Sunday, November 5, 2017

sacramental spirituality: moving towards the darkness...

NOTE:  Today in worship we mark All Saints and All Souls Sunday. My worship notes for today follow. We will open the liturgy with a time of remembering those from our community who have gone home to the Lord since last year's All Saints Day. We also are starting a four week "spirituality of the seasons" series to better ground us in the approaching darkness and cold of winter. I am utilizing the insights of the Quaker writer and teacher, Parker Palmer, in his book: Let Your Life Speak. My hope is that by reclaiming the ancient wisdom of this month in the Northern Hemisphere, we might renew our ability to see our lives and surroundings sacramentally.


I LOVE this time of year. I love everything ABOUT this time of year: the rain, the shift towards the morning frost, the colors in the fields and the trees, the weird early darkness that arrives in the middle of the afternoon with Daylight Savings Time. I love it ALL! Autumn is, for me, my favorite season – and the spirituality of autumn has always resonated within my soul. I know this is not true for everyone. Christine Valters Paintner of the Abbey of the Arts has written:

This is the time when the warmth and bloom of summer fades. The days are growing shorter and colder . . . and winter is still yet to come. Not only have things taken on a gloomier hue, if you suffer from any kind of seasonal affective disorder, the worst is yet to come.

It is not a coincidence that pre-Christian religions in Northern Europe and the Americas as well as the institutional Body of Christ treat this season with peculiar reverence: “We see birds migrating, the earth turning brown, our trees becoming barren… If we lived closer to nature in a predominantly agricultural society, we would know that the seasons are a metaphor and a fact that continually frames our lives.” (Parker Palmer) The poet, Marianne Worcester, put it like this:

Fin and feather, flesh, blood and bone: the earth calls its creatures to leave the familiar, turn again into the unknown; to move steadily and continuously and at great risk toward an invisible goal, expending great energy (always) with the possibility of failure…

That is why Christianity asks us to start this season with All Hallow’s Eve – Halloween – and then embrace both All Saints and All Souls Day. Our tradition has largely forsaken these “lesser feast days” of mystery and darkness. The Reformed Protestant world has never been good at sacramental living – letting the substance of creation speak to us about God’s grace-filled presence – so many of our ancestors threw away the rituals of the inner life that generations had cultivated and perfected when they left the Catholic Church. The result is that we’re not adept at reading the signs of the times and what they can teach us about honoring God’s holy pattern of faithful and balanced living.


Small wonder that more and more people of the industrialized West have

abandoned the Church: today they self identify as spiritual but not religious. According to the most recent 2017 Pew Research Center’s polling, more than 27% of all Americans – and 30% of our neighbors under the age of 30 – consider themselves to be NONES – no religious or spiritual affiliation. They believe the church to be too addicted to conservative politics and narrow moral values that demonize their friends. And they have not experienced worship as a place that helps them live a life intimately embraced by the holy.

· The Quaker educator, Parker Palmer, is illustrative: “The master metaphor of our era,” he writes in Let Your Life Speak, “comes from manufacturing not agriculture and the seasons. As a result, we believe that we make our lives rather than grow them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living and even make love.”

· I’ve said it before and will go to my grave repeating this: we have become addicted to and obsessed with the bottom line brutality of the market place. It has infected our imagination, inhibited our hearts, polar-ized our politics and wounded our souls. We act like we can control creation and are bewildered and bereft when we discover – usually through illness or death – that this is a lie. That means we have no inner, spiritual resources to draw upon when the dark mysteries of real life wash over us.

Wonder why there is an opioid epidemic in the USA? Sure, we have tossed out prescriptions and pills like candy in the past. We are, after all, a consumer nation built upon the progress and prowess of science and industry. And there is no doubt that fighting pain born of industrial and sports accidents are a fact in our addiction. But I submit to you that the ethical and spiritual vacuity of modern life is the leading cause of our psychic despair and physical enslavement. Back in the early 80’s when Mother Teresa first visited the USA she wept saying: HIV/AIDS is not the disease that is killing most Americans – it is loneliness. And what was true at the start of my ministry has exploded exponentially over the past 40 years in ways that are ever more dangerous and degrading.

Small wonder that fewer and fewer of us attend worship: this is the Holy Spirit humbling us so that we quit playing games and return to equipping one another with meaning, love, a sense of belonging and the tools of hope. Did you hear what the Spirit was saying to the church in the lesson from Revelation?

I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches… and they cried out: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? I said to him, “Sir, only Thou knowest!” And he replied: “These have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Now they are before the throne of God and worship him day and night. In God’s love, they will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Apocalypse of John, better known as the book of Revelations that is totally ignored by most of our churches, arose during another time of persecution and despair. These writings were never prophecy nor are they literal. They are symbolic prose poems teaching God’s people that even in the darkness there is a source of love and power and hope greater than all the evidence combined. If we learn to watch and wait and trust, we can learn to see signs of God’s love even in the darkest night. But it takes practice – and inspiration – and a vocabulary and imagination greater than bottom line market place images and habits. Jesus taught his first disciples that to grow in faith they needed both a loving community AND a sacramental spirituality.

