Sunday, July 2, 2017

worship notes on discipleship - part two

NOTE:  Heading out to worship on my 65th birthday. What a trip! Here
are my reflections for this second in a series of spiritual practices for 21st century people.

In ways that are totally beyond my control, my life has periodically been illuminated by awe. It might be standing in my sun room watching a momma deer sneak a snack at sunset in the wetlands behind our house; it happens over and again when I play with my grandson Louie and we are reduced to a shared, uncontrollable giggle fit. I have been blessed with loved ones in times of trial; stumbled upon ecstasy at a U2 concert as well as a Springsteen and a Grateful Dead concert. I have sensed the sacred breaking through at the bedside of one passing over from this life to life eternal as well as at the birth of my daughters. 

In Rudolph Otto’s 1958 book, The Idea of the Holy, he notes that all people “when we encounter this level of existence experience the mysterious tremendum, a taste of the sacred mystery that sometimes evokes awe and other times terror… wherein we feel both graciously blessed and insignificant both at the same time.” Such numinous occurrences, what Abraham Maslow called peak experiences, “give us a glimpse of the divine and an awareness that we humans are a part of something greater than ourselves.” These “aha” moments can be sublime or mundane. However they arrive, the more we learn to honor and nourish them, the more we are apt to experience the holy within our ordinary humanity.

Once, shortly after my ordination, I was hosting a ministerial meeting for the gathered clergy in Saginaw, MI. We were Roman Catholic and Protestant together, women and men, young and old, even gay and straight although not openly so back in those days. As a rule, it takes me a long time to warm up to such gatherings because too often when clergy get together we put on airs rather than love one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.

That’s what was happening at this affair, too – blah, blah, blah – as everyone around the table told small lies about how successful we were all being in our respective ministries: record numbers in worship, stellar support from our bishops and judicatory leaders, profound encounters with pastoral counseling, overflowing collection plates and ragingly faithful ministries to youth and children. You would have thought it was Pentecost in the early church all over again. My mentor in ministry, Ray Swartzback, used to tell me that a group of clergy was a lot like manure: a lot of BS that is better spread out rather than clumped all together. And that has been my bias most of my career. Suffice it to say that after about 60 minutes, I was ready to bring this gathering to a close.

Fr. Jack Johnson was on call to lead the closing prayer. But instead of going through the usual monotonous motions, Jack asked us to sing. It was the early 80s and the charismatic movement was sweeping through American churches like wildfire. Jack told us that a prayer group that met in the basement of the cathedral had taught him one of their favorite songs and he wanted us to give it a try. “It’s really a prayer song,” he smiled shyly, “simple, easy to learn and concludes with an alleluia we could sing as a round. Will you try it with me?” He proceeded to sing “Father, We Adore You” to us a capella – and we all joined in.

At first it wasn’t anything special – pretty but simple – and I was actually waiting for the song to be over when all of a sudden, we began singing the alleluias in a three and then five part round – and it felt as if the Holy Spirit was sweeping through the room. It was ecstatic. It was beyond beauty. It was holy. Truth be told, I didn’t want it to end – and when it did there was a long, reverent silence in the room – we knew something sacred had taken place. That chance song in a mostly worthless meeting changed my life. I came to consider it my conscious baptism into the grace of God in Jesus Christ breaking into our ordinary experience.

You may recall that when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, when he came up out of the waters he heard a voice within him announcing: You are my Beloved. And that’s precisely what I felt as we sang that simple alleluia over and over back in Saginaw: you – and you and you and you – and me, too – are the Lord’s Beloved. And for 35 years I have trying to find ways to both honor that blessing and share it with each of the four congregations I have been privileged to serve. In fact, it was in that moment that I began to see that part of my ministry had to do with welcoming others into the life of the beloved.

So without any illusion that we can replicate what the Spirit gave me that day, I’d like you to sing this old Spirit song with me as a way of opening our hearts and minds to the lesson I want to share with you this morning, ok? We’ll sing the three verses to the Holy Trinity through once and then try to sing the closing alleluia together in a three part round.

Father, we adore you, lay our lives before you: how we love you.
Jesus, we adore you, lay our lives before you: how we love you.
Spirit, we adore you, lay our lives before you: how we love you.
Allelluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Last week I said that throughout the summer we would be learning and practicing different time-tested ways to draw our hearts closer to God’s grace. Our goal is to rediscover ways that we can nourish an intimacy and trust in the Lord. Traditionally this is known a discipleship. The Reverend Dr. Joseph Driscoll of the Pacific Scholl of Religion puts it like this: Discipleship involves “spiritual practices that train our body and soul in the love of God… Exercises that are used as spiritual disciplines, those that are repeated in a systematic manner, influence and guide not only our spiritual and emotional life, but also the physical. Studies have shown that when the body engages in certain repeated actions, the body itself acquires a memory.” 

What prayer and different spiritual practices offer us is a disciplined way of opening ourselves to the mystery of the sacred. We can rely upon random encounters with the ecstatic that evoke awe – or crisis that shake us to our core – or we can honor the random encounters with the holy while utilizing the slower practices of prayer and inner renewal that Driscoll says, “have the potential to make the structures of our conscious life more flexible. Spiritual practices serve as a container for the hidden, unconscious material of our lives to flow up to us at a manageable pace.”

+  Are you with me on this? We can let ourselves be transformed by spontaneous happenings of beauty, awe and suffering, or, we can use what wise mothers and fathers before us have found to be effective ways of opening our hearts to the extraordinary within the ordinary even as he celebrate spontaneous encounters.

