Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where two or three are gathered in my name . . .

I read a thoughtful and gracious blog the other day which made me think once more about the gift of community Jesus gives us.  The blog was an open letter to author Anne Rice after she publicly left the church, though apparently she said she hadn't lost her faith.  The link is here, and it's well worth your time to read: .  This writer makes the point far more eloquently than I could that while the institution of the Church is flawed, human, sinful, and often causes pain not only to its members but to the world, we cannot "do the Jesus thing alone."  It is a paradox, but it is nonetheless true.

This is the mystery of the incarnation.  God-with-us, in the flesh, that is our proclamation.  However, that incarnation is not lived in one person, in an individual, but in the community the Son of God created, as flawed and broken as it is.  "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst," Jesus said in Matthew 18:20.  And in John 15 he says, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love."  This "you" is consistently plural.  This is a community request, a community promise, a creation of community abiding in the love of Jesus who abides in the love of the fullness of the Triune God.  This means that this is our mystery: the presence and love of Jesus lives in our midst when we are together, not when we are apart.  The life of the Incarnate God is lived in our midst, among us.  This is why our worship leaders face the assembly, not a Holy of Holies, when they lead prayer, because it is in the midst of the people that our Lord Jesus is present, incarnate still in the world.

I have not always thought this was a good idea of God's.  Trusting frail and often evil human beings to be the presence of God, the continuing incarnation in the body of Christ for the sake of the world, seems incredibly risky.  We do horrible things, and people like Anne Rice finally have enough and leave the community.  People are wounded and trampled on by the very Church Jesus created to heal and lift up.  Congregations split, denominations fight.  That denominations exist at all is a sign that we can't be trusted to be faithfully the body of Christ without messing it up.

But the triune God did not do this unaware of our sinfulness.  Jesus had ample evidence that we were flawed and untrustworthy throughout his ministry, just from his followers alone.  Their betrayals and actions of the days surrounding his crucifixion only cemented that awareness.  Yet, risen from the dead, Jesus still turned to these flawed, broken disciples, and called them together for breakfast, made them a community again.  The first thing he did after that breakfast was to send them out once more to be his body, his love, his grace in the world.

As Tevye would say, "Sounds crazy, no?"  It does, and sometimes it seems as if God should have thought of something different.  Yet it clearly is God's way to love the world, and so I have hope.  I have hope that if God knows what God is doing here, it will come out alright.  "My word will not come back to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose," God says in Isaiah 55.  This plan will work, in us, through us, for the sake of the world and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Where two or three are gathered, there is our Lord in our midst.  There is God in the world.  That's incredibly good news, indeed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Silence is golden . . . but always?

After a spirited discussion at our pastors' text study this morning on the merits of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (modern American composers of powerfully moving choral music and if you haven't heard them, hie thee to a store and get some CDs), I find myself thinking once again about the power of music to move me to prayer and into God's presence.

I am not someone who finds silence terribly helpful in my private devotions.  If I am reading the Bible and then trying to reflect on it a little, and pray, and listen for God, the silence often defeats me.  If it's early in the morning, I drift back into sleep.  If it's late evening, sometimes sleep also comes, but more frequently the thoughts of the day intrude like the thorns of Jesus' parable of the sower, tugging me away from my openness to the movement of the Spirit of God.

Silence in worship is different for me.  Many experiences of worship today involve precious little silence.  People constantly feel the need to interrupt silence with speech, or more music, or immediate movement to the next part of the liturgy.  In those times of worship where silence happens, then, it is a great source of peace and joy for me.  I am also part of a spiritual direction group which includes three other pastors and a director, and we have very long silent times as a part of our time together.  Those times are fruitful and good and are silences in which I frequently feel God's breath moving, hear God's voice.  If prayer is conversation with God, silence to listen to the voice of God in our hearts and lives is essential to prayer.

