Archive for February, 2011

I have been quiet for a few weeks. Sometimes when I prepare to preach, God’s Spirit moves in a profound way. So it was after sharing my guiding principles with my faith community. While I have a number of projects to tend to, God drew me to a place of quiet reflection.  These periods of relative silence are fundamental to my discipline of discernment. Out of the silence, I emerge more focused and intentional. My work is more fruitful and my voice a little bolder.  

A friend’s blog directed me to Raven’s Bread Ministries, a ministry for men and women who seek a solitary life. I then read “Consider the Ravens,” a summation of posts by others seeking to live in the simplest way in order to direct the majority of their time and energy to prayer. At first look, it may seem impossible to live a solitary life in the 21st century. The reality is that more and more individuals not only seek a simple, set apart life but are able to find a way to live into a ‘hermit’s way.’

This may strike you as personally irrelevant, living as you do in a Post-Christian world, but even a cursory survey of Scripture reveals our need to have time apart for prayer and reflection; time to hear God’s voice; time to choose a life in concert with our brothers, our sisters, and creation.

In Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 49:8-16a, God meets the needs of God’s servant: “I have answered you. I have helped you.  I have kept you.” Sheldon Sorge writes in his essay in Feasting on the Word, “Flush with a personal encounter with God’s redemptive work, the minister is equipped to go public with God’s good news.” He continues, “Those who would minister in Christ’s name must first tend to their own souls, availing themselves of God’s help before offering it to others.”

Very soon, we will enter the season of Lent. There is no better time to consider our life choices, our life styles, our personal consumer practices in light of a world where economic injustice prevails, our earth suffers, and our children trust us with their futures.

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I have often thought if the Church was on the right path and working according to God’s plans; if the Church was righteous, in harmony with God and God’s creation, then the dis-eases and strife of this world could be resolved and God’s peaceable Kingdom would emerge.  Naïve you say? Impossible?  My understanding, through Scripture and the experiences of my lifetime of walking with God, tell me God’s peaceable Kingdom is not only possible but it is expected! It is longed for and hoped for by many. The Church’s charge is to make disciples. Our charge as United Methodists is to make disciples for the transformation of the world; that is, bringing about the Kingdom of God in this world as we anticipate the next.

What are we missing? We are church going folk. We, you and I, seem to be doing okay!  I count myself among the privileged of today’s world. I have much more than the basic necessities of life. I worship in a beautiful building with a community of believers. Together we have the resources to support wonderful pastoral leadership, inspiring staff and community building programs. I have an education, a home and the freedom to travel and enjoy times of recreation. On the whole, I have a Very Good Life.

It grieves me that not everyone can say this. Increasingly, those who were living a “good life” have lost it. Homes, jobs, security, resources have all been stripped away. Increasingly, those who sought the “good life” (the immigrant, the young adult just getting started, those who have suffered injury or illness, natural disasters and unjust actions), have lost any grasp they had on the good life. Increasingly, those who are the ‘poor among us’ have been pressed beyond the margins. They have been silenced and made virtually invisible. They yearn for any kind of a life! What are we missing? If the Church is being the Church why is there no change? Why not progress toward a peaceable existence?

When we come into this world, regardless of where we live, we can be certain of receiving at least three things: time, space and relationship. Our primary relationship is with God, the very author of our being, followed by our relationship with the one that gives us birth. As we live and grow, what we do with our time, space and relationships, becomes our personal responsibility. With so few guarantees in this life, then, what can we count on?  I struggle along with others of my generation, and those that follow, to cast my vision beyond the increasingly elusive “American Dream” aka “the Good Life,” to the greater possibilities God promises everyone, “a relationship with Jesus Christ that offers us an Abundant Life.”

In seeking this Abundant Life for myself, I’ve arrived at a few basic Rules (or Principles) of Life. While not all inclusive, they have been helpful to shaping my Spiritual Journey and informing my decision making. I share them with you this morning. These are: Live by Faith, Trust in Prayer and Offer a Word.

I have long understood it is best to “mind my own business.” By this I mean, do my own inner work, seek my own answers, test my own assumptions and understandings, then come to my own understanding of my place in the world. Very briefly I will say something about each of these Rules as we look at today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah 58: 1-9a.

