World Troubles with Democracy: Case in Point

Today’s Times piece on Myanmar is a great case in point for how democracy is more fragile than we sometimes expect.  People do not easily come to trust pluralism, but instead hanker for authority as available in strongmen (or women, in the case of Myanmar currently) and a religion conceived as anchoring and deifying a received tradition.  (Whereas true religion, as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation reminds us, can just as well question and critique received tradition.)

As I tried to say in the previous post, we can be the church without getting too embroiled in the difficult issues that democracy and its failings present today.  But let us celebrate the fact that we have open to us a way to be faithful to God that can uphold the values of pluralism and openness to others, rather than undermine these and the democratic structures that depend on them.


Are American attitudes becoming un-democratic?

This is not an essential question to the Church.  It is not our absolute duty to preserve democracy, I think.  But there is considerable alignment between the virtues necessary for rightly functioning democracy and Christian virtues, as suggested by some current research

Paul Howe shows that the international rise in populist leaders correlates with a gradual rise in anti-social attitudes.    

By this interpretation, growing disregard for democracy reflects the rise not of dogmatic authoritarianism, but of a broad and amorphous social malaise that blithely rejects a diverse array of social norms, including key tenets of democracy. The challenge, therefore, is not merely to bring people back into democratic politics, but to draw them again into the social contract—into a sense that they belong to a society where core principles essential to living together should rightly be respected and observed. This entails, among other things, countering excessive individualism, ensuring that all have some reasonable opportunity to succeed in life regardless of socioeconomic background, and providing robust civics education to help instill deeper understanding of core democratic principles among all citizens.

One could counter that he is exaggerating “soft” forces of social and cultural attitudes and downplaying “hard” forces of economic equality, although he does include these forces.

It is interesting to consider that “immorality” such as egotism and disregard of others is not a static problem, but varies through time according to historical, economic, and cultural developments.  The Church can only be a place where such attitudes are resisted and purified.  But the evidence is strong that the growth in anti-social attitudes is greatest among less-educated Americans.  That is also the segment of society that is becoming the least religious.  (Pew Survey).

If this were the Church’s problem and responsibility, I’d be inclined to say that the church needs to direct much energy into reaching out to less educated and disaffected white Americans to counter their (general) drift to anti-social attitudes and nihilism.  If such efforts were effective, it would certainly be good for our society.  But how is the Church to do this?  Howe’s study suggests that this population is generally resistant to joining social organization.  Do we try to convert one person at a time, hoping that the language of sin-and-repentance will appeal to them?  Meanwhile, these efforts could take the church away from moving forward with creating a deepened Christian counter-culture.  (If we spend all our effort trying to rein in the anti-social tendencies of a disintegrating uneducated class, do we take away from building a well-formed culture of Christians deeply steeped in an intellectually robust faith?  Is our goal to stem social disintegration or to construct an alternative way of being integrated into God?)

Perhaps the responsibility for this problem rests not on the church, so that the church needs to redirect herself toward solving it.  Instead, it lies on our society as a whole, which is probably in a better position to address the underlying economic, educational, and perhaps cultural bases for the problem.

These questions press on me in a place like Granby, which is considerably closer to the problems of lesser educated America than say, Amherst or Northampton.  One of Howe’s conclusions is very interesting: the individualism pervasive in American culture will bolster those who are safely on the road to increasing opportunity–those raised in an education-nurturing environment.  That same individualism will burden and dispirit those in education-averse environments, for they are left feeling there is no one else to blame for their failures.  Perhaps opiates are a natural, but deadly, outcome.

See also: Edsall’s column



Spiritual Inventory #6: “How Does God Act in Your Life?”

My thanks to Nancy Johnson for sharing a well-crafted story of her spiritual journey last Sunday, while I was away at the Association of Disciples for Theological Discussion.  

This was the second and final Sunday on the beliefs portion of the Spiritual Inventory series (spiritual practices, beliefs, fellowship, and mission).  There are all kinds of religious beliefs we could examine, but I chose addressing how God acts for today because (1) I think it addresses a crucial intellectual difficulty that many have with faith in God and (2) it relates so closely to the rest of the series: the way we understand our spiritual practices, the way God is present in our fellowship, and the point of missions.  

A caveat: I wish I had had more time to explore Paul’s view of God.  I do not mean to say that Paul would agree exactly with how I describe God acting in this sermon.  But I think it is consistent with what he tends to put first when it comes to how God acts in our life.  I guess I’d say that the New Testament times, in which Paul lived, were suffused with the powerful action of the Spirit, such that there was little distinction between God acting in Jesus and God acting now in our lives.  I think we experience things differently, with a 2000-year gulf between Jesus and ourselves.  

Isaiah 45:1-7 ; 1st Thessalonians 1:1-10

In 587 BC, Israel went into exile at the hands of the Babylonians, who destroyed the Jerusalem temple and carried away its riches. The Babylonians no doubt attributed their victory to the power of their gods over the God of Israel. But Isaiah, early on in his prophesies, saw Israel’s defeat as God’s act of divine punishment for Israel’s lack of faithfulness. In our reading from Isaiah for today, God is speaking to Cyrus, calling him the “anointed”—literally, God’s messiah or Christ. Cyrus was the new Persian emperor, who went on to defeat the Babylonians and subsequently allowed the Israelites to return and rebuild their temple. In this passage, God is telling Cyrus that it is in fact God who is acting through him, even though Cyrus seems unable to recognize this: “I call you by name…though you do not know me.” For Isaiah, God is doing it all: the destruction of Israel, the restoration of Israel. It sounds both comforting and terrifying. “I form light and create darkness, I make weal (well-being) and create woe. I the Lord do all these things.”

We might similarly be inclined to see God acting in the seeming accidents and incidentals of our life. Do you prayerfully expect God to send a Cyrus into your life? Or do you see God’s judging hand at work when something goes wrong? Do you see the hand of God when you get that windfall of a tax return? Or when you find out that you’re losing your hearing? Is this how God acts in your life? Do you see everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, to be by God’s hand?

