Let me begin by acknowledging that I love worship! I love the intellectual stimulation of progressive, traditional Sunday morning worship services, and I love the quiet contemplation of First Congregational Church’s Taize-style midweek. I love it all. I also love the energetic and intensely emotional connection to God afforded lively praise services.
Unfortunately, too often in my experience, energetic praise music is also accompanied by extremely theologically conservative, judgmental sermons. Beginning this month, on the fourth Sunday of each month, First congregational Church will offer lively praise music combined with an equally progressive teaching component, creating something that, while not entirely new, will certainly be new for Topeka. The style is rooted in an ides that theologian Matthew Fox refers to as a Techno-Mass.
In an effort to explain it, we have been calling it our “Positive, Progressive & Practical Praise” service. Some have already dubbed it the “Rave in the Nave.” I have to admit that I kind of like that moniker. In addition to the high energy level of the music and the teaching component, there will also be what we call “experiential stations” sprinkled around the worship space. These stations will allow for individual, personal devotion and spiritual exploration and will vary from month to month, depending on the theme and focus of each worship experience. Unlike a more traditional service, which tends to have only one thing happening at a time, this will be a very different kind of experience.
With this expansion of our worship services, we further expand the spectrum of our church’s worship. It represents our intentional effort to reach the next generation with the message that God’s house and God’s love are here for them too. Of course, others may find that hey like it, too! Look for it on the fourth Sunday ofevery month at 5:00 PM.
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
- Mark 9:2-3
In many Christian churches, this Sunday will celebrate the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, also appear in the scene talking with Jesus. When scene resolves, however, only Jesus remains. Jesus the liberator remains and represents for Christians the enduring and ongoing work of justice.
The narrative also carries within it the inherent tension between concealment and revelation. Jesus, who has always appeared one particular way to his disciples is suddenly perceived by them in a new way. Some of us know something about living a life that conceals part of who we are. When that barrier falls, the light shines outward , as it is the nature of light to do. Feelings of grim shadow abate, and life begins anew, with a new authenticity. As Rev. Tania Guzman states, "This is very meaningful for Liberation Theology which first seeks for justice and liberating the oppressed and not to get all concerned with what the Bible says."
If we can see Christ in us, then we can also see ourselves in Christ. In the non-canonical Gospel of Philip, we read that Jesus "appeared to the great as great. He appeared to the small as small. He appeared to the angels as an angel, and to humans as human. Because of this his word hid itself from everyone. Some indeed saw him, thinking they were seeing themselves, but when he appeared to his disciples in glory on the mountain, he was not small. He became great, but he made the disciples great, that they might be able to see him in his greatness." Christ relates to us as we are but in the process reveals so much more in himself and in us than we ever anticipated."
During the mountaintop experience, the Divine voice is also heard, encouraging the disciples present to listen to Jesus. In a way, it reminds me of the words of Rachel Naomi Remen who says, "In the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to to you." If we are ready to move beyond lives of concealment, the divine light can and will shine through us to reveal divine love in action to all in the blessing of genuine community.
"You are a refuge to poor people, refuge to the needy in their distress, shelter in the storm, shade from the heat - for the breath of the ruthless is like an ice storm or a scorching drought. You subdue the roar of the enemy, and the mantra of tyrants is stilled."
— Isaiah 25:4-5 (The Inclusive Bible)
I imagine that many (if not all) of us remember Dorothy Gale's ill-fated journey via tornado to the land of Oz. At the end of the adventure, Dorothy is told that she has always had the power to return to Kansas; she just didn't know or realize it. So often our spiritual lives unfold similarly.
Author Barbara Brown Taylor states, "No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it... All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are."
Sometimes we pine for God to place opportunities for ministry and service in our path, without realizing such opportunities are already present. In fact, like God, each of us has unique opportunities every day to be a "refuge to the needy in their distress, shelter from the storm, shade from the heat...." Like Dorothy coming to the realization that home has ever been within her reach, opportunities for each of us to act by doing good and noble deeds on God's behalf abound, if only our hearts and minds are open to perceive them.
