Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
I was out for coffee the other morning. It was my day off. Often on my day off I meet with a friend from seminary at Starbucks and we talk. Sometimes I run into people I know at the coffee shop. On this particular Monday it was Jan Melin. I hadn’t seen her there before; I greeted her and then went to join my buddy. As I was sitting down he asked a question he never asked before, though coming from him I wasn’t surprised by it. He asked: “How goes it with your soul?”
What surprised me was that he asked it on the one Monday that Jan Melin was in the coffee shop. You see, a while back I preached a sermon in which I asked the same question: “How goes it with your soul?” It was the ancient way Christians regularly greeted one another: “How goes it with your soul?” Ever since I preached that sermon it is the question that Jan Melin asks me on a regular basis: “How goes it with your soul?”
Do you ever have strange things like that happen? Ever have coincidences that pop up in your life? I’m not sure I believe in coincidences. Life is too interesting to discard a moment like that to the dustbin of random chance, don’t you think? When I encounter a coincidence, I consider my soul. To consider our soul means, of course, we know what our soul is.
Today we are going to talk about the soul: ”How goes it with your soul?” We’ll begin with a definition of the soul. I’ll start with a negative statement. Our souls and our hearts are not the same thing. Heart and soul are ontologically complimentary, but functionally they are entirely different parts of our being. Now I am not talking biology this morning. I am talking theology. Ontological is a fancy word for the theological way of describing the whole nature of a person. This is a kingdom of God physiology lecture. This is not the stuff talked about in high school science class, and yet we hear about the soul and the heart all of the time in the common parlance of our language. I was at a fifth grade graduation on Friday, and in one of the tributes to a teacher, a young girl said, “You will always be in my heart.” That wasn’t science class talking. This was a theological statement, whether she knew it or not.
So let’s start with some theological definitions for the heart and soul (this is gripping stuff so hang on!) We’ll begin with the heart. The heart is the place where freedom and choice reside. It is the place from which our decisions are made. It is our zone of autonomy, sort of our air traffic control center. And while God solicits our heart, and sees into our heart, and knows the musing and distraction of our heart, God only intervenes when invited. God won’t break in. God won’t kick in the door of our heart. God only woos our heart. “Come, come,” says God, and we do if we are listening or if we care.
The soul is different. God will reach into our soul whether we like it or not.
The soul is that aspect of us that correlates and integrates and enlivens everything else going on in the various dimensions of our being. These dimensions include our heart, mind, body, and community. The soul correlates and integrates these parts of us. The soul is “deep” in the sense that it is basic and foundational. It is deep also in the sense it lies almost, and I say here ALMOST beyond our conscious awareness.
Here is a metaphor: the soul is to our blood, as the heart is to our brain. The only difference is that the circulatory system of our soul is bigger than the perimeters of our physical body. The circulatory system of the soul includes our heart, mind, body, and community which is why when I have a coincidence like I had with Jan Melin the other day, I wonder what my soul is doing, I wonder what space beyond myself my soul is wandering into, and I ask myself, “Why?”
I am inspired by the prophet Isaiah today to consider the soul. Prophets are people who have “open eyes” that can see clearly from both a temporal and divine perspective. Prophets understand both the perspective of the heart and the perspective of the soul. They are people who have a sturdy sense of their own soul, the souls of others, and how souls connect to one another and to God.
Isaiah in chapter 41 is speaking to people in Jerusalem whose souls are cracked and dry. What he is saying is that God will intervene. Souls are big and porous and in their wandering they wander up next to God. God reaches in. God communes with our soul, as water renews the parched land and as springs well up from underground. Whether we want it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, when we are parched, God waters our souls. Which is why the ancient Christian’s asked: “How goes it with your soul?” What they were asking was: “Tell me about a moment when God has watered your soul?”