I don’t. I certainly don’t sit around and wonder why God did this and not that, today; why God made my glasses vanish, again, or why, as some people might say, God gave my mother dementia. I’m not willing to say Isaiah was simply wrong. Nor do I deny that God can act in my life in an extraordinary way. I have experienced God’s intervention. What about you? Question 1 on the Spiritual Inventory asks you about when God has acted in your life. And do you see that act of God as connected with the God we worship in church?

There was an evening when I was 16 in which I placed myself before God’s presence in a powerful and tumultuous way. As I regained composure, I thought it would be comforting to have a friend visit, especially my friend Rick. A few minutes later, Rick arrived. He later said he was just driving around and didn’t know why he decided to stop in. I can’t explain it. Nor do I feel the need to. This time when God seemingly intervened in my life is not a particularly important event in my spiritual life. So even though I concede that it is possible, I don’t sit around waiting for God to intervene in this way. I want to explain why today.

For one thing, if we think of God as stepping in and intervening in our lives when we need it, we will inevitably have to ask why God fails to intervene so often. What about those in genuine need who cry out to God and meet only a bad end? That happens every day around the globe. How many among us have cried out to God to intervene, perhaps not for ourselves, but more likely for a loved one—a son in danger, a family member facing a grave illness. And are you angry that God didn’t do anything? That’s question two in our inventory.

It makes sense that you’d be angry, and some of the psalms express just that anger; but maybe you are angry because you expect God to act in a way that God does not. Maybe you are expecting God to act like some movie superhero who comes to our rescue when we face great peril, but who otherwise leaves us alone and hangs out in the Bat Cave or Mt. Olympus, or another heavenly abode. Maybe you are angry at that god there, in that heaven, who ignored you in your time of great need; you’re angry at superhero god or worse, angry at yourself—afraid you did not do enough to appease this god and entice him to come to your aid. If only I had prayed harder, if only I followed god’s rules better, if only I went to church more…

Or maybe you once were angry at or disappointed with this god, and so you’ve relocated god far, far away. Maybe you’ve found bitter comfort by making god remote, a distant creator who merely watches the world from afar and doesn’t interfere. So maybe you no longer think of god as really active in your daily life. Or maybe, instead of imprisoning God in some remote, far away location, you have confined god to the nearest location: your own inner voice. Maybe god only acts in your life now as a whisperer, a voice of conscience and inner insight, but whom you keep safely tucked away in the quiet of your spirit.  These very different beliefs about where God is and how God acts all spin out from the same starting point: we want God to act like a powerful policeman or umpire in the world, stepping in to help or to cry foul; and when God fails to do this, we perhaps demote God to a less significant role—the distant architect, or the inner voice.

God can fill all of these roles, but I don’t think we should limit God to them. None of them is very biblical, and none matches well with the way we worship and sing about God. Have you fallen into one of these options: God the fixer; God the remote artificer; God the quiet whisperer? Is this you? That’s question three. Are these ideas about God really working for you?

This is why beliefs really matter. Beliefs affect how we pray to God, what we expect from God, what we hope from God. They affect the spiritual practices we’ve already talked about, as well as the fellowship and mission which are up next in this series. Theology can get very speculative and get lost in the clouds, trust me, I know, but right now we are talking about beliefs that make a difference. And all of us hold ideas about God that are not truly up to the greatness of God. Like the Thessalonians Paul writes to, we all need to turn away from idols and worship the living and true God. I’m preaching about this because I want us to go beyond the little idols of our own mind that get in the way of the true God.

So who is the “living and true” God? Well, I don’t think that the true God just steps in now and then to act, as if he were an absent-minded Super or something. We come up with (or we hear from preachers!) these simple-minded images for who God is, and they often lead us into worshipping less than the true God. But the Bible never, or almost never, has God appear in person to save the day. Rather, God the creator is ceaselessly at work in and through all things. So even though prophets like Isaiah can identify a particular act, like Cyrus’ rise, with God, strictly speaking God does not act only here or only there, but everywhere. And if God acts everywhere, then God acts in no one place.

My teacher, Kathryn Tanner, came up with this way of explaining it: God doesn’t act in the same way as all the other things act in the world. So you don’t have to say: either nature acts, or God acts; either human beings do something, or God does something. God exists within everything, so close that God acts in and through everything, even while God is completely beyond everything. And no, we shouldn’t expect this to be clear and easily grasped. If you want something you can easily grasp, be prepared to end up with an idol in your hand.

One helpful outcome of Tanner’s view is that we no longer need to choose between science and religious faith. God acts ceaselessly in and through nature, rather than intervening in it from the outside. Now, Dan Brown has a new book out, Origin, which I will not read, because DaVinci Code was enough for me. I’d rather just enjoy the snarky reviews. They tell me that as Origin begins, a whiz-kid innovator is about to reveal a discovery that [quote] “boldly contradicted almost every established religious doctrine, and it did so in a distressingly simple and persuasive manner.” Right before the big reveal, the innovator is assassinated by a nefarious Catholic agent, and the rest of the plot unfolds likewise in a distressingly simple and predictable manner. The innovator’s discovery apparently has to do with a scientific experiment showing that life could have begun through random, natural processes, rather than a divine ‘zap.’ Well, I hate to ruin the plot, but this ‘discovery’ doesn’t end religion as I know it at all. Because the god Dan Brown is ‘debunking’ is an idol. It is a superhero god who pokes his finger into the world and goes “zap.” Anyone who imagines such a god—and that’s probably all of us at one time or another—is picturing god to act here and there, in time and in space, just like a creature acts. Just like we act, only more powerfully. To confuse God with a creature in this way is the very definition of idolatry. I don’t think Dan Brown has any idea who this one that Paul calls “the living and true God” is. Neither apparently do all the creationists who are trying to interfere with the teaching of evolution in our public schools. God as described by Kathryn Tanner, does not step in to zap the first bacterium into being, but acts everywhere and nowhere. By the way, you might suspect that Tanner is just redefining God to avoid the challenges of science and Darwin, but in fact her ideas stem from how theologians understood God 1000 years or more before Darwin.