The challenge for me, clearly, is when I am alone.  The conversation this morning reminded me of something I've been considering for the past few months, and that is the power of music in opening my spirit to God.  When I listen to Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium," for example, or Maurice Durufle's "Ubi caritas," I am transported from daily cares and woes into a different world and find myself open to deep reflection and to insight from God.  I find a deep joy sometimes, sometimes sadness, sometimes exhilaration.  I could make a blog which only reflected on the latest piece of music to move my soul, and not run out of ideas for the rest of my life.

I am beginning to wonder what would happen if I brought music into my daily devotions intentionally.  As important as silence is to our lives in a world of cacophony and noise, music, at least the music that moves me, is the opposite of cacophony and noise.  Perhaps I need to listen to and understand my own life-long experience with music and recognize that if taking time with God on a daily basis is important, and if I'd really rather not sleep through it, it is possible that God's gift of music can replace the silent meditation.  J. S. Bach instead of the ticking of the clock?  It might be worth trying.

I'll let you know how it works out.  In the meantime, please get the final album made by the Dale Warland Singers, Lux Aurumque.  There was a wonderful story Lucy Pevensie read in the magician's book in C. S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader which was subtitled "for the refreshment of the spirit," and which, upon reading, filled Lucy with joy and wonder and refreshment, filled her very soul.  This Warland CD is just such a gift for me.  I think I want to find out if there is a place for it and all the others in my prayer life as well.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On being full

I started this blog last spring, and after a few posts during Holy Week I let it sit idle.  A good friend of mine periodically asks whether I'll be posting again, and that nudging has been a good thing.  I think I've been struggling with the idea that it can be a little self-centered to think that others really want to listen in to another person's thoughts.  However, I find the few blogs I do read helpful in opening up ideas, asking questions, and generally making me think.  In some ways, these are dialogues in monologue (unless someone posts replies and makes it a true dialogue.)  And that's an interesting way of thinking and communicating.  It's definitely a  good thing for me to engage the thoughts and writing of others.

The title of this blog is "In the Center of All Things," and the explanation for that choice is over on the side.  And Sunday's sermon (I preached on the Ecclesiastes and Luke texts, with a little Colossians mixed in like a nice herb from the garden) reminded me of why I thought I might write here.  Because the focus on "emptiness" that the Teacher has, combined with Jesus' parable about a rich man who thought he had everything but in the end had nothing, led me once more to the realization that this is what I want to consider here.  What does it mean to be centered on God, to be unable to move from God's presence (which, like Psalm 139 can be read as a good thing or a scary thing), to recognize that at our heart, at our core, is the love of God Jesus has made known?  That's what I want to think about and explore, with anyone who might want to explore it with me.

I preached Sunday about gas gauges, and how I tend to push the limit on my little orange light which tells me to fill up.  And how it struck me that our lives are often the same, but without the warning light.  We can be running on empty and not know it, and we can be having priorities and choices which drain our spiritual, emotional, or physical tanks, and unlike being left on the side of the road with a gas can, our life consequences are harder to trace to their source, and harder to notice until they've been accumulating over a lot of time.  So cause and effect are harder to understand and see clearly.  And that means Jesus' warnings in Luke 12 are also harder to hear, because we might be unhappy, unsettled, uncomfortable, or in deeper difficulty still, but we often don't know why.

But I have found that living with the question "where is God in my life?" helps me pay better attention to whether I am empty or filled, and knowing God's love is mine helps me make better choices which also help my tanks get filled.  But I've also come to know and believe that the relationship God has made with me is never lived just with me - it is a relationship of God to God's people, and I am connected to all God's children around the world in a profound way.  And to the people God has placed in my life in a powerful way.  They become truth-tellers to me, standing in God's place, reminding me if I'm getting empty, helping me remember I am loved by God, and helping me as I seek to walk a path of faithful discipleship.

So I am grateful to all my fellow travelers who help me keep on the path, who fill me up in so many ways.  And I think I might start writing here again, in hopes that this monologue/dialogue will be helpful to others in their journeys.  It certainly will be to me in mine.