“The Water We Swim In” 11/12/2017 by Brian Donovan (Click on title for audio)

The Water We Swim In

I would like to begin with a small parable from David Foster Wallace. He says, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the (heck) is water?’”

Let us pray:

God, we pray that the meditations spoken here of your still speaking voice bring you the glory which you deserve while guiding us to be brave in the light of your life-giving water.

Yesterday was Veteran’s day, the day we celebrate our brothers and sisters who have been in the military service. To these people and their families, I say thank you. From the depth of my heart: thank you to all our veterans who have served, fought, killed, and died for us, for our freedoms.

As Christians, we honor our soldiers because they are our brothers and our sisters, because they are children of God and because they do a very tough job that many of us would not wish to do. To honor the soldier though does not mean we agree with war or violence. It means we love the person and pray for them as they walk their path. This separation is part of our story which did not fully develop until the years following the Vietnam war. When our society looked back and saw the atrocities we as civilians did to our soldiers coming home. That realization became a wake-up call and our society adjusted, grew spiritually, and separated the soldier from the war. Thus, all of us were able to change the water we swim in to something kinder which provides life by allowing us to truly thank and love all people who have served regardless of our individual feelings about violent conflict.

But, not all water is fresh, sometimes we dwell in the stagnant pools constructed over two-hundred years ago. Pools which are surrounded by fear: fear of change, fear of our neighbor, fear of our Government. These bastions of terror keep us in that stagnant pool no matter how many ways God cries out for us to wake-up and change for the light of God is being shadowed slowly but surely by the fear engulfing the stagnant pool of water where we live.

The water I am speaking of today is our gun violence. More specifically, the mass shootings which are the symptomatic wake-up call of a deep problem in our culture. This violence takes many forms but in the last sixteen months alone we have had three of the deadliest mass murders this country has ever seen. These include 49 human beings who died in the Orlando nightclub last year, the 58 bodies murdered in Las Vegas last month and 26 people including children who were massacred in a Sutherland Springs, Texas Baptist church last Sunday.  One of the first things I heard after this last horror was from the New York Times who quoted Ken Paxton, the Attorney General for Texas. He suggested congregations hire “professional security, or at least arm some of the parishioners.” Whoa, wait a minute. Guns in churches? Has our world really become that afraid, that scared, that damaged that we would believe God and Jesus our lord who is the prime example of non-violence would want this to be happening in our world today. Do we really believe Jesus wants us to carry weapons of death into the place where we go to find life?

Before we answer this question, let us think of the stories we tell ourselves, in relation to owning guns. We tell ourselves it is our right as Americans to bear arms: so, we may protect our self from Government oppression; so, we can defend our self from neighbors breaking into our homes; so, we can feed our self because we may not have enough for the winter. These are some of the stories we tell ourselves over and over. A scholar by the name of James K. A. Smith who studies and develops the way human beings worship says, “we are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is shaped by stories.” Therefore, when we look at these stories, I wonder where is our orientation? How do you see the world? Do these stories support the narrative of Jesus which calls us to live a life without fear.

I believe this is the hard-work God is asking of us. As human beings we are hearing the wake-up calls of mass murders and see the fearful reactions calling for guns in churches. As Christians, we must ask if this reaction is what Jesus tells us to do in the Gospel, what God shows us to do in the world, what the Holy Spirit tells us to do in our hearts. If not, we are called to be brave, to challenge the traditions of fear and find an alternative way to the light.

Be assured, I am outside my comfort zone, here. I believe in freedom and would not normally question the validity of our Constitutional rights nor do I believe guns are the only cause of these mass murders. However, I am choosing to question our gun culture because our children, our sisters, our brothers are being executed with weapons which are primarily owned because people are afraid of the Government, of their Neighbors, of not having enough. This fear is the antithesis of God’s divine call: to live a brave life.