+ That’s what last week’s practice was all about: we chose to interrupt our ordinary lives three or four times a day – using the technological tool called the smart phone that has become ubiquitous – to help us recall that we are God’s beloved. So, how did it go? What did you experience using this tool?

Now let me say out loud that both the phone and the word beloved are related: the juxtaposition of technology with a term of divine adoration points to the marriage of heaven and earth. At the start of the Bible we read: in the beginning we were created by God from dust and the breath of the Holy Spirit. That’s another way of saying we are flesh and soul. What the practice of interrupting time offers us is a way of integrating conscious blessing into the fullness of our busy lives. It is a way to celebrate both body and spirit as beloved. Because here’s what I have discovered: a lot of us don’t really believe in our core that we are cherished by the Lord. We think of our-selves as flawed. Broken. Wounded. Or sinful. Anything BUT beloved no matter what Jesus tells us.

When we grow up in this culture, God’s ways are not honored. And I am NOT talking about the petty morality that so often dominates religious talk in the USA. Mostly, I don’t think the Lord cares who we make love to unless, of course, it is coercive or hurtful. What I mean is that ours is a culture of deservitude: America is all about winners – winning is politics, winning in business, winning in education, winning in sports, winning in love and winning in wealth – NIKE is our beacon and symbol, not the Cross. And this fact is beaten into us from the time we pop out of the womb. So, please don’t berate yourself of you are having a hard time feeling that you are truly God’s beloved, ok? Everything about bourgeois culture mitigates against it – and this has been true through-out history as the reading from Isaiah suggests. The prophet Isaiah, writing in about 500 BCE as ancient Israel endured exile in Babylon, reminds those with ears to hear that God’s ways are not our ways. We demand visible evidence and quick results. If we lose, we don’t trust that God can bring blessings out of our failure if we open our hearts to God in love. To which the prophet replies: 

My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty but shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

What spiritual exercises help us learn is to gently let go of the ways of culture and tenderly learn to trust the ways of God more than the values of the status quo. And the more we practice praying that WE are God’s beloved, the greater our ability to be recognize this in our everyday lives. Henri Nouwen put it like this in a letter to one of his friends: 

You are not what others, or even you, think about yourself. You are not what you do. You are not what you have. You are a full member of the human family, having been known before you were conceived and molded in your mother’s womb... Choose now and continue to choose this incredible truth. As a spiritual practice claim and reclaim your primal identity as beloved daughter or son of a personal Creator.

St. Paul tells us as much in Romans: spiritual intimacy with God does not only arrive as a spontaneous surprise; rather, true intimacy with God is a grace we can nourish if we commit to the counter-cultural practice of the ways of the Lord. Paul called this the way of the Cross, the foolishness of Christ, what theologians describe as the Paschal Mystery. 

To celebrate four times each day – for a week – that God welcomes us into grace because we are God’s beloved is painful for some of us. We know abstractly and theologically this is true, but we don’t believe it or feel it in our soul. And that’s why I gave you this practice as our foundation. And that’s why I am not going to give you another exercise for this week but simply ask you to keep doing this one over and over so that the blessing of being named God’s beloved starts to seep deep into both your body and your soul. 

Paul tells us this will be hard at first – to know we are loved beyond all we can produce and deserve – dredges up a lot of pain and shame and fear. So Paul tells us in advance that such suffering can have meaning, it can actually lead us to endurance. And with more we practice with endurance, the more we strengthen the character of Christ within us. And the stronger the character of Christ within us becomes, the more we are apt to be open to God’s hope. For hope is God’s Holy Spirit pouring love into our hearts, our flesh and our souls.

That is exactly what happened to Christ’s first disciples: Jesus taught them that suffering can lead to endurance – and endurance can build character – and character can lead us to and through the Cross. If you follow the stories of the early disciples through the New Testament, something we don’t often enough, you will discover that what started out rough and unformed became tender and compassionate. Peter is the easiest example: when we first meet him, Peter is a hot head who is searching for a certain type of Messiah. In time, he quits the family fishing business, leaving his wife and children behind to follow Jesus, and he does so with abandon. So much so that Jesus renames him Cephas – the Rock – both because he is strong and hard-headed. It has been noted that when Peter gets going, he is like a bolder rolling down the hill that can’t be stopped. Peter is strong-willed and wildly passionate – and yet no matter how much he swears his allegiance to Jesus, what happens? He betrays and abandons the one he loves. And grief and shame overwhelm and debilitate him.

Now listen carefully to this because this is for you and me: shame and betrayal are NOT the end of the story for Peter. After Christ’s death on the Cross, Jesus visits Peter again – he eats breakfast with him on the shore of the lake – and asks Peter to go deeper: Peter, do you love me? Jesus confronts Peter with his failings – he doesn’t pretend like they don’t exist – but then goes on to forgive him and sends him back into the world to spread love and forgiveness. If you read Peter’s sermons in the book of Acts, forgiveness is at the heart of the disciples message.

So much so that by the end of his life, according to Peter’s own letters in the New Testament, all he emphasizes is God’s loving forgiveness. Love one another, little children, is Peter’s constant message at the end of his journey; trust God in humility and cultivate Christ’s character within is his only song. By practicing living as the beloved and by trusting his personal experiences with Jesus, Peter’s body and soul were transformed.

And what was true then is true now: we can learn to live as God’s beloved from the inside out with trust and practice. My prayer deepest hope is that our spirit and flesh would become saturated with God’s grace. In this we walk in the world as the Lord’s beloved: bread for the world, cup of blessing for those most in need as our lives point to the source of all grace. Let this week be another time of practicing trusting that we are God’s beloved forever: 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.

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