Just 500 years ago (big anniversary of the Reformation this month, remember?), Martin Luther echoed Isaiah by saying, there’s the God we know from the Word, who works our life and salvation by the Spirit. And then there’s the hidden God, who “works life, and death, and all in all.” We aren’t to worry about that hidden God. What we need to focus on is the God who works for our salvation, who asks us to put our faith in him. This is the God who acts here in the church, through God’s Word and Spirit.   I submit to you that this is how we should first and foremost think of God acting in our lives.

We see this in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Paul begins, as always, by giving thanks to God for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.” Notice that the actions Paul is thankful for are not divine, cloud-parting miracles. He’s not thankful that God cured their disease or spared them from the latest war or miraculously provided them with food. Instead he’s thankful for their ordinary actions of faith, love, and hope. They, the Thessalonians, did these ordinary (but if you think about it, genuinely miraculous) actions; but God is the author, because their work of faith, love, and hope are “in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This work that God did in them happened through Paul. He preached the Word about Jesus Christ to them, about what God has done, once and forever, in Jesus. And the message lit up in them and took off. As Paul puts it, “Our message came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” They received this gospel and it gave their lives the new shape of faith, love, and hope.

All of this good power, power for the good, is God’s action in the Thessalonians, through Paul and his friends; God’s action by Word and Spirit. When the same happens here to us, we recognize the action of the God who is Jesus Christ and the God who is the Holy Spirit. We hear the truth about God (unless our preaching goes astray), and it lights up in us, it rings true to us, it changes the way we see the world and ourselves and others, and it unleashes a power in us, the power of the Holy Spirit, that starts to move outward to others. There’s no science-defying miracle here. There’s no portentous sign from above. No magic. It’s all just the stuff of ordinary humanity: some words, maybe some water, maybe some bread and juice, and then a new understanding, a new energy and purpose. Yet how momentous are these ordinary acts of God! A new way of life is born into the world. This is the stuff of the coming Kingdom of God.

We will no doubt keep praying for God to intervene in our lives. “God forbid,” as we say, if Jessica or Silas were to become seriously ill, I’d be on my knees praying for a miracle. Scripture also tells us to cast all our cares upon God. But let us not lose sight of the greatest miracle of divine action in our very midst. God speaks to us in the story of Christ Jesus, and that story reshapes our life together into a holy love for all. Let us not forget to pray above all for that. Pray that God’s word may be rightly preached here, not just by me, but by all of us. Pray that you (and I) will understand that word and it will come with the power of the Holy Spirit to reshape our life. And may God be with you, choosing you out of the depths of God’s mystery to receive God the Word and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Spiritual Inventory Week Six


Since I mentioned super-heroes…

Spiritual Inventory #5: What Do You Believe About God, Family, & Country?

Jonah 3:10- 4:11; Mt 13:54-57 and 18:6 (KJV)

We are moving on today in our Spiritual Inventory series to the second dimension of our spiritual growth: beliefs. Today, the inventory in your bulletin is just for you to take home. The first question is on how you use and benefit from the Bible in forming beliefs about God and life. The rest of the questions pertain to the sermon topic today: how our beliefs about God and the church relate to our beliefs about and responsibilities to what I’ll call our natural or normal relations: our family, our community, our country. Ever since our good but rather heated discussion last December about returning the flag to the sanctuary, I have intended to come back to these issues. At that meeting about the flag, I seemed to cause all kinds of offense without meaning to or even understanding why. To be sure, the timing was not good; everyone was in an uproar about the flag burning at Hampshire College.

So offense was ready at hand that day, as it is also in our Gospel readings. I gave us two readings from Matthew because they send us a very mixed message about offense. Both of these passages use the Greek word skandalon, from which comes our word “scandal.” Here it is translated “offense.” In the first passage from Matthew, it sounds like Jesus causes a scandal, causes offense, even and especially with those you might think would appreciate him the most—the people of his hometown. Similarly, we could find in the letters of Paul and Peter where they describe Jesus or the Gospel as presenting a scandal—often translated “a stumbling block.” You might conclude that the Gospel is inevitably offensive. But in the second reading from Matthew, Jesus warns us in no uncertain terms (and I used the King James version because it also translates skandalon as “offense”): “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Well, I’ve never had a millstone hanged around my neck and been tossed in the sea, but I take it that offending or scandalizing in this case is not a good thing.

Causing a scandal can be a good thing, or at least be an inevitable result of preaching a good word. Or, causing a scandal, offending, can be a very bad thing. Jesus says both.

Who might be offended by preaching the gospel? We will immediately picture non-Christians. And some people—it’s not our thing, I suspect—like to fantasize about carrying the Gospel triumphantly into foreign lands ignorant of Jesus (never mind that Christianity is more established in most continents more than it is here). But notice whom Jesus offends here. It’s the people in his own synagogue. If today Jesus of Nazareth showed up as Jesus of Granby, where do you think he’d begin preaching? Probably right here. Would we be offended? (I’m not sure I would yield the pulpit. I might ask him to wait until my week off.) Jesus didn’t go out and preach to the non-believers, the Gentiles; he preached to the Israelites, starting with his hometown church. And he created a scandal. They were offended at him.