Jesus gathered those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, and led them to a quiet place, sat down and taught his climbing companions the following: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One who is greater than yourself. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

It is for this very reason that our worship ministry team sensed it might be wise to spend the month of November exploring the spirituality of our seasons. It is one way to reclaim the ancient sacramental vocabulary and imagination of our origins. It is also a way to nourish a new/old way of thinking. The Episcopal priest turned Zen Buddhist meditation master, Alan Watts, observed “that a Chinese child will ask, ‘How does a baby grow?’ while most American children ask, ‘How do you make a baby?’

From an early age we absorb our culture’s arrogant conviction that we can manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere ‘raw material’ that lacks all value until we impose our designs upon it. What would it be like, however, to accept the notion that our lives are dependent upon an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never fully control? That would be a truly counter-cultural challenge… that takes on our egos and institutions that desperately want to believe that we are always in charge.

Parker Palmer, my guide for this four week series, invites to consider adapting seasons rather than the market place or games as a deeper metaphor for our lives. He says that “seasons point to the movement of life… the notion that we are in an eternal cycle that does not deny struggle or joy, loss or gain, darkness or light, but rather encourages us to embrace it all – the facts as well as the mystery – and find in it all opportunities to go deeper.”

· Certainly that is what is at the heart of All Saints and All Souls Day: they commence as our part of the world grows darker. It is now that we experience the final harvest of the earth for a season, too. And most of us, myself included, are afraid of the dark. Maybe not literally, but as Barbara Brown Taylor has noted, we fear the darkness even when it is half of our lives. We haven’t learned to see in the dark, so we stumble and miss so much of the Lord’s meaning and blessing for our lives.

· So let me ask you: have there been people in your life whose death has changed you in some way? This is one of the dark gifts that we don’t often discuss; but have you actually learned something of this season’s mysterious wisdom that altered the way you were once living because of another’s death? I know I have…

Invite congregational stories…

In this spirituality series, I am going to work backwards starting with the wisdom of spring, so that by the end of this month, right before Advent begins, we will be ready for winter. Winter is so long in our neck of the woods that we often don’t honor it. I know that for decades I mostly just endured the winter, but at such a cost to my soul. So, let me give you two clues about a spirituality of spring so that we move towards winter and journey into Advent/Christmas we’ll be prepared. There are two essentials here:

+ Spring in our region is filled with… mud. Let’s not romanticize it, ok? Yes, it becomes glorious, but at first It is all about the muck – the humus – the decayed vegetable matter that feeds our plants and nourishes creation. We may want to rush to all the flowers, but the physical truth and blessing begins with the mud. That’s why there is so often a connection between that which is humiliating and true humility. Knowing who we are and how we might live together in love often requires being knocked down a peg or two – it is mud time – not yet flowering and bounty. “When there is less of you… there is more room for God” Jesus said because nourishing humility takes a life time. If you think you are humble, you probably aren’t.

· I got a rude awakening earlier this week when I posted a meme by Barbara Brown Taylor on Facebook. Her words cautioned against mixing religion with the violence. She wrote: Jesus was not killed by atheism or anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out. 

+ I like Taylor and this resonated with my own social concerns. What I didn’t see, however, and what I got called out on was the line, “Temple police are always a bad sign.” One of my Jewish colleagues chided and corrected me in public saying, “Friends, haven’t we had enough of these comments that reinforce the “bad Jews” narrative?” As soon as this was articulated, I got it; but because I am so used to 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism I didn’t even catch this barb that hurt the colleague. Remember: I had spent the better part of the day before preaching against the anti-Semitism of St. John’s words. But I didn’t see this part of the shadow – and my best intentions hurt one I care about. It was a bit of mud time for me – the co-mingling of humiliation on the road towards humility – and I gave thanks to God.

Maybe you, too have experienced how humiliation helped you become more humble? More human? More open to God’s grace and the mystery of new life? You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One who is greater than yourself. That is one truth of spring spirituality.

+ The other comes from the word beeline: So often we use it to suggest efficiency and determination saying, “Make a BEE line” for the action. but have you ever watched a bee at work in the spring? “They flit all over the place, flirting with both the flowers and the fates… and while they are productive” as Parker Palmer puts it, “no science or bottom line can ever persuade me that they are not also pleasuring themselves in the process as well.” Mud and bees are part of a sacramental spirituality that points us to the way muck and insects – hard times and crazy journeys toward joy – are built into the order of God’s grace. Halloween – All Saints and All Souls Day – the Day of the Dead also invite us into the wisdom of the darkness.

In their truths, I pray that blessings take root in your heart and lead you deeper into the mysteries of God’s grace. Amen.

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