worship notes for Sunday, June 25, 2017

Spiritual Practices 1
For the next two months I am going to share with you some thoughts concerning discipleship: contemporary, Christian discipleship. This is not a popular word with fashionable people. We prefer to err on the side of spontaneity and maximum free choice – what some have called salad bar religion or smörgåsbord spirituality – where we pick this up here and that up there, mixing and matching practices and notions as suits our fancy, but mostly grazing superficially rather than hunkering down and growing deeper in the ways of the Lord.

As Dr. Joseph Driscoll of the Pacific School of Religion has observed in his book, Protestant Spiritual Exercises, other Christian traditions have reclaimed the importance and value of discipleship. But in the mainline Protestant churches: Believers can affirm the existence of God, the importance of the Scriptures, and the need to hear the Word of God in sermons, but discourse that claims a personal relationship with God at an experiential rather than an intellectual level is largely discouraged.  For a variety of reasons good and bad, we in the American Protestant Church have largely abandoned the teaching of spiritual practices since the late 1950s. Consequently, we now we have generations who only consider the way of the Lord when it comes to social ethics or personal tragedy. In the lived experience of faith, Professor Driscoll writes, most in our tradition restrict God’s leading to two areas: the ethical conscience and the response to profound grief.

During times of crisis, when our radical dependence on God becomes a daily act of faith, mainline Protestants often speak of God’s presence with them. The affective depths at which daily life has been impacted legitimizes this often-passing sense of personal relationship with God. Mainline Protestants live their faith in the paradoxical space between being too modest to speak for the Lord except on social issues, and too reasonable to be truly dependent on God except in times of tragedy.

My experience over the past 35 years of ordained ministry and 40 years of service in the institutional church confirms Driscoll’s sobering conclusion: some of us have a deeply personal relationship with God but we are inhibited or embarrassed to talk about it out loud, others have a mostly abstract intellectual connection to a transcendent loving force but not an abiding intimacy with God’s grace, while still others are uncomfortable and even disturbed by any and all talk of personal familiarity with the Divine.

Once, during an Outreach ministry meeting in Tucson, I asked a small group of seven adults if they had ever spoken to another at church about sensing the presence of God in their lives. There was a moment of awkward silence before Jack G, who had served the Bank of America internationally in Egypt and South Africa, told us that he once felt what he believed to be the presence of God while jumping out of a plane during WWII. For some reason his parachute didn’t open while in the Pacific Theatre; for a moment there was only complete terror before he found himself dangling safely in some trees in the jungle. “All I could do,” he quietly confessed, “was give thanks to the Lord in a way that was spontaneous.”

Now, we could have said to Brother Jack – whom I grew quite close to over 10 years in AZ– look, we are children of the Enlightenment – women and men who have lovingly added science and reason to the realm of faith – and none of us desire to go backwards into superstition so knock it off. We could have questioned him too about how did he really know this was the hand of God? Wasn’t he just lucky? We are often rightly skeptical in insisting that human wisdom and vigorous analysis have a place in the Lord’s house alongside both Scripture and Tradition. To interpret “God’s sovereignty to mean God causes all circumstances is a dangerous theological game.”

This week the publisher of the Christian Century magazine wrote about a helicopter air-lifting a 19 year old member of the congregation to a regional hospital “after a hit-and-run driver skipped a stop sign and plowed into his motorcycle.” Peter Marty writes: “When a family friend learned that Pete’s right leg had to be amputated, she phone Pete’s mother to reassure her that this hardship was part of God’s plan for Pete. Rightfully, this mother was aghast… God does not yank our strings whenever God pleases… and while God may work in inscrutable ways, a combination of faith and reasons reminds us that there is no evidence that God works in nonsensical ways.”

And yet, many are ill at ease in accepting my friend Jack’s experience as truly holy. St. Paul suggested that we might to do well by accepting that “now we see as through a glass darkly and only later shall we see face to face.” Bonhoeffer asked us to remain silent in trust with those encounters we cannot explain or comprehend. And by the Spirit of the Living God and God’s grace among us that night in Tucson, that is exactly what we did: we remained silent and in awe. Which prompted Jack to conclude: I have served on Church Council, Finance, Stewardship and Outreach at this church – I have been a member of the Congregational church since my confirmation in the 1930s – and this is the first time I have been asked to speak about my experience with God –ever!

Think about that: sixty plus years in the church and never once a conversation about intimacy with the Lord. May I be so bold as to suggest that something is terribly out of balance with this reality? Not that we must return to the uncritical superstitions of an old time religion, but that we might discover anew the devotional practices that open us to complimentary truths beyond the obvious and analytical? What other traditions call the practice of piety – or ascetical or spiritual theology – acquiring a language that reconciles the affective dimension of faith with our critical sensibilities? Professor Driscoll puts it like this and it has captured my imagination:

The cutting edge for many mainline churches (like our own) is the recognition that it is possible to maintain one’s suspicion of authority and one’s fears about speaking for God and still sustain an experiential relationship with God that offers nurture, correction, transformation and redemption… we can affirm our historic Protestant suspicions while affirming the meaning that comes from an experiential relationship with the divine.