Today marks precisely two years since my contract with this church officially began. I’ve been reflecting about my preaching, as you may have seen in the Spire. And when I see Jesus’ message bring in its train rejection, resistance, scandal; when I see how he made some people feel good and whole again, but also exposed the hypocrisy of his day, especially among religious leaders and experts (that would be me, I guess); I think to myself, I must not shy away from creating scandal and offense. In honor of my friend Garry who is an expert in liberation theology, I will quote Jon Sobrino: “If the Anti-Kingdom doesn’t fight back, you’re not being the Kingdom of God.” If we’re not offending the world, we’re not being God’s church. Or to aim closer to home: If I’m not offending you, I’m not being your pastor.

But then there is the millstone-around-my-neck part. The preacher who offends one of these little ones who believe in me—and Jesus here is probably not talking about literal children but about his disciples as his children—will receive not a medal but a millstone.

I like you all. And more importantly, I want to be someone you are comfortable with who can offer you comfort when times are bad. I really don’t want to offend you. And you pay me. Offending you sounds like a bad idea all around.  When it comes to whether to offend as a preacher, it feels like you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Or rather, you have to be very careful how and whom and why you offend. That’s one thing that makes preaching terrifying. (I say that with great drama, but secretly I love the terror of it. It makes me feel very alive.)

I suppose it’s my job to take this terror upon myself, to feel a division within myself: do I risk offense, do I avoid offense? But it’s times like this that I love to remind you of what the bulletin says: all of us are ministers! You all will or should feel a division within you. That is, the more you see your true self as immersed in the eternal life of God’s Kingdom, starting right now in the church and in your daily walk of faith, the more you will feel a division within you, a division of being bound to those you have ties of affection with, and bound to the God whose love knows no bounds.

Let’s call it a division between my natural life, or normal life, and my supernatural life. In my natural, normal life, I enjoy relationships and affiliations that benefit me. I give myself in relationships that have given to me, or will give to me in return. I have received love from my parents, my spouse, and now my child, and I give love in return. I enjoy friendships rooted in a long history of mutual affection and support. I enjoy protection from fire and the police departments, a good school and local library, and so I gladly contribute resources and maybe volunteer for community service in Pelham, or Granby, or wherever. I have received many protections, benefits, and opportunities as an America citizen, and I feel a natural affiliation and affection for my country, and willingly pay taxes. All this is natural. And it’s rooted in God’s good creation: this is a primary way that God orders our life to the good. It can go astray, but it is God’s creation.

But we, the church, have also been called into a supernatural life. It’s not natural for God to forgive us all our debts, and through no merit of our own, to adopt us as God’s own children, and make us the bearers of divine life. The natural me wants to say, but I have no right to this! I don’t deserve this honor! And it’s not natural for God to then command us to forgive one another’s debts, to seek the good of each other as if it were my own good, to love strangers in our midst and welcome them as friends, to love even our enemies and seek only their good, not some triumph over them. It’s not natural for God’s mercy and love to spill over every boundary and division we have set up since the Tower of Bable, for God to be concerned for Nineveh. Nor is it natural for us to be called to love all likewise. Jonah would rather die. The natural me wants to say, but what did they do for me? And what am I going to get out of this?

And no one felt this division running right through himself more than Jesus himself. Acting completely opposite of Jonah, Jesus finally made his peace with being divided in this way when he said in Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” It was at that point that he gave himself entirely to being super-natural, to living God’s life, even though it meant the destruction of his own natural life. When he tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, he is inviting them to take this division into themselves, this division between the life that is mine in mutual benefit with others, and the life that receives God’s gift and gives to all of God’s children.

Jesus tells us to carry our cross, not to die on it. That destiny was Jesus’ alone, although others also have shared fully in his suffering. But most of us are graced to carry our cross in a living way, to keep on walking, now bearing a cross. We don’t have to give up our natural relations, first of all with my body, and also with my family, community, and nation. But all of us will or should feel that cross of division intersecting our lives.

I love our house in the woods. It has a remote, almost vacation-ny feel to it; our family enjoys being together there. But I am aware that its remoteness takes me away from living for others—the pains of others, the needs of strangers, as well as their extraordinary courage and grace. I wonder how I am shaping Silas to ‘protect’ him from the lives of these others. Will he think: my world has nothing to do with theirs? And how am I shaping myself?  This doesn’t mean I am wracked with guilt, Jesus lifts me out of my self-absorbed guilt; but I live with a sense of division between my natural life, living in a way that pleases me and mine, and my supernatural life participating in Christ, who definitely didn’t avoid the pain of others. It doesn’t mean that I stop enjoying my house. One way I live out that sense of division is by gratitude. I’m not sure I want to say that God gave me my house. But God, through Christ and his sacrifice, makes it possible for me to find a certain peace in my house while carrying the cross. Gratitude is another way to say that my house is not really and truly mine, something I have a right to. It is a gift. I should be thankful for the good things I have, not pat myself on the back for them.

We all will feel the push and pull of division, as faithfulness to the gospel calls us in one direction, and loyalty to family, friends, community and country calls us in other directions. Sometimes we might feel like we are being pulled apart. But where we feel this cross, where we walk with this division within us, there also is God’s resurrection and new life. God will grant us peace and a just heart in our daily walk.

Picture it this way. We all have, riding on our shoulders, our natural, normal angels, just like everybody in the world. These angels call us to be loyal to our family, to favor our friends, to esteem our community, and to honor our country. We will hear that call of loyalty in different ways. You might always stand by your friends, no matter what. You might tend to spoil your child, or you might prefer a stern and tough love. Loyalty to our country will mean different things to us. My job is not to tell you how to hear these angels [point]. Then there should be another angel speaking to you on your right shoulder: the angel of God. This is the Gospel, the Good News; in Greek, it’s euangelion—like evangelical. Hear the Angel in there? Ev-angel-ical. It is not for me to dictate to you what that Gospel voice is saying. We have to figure that out together, and work through our differences over what God is saying and how that voice speaks to us today.  What I will insist on though, in my job as pastor, is that we listen for and hear a distinct Gospel angel on our right shoulder. The Gospel cannot sound exactly like the angel calling you to be loyal to family, friends, workplace, community, and nation. “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no others before me.” However we interpret the words of this Angel speaking through Scripture, the wisdom of the church today and in the past, and our own experiences with God; and however we connect that voice of God to all the other angels calling for our loyalty to us—and inevitably when we live our daily life all these voices will get jumbled together: however each of us interprets God’s voice, that voice needs to be kept pure and holy.   We talked last week about what worship is for—really interesting comments on your inventories, thanks! But perhaps worship is precisely for this: to keep God’s voice pure and holy, and for one hour (or a little more) listen for just that one angel. And thus we pray every week: Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed, holy, be thy name.

