent all my time reeling in fish he caught.

In three days of fishing, we caught over 600 pounds of red snapper, which we dressed and put on ice so that we could bring it back to Spartanburg. On our last day of fishing, we got out early and boarded the boat he had chartered, The Marianne, named for the wife of Captain Frank Timmons. Pappy said to Frank Timmons, “Captain, I want to go trolling today.” We trolled a while for king mackerel and caught a few, and then we went further out to the Gulf Stream and trolled about twenty miles off the coast of Florida. The Gulf Stream was like glass. It was clear blue, and we could not see land at all.

About lunchtime, we just stopped the boat. I ate with a fellow on board named Tim, who was about two years older than I was. He had dropped out of school to work as a mate on that boat; and he asked if I would like to go swimming. I told him that I would and looked at my grandfather for his permission. He said, “Go ahead.” My grandfather had been in the Navy in Cuba for four years. He knew about swimming in warm water.

I stood on the transom of that boat and dived headfirst into the Gulf Stream. I swam around for maybe ten or fifteen minutes. Back in the boat, we dried off and continued trolling. After fishing about fifteen minutes, I started catching dolphin. Those are not porpoise. Dolphin is what is known as mahi-mahi in Hawaii. They are some of the most beautiful fish in the ocean. They fight like a bream. Imagine having a twenty-pound bream on the end of your line. That is about the way it feels to catch one of these fish.

The fish on my line was darting back and forth. All of a sudden, it started doing something very uncharacteristic. It started running straight to the boat. I tried to understand why it was running faster than I could reel, and then I saw a big dorsal fin emerge from the water. A shark that was about ten feet long was chasing it. The shark closed in and the fish darted. The shark followed, and the fish was caught between me and the shark. I felt a thump and reeled in the head. The shark had cut the fish in half.

Then I had a moment to reflect on that experience. About fifteen minutes earlier, I had been out in the water, swimming.

Swimming in the contemplative stream is like swimming in the Gulf Stream. The water is warm and refreshing, but it is teeming with life. It is full of surprises. The contemplative life of prayer is not at all stagnant. Some people think of it as being stagnant, but it is full of life. It is life-giving. The contemplative stream has many surprises.

The Gulf Stream has one way that storms come to our coast. They move up from the warm waters of the Caribbean and follow the Gulf Stream. Those waters can be very rough. Submarines out in that water just go deeper when a storm comes. In the contemplative stream, when the storms of life come, we have the opportunity to go deeper into the life of prayer. We find not only safety from the storm, but we also find the opportunity to explore realms of prayer we have not known before.

The Gulf Stream is in very deep water. This stream of contemplation runs very, very deep. It is fair to say that we will never get to the bottom of this contemplative life of prayer. There is too much to explore, too much to understand. I want to pause to say that when we talk about a contemplative life, it sounds somewhat mystical, mysterious, maybe even inaccessible to ordinary people. Certainly throughout Christian history, those identified as saints of the church have been involved in this contemplative style. Some have been monastics. Two of my particular favorites are Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. There are more contemporary monastics.

You notice that in this passage in John 15 that Jesus is speaking to his disciples the night before he dies on Calvary. He is giving, as it were, final instructions. Some scholars call these passages the Final Discourses of Jesus. In this passage, Jesus says that if we are to be fruit-bearing Christians, productive Christians, we have to abide in him. This abiding is something that mystics of the church have taken to heart. St. Theresa of Lisieux had a long meditation on these verses. William Barkley says about this passage that when we talk about abiding in Christ, we think that it is not available to everybody because we are so busy. We do not have the time. The contemplative stream is available to every disciple of Jesus, to every follower of Christ. It simply means spending time with Jesus, remaining with Jesus.

The analogy, of course, that Jesus uses is that of the vine and branch. You think of that branch as being grafted into the vine. Because it draws life from the vine, the branch bears fruit. Jesus makes it clear that apart from him, we can do nothing. Our lives would be barren.

Maybe the best illustration we find in the New Testament comes from a passage in Luke 10. Jesus goes to a home in Bethany to visit with sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha wants to be the “hostess with the mostest.” She is darting around, trying to get everything done. She is concerned about the way the house looks and concerned about the cooking. She is just busy, busy, busy. Mary sits down at the feet of Jesus, an action that upsets Martha. She says, “Lord, don’t you think my sister ought to be helping me?” Jesus speaks to her, “Martha, Martha. You fret and worry about so many things. Just one thing is important. Mary has found it.” The word abiding means finding that one thing that is important – being with Jesus, being in relationship to him, and learning from him.

You know that I spend a good bit of time preparing these messages. I started preparing this series weeks ago. I have asked you to pray for me, and many of you have told me that you are praying for me as I deliver these messages. At the first of the week, I wondered where this series would go, how I could do this.

Wednesday night after a very long day, I attended a meeting after church at 7:30 P.M. away from this church. When it was over, I had a pounding headache. When I went home, of course, Clare started doing all of her handy-dandy things to make me feel better. Clare has the hardest job in this church as my handler. If you do not believe it, just ask her. She will tell you how hard it is. I took some zinc capsules and other medicine, but I had a bad headache all night long.

I woke up Thursday morning with the same headache. I just had to call a timeout. I could not really use the computer because the screen bothered my eyes. I did not watch much television at all. I turned the cell phone off and had a day without a lot of the electronic technology that occupies our lives. I kept thinking, Lord, I can’t waste this day like this. I have to get Sunday’s sermon ready. I have many things I need to do. I could not do anything that day.

I realized in retrospect that the Lord was helping me prepare this sermon. He said, “Kirk, you have to stop. You must stop and pay attention.” A bad headache will stop you. My children used to say when I had a headache, “Dad, the first time I saw that thing I knew it was going to give you trouble.” Sometimes it does.