God has already provided humanity a world that as far as we know is unique. We should treat it and its occupants all with love and care. It is up to each person to find ways to be useful in the cause of leaving that world in a better state than we found it. Perhaps Winston Churchill summed it up best when he said, "What is the use of living if not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?"
"Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
— Amos 5:22-24
Everyone who has ever been a teenager knows what it feels like to try to live your life on your own terms, to stand out from the crowd, to be original. Sometimes that quest leads us to make good choices and sometimes not-so-good ones. In fact, striving to be original purely for its own sake is a trap. C.S. Lewis wrote "No [person] who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work's sake, and what [people] call originality will come unsought."
So, it's a sort of catch-22 situation, isn't it? When we aim at being original, we miss the mark. When we simply approach life doing our best in everything we undertake, "originality will come unsought."
Part of the needed growth in life also comes from really facing our fears. That which frightens us holds tremendous power over our choices. As Eleanor Roosevelt stated, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do." For spiritual strength to do just that, we have the reassurance of the psalmist: "Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when [the Lord] delights in our way; though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand." (Psalm 37:23-24)
T.S. Eliot wrote that all of life is really a cyclical or circular journey. Through all our life's experiences, we merely become more fully ourselves. He wrote, "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." So it is with our lives. All our exploring leads us to the full realization and actualization of our best selves, the embodiment of the Divine Presence, touching the hurting places of our world with a healing touch.
"Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted [God's] people, [God] has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared [God's] holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God."
— Isaiah 52:9-10
It was Garrison Keillor who said, "Some people think it is difficult to be a Christian and to laugh, but I think it's the other way around. God writes a lot of comedy, it's just that [God] has so many bad actors." He's right! Our faith is meant to empower us for service which is serious business to be sure, but it is also meant to flood every aspect of our lives with joy, the kind of internal joy that is not dependent on external circumstances.
In entering into a relationship with the Divine, we become, over time, ever more like the One we love. Clare of Assisi put it this way, "Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance! And transform your whole being into the image of the Godhead itself through contemplation!" Do we think that God is as dour as we humans can sometimes be? Is creation so fraught with grim flaws that we think God takes no joy in it? Sadly, that is sometimes how Christians approach their faith, treating it not just reverentially, but grimly. Someone once told me that they thought of Puritanism as "the haunting, lingering fear that someone, somewhere was enjoying life." Is that really what the life of faith is supposed to be like? I don't believe so. You don't think God has a sense of humor? Have you ever seen a flamingo walk? Come on!
I imagine Heaven as a reality that is flooded with laughter and joy. This means that even in "the ruins" of life, we can "break forth together into singing." God is always with us, and has given us the tremendous gift of each other. Perhaps what we need is to bring more laughter to our lives, to our worship and our contemplation... an hour of laughing meditation. Can you imagine?
"For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young — let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles."
— Proverbs 1:2-6
I have seen countless people stream through the doors of congregations I have served. In each of those settings, I have presented the Gospel challenge offered by Jesus to extend love and care to all people without regard to their station in life. Many have responded positively to that challenge while some others had a negative response. That negativity, in large measure, has resulted from the fact that although the challenge is a simple one, it's not exactly easy, and it requires that a change needs to happen, a shift in the things that we esteem as being of value and how we relate to others. Richard Foster says, "We have real difficulty here because everyone thinks of changing the world, but where, oh where, are those who think of changing themselves?"
Yet change we must if we are to continue growing into the people we were created and born to be. If we don't, we miss out on tremendous opportunity for blessing in our lives. Brenda Ueland puts it this way, "I have been writing a long time and have learned some things, not only from my own long hard work, but from a writing class I had for three years. In this class were all kinds of people: prosperous and poor, stenographers, housewives, sales[persons], cultivated people and little servant [children] who had never been to high school, timid people and bold ones, slow and quick ones. This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say."