There’s much more to figure out about this, but I’m out of time. May God continue to work out this word among us. Amen.



Spiritual Inventory #4 (9/24 ): “What Are You Getting Out of Worship?”

Psalm 96 ; Exodus 12:1-14 ;Revelation 4:1-11

This is the third week of our Spiritual Inventory series. The idea has been that I will give you an inventory every week; typically one form for you to fill out, and a second one with helpful feedback for me. I did receive one form last week. From Jessica. And I know some of you are intending to get yours in. Please remember that we have extra copies from previous weeks, which I dutifully culled (from the recycling bin–ahem).  I know this is not our usual way of doing things, and if you don’t fill out the inventory right here it is hard to remember to bring it back next week. (Has anyone seen my desk in the office? Lots and lots of things I am fully intending to get to. Some decade.) So let’s try it another way. Let’s fill it out now. We have some pens available. This week, I want to help you figure out how to make worship more meaningful for you, and I want you to help me figure out how to make worship more meaningful for all of us.

But before we begin: this is not a customer satisfaction survey. I’m fine with criticism and it can be anonymous if that makes you comfortable. But you are not my customers and I am not your patron. We are all ministers called by Christ. We are called to mutual accountability out of love. That takes a lot more introspection or soul searching on all of our parts than clicking “like” or “don’t like.”

Last week we talked about spiritual disciplines that we can practice and benefit from even every day. Today we’re talking about corporate worship, our defining spiritual practice. This is what makes us as a community not only spiritual but also religious.

Like the great creeds say, I believe in the church, and I believe in corporate worship. I don’t want just my own private spirituality, because God is bigger than me. And so I love to listen to you say the Lord’s prayer, while I am also saying it. Ever do that? I love to watch you take communion. I love to see the elderly, and the mature, and the young, and the children join together in one great act of worship, even while each receives it in her own unique way. It’s a great benefit of being the minister (and perhaps being in the choir) to be able to see God in your reception of God.

I also see and hear a lot of confusion and limited perception—in this body, in our denomination, in the church at large, and in our culture—about what worship is and why we do it. So Question 1: Why do we worship God? What do you think is the purpose of worship? I want to hear your thoughts. … Now I have the benefit of having thought long and hard about this. As far as I am concerned, there is not one right answer. You might come to church primarily for the fellowship, and we are a friendly bunch of people. Sometimes church even looks like a social club to people who do not have the eyes of faith. But in the Gospel of John Jesus commands his disciples to love one another. This oneness of love is in itself a way of abiding in Jesus, and by doing so—it’s wonderfully mysterious—we are taking part in the eternal love between the Father and the Son from before all creation. Jesus puts it this way: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…. I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one.” Practiced faithfully, our friendship and fellowship becomes a sacrament, a means by which we are united with Christ and thus with God. And that’s worship.

Worship might look like entertainment to cynical eyes. But you are not in the wrong if you come to church for the beauty of it. Worship should be beautiful because God is beautiful. Worship should draw us in and pick us up because God draws us in and picks us up. But of course God’s beauty is strange and unlike any other. God is not ‘hot.’ Or ‘sexy.’ Or even pretty. That’s superficial beauty. God forbids images of himself, and note that the Gospels say absolutely nothing about how Jesus looked. God is not a beautiful object for us to look at and admire. First of all, God looks at us more than we look at God. And God’s beauty is not in image, but in motion, in drama. This beauty even embraces and moves through the hideousness of the cross. There was “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him; he was…as one from whom others hide their faces” (Isaiah 53). But still our opening Psalm tells us about the glory of God, and tells us to “worship the Lord in holy splendor.” We strive for beautiful worship but in the end our best efforts can only point to something completely beyond us.

Some come to church primarily for mission, whether that means acts of charity, or spreading the Good News, or promoting social justice. Some so emphasize mission that they no longer understand why worship is important; worship is at best a mere motivator for mission work. They are missing something important. Mission, the church’s being sent into the world, is distinct from worship; but it should never be in competition with it. And worship and mission, while distinct, are in one another, as the Father and the Son are in one another—the Father who is worshipped in eternal glory, the Son who is sent, who is the mission of the Father. So, we do mission here in worship: here in this church we are preaching good news to the poor, and healing, and changing the world in a small way; that’s mission. And when we go out in mission and help those in need, especially face-to-face, we are meeting Jesus in them, as he told us: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Encountering and serving Jesus is worship.

These are all good reasons to worship here in church: fellowship, beauty, mission or good works. In fact, if you are not experiencing something of each one of these reasons, you are missing something, even though of course we all have our favorites. But is that all? Did any of you come up with a different reason or purpose for worship? (Put a star next to it to make sure I note it.) So far, I’ve talked about the outcomes of worship, its benefits for us. And in each case, we see that, because worship is about God, it goes beyond those benefits found in fellowship, beauty, and mission. Certainly, and perhaps above all, worship is for giving God praise and thanks. “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,” went our opening psalm. In worship we “ascribe to the Lord glory and strength,” we “tell of God’s salvation from day to day.”