To explain, the parable from Matthew this week is about being prepared for the Parousia, or the second coming of Jesus where this life without fear is revealed in the Kingdom of God. The number five in Biblical numerology represents God’s grace towards human beings. But even this grace cannot happen if we are not wise, if we are not prepared and bring with us all the tools we need to bring light into the world. Although the commentator Reginald H. Fuller believes the oil probably represents humanities adherence to the law of the Torah, I would position another idea. Since the difference between these two groups is foolish or wise would it not be reasonable that the oil represents the one tool required for wisdom the one tool which is lacking when a person is foolish. Perhaps the oil represents our inquisitiveness, our ability to question and grow, our ability to continually be the students of Jesus’ lessons. Perhaps this is how we stay awake, bravely prepared for the coming bridegroom, and continually seeing the light of God

Still, fear is a powerful adversary, especially the fear of change. This fear tells us the “devil you know is better than the one you don’t.” This fear keeps us from challenging and questioning the world. This fear of change stops us from growing in Wisdom. But we must also be aware that the world is shifting and moving under our feet and this adds to our fear of change because we do not believe we have anything solid or ordered left in our life. Phyllis Tickle who believes we are entering another Reformation points out that the technical knowledge alone was “doubling at a rate of once every ten months,” five years ago. So, of course we as human beings are desperately grasping onto the stories we believe are solid things, the “truths” which we hope will give us a sense of security, of safety, things like the need to have a gun for protection or things like a closed revelation understanding of the Bible. We believe these traditional constructs will bring order but in truth that death grip on fear driven modes can only stagnate the water, a water which has no life.

So, I ask you, each of you is this what God is asking of us or is God asking us to be brave, question and find our Wisdom so we may stay in the light?

The good news is that God is all around us, every day. We are not alone but we do have to listen to God who is still speaking sometimes through the cries of our world, through the cries of our children, and through the cries of our hearts. These cries come out in different ways, like little wake-up calls all around us. The problem is when we do not listen to God, the wake-up calls keep happening. The wounds become worse until we are facing the deadliest shootings in recent history claiming 49, 58, and 26 human souls. We can also hear God when we re-interpret scripture and create a new idea about an old tradition. God is still speaking through human-beings, our globalizing society, and nature. This is how we find Wisdom, we bravely listen to God.

However, this concept is not a new idea, the reading this weak shows us a still speaking God through the personification of Wisdom. She is a woman who shares the throne with God who “will be found sitting at the gate” and “graciously appears … in (your) paths.” Wisdom is “easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her;” this passage tells us God is all around us as the embodiment of Wisdom. To the point, God is not just found in scripture but also in life. This idea becomes clear when we learn “the beginning of wisdom (the concept not the personification) is the most sincere desire for instruction.” It is though this student-like inquisitiveness and brave questioning we find and love the personified Wisdom of God which leads us to the laws, or Torah, and eventually to an immortal life with the divine.

Thus, we are called to bravely listen to God however that voice presents itself, to bravely challenge traditional thoughts and through this challenge we find life-giving waters to swim in. 

This said, I do not wish to devalue tradition; tradition is important and can still be a life-giving pool of water. Remember almost two thousand years ago, the Wisdom of Solomon gave “us the first and only instance in the Old Testament where future life with God is categorically and clearly affirmed as man’s real destiny” according to Addison G. Wright. Before this text, the traditional Jewish view believed everyone who died entered a “weak and pale existence in (a place called) Sheol (where we were) separated from God.” This was a wake-up call a brave new idea that we as a people did not have to live without God but we could live with God in the afterlife. Those of us here listened and found a new salvation through Jesus, not superseding the Jewish way, just finding a different way to come to God, with different laws governing our life.

As you can see, not all traditions are wrong or associated with fear like our gun culture and not all wake up calls harm people like the mass shootings. Sometimes there is not an either – or argument but the brave questioning of traditions develops a both – and result, like the beauty which came about through the brave wake- up call from the Wisdom of Solomon where we found Christianity and maintained the Jewish faith. I believe God gave us this both- and result not just because we listened to God speaking but also because we were not making decisions based on fear. We made brave decisions based on the belief in God’s divine glory, we just found a different way to see the same glory.


May God, the Word which still speaks, and these Meditations guide and Bless the path of your life. Amen.