February 5th

Texts: Matthew 6: 5-13; Hebrews 10: 23-25
February 5, 2017

“Sleeping with Bread”

“Give us this day our daily bread,” is what Jesus instructs his disciples to pray.

It’s what we repeat every week at the opening of our services. And so to begin my

meditations this morning, I’d like to share a story I encountered about what it means to

receive one’s daily bread. I found it in a book whose title, Sleeping with Bread, I’ve

borrowed this morning for my own title. It’s a deceptively simple book, written as if for

children. But the wisdom it contains runs deep and true. The story is this: during the

bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were left starving or orphaned.

The fortunate ones found their way into refugee camps, and they were given food,

shelter, and protection, all of which were reassuring. But most of the children had been

so traumatized that they could not sleep at night. They feared they would wake up once

again and find themselves without food, without shelter, without the help of those who

loved them. Nothing, really, could reassure them. Until someone came up with a strange

but marvelous idea: each of the children would be given a loaf of bread to sleep with.

The bread would be a powerful symbol to each of them that “Today I ate, and tomorrow I

will eat as well.” It seemed to work. Though it by no means eliminated their troubles, it

gave these children enough reassurance that they were able to sleep in peace.

The writers of Sleeping with Bread spent years living and working with

indigenous populations here in the United States and throughout South America. And

they spent years thinking about the spiritual journey that every human being has

embarked upon, simply through the course of being alive. For them, the image of

sleeping with bread is a metaphor for the kind of question that everyone needs to be

discerning throughout the course of their lives, the question of what you or I might hold

onto that will give us a sense of reassurance and purpose as we pass through our days.

They use that metaphor as an opening to an ancient spiritual practice called “The

Examen.” Put simply, the Examen is a set of questions that conscientious, thoughtful,

and prayerful people have asked at the close of each day in order to discern the presence

of God in their lives. They are questions like these: “For what moment today am I most

grateful? For what moment am I least grateful?” Or related questions, like, “When did I

give and receive the most love today? When did I give and receive the least love today?”

Or, “When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, to others, to God,

and to the universe? When today did I have the least sense of belonging?” Asking

questions like that day by day is a way of learning about oneself, and discovering what

we can think of as the voice of God prompting us to move in this way or that.

Discovering the sources of life, and holding onto those sources tenaciously, are what it

means to sleep with bread.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to remind us all of the treasures and

gifts bestowed upon us as people of faith, because I have a notion we may need them in

the coming months. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think we’ve now entered a

period of tumult we haven’t seen in this country since the 1960’s, and maybe a whole lot

longer. That presents enormous opportunities and promises, but it also entails real and

dramatic challenges for everyone, and most especially people of faith. Amidst all the

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clamor, I’ve been trying to remind us of the need for disciplines and practices that

transcend the tumult, practices from which our voices can and will emerge. Two weeks

ago I spoke about the need for solitude if we are to achieve maturity, freedom, and peace.

Last week I spoke about the need to preserve our capacity for delight and play even in the

furnace of the world, lest we worship at the altar of injustice. This week, I’d like to direct

us to a correlative practice, which is that of discernment. Discernment has to do with a

capacity for making choices within an array of competing options, listening carefully

amidst a cacophony of voices that might overwhelm us, selecting a particular direction

from a variety of available paths. We need to preserve our solitude and our capacity for

delight. But we also need the power of discernment during these mean times, lest we

forfeit the deepest and truest parts of ourselves, our faith tradition, and indeed, our

democracy. Put simply, we need to learn the capacity for sleeping with bread.

That image has implications for both our individual and our collective lives. I’ll

say a word about both, beginning at the level of individuality. We each of us could do

well to discern what it is that feeds our souls, allowing us to flourish, asking what it is

that renews us, rather than draining us. I suspect that we spend an enormous amount of

time and money on things that wind up making us more lonely and isolated, rather than

more joyful and connected. It can be painful to wean ourselves away from those life

depleting activities. A few years ago, I was talking with an older family member, who

had succeeded far beyond his dreams in business, accruing titles and money and all

manner of other pleasures. It wasn’t a terrible life that he was leading, and he wasn’t

doing anything unethical. But he shared that during board meetings, instead of taking

notes, he would doodle, and then he would begin to write out questions to himself. “Why

do I spend my days talking about these accounts? Would my son or the rest of my family

care that I spent the majority of my adult life doing this? Why am I suffocated by

boredom?” It led him into a long period of discernment, which is to say, of learning to

sleep with bread, holding onto that which offered life, and letting go of what didn’t.