Over the course of this summer I want to share with you words and practices that can help you ripen in this realm: an integration of heart and mind, if you will. I will be using three guidebooks as my primary resource:

· Reformed Spirituality by Howard Rice of San Francisco Theological Seminary

· Protestant Spiritual Exercises by Joe Driscoll of Pacific School of Religion

· Practicing Our Faith edited by Dorothy Bass of Valparaiso University

But before I go deeper I have a simple question: what practices do you use to bring yourself into communion with God? How do you nourish your personal experience with the Lord? And let me say right at the start, I am not about to judge or critique your answer, ok? I simply want to get a sense of what you are already doing so that as I construct the rest of the summer’s study, I can be helpful. So, what do you do to draw closer to God?

There are two ideas from today’s Scriptures that I find useful for next steps: Paul’s reminder that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death; and, the gospel of Matthew’s insight that a disciple is not above his or her teacher. Paul is using metaphor to help us grasp two things:

Being a Christian – following Jesus in our lives – gives us a different set of values from popular culture. That was true in the first century of the Common Era and it is true in the 21st century. The way of Jesus is NOT simply being nice or a good public citizen. The way of a disciple is to make flesh God’s compassion in our small lives. It involves training our eyes to see and our bodies to act upon the way of the Lord beyond the big, transcendent picture into the facts of our ordinary reality. Paul says in Romans 6: those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have died with him – our old ways are over – so that we can now live new resurrection lives. In Romans 12 he is less poetic and more direct: 

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

+ To nourish Christian values – to strengthen our consistency as disciples who make visible signs of God’s kingdom in our everyday lives – requires practice. Specifically spiritual exercises that train us in the resurrection values, habits, worldview and ethics of Jesus. Baptism for St. Paul is a journey or a process by which we learn to die to our old habits that are saturated in selfishness so that we can live in new and more tender ways. In contrast to fundamentalism, we are regularly being born again – or more correctly, sired from above by God’s spirit every day – so that we can make Christ’s love real within and among us. And this is as true for our commitment to social justice as it is for ordinary acts of compassion and piety.

That’s why Jesus trains his followers: they must practice being like him – doing what he does rather than thinking they can eliminate the essentials or skip a step. They are not above him but more like servants or apprentices under the guidance of a master. And here’s the take away for today: by practicing his way, Jesus promises his beloved that they will acquire an intimacy with God that is stronger than fear. That’s what most of the text is about – do not fear your opponents, do not fear trials, do not fear those who kill the body – practice growing closer to God and God’s love will become greater than all your fears. “It is those who lose their lives for my sake that will find them.”

This is a call to discipleship – to experiential intimacy with God – that can withstand resistance to evil. And in Christ’s day as in our own, there is tremendous evil to be resisted. And none of us have the strength to do what Christ asks all by ourselves – only tyrants and crazy people think they are all sufficient. Servants of the Lord, disciples, accept human weakness in humility and trust that God can take even the Cross and make it into a blessing.

Over the summer I am going to share with you a variety of time-tested practices that have proven essential for discipleship. I will provide you weekly handouts and readings to help you on this journey – and I’ll want to hear back from you how each week unfolded: what did you practice? How did it go? What did you learn and feel because the way of Jesus requires accountability as much as grace, right?

Today I have a simple first step: interrupting ordinary time to remember God’s love not just when it is convenient but throughout the day. As contemporary disciples we can use our technology and wisdom to help us become more consistently awakened to God’s presence rather than burdened. So I am going to ask you to set your phone alarm clocks for three or four daily interruptions: set the chimes to 8 am, 12 noon, 4 pm and 8 pm just like you were living in a monastery. Or for 6 am – 12 noon – and 6 pm like you were living in the time of Jesus – or whatever other rhythm works best for you.

I did this two years ago for Advent – and it blew my mind. I was part of an extended on-line Advent retreat where we checked in with one another two or three times a week. The Celtic poet John O’Donohue set the stage: The ancient rhythms of earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of our hearts. The earth is not outside us, it is within: the clay from which the tree of the body grows. We are children of the earth and in contrast to our busy, frenetic lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. When we reconnect, we remember just who we are and why we are here. For the full season of Advent each day I was awakened anew to God’s love when I was least prepared. It was wonderful. I stopped, breathed deeply, made the sign of the Cross and sometimes offered up a simple prayer. But like so many others, once Advent was over and I was no longer accountable, I started to forget and soon quit doing it altogether. I still have the settings on my phone, mind you, I just became too busy to bother. But I need to be reminded. I need to be awakened. I need to be reassured and renewed – and I suspect you do, too.

I have copied for you resources you can use to start this 9 week series with me. So do you understand what I am asking you for this week’s practice?

+  Pause three or four times each day to rejoice in being loved by God – especially when you are least prepared. 

+ Use your smart phone chimes on the alarm clock to act like prayer bells at 8 am - noon - 4 pm and 8 pm.

+ Use this (or any other) simple prayer: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who by the grace of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, welcomes me as your Beloved forever. Amen."

From this experience we will craft other practices to take us deeper into greater intimacy – but it all starts with trusting that we are God's beloved from the inside out. Thanks be to God who in Christ Jesus calls us to live as disciples of the Kingdom by the inspiration of the Spirit.


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