That’s also what our Exodus reading is all about. Passover: one of the most important worship festivals in Judaism. God instructs the Israelites how to remember their salvation from Egyptian oppression. They are to relive it in meal and deed. (I can’t help being a little amused by the picture of eating the lamb “with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it hurriedly.” Passover today is certainly not a rushed event.) Something about Passover made it important to remember and celebrate “throughout your generations,” we are told. “You shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

But surely God has done good things for all of us today. I do not do as well as some at thanking God for every little good thing that happens. Perhaps I lack gratitude. Indeed, and it’s ironic, one thing I am thankful for is that we don’t have a “praise service” here, for they always struck me as one-dimensional: very happy, very positive. I find the Bible much richer; the psalms aren’t all happy. Praise takes on depth and power when it occurs on the other side of suffering and trial. The deliverance from Egypt happens in the shadow of the terrible killing of the Egyptians’ first born. Passover is celebrated when the blood is still wet on the doorposts; Easter is celebrated when Friday’s cross is still a fresh memory. I hardly know this from my own experience, but I am learning it through some of your stories: from the suffering and loss you’ve known, the injustice that’s been visited on you, the depths to which you’ve fallen and found mercy, the tremendous acts of courage you’ve made.   That’s the kind of thing that the Bible is talking about when it says, “Declare God’s marvelous works among all peoples.” My “Gee I’ve had a lovely afternoon” doesn’t stand up.

And so in worship we turn to these great acts of God that are so far in the past that we can hardly identify with those who received the benefits, initially: the Israelites of the first Passover, the disciples encountering the crucified one living anew. I suppose we could just talk about our own experiences with God. But these great acts of God are so far in the past that they draw us toward God’s eternal being. Worship is not just about thanking God for what God has done for us; it is about praising the way God is in all eternity. Yes, God does things. But even more fundamentally, God also just is. And God’s way of being is eternal.

Our passage from Revelation is a slightly awkward attempt to describe a worship of the eternal God in eternity. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to picture such things, for they are beyond what we can know. That doesn’t stop the seer John in the Book of Revelation, who has a very active imagination. He has the four living creatures full of eyes singing “day and night without ceasing:” “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty.” And whenever these creatures sing this, the 24 elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and cast their crowns before the throne, singing “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things”—sounding much like our opening Psalm. It’s a picture both stirring and, I can’t help think, a little tedious. Imagine having to over and over again fetch your crown, sit back down on your little throne, only to throw yourself down again and cast your crown one more time, “day and night without ceasing.” You think our standing up and sitting down is bad. /Revelations is a picture of what we cannot picture.

But the seeming redundancy of it, day and night without ceasing, is a way to point to worship in eternity. Beyond what God has done, God just is glorious and worthy, eternally. We hear the word “eternity,” and like John we think of what the saints are doing in heaven. But John sees all this right now. And we can right here and now know something of that eternal worship. Ever notice how our doxology, which is very old, sings a praise of God from all creatures here below, but adds: “Praise him above ye heavenly hosts.” Right here and now we are joining our voice to that of the heavenly hosts, praising God eternally.

When we touch on God’s eternity in worship, we are raised far beyond earthly fellowship, acts of beauty, and loving mission. Surely God’s eternal being deserves praise just for its own sake. But doing so does bring us benefits, perhaps the highest of all. If you are not touching God’s eternity in worship, how are you going to stay the course, stay faithful—when the fellowship fails, when the beauty fades, when the mission inevitably comes up short. The most exalted purpose of worship has nothing to do with what we do or what things we receive, or how good we are or are not; it is a rising into the eternal presence of God, the glory of God. / Now, before we go on to number 2 (no, I’m not going to have time to do justice to all of them), jump down to number 5. What can you do, and what can we do, and what can I do, to help you experience all those blessings of corporate worship?

And if I’ve convinced you that there are many good reasons to worship, how rich and almost unfathomable worship is because God is unfathomable, I hope you’ll be able to see when you get to number 2 that there is no one feeling you should be going for in worship. Maybe you feel love, maybe comfort. Do you also feel awe? This congregation scored low on feeling awe in a survey I dug up from 2006 or so. When you “worship the Lord in holy splendor,” as the Psalmist insists, do you “tremble before God?” The Israelites must have trembled at Passover, with the Angel of Death having just passed so near to their door. “Sometimes, it causes me to tremble; ” so goes the line from “Were You There when the Crucified My Lord.” Awe; what the Bible calls, “fear of the Lord.” I hope you do feel assurance; are you also feeling mystery from time to time? / How can we together cultivate a full range of feelings in worship, feelings that both give you what you need right now but also take you beyond where you are? This is why I play up the diversity of passions that we find in the liturgical year; Epiphany does not have to feel just like Lent; the assured diligence of Ordinary time will give way to the almost eerie longing of Advent.

I threw in question three about low and high worship styles. I know some of you like the informality of worship here. I like informality too, because it never makes the mistake of being pretentious. But I’ve also come to more greatly appreciate traditional and sacramental worship, because I want worship to take me out of myself and beyond myself. I am curious what style speaks best to you.

And I’ve asked you about which parts of worship work best for you. What do we need to strengthen? What could you do to better appreciate each part of worship? Let us together discern where our hearts are in worship, and what we can do to better honor this wonderful gift. And let us seek out and be open to a future way of worshipping here that may be very different, if God so sees fit.




Spiritual Inventory #3: “How to Find the Right Spiritual Practice”

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ; Rom 14:1-12

I’ve been listening to messages from some of you (communications to me directly are my favorite, but indirect messages are helpful too). I’m hearing from some that you’re not always getting what you are looking for from my sermons. I’ll talk about that more in a few weeks, when we talk about beliefs. But it made me realize that I spend a lot of time talking about how we as a church should perceive God and our world, and what kind of community we should be in response. Some of you love that stuff (and if I do say so, the Center Church people seemed to eat it up. What did Jesus say? “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”) I still think that how we see life and respond to it as a church community is the central message.