Eventually it led him to quit his job, and to begin working with a community in Rwanda

that was healing from the wounds of genocide. From all I can discern, he’s far more fully

alive now than he was when he was jotting those questions during board meetings. It’s

not always as dramatic as that, but the Examen, learning to sleep with bread, might be a

way of freeing ourselves from that which controls us – our money, our jobs,

dysfunctional relationships – while learning to embrace that which might actually nourish

us.

It’s important to recognize here that appearances can often be deceptive. Not

every pleasure will prove to be life enhancing. Not every instance of pain will prove to

be destructive. I once talked about the Examen to a group of high school kids, who

immediately wondered about how it pertained to something like substance abuse or

studying even. They pointed out that the discipline required for studying didn’t often feel

like it brought life, while pounding shots of vodka did. That objection can be extended to

include things like media saturation, as we lose ourselves in the comfortable pleasure of

our screens. It could be extended to any sort of addictive or impulsive behavior. What

might seem to provide life for a time can wind up sucking us dry if we’re not careful.

Conversely, what seems to drain us at some moments might wind up being the most

beneficial in the end. One has only to watch a child struggling with homework or a

music lesson to understand that short term challenges might actually yield the greatest

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rewards. One has only to witness the cycle of addiction to understand that short term

highs might actually yield the most destruction. That’s why the Examen is a process that

unfolds over time, with careful thought and with searching questions. Pursued for weeks

or months at a time, the Examen has a way of sorting the empty and fraudulent from the

sustaining and nourishing. It is, quite literally, the power of discernment unfolding

within time.

Sleeping with bread is something we need individually, but it also has to do with

our communal lives. And in a time of tumult, we need to hold onto the loaves of bread

that will sustain us as a community of faith. There are many such loaves that we need,

but I’d like to offer two this morning. The first loaf of bread that we need to hold onto

(and sleep with) right now is our capacity for hope. I confess that I sometimes get tired

of that word, if only because it tends to be overused, often becoming an empty signifier.

Even so, it’s a source of nourishment we need right now. Hope is the capacity to see and

envision something that can’t yet fully be envisioned, what the Apostle Paul would have

called “hoping against hope.” Ordinary hope looks forward to that which can be

envisioned, a promotion at work, say, or a coming vacation. But radical hope, the kind of

hope that hopes against hope, is that which can’t even be envisioned just yet, not fully,

that which seems impossible or foolish to contemplate: a world free of dependence upon

fossil fuels, say, like our friends out at Standing Rock hope for; a world free of racial

discrimination and abuse, like our friends at the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama work

for; the dismantlement of the Apartheid Wall throughout the state of Israel, like our

friends in Palestine hope for; a welcoming and compassionate and politically tolerant

country, like we ourselves hope for. The odds seem long, but we must preserve within

ourselves the capacity for such hope. It’s but one loaf of bread, but we’ll need to sleep

with it, and nightly.

The second loaf I would offer has to do with agency – your agency and my

agency, our collective power to move mountains. Last week I shared with you Martin

Niemoller’s quote from World War II: “First they came for the socialists, but I did not

speak up, for I was not a socialist,” and so on. It’s a saying that we’ll soon have

emblazoned out in front of our meetinghouse, because I think it’s that important. But I

loved an update and variant of that sign that I heard about at the JFK protests last

weekend, after the ban on refugees was enacted. The sign said: “First they came for the

Muslims…and we said Not Today, You Bastards!” Some variations had more colorful

language. I’ll leave it to you to imagine. I love the spirit of agency embodied in that

sign. I love the conviction that individuals and small groups have the power to alter the

course of things. I love the thrilling sense of freedom and determination found in that

declaration, even if it names a terrifying new reality that we’re now forced to confront.

We have the power to say, “Not today” when our friends and allies are subjected to abuse

or threats. We must never forget the agency that is ours, whether it takes the form of

letter writing, phone calls, marching, meeting, or just practicing ordinary virtues like

gratitude, kindness, and compassion. No matter our station in life, we have agency, and it

is ours to use.

I’ll say more in coming weeks about how precisely we might do that together – a

few powerful possibilities are taking shape. But for now, I would simply propose the

Examen, sleeping with bread, as an exercise worthy of emulation in these fraught days. I

wonder if it’s something that you might try in the coming months, either alone, or with a

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partner, or maybe even as a family. What would it mean to end each day asking where

you’ve found the most life, and where you’ve sensed life draining away from you? How

do you think that would alter the way you organized your days? I wonder if the groups

that we’re a part of might also try such an exercise, and if that might provide greater

clarity for purposeful activity right about now.

I’ll close with a question: What’s the bread that you most crave right now?

What’s the substance that we all most need to cling to? I leave it to your wisdom to

discern an answer. For now, may you feel reassured, like those children years ago, that

the source of life you need and crave is closer than you imagine, more plentiful than what

you’ve believed. May you learn to hold what gives you life. God help us all to discover

such bread.

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