We are in the midst of a sermon series called the Leading Causes of Life during Stewardship Season. It is based on a book written by UM pastor Gary Gunderson & UCC pastor Larry Pray. They believe the keys to making a meaningful life include focusing our energy and attention on what affirms life rather than what threatens or destroys it. People tend to look at deficiencies and say this going wrong. The key is to look at what is thriving. Find strengths and available resources and assets that are overlooked. Focus on those things that bubble up from within us and through us that give us a sense of richness, fullness, and satisfaction that make for what we call an abundant life. We have already looked at two LCL: Connection & Generativity. Today we learn about coherence.
In order for us to live full, abundant lives, we have to be able to have the confidence that God is with us in all things, that there is a bigger plan at work, we have to know and trust who we are and whose we are. To know, deep in our faith, that even when surrounded and dominated by evil and violence, love and kindness CAN find a way. The word for this security and confidence is coherence.
Coherence is a sense that life makes sense, that what happens is comprehensible, and not filled with random events. Coherence orders our lives; it gives us a sense of belonging and meaning. Without coherence, we are merely trying to survive the storms of life that come at us. We are tossed about if we don’t have something anchoring our lives, and we end up reacting to everyone/everything. With coherence, a sense of meaning and purpose for our lives, we can do more than survive, we can thrive. But what do we do when life no longer makes sense, when the rug is pulled out from under us, when bad things happen beyond our control.
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived horrific suffering at Auschwitz, observed that some physically vulnerable people sometimes survived better than those of a seemingly stronger nature. Eventually, he determined that meaning was key, and that the meaning of life could be found in EVERY moment of living, regardless of situation and circumstance. He explained the apparent paradox by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche’s words: He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. Those most apt to survive horrific suffering were those oriented toward the future, toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future. In his book “Say Yes to Life” he wrote that we may not be unable to stop atrocities or unpredictability, but we can reframe how we react to them.
Moses is preparing for his own death when he offers wisdom of how to live life to the people of God:
I have set before you life & death, blessings & curses. Now choose life by loving God, by following God’s voice, and clinging to God by all that is holy. We are always making choices between life and death. When there are multiple ways of understanding the world, how do we choose life?
One way is remaining steadfast in faith & community. Our faith helps us make sense of the world, understand that when bad things happen, how God is still part of our lives so we don’t feel as lost or alone or wanting to throw in the towel. Our faith gives us a sense of coherence that connects us together, bringing life to us as we make sense of the world together.
How do we build coherence in our lives? It begins with knowing who we are and why we are here. Jesus had a strong sense of coherence. He knew who he was, what he came to do, what his purpose was in life, and that guided everything that he did. Jesus’ life was in alignment with his mission. In Luke 4, we hear this story of Jesus’ homecoming. While his popularity grows, his hometown crowd isn’t so sure. Jesus goes to the synagogue as an observant Jew. He unrolls the scroll to Isaiah 61 and inhabits the reading: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
This message holds Jesus’ identity. He not only says this is who I am, he lives it out. To know who you are and have your actions be consistent with your identity doesn’t necessarily mean you will be popular. Yet Jesus is not deterred by the criticism of his hometown community or the criticism he will continue to face from religious leaders throughout his ministry. Even in the face of suffering, Jesus does not waver because he has a strong sense of coherence, of mission, of who he is.
It is important for us to know who we are and operate from that identity. Our sense of belonging begins with knowing who we are is rooted in who God is. Practicing this kind of coherence gives us a sense of purpose, belonging, meaning. It helps us to remember that the world is more than a crazy, random set of events that we can never predict and never have any safety. It allows us to be able to go through the day and trust it will be a good day, to have a sense of possibility for a future.
A person with a high sense of coherence lives it. If you have met someone who has a strong sense of identity, who is comfortable in their own skin, who knows who they are in the world, that is what coherence looks like. One of those people that I have become aware of in the past two years is Stacey Abrams. After losing her bid for GA Governor by just shy of 55,000 votes, Abrams threw herself into her twin causes of protecting the right to vote by forming a voter access organization, Fair Fight, and being counted in the census. Most news stories attributed her efforts to her loss for Governor. But Abrams also connects voter protection and other civic activism to her family’s faith and being raised by two UM clergy who taught their children the value of service of giving back.
“My faith is central to the work that I do, in that I not only hold Christian values, but my faith tradition as a Methodist tells me that the most profound demonstration of our faith is service. After the election was over, I sat shiva for 10 days. Then I started plotting. My siblings and I are all doing some sort of work that has an impact on people’s lives because that’s just the way that we were taught. … The first place we learned to do that was in the church. I was raised to not only think about my faith as an activity, but to translate that into how I engage community.”
Her transformative efforts helped register an estimated 800,000 new voters in GA since 2018. Stacey Abrams lives out a sense of coherence – one of the Leading Causes for Life. There are so many others who helped register people to vote, and along those same lines I should mention the Navajo nation as well – because despite having some of the highest COVID-19 death rates, the Navajo Nation increased their voter turnout to 89% – getting people to the polls in the midst of the pandemic, living out their sense of values and identity and spirituality.
In the book LCL, UCC pastor and hospice chaplain Larry Pray recalls another story of someone who is learning their identity and purpose in life, in the midst of hardship. It is a story of a 13-year old boy. Read from the book – chapter on coherence.
One thing to remember is that our sense of coherence is not only grounded in us, but also grounded in God’s work in our lives. Coherence is not just a matter of knowing who we are, but also knowing whose we are, to whom we belong. No matter how strong the winds, we know that God is with us.
When we are living, it is in Christ Jesus, and when we’re dying, it is in the Lord.
Both in our living and in our dying, we belong to God; we belong to God.
‘Mid times of sorrow and in times of pain, when sensing beauty or in love’s embrace,
whether we suffer, or sing rejoicing, we belong to God; we belong to God.
How is God bringing life to your life? Even at those times when there is so much sadness, so much trouble, when it is easier to despair, how are you finding life? I have set life before you, blessings and curses, choose life. May it be so! Amen!
Deuteronomy 30: –11-14 This commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you, it’s not out of your reach. It’s not on a high mountain—you don’t have to be a mountaineer to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it’s not across the ocean—you don’t have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No. The word is right here and now—as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. Just do it!15 Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you – Life and Good; Death and Evil.
16 And I command you today: Love God, your God. Walk in his ways. Keep his commandments, regulations, and rules so that you will live, really live, live exuberantly, blessed by God, your God, in the land you are about to enter and possess.17-18 But I warn you: If you have a change of heart, refuse to listen obediently, and willfully go off to serve and worship other gods, you will most certainly die. You won’t last long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.19-20 I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you today: I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love God, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him. Oh yes, he is life itself, a long life settled on the soil that God, your God, promised to give your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Luke 4: 17-19 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
For the word of God in Scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us, Thanks be to God!