Thursday, June 14, 2012

My spirituality of ministry...

Ok, so apparently I couldn't resist additional comments on what I should have more properly called my spirituality of ministry after 30 years of wandering in the wilderness. My sense of the word "spirituality" has to do with the spiritual disciplines - or practices and/or commitments of Christian formation - that help shape and deepen a life for discipleship.  I am not talking about my theology, but rather the practices that have helped me go deeper into Christian ministry.  

For when it comes to ministry it still fascinates me that in Genesis 2:7 - the second Biblical story of creation - the text says, "then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground," which is the same verb -"formed"  - as the one used to speak of a potter creatively molding clay.

When I look backwards over 30 years, formation for creativity has certainly been the case with the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.  Consequently, as a part of my reflection on this life, here are seven practices that continue to shape and form me: 

+ First, I have found that music has become both my deepest encounter with prayer as well as my way of hearing the holy in creation.  I hear God's still quiet voice on the radio. I am stunned to discern God's still speaking voice at a concert or gig.  And I find that other people resonate with this way of listening for the sacred, too because it goes deep.  It also cuts across denominational and even theological differences and becomes a sensual way of approaching the holy. 

In Tucson, our band Stranger became the living embodiment of this insight and I remember the precise moment it all came together: we were singing this song by the Judds - and everything was different after we finished - because the sacred and the secular became one.

+ Second, visual art has become for me both a sensual form of ecstatic prayer and an invitation  for others to explore beauty.  The Orthodox know about praying with their eyes open for they fill their space with icons.  Coming for a very plain and quiet New England Congregational tradition - that has its own unique beauty - I was awed by the sensual spirituality of icons.  Henri Nouwen's short book on iconography helped me, too. 

So after returning to Saginaw, MI from the former Soviet Union in 1983, I started to find ways of bringing the experience of praying with my eyes open into my own tradition:  candles, tapestries, the icons of Robert Lentz and the abstract expressionism of Mako Fujimura have been critical.  Spending time meditating on Rothko's quiet paintings at the Tate Modern in London helped me deepened this commitment, too.  On so many levels, visual art helps the Word become flesh. 

+ Third, feasting has become the central metaphor for how I do christian formation. 
I remember walking around Glasgow, Scotland during our month long pilgrimage marking my 20th anniversary of ordination.  Outside a church there was a poster inviting people to "feast with Jesus." 

When we returned to Tucson, I couldn't get this idea out of my mind: feasting and table fellowship and what happens when we break bread with one another is how we learn to trust in the Spirit of joy.  To be sure, the ton of great books on bread and justice I brought back from our time at the Iona Abbey were essential, too.  And having just done a film series on images of the Eucharist in movies certainly primed the pump - think "Chocolat" or "Babette's Feast" - and you're on the right track.  Like the Emmaus Road story says: "And their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread..." Mine, too.

+Fourth, I think that self-deprecating humor is a the best spiritual discipline for nourishing humility in all of creation. Better than Bible study or theological reflection, learning to laugh at myself - and not at others - has healed my wounds.  Or maybe better yet, it has helped me own and embrace my wounds.  Like the Serenity Prayer teaches:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

Realizing I made a complete vocational mistake during the first week of ministry in Saginaw, living through a divorce in Cleveland, confronting my addictions in Tucson and experiencing God's tender grace through it all has helped me try not to take myself too seriously (most of the time.) I look for ways I can laugh at myself so Ithat  don't get too puffed up.  And while I suspect that I mostly fail, I can say that gentle laughter works a whole lot better for me than shame and judgment.

+ Fifth, jazz and poetry are the spiritual disciplines that help me listen carefully and honor the sacred in every player.  Most of my life I have played rock and roll and folk music - jazz is new for me - but it has taught me to listen like nothing else and I am blessed. 

I've quoted Marsalis before but he cuts to the chase:  "Jazz sharpens your hearing because you are following other musicians' ideas and trying to hear the human depth of their soul." In jazz you are telling your story - so listening is critical.

What's more, you are telling your story in community: not only do you want to tell your story to others, you want it to be received with love and respect.  So you can't be a prima donna or a bully in jazz. "If you're impatient, it will show in your playing; you just won't wait. If you're slow, if you don't think quickly, everybody will hear it. If you're shy and it's hard for you to project your personality, you may have great ideas but they won't come out or you might overplay to compensate. And if you're self-centered, you can't play WITH other people... and it is no fun to play with you!" 

Jazz has helped me listen to people with deeper soul, it has helped me share my own story more clearly and it has shown me ways of encouraging others to get their story out. And poetry... OMG.  I never listened to poetry before Dianne, the poet, came into my life. But one cold, rainy day in a Cleveland bookstore, I found Robert Bly's anthology - The Rag and Bone Shop - and the scales dropped from my eyes.  Not only was there Blake and Dickinson but there was Rumi:

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right. It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others and fall in.
I should be suspicious of what I want.

+Sixth, grace is the heart of God's truth - everything else is commentary.

+ And seventh, rest and sabbath living are the antidote to our obsession with results and our addiction to over-stimulation.  I am about "play-full" living not forcing others into a mold - or judging them - or trying to make them do what is right.  Life is too freaking short and God's love is too amazing and great.  So the more I learn and practice being chill, not only am I better to receive others with hospitality, but I don't have to get caught up in the drama.  That means I must really practice sabbath - get away - quick interacting and trying to save the world and just rest.

Tonight at dinner both Di and spoke to one another about how blessed we have been to have shared so much of the ministry together.  And now after 30 years, we have found our true home.  Thanks be to God.

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I guess I also need to say that all of this is grounded every week in the study of both the Old and New Testaments: whether I am preaching from the Common Lectionary or not, each Sunday after worship I sit down and look at the suggested readings for the next week. I write the liturgy and begin to listen for what God may be urging me to explore in my Sunday message.  So, I read through the texts again a few more times and then sit down almost every Tuesday for 4-8 hours of study and writing. 

And then, as Ray Brown used to advise, I walk around with my message and see what pops up.  Sometimes it is a song, sometimes it is a story a person shares, sometimes it is a heart break or a movie or a piece of art.  Who knows... I just trust that after doing my prayer, study and writing something of the Spirit will pop up... and it always does.


Black Pete said...

James, the Hebrew in the earlier part of your message came through as English letters and symbols.

RJ said...

hmmmm... is that still true?

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