But it’s not everything. And your life is not just this community. You each have unique and very involved lives outside the church. And what you receive in church should pertain to that life too. You each want and deserve God’s blessings in your everyday life. I thank you for helping me to see and acknowledge that.

So I want to talk today about “How to Find the Right Spiritual Practices.” I think this sermon will speak to you. Because spiritual practices are a great way to feed you on your daily journey through life. I can’t speak very effectively in a sermon to the specifics of your unique daily journey. I can do so in pastoral counseling, or what I call just hanging out and talking. But today I want to do what I can to help you find spiritual practices that work for you and for the challenges that you face in life.

Let’s define it: A spiritual practice is a repeated activity that you do regularly (it’s a practice) that draws you closer to God and brings you blessings (it’s spiritual). You’ll probably think of prayer, but there are so many other kinds of activities that can be spiritual practices, as we’ll see. But I’m going to start with saying more about the “bringing you blessings” part. Let me ask you: What blessings do you want out of your spiritual practices? That’s question one on your Inventory for this week. Think about that for a moment; jot down something if you like.

The blessing you are looking for should be something you need every day; so a daily practice will not be about God helping you out of an extraordinary predicament. When I thought about all the different challenges we face in our respective lives—whether you have a demanding job or are currently under-employed, whether you are dealing with the hectic reality of raising children or figuring out how to live a full life on your own, whether you are dealing with the uncertainties of living in your later years or the tumultuous years of youth—I thought about the blessing of wisdom, which is very biblical, and resiliency, which is not so much. But I think a lot of people are seeking ways to be resilient today. In a world of fast change, we want to be able to persist no matter what life throws at us. I’ve got to live in this house, stay with this job, keep up with the kids, stay on track at school, enjoy my golden years—even when the daily grind is getting me down or some catastrophe befalls me and my loved ones. There will be times when I need to consider a great change of course; that’s when wisdom comes in, and when repentance may be the order of the day, or great courage is needed to step into the unknown. But in between those times, we mostly need to persist, and that takes the ordinary, daily courage we call resiliency.

God can bring us this resiliency.   Not by some sudden miracle; I’ll talk about miracles when we get to beliefs. I think that God mostly works in us through our repeated spiritual practices. If you remember your Trinity, this will all make sense. God already and once-for-all worked for us, in our place: God worked our salvation and all things through God’s Son, Christ Jesus. But in our own lives God works in us and through us, by the Spirit. That doesn’t mean we have to do it ourselves, that we have to pull ourselves us by our boot-straps (which is a funny expression because almost no one has boot-straps anymore). But neither do we just sit around and wait for God to miraculously do it for us. Today God mostly works in and through our own actions, which become the actions of the Holy Spirit. (I’m telling you, this Trinity is good stuff. It’s why I have preached about it several times.) And so God works in our lives the same way most things work for us: if we commit to doing something, and practice it regularly, we will reap the benefits. Practice pays off.

So: what kind of practice? Your daily spiritual practice can look like what we do here in church. You can pray. You can pour your heart out to God and say whatever you are feeling, or you can use set prayers like the Lord’s Prayer. You can also light a candle and read Scripture and sing a hymn. And I love it when we are able offer mid-week services here. I used to hold a noon-time informal prayer service, which is something that any one of you could lead, and I will again hold Thursday Vespers during Advent, which I hope more of you will take advantage of.

But I want you to hear this: your spiritual practice does not have to look so “churchy.” Church is where we come together as one and worship and pray as one, in the same language. Church is the heartbeat of our Christian community. But God will also come to you in your daily, ordinary life, and wants to bless you there. God isn’t just our Redeemer who calls us into sharing in the one, risen life of Christ; God is also our creator who blesses creation, who blesses natural, ordinary life in all its diversity. So your spiritual practices can be made out of the stuff of your daily life, and the fruit of those practices can include resiliency in your particular life and its commitments.

Like what? Well, a good spiritual practice should be something you do with all your mind, all your heart, and all your strength. Deuteronomy tells us that that is the way we should love God. So build your spiritual practice out of something that you find engrossing with your mind, heart, and strength. It should be something that brings you a sense of what people have started calling “flow,” something you can almost lose yourself in. That is what makes a practice “spiritual” with a small “s.” Now, you can immerse yourself in competitive sports, or in watching a good movie, or practicing music, one of my favorites. You can do these with mind, heart, and strength, with the unity of these that we can call little-s spirit. But I’m not sure you can do those things while also rising above them. You have to also rise above to God—“Love the Lord”—to have a capital-S Spiritual practice. And with sports, movies, or music, or video games or Facebook, there are probably too many other spirits, too many other purposes in the room that call us away from God. A good spiritual practice will be an activity that we can immerse ourselves in while simultaneously rising above what we are doing.

You want a spiritual practice that you can do every day, but it can’t happen just anytime and anywhere. Not when you are in the midst of a demanding occupation, or surrounded by a lot of noise, or in the thick of an intense personal relationship. You need some Sabbath time for spiritual practices. You need to be able to step back a little, and step out of what you are doing. In order to bring you divine resiliency, your spiritual practice needs to imitate the action of God: the way God steps into creating the world for six days and then steps out of it on the Sabbath day. Or the way God steps into the world in the particular, daily life of Jesus Christ, even unto death, and then rises above it in the resurrection. This is what Paul is talking about: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the living and the dead.” So that, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We need to step into our daily life in a way that also steps above it or beyond it; we live and die to our lives and are raised all at the same time. In this way our spiritual practices are practicing the divine life, the life that is at once incarnate where we are, here and now, while also being eternal.