The daunting challenge of continual becoming is what led the apostle Paul to write encouragingly, "May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from [God's] glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to [God], who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light." (Colossians 1:11-12)
"And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all."
— 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15
The pages of our scriptures continually challenge us to to be better human beings. Sadly, many are able to rationalize their way around it all. Somehow, we want others to be accountable for their speech and behavior while we do just as we please, even defying the injunctions of the ten "suggestions."
Are we patient, encouraging, and helpful with those around us? Or do we rush to judge and punish? Saint Benedict of Nursa weighs in on this question when he states, "How much more important it is to refrain from evil speech, remembering what such sins bring down on us in punishment. In fact so important is it to cultivate silence. After all, it is written in scripture that one who never stops talking cannot avoid falling into sin. Another text in the same book reminds us that the tongue holds the key to death and life."
Death and life are among the most important human concerns possible. This is why I and many others oppose the death penalty. As Sister Helen Prejean says, "Allowing our government to kill citizens compromises the deepest moral values upon which this country was conceived: the inviolable dignity of human persons." Do we treat others with dignity only when it's convenient or with consideration only when we personally like them?
The simplicity of divine wisdom cuts through the walls of pretense with which we surround ourselves. It makes clear that what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong. In fact, as the psalmist so eloquently expresses, "Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?'" If we truly want to advance on our spiritual journey, we must learn to fully love God, neighbor, and even those we regard as enemies. Nothing more is needed; nothing less will suffice.
"An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, 'Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.'"
- Luke 9:46-48
The human drive for power, position and prestige... it's one of the common characteristics that seems to appear consistently, even across social and cultural lines. Rooted in the basic motive needs for safety and security, it can run amok when it's overfed.
I have said repeatedly that the only power that truly exists is the power to serve. It matters not what our occupation is. Meister Eckhart said, "Do not think that saintliness comes from occupation; it depends rather on what one is. The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy." We are the ones who make what we do holy when we engage it with deep reverence, with being of service to another as our goal.
Also, it shouldn't matter who the person in need is, whether celebrity or unknown, rich or poor, friend or foe. After all, as Madeleine L'Engle expressed, "If you're going to care about the fall of the sparrow you can't pick and choose who's going to be the sparrow. It's everybody."
"Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful."
- Colossians 3:14-15
In the introduction to his book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, author Wendell Berry observes, "One cannot be aware both of the history of Christian war and of the contents of the gospels without feeling that something is amiss." I believe he is correct.
Everywhere we look in our society, there are religious groups who are characterizing the advancement of their particular dogmatic point of view as "spiritual warfare." Unfortunately, the collateral damage in their war is often ordinary people, including those who espouse any differing theology or point of view.
Also, in our increasingly secular society, any call for compassion and aid for the poor sadly gets drowned out in the clamor to lower taxes for the wealthy. Everyone, it seems, wants to pay less and receive more. The inconvenient truth is that we get the government we deserve and the society we pay for.
How would our culture be different if we regarded the well-being of others as deeply as we regard our own? How would we experience life differently if we were truly thankful for what we have instead of always scratching and clawing for more? What if we allowed love to bind "everything together in perfect harmony"? Would our world be different? I believe it would.
"By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers."
- Teilhard de Chardin
In God "we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28) Many people want to be in relationship with God but only on their own terms. In fact, many people live out their faith on what Teilhard de Chardin would call the surface or outer layers, never daring to venture to the inner depths.
Some people feel a sense of security in the perception that God is somehow apart from us or views us, in the words of the Bette Midler song, "from a distance." All such perceptions are illusory. In Christ we readily perceive the co-mingling of divine and human attributes, but do we dare to consider that the same divine presence also resides in us?
Given the choice, many people would place themselves essentially in permanent orbit around the divine, never moving either too close or too distant. If that is how we choose to experience a relationship with God, then God will give us that desire of our heart. But if we are open to it, the inexorable pull of divine love and grace can draw us further inward, perhaps into a closer orbit, perhaps into a never-ending spiral journey inward, into the deeper mysteries of God.