I remember such a moment. I was the General Manager at the Streetsboro factory for Cleveland Steel Container. It was a startup factory and after a year it was running 24 hours a day, six days a week. I worked all of the time. Then one day I was fired. It was disorienting. Here is a sidebar: knowledge of one’s soul often begins with pain, confusion or disorientation. I got home and Kristin wasn’t there. So instead of going inside I stood outside. It was raining. I stood there like a plant in the ground being watered. I felt something shift in my soul, and then settle, as if I was setting into the arms of an immortal, beloved God. It was a touchstone moment. That is what they are called, touchstone moments. They are moments when we know with certainty the presence of God. We sense God reaching into our soul. These are the ALMOST moments, when we are almost certain of God’s presence; they are rare, real, beautiful, holy, and never forgotten.
Can you recall a moment like that? A really real moment when God touched your soul, when God reached in with a watering can? These are immortal, beloved moments. This is also the name of a movie, a movie that I believe captures one of these touchstone moments in a most vivid way. Immortal Beloved is about Ludwig Beethoven. Maybe some of you saw it. Maybe some of you looked at the clip that Emily sent with this week’s email. (Get ready to do some singing).
In the final scene an orchestra is performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Ode to Joy, for the first time. An old, deaf Beethoven climbs onto the stage. As he stands there the scene goes silent. Then, almost imperceptibly at first, we hear a thump, thump, thump, as if the beating of Beethoven’s heart is sounding in our head. It grows louder and louder, then it begins to fuse with the Ode to Joy, as Beethoven begins to remember. He remembers a scene from his childhood, a touchstone moment.
His cruel father has arrived home. He climbed the stairs to the children’s bedroom. Ludwig, the oldest child, knows a drunken beating, or worse, is coming. So he climbs out the window in his nightshirt, down the gutter and begins to run. He runs and runs, out of the city and into the woods, as the Ode to Joy fuels his dash. He runs on and on through the woods on a clear night. Then he stops as he reaches a pond. The young Beethoven reaches down and touches the water as if to greet a friend. Off comes his nightshirt as he wades into this shallow pool. He lies on his back as the shot transitions to view him from above. Simultaneously the camera captures the boy floating in the pond and the stars reflecting off its surface. The camera pulls back and Beethoven fuses with the universe, as if he is melting into the soul of God, his Immortal Beloved. It was a touchstone moment, marked upon the soul of Beethoven and made known to the world through Ode to Joy. Beethoven had a sense of God reaching in and watering his soul.
There are four things to remember about the soul:
1) Remember to catalogue the touchstone moments. They are moments that remind us that God is always mingling on the edges of our soul, and occasionally God reaches in. I remember that disorienting day in Cleveland when God watered my soul. What do you remember? You have your own touchstone moments.
2) Pay attention to the coincidences. They could be moments when our mind is telling us that our soul is up to something and we should pay attention. For me it was that moment at Starbucks with Jan Melin sitting across the room, and my friend asking: “How goes it with your soul?” What coincidences have you experienced? Remember this when you next encounter a coincidence.
3) Study the soul. Learn about the ways of the soul. The best study guide for the soul is the Psalms. The soul is mentioned 130 times in the Psalms, and it nicely contrasts the soul to the heart in a number of places. It also reveals to us the manner by which both joy and suffering can call our attention to the soul. In fact, the Psalms say that we are often more receptive to the wanderings and engagements of our soul during difficult times in our lives. The Psalms can help us better understand our soul.
4) Put your soul in the pathway of the Immortal Beloved. Get in the way of God. Though we don’t control our soul like we control our heart, there are ways we can put our soul in front of God. Worship is the most refined system by which we do this. The very purpose of the liturgy is to put the soul in the path of God. Liturgy was designed to let our souls wander beyond the perimeters of our body into a space where it can commune with the souls of others in the presence of God. We walk, we stand, we sit, and we kneel. We sing, we pray, we listen, we read, and we talk. We breathe, we touch, and we eat. Liturgy, over thousands of years, has been fine tuned to put our souls in the way of God. It happens more readily and easily when a company of souls gathers for the singular purpose of being watered together, like flowers in a garden, by the Immortal Beloved.
These are the four things we consider when we consider our soul:
1) Touchstone moments
4) And putting ourselves in the path of the Immortal Beloved
Consider these things as I ask you, “How goes it with your soul?”