Think about your life. Think about your lifestyle. We are so frantic, so hurried. If my grandmother looked out of her kitchen window and saw a dog eating grass, she would say, “There is something that dog is not getting.” When you see crazy behavior in people, you can pretty much write it down as something they are not getting.

We have looked and looked and looked, searching for what is missing. We become involved in all kinds of activities. The Baptist church may be the worst offender. We can think up and generate more activities than is possible to do. We dart here and there, living by cell phones, calendars, blackberries, all kinds of things telling us what we have to do next. Some people become addicted. They are searching for something; and they settle for something less, trying to kill the pain, trying to find an escape. So many people live an unsettled life. They may seek geographical solutions, thinking, “If I could just be somewhere else…If I could just change jobs…change marriage partners…buy a new car…move to a different house…move to a different church. If I could just change something, maybe then I would find what I was looking for.” There is just one thing needful, one thing important. Mary found it – this abiding in Jesus, this spending time with our Savior.

All of us need some solitude. We need some time away from the maddening crowd. This solitude is not loneliness. It is being alone, but it is being alone with our Master. We need stillness. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We need silence. Henri Nouwen is quick to say that this does not mean that we should just sit down and be quiet. It means that in the course of our busy lives, we need to find places of stillness and quietness in our relationship to Christ.

I do not know what happens to you when you try to hold still and get quiet. I know what happens to me. Noise bothers me, but that noise is not external. I am the oldest of eight children. I can put up with a lot of external noise. The noise that really interferes with me is the noise of my own heart. When I try to hold still and be quiet before the Lord, my mind is like a beehive, buzzing, buzzing, buzzing with all kinds of ideas. In order for me to get still and quiet, I have to find a way to calm down all that buzzing. Sometimes just writing it down and putting it aside helps. It also helps to hold still.

I want you to do something with me. If you have something on your lap, put it aside. Grip your fists as tightly as you can until your knuckles turn white. This is the way we spend most of our lives. We are tense, uptight, and competitive. We have our dukes up, ready to fight. Now, just open your hands and let them lie open on your lap. This is a receptive posture. We are to receive the gift with open hands. If we can view our hands as a symbol of our hearts, we can open our hands, our hearts, and our minds to the presence of the Lord. When we come into His presence to pray, we have the mistaken notion that it is a monologue, that we are going to talk and talk and talk, that we are going to tell the Lord everything on our mind and then dismiss him with an “amen.” Prayer, most of all, is being attentive, being still and quiet. It is so difficult for us to do.

I often use the prayer of John Greenleaf Whittier: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, Forgive our foolish ways; Reclothe us in our rightful mind; In purer lives, Thy service find, In deeper rever’nce, praise. Drop Thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease; Take from our souls the strain and stress, And let our ordered lives confess The beauty of Thy peace.” You might want to use this prayer in your life of prayer.

Listen. Be attentive and receptive. Have a time to set aside for this purpose. We live on the go, but we are going to have to find ways to incorporate this time into our lives. We cannot just go into hiding. We need to set aside some time, to make time as we would make an appointment with the Lord. We need to have a “sweet hour of prayer.” We do not usually pray an hour, do we? If we will just set aside time and respectfully give it to our Lord, life will improve. Even in our busyness, we can find ways to experience the presence of God. This is the meaning of the contemplative life.

Brother Lawrence, at eighty-nine years of age, dictated a little book called The Practice of the Presence of God. He said that he had learned to pray as much when he was washing the pots and pans of the monastery kitchen or when he was cleaning the monastery stable as he could when he went into the chapel of the monastery and knelt in prayer. We need to practice God’s presence with our eyes open. Once we listen and pay attention, God does not want us to live in splendid isolation. He does not want us to become hermits. Some have done that.

Look at the life of Jesus. Early in the morning before daylight, he went out to a mountain to pray. Afterwards, he came back to his disciples, back to community. This contemplative stream moves us from this time of solitude back into community, to the church, to the wider community. Other people will see that we come with an entirely different perspective. They will see that we have somewhere a quiet center.

Dag Hammarskjöld said that the life of prayer must necessarily lead to the world of action. If we are paying attention in our times with the Lord, we will experience His direction in our lives. Henry Blackaby has taught us this. It is what we are studying in Experiencing God Together as a Church. That action is not always a grand plan. It may be that occasionally, but I find in my own life so often God wants me to do the little things. He gives me little nudges. Just last Sunday, two of you said something to me that seemed completely out of the blue, I thought at the time. Those comments confirm a decision I was trying to make. I realized it was not out of the blue at all. It was God nudging me to take action.

In the Middle Ages, churches were located at the center of the community. The church bells would ring five times a day to call people to prayer. People would stop working in their fields and pray. Because we have lost that kind of reminder, we must use what we have: the calendar, the cell phone, the blackberry. We must find a way to be reminded that we need this place, this time, this hour, with our Christ.

Henri Nouwen said that his life was filled with confusion and so many burdens. He heard that Mother Theresa was going to be in Rome and found that he could have a twenty-minute appointment with her. He met with her in Rome. For the first fifteen minutes they were together, he just poured out his heart, sharing with her all of the burdens that were bothering him. Then he just stopped talking, and the two sat together in silence for a moment. She looked at him and said, “Father Nouwen, I think that if you will just spend an hour a day in adoration to your Lord and Savior, then try to behave yourself, everything will be just fine.” What simple advice! What wise advice! Of course, the center is that hour, that time with the Lord.

This contemplative stream runs very deep. It is full of surprises, full of life. It is life-giving. It is worth the plunge. I invite you to take the plunge. Spend time, quiet, still time, with your Lord.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely


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