NOTE: Here's what came out when I sat down to put together this week's worshipnotes... hmmmm.
All of the lessons offered to us today for prayerful consideration are monsters! They are tender and subtle monsters, to be sure – wise and wonderful in an under-stated way – but monsters none the less. But we have to be listening – really listening – as the Master says to the people:
The Father has given me all these things to do and say I ask you: are you listening, really listening? This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does, but I’m not keeping it to myself: I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. So come to me… and I’ll show you how to take a real rest.
+ It is the type of rest we sang about in Psalm 131: I still my soul, O Lord and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother's breast; my soul is quieted within me.
+ It is the type of rest we are encouraged to practice in Romans 14: Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do; don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with… that’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.
It is the type of rest I experienced in a unique and healing way during our four months of sabbatical – a blessing I am NOT going to give up or forsake even though we have now returned to the working realm. You see, while in Montreal I discovered something – something that has been in the grain of my soul and core of my heart all my life – a calling into tenderness.Today’s gospel startled me when I read that even Jesus was interrupted from his rant over the people’s cruelty and selfishness by the Holy Spirit so that when his prayer was over, “he resumed speaking to the people but now… tenderly.”
Tenderness, I believe, is how we make God’s grace flesh in our time and place. It is how we practice being a living blessing to another rather than just another curse. And it is an antidote to the snark and cynicism that is so rampant in our culture. So today I want to speak with you conversationally about tenderness. I think I’ll keep at it for the next few months, too – going over it line by line with anyone willing to listen – because tenderness is so counter-cultural and healing.
And because today is the Feast of St. Francis I thought it would be a great time to start this conversation. You see, when I look back over the contours of my experience, I see that it has been driven by a quest, hunger and thirst for tenderness. It is what inspires the music I make, the art I cherish, the politics I support and the way I encounter God’s grace
One of my favorite writers, Barbara Brown Taylor, puts it like this:
In the Bible, human beings experience God’s salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human being in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they even know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. It is a way into life and God alone knows how it works.
It is why Christ lived and died and lived again – it is the way into the unforced rhythms of grace when we are tired and worn and burned out – it is how we are set free from the petty tyrannies of each other, ourselves and our culture. But we have to cultivate it – practice it – discover how much we need it and then nurture it.
In the old translations of this passage of Matthew 11 Jesus speaks of wearing a yoke: at midday Eucharist this week we talked about a variety of yokes and how they help our work. And as I was doing some Bible study in preparation I came across a Jewish commentary that was stunning. It said that for faithful Jews the yoke of faith was keeping the commandments – AND – if you honored and kept the Sabbath – if you rested deeply and trusted God fully – the Sabbath fulfilled all the requirements of keeping the commandments. Are you listening carefully: rest and trust, beloved, are the key to salvation!
So to keep it all real – with no BS or vague generalities – just earthy, gritty, incarnated truths, like the Word become Flesh within and among us let me ask you a question I stumbled upon that cuts to the chase: What is saving your life right now? Not what do you think about God? Not how is your prayer life? Not are you a member or a Christian or anything abstract? But rather “what is saving your life – making it whole and free and satisfying – right now?
So how ‘bout it – can you say out loud some of what is saving your life right now – without deceptive spiritual language or vague generalities? Can you talk about the holy in intimate, earthy human terms? Let me give you two examples – and then I want to hear from you about what is saving your life right now – ok?
· Playing music with Carlton again is saving my life…
· Having dinner each night in candle light with Dianne…
So how about for you: What is saving your life right now?
Today’s Psalm gives shape and form to what salvation means to me these days when shesings about three blessings: trust and tenderness in real time. You might also speak about these blessings as the practice of compassion and contemplation in community.
+ I do not occupy myself with great matters or things that are too hard for me: what does that say to you? It is the recognition that God is God and we are not, right? Trust might also be called hope embracing humility – part of the unforced rhythms of grace – letting go of burn out.
+ For I still my soul and make it quiet like a child on its mother’s breast: what strikes you with these words?
+ Wait upon the Lord, O Israel, from this time forth and for evermore: any thoughts or reactions here?
One of the truths I experienced in Montreal is that I needed to trust God’s presence in my life in real time. Not as an abstract promise – not as something that might take place in thy kingdom come – but right now. In real time – and in order for that to happen I had to rest. And let me be explicit with you about what this rest meant for me because it probably won’t mean the same thing for you.
· I had to let go of any notion of being the pastor. Being a pastor is a role – a public identity – and wearing masks or taking on another's expectations burns me out. In fact, I have mostly come to hate being defined by that role.
· And here’s why: it is so limiting and incomplete! I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a writer, a musician as well as a pastor. But as one wise soul put it: when you are defined by the role of pastor it means that everybody treats you like you’re the holiest person in the room.
· That is agony not freedom – constriction - not the spaciousness of God’s salvation and liberation – a role shaped and defined by other people’s expectations rather than the grain of my own soul. So before I could rest I had to let it go.
The Quaker writer, Parker Palmer, writes that the way we experience God’s salvation is to live as the person God created us to be – not someone else’s expectation, not a role, not a mask – but as the one imprinted by the holy to the fullest of our humanity as God intended for us to be.
So for four months I learned to live NOT as a pastor – yours or anyone else’s – but just as James. I wandered jazz clubs late a night, I slept until 11 am most mornings. I wrote when I felt inspired. I practiced my new bass a lot. And I laughed and wept with Dianne everyday about the joy and freedom we both experienced living outside of our roles. That’s where I got that question: what is saving your life right now because it was God touching me in my flesh in real time.
On sabbatical I learned in my flesh that “self-care is NEVER a selfish act” – it is as Parker Palmer writes: “simply good stewardship of the only gift I have to share upon this earth.”
· Letting go my role as pastor didn’t mean I didn’t pray – it doesn’t mean I’ve quit the church – and it has nothing to do with the love I have for you in my heart. I simply had to find a new way to trust God and be tender with myself in real time so that I could be saved.
· And it begins… with rest. Deep rest. Rest beyond expectations and roles. Rest that is soul healing and heart cleansing. Rest that sets us free from burn out and fear and snarky, selfish speech and all the rest.
Jean Vanier, one of Canada’s humble and simple spiritual giants, puts it like this: All prayer begins in a place of rest and quiet (contemplation.) When we love someone, don’t we love just to be with each other, to be present in real time with and to one another? (trust) We may say a word of affection, but mostly we become attentive to each other and listen to one another (community.) Love is essentially a place of silence.
Let me ask you to join with me now for a bit of loving silence so that our trust and compassion might mature in real time… as we practice being God’s humble people in community.