Live By Faith

The post-exhilic Israelites have returned from their captivity in Babylon, to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, and to re-claim their observance of Sabbath, a sign of their Jewish-ness and a condition for experiencing God’s salvation in its fullness. Their leaders know themselves to be very religious; fasting, seeking to know God through ritual and worship. They lie about in sack cloth and ashes and bow their heads in an outward sign of humility. “Why”, they ask God, “do you not hear us?” “Why do we fast if you don’t take notice of us? The Jewish leaders are already known by others, according to the prophet Isaiah, to be corrupt and self-serving; returning to idolatrous practices. Their Temple is still in ruins, literally and perhaps figuratively speaking. This Isaiah text is not unlike the Micah 6 lectionary reading from last week. You may recall how the people of Israel were called to accountability, into God’s court if you will, for their behavior; not for what they were doing as much as for how they were doing it and what they were leaving undone. Micah 6:8 reminds us that the Lord requires us to work for justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Here in Isaiah we are reminded, again, that God does not delight in all of our outward practices unless they are honored as a means of God’s grace. There is a difference between being religious and living a life of faith in God. Hypocritically, the Israelites were self absorbed in their pious rituals at the same time they were oppressing their own workers and embroiled in quarrels and fights. When God’s grace is conveyed to the inner soul and life of a person, change takes place. Isaiah 58:6-7, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice? “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?” Cover the naked and don’t hide yourself from your own kin.  “According to Torah, hiding oneself from one’s own kin means pretending that some people do not exist or that care will be given to the needy by someone else. “ (*see Feasting on the Word)

True fasting involves dealing with those conditions, situations and people that are ethically corrupting and corrupted, for the sake of the oppressed and for the common good. (FotW) This is the fast/sacrifice which God wants to see. This is what God wants to hear, what God wants to strengthen and grow in us.V8: Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly …. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

The community’s responsiveness to one another has a direct effect on how God will respond to the community. Isaiah instructs his listeners that when they live out a life of love God will answer them when they call. This leads us to the second rule:

Trust in Prayer

“O Lord Come to Our Assistance, Make Haste to Help Us.”

This is a well known prayer response in the tradition of the Church. A Prayer life that is authentic and faith-filled is a fundamental discipline in the life of a Christian. To some, prayer comes naturally and easily but to others, prayer can be a struggle. We find ourselves back at the basics of time, space and relationship. In an essay, Gerald May writes this about space. “It is an addiction of the first order that we feel we must always be filling up our spaces.” He is not just speaking about physical space like a desktop or garage. Rather he is including inner soul searching kind of space We do not like spaciousness because of what appears to us within it. When I pause for a moment and let my mind settle down, he remarks, what comes in?  The things I have put off, the worries I have been avoiding, the bad feelings I have stifled.” No doubt about it! It is a discipline to make time for prayer. It is a commitment to make space in your mind for the prayer dialogue and yet, prayer is at the foundation of any trusting relationship with God.

Isaiah 58:9,“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” __ these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit teaches everything, even the depths of God ….. interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. The Spirit meets us in those prayer moments and speaks to our own spirit; assuring us, guiding us, transforming us and sending us to be the body of Christ in the world.  As a Church we are admonished to set aside our God given time to encounter God through prayer, to consecrate the day and ourselves to God, to make ourselves fully present to God’s love so we might carry God’s love out into the daily-ness of our life.

There are many different forms of prayer and scripture tells us God lives within the praises of his people. It is not important how you prayer, only that you do pray.  This leads me to my final rule:

Offer a Word

Worship is not complete until it translates into some outward sign of God’s grace. God’s love in action is the best way to describe it. We are to be the Word of God embodied, as the opening prayer of St. Teresa of Avila describes so simply. We are to be the hands, feet and compassion filled eyes of Christ in a troubled world. I close with this observation, recently written about by a fellow member of the Order of Saint Luke, Tom Beveridge.

“The shelter is located in a 117 year-old Roman Catholic church that closed several years ago.  It’s a beautiful red brick structure, French-gothic style, soaring spire at one corner, stately, white limestone interior, delicate arches along the sides of the nave.  In its day, it was an architectural gem. The main shelter is in the nave of the church – the word “nave,” has the same root as the word “navy,” being a vessel that shelters and carries people thru stormy seas of life.”  The hospitality desk where the male guests check in, and where Tom and Amy stopped to deliver their bread, is “smack-dab where the high altar used to be” and a few steps away from the crossing were the tables where the men eat.

Tom writes, “Think about this as a metaphor for hospitality in the name of Jesus Christ.  Along the side walls, right next to where sleeping quarters are set up are the Stations of the Cross. ..  And across the back, which struck me as a reminder of the corporate sin that creates a need for any of this, are the confessional booths.”

“On our way out, we stopped to talk with one man who was getting a haircut … in the room that was a former sacristy,” where the vestments and communion vessels are stored and communion is prepared!  This man told us that he plays organ and piano for a church somewhere in the city… and yet he is among the growing population of men, women and children needing shelter and basic services.

The barber is a volunteer himself. He talked with Tom about his sense of what he does as ministry — helping guys to feel better about themselves and, if they are lucky enough to get a job interview, to look better for it.  Tom had driven past that old church for years.  Seeing it now from the inside gave them a very new perspective and caused them to ask, “How does the Sacrament of the Table, our Holy Communion, relate to sacramental living in a ‘world of need’.  “What makes a church the Church?  This shelter used to be a church but isn’t anymore … or perhaps it is more Church than it ever was before?”

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