So a good spiritual practice includes a Sabbath dimension, but that doesn’t mean you just have to sit quietly and pray silently. Maybe not competitive sports, but exercise can be a spiritual practice. It’s a wonderful one, in fact, because we can celebrate and be good stewards of God’s creation in our own bodies, which are like a microcosm of the whole universe. When you exercise, you are doing justice to creation in the form of your own body; you are giving it what is good for it. Thinking of it that way already connects it with God. And you can make it more spiritual if you let exercise be quiet time. So it probably won’t work in a gym, surrounded by blaring TVs and people checking themselves out in mirrors; find a quiet place or exercise outdoors. And you’ll probably want to take out the ear buds and turn off the phone. Furthermore, try some forms of exercise that do not place you in competition, even with yourself. Some people, when they exercise, are constantly trying to go farther or faster or harder. Honestly, we have enough competition in our lives; and competition is really not very biblical. Try doing the exercise just for the good of your body, not to beat yourself.   Yoga and Taichi are wonderful because they leave the mind quiet; so is walking. I do a series of back stretches, partly Yoga-based, several times a week, followed by a sitting meditation that practices good posture. It’s wonderful. While your mind is quiet, you can focus on simple prayers: God fill me with peace; Unite me with Christ. But keep in mind, your spiritual practice doesn’t have to be packed with God language. It can be filled with simple gratitude for life, and it can be a time to cleanse yourself of what is impure and contrary to God’s peace: selfishness, fear, stress.

Being in nature, whether you are exercising or just contemplating, is another wonderful arena for spiritual practices. I know many of you enjoy that. Perhaps you like contemplating all the things that God has made in as creator. That’s very biblical—check out Psalm 104 for instance. Now for me, that doesn’t always work, because I also see the wisdom of science when I’m in nature. But I still find nature spiritual, especially because it is all around and even within the daily grind of all our plans and ambitions and responsibilities, and yet nature is above and beyond them. Nature moves according to its own times and cycles, outside of all our timelines and schedules. And that cosmic reality of nature is also to be found within your own body; you can also be in nature by being in your body. In whatever way, nature can be a wonderful metaphor for living in our ordinary, daily life while also living beyond it. And despite the way we oppress it and our bodies, nature is the very definition of resilience.

But I don’t want to only talk about the Thoreau options here. Spiritual practices do not have to be anti-social; you don’t have to flee all others and escape into some private experience. Human beings are often very trying and annoying reminders of the Fall, but we also bear the image of God. You can certainly draw close to God through others. Friendships in the Spirit are a wonderful spiritual practice; see if you can open up more with a good friend about God and your spiritual life. It can be too easy to talk about just little things.

I think especially young children have the power to draw us closer to God. Try this: go in and check on your young child or grandchild while she is sleeping, and just pause to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Better yet: observe in yourself the power of love that this little one generates in you. Now consider that this love you are feeling is the love that Christians, following Jesus, ascribe to God in all of God’s exalted mystery, like our Psalm said: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” God looks at us with the same love that you feel toward your child.

Or try this: pick someone you can safely observe (without seeming weird, in other words), and practice what I call seeing with the eyes of Christ. Contemplate this person in all the complexities of her being: her good qualities and her faults, her good deeds and her mistakes, her tragic failures and her loving and being loved. Contemplate her as created and fallen, as you know you yourself are, in all your complexity. And now realize that just this way is how Christ receives her. You can do this almost anywhere and any time, and it can bring you the resilience of being in your daily life while also above it. But it will also generate in you the compassion you’ll need for your specifically Christian vocation.

Finally, let us take some advice from Paul about spiritual practices, for he’s dealing with them when he discusses whether to eat certain foods or observe certain holy days. In effect, he’s telling the Romans not to judge one another on their personal, spiritual practices. As we’ve seen recently, Paul can lay down a fairly strict law; but on this issue he strikingly leaves things up to the individual: “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall… Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” Now, some of you will be very traditional minded: spiritual practice means prayer. Others will believe that we can connect with God in all kinds of ways in our daily experience. Let’s not judge each other, but trust that what each does, he does in the Lord. I didn’t take notice myself, but I heard there was some eye-rolling about what I made clear was a temporary experiment with a simple bodily meditation in August. Really? So let’s try one final spiritual exercise: observe whenever you roll your eyes at someone in the congregation, whenever you say, “There she goes again.” And then ask God, “What’s going on with me, when I pass judgment on my brother or sister?”


Spiritual Inventory #2: “Bringing Salvation Nearer to Us”

This sermon makes an important point about the way Christians understand time and how that prepares us to the work of spiritual growth.  Still, it felt clunky to me.  (That’s a word my drum teacher likes to use when I am playing correctly but not truly “swinging.”)  Next week we will look very concretely at spiritual practices. 

Ezekiel 33:10-16 ; Romans 13:8-14

“But now you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” If I just woke you up, church isn’t over yet, it’s only 10:30. Please stay in your seat. I suppose you may go back to sleep, since the sermon is just beginning. But it’s clear Paul isn’t talking about waking from literal sleep here. In fact, he’s not talking about literal time. Well, what is he talking about? I want to deal with that question at length, before we get to the Spiritual Inventory that we are beginning today. Paul acts like we (2000 years later) are already in on his secret: “You know what time it is.” “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” But do we know what time it is? “The night is far gone; the day is near.” Do we know what he’s talking about?

Well, Paul’s talk of time is what our scholars call apocalyptic or eschatological talk. Paul is saying that the world has been trapped in a kind of nighttime of evil and corruption. The world has been under the dominion of powers of wickedness, powers aligned against God. Many of Paul’s fellow Jews believed something similar. They believed a good God could not long allow the world to continue in its wicked ways, so God will eventually step in to end the current world and remake it the way it should be. This will be the “Day of the Lord,” the eschaton or end of the world; the dead will rise, God will judge the world, and a new, everlasting era will begin. Check out the Book of Daniel.

Now since we are approaching the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I want to work in some fun Reformation facts, whenever relevant. So Martin Luther famously said that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree. Now I think that sums it up my whole sermon, and yet I have nothing more to say about Luther’s puzzling words.

Jesus arrived amid the Jewish expectation of an imminent end that we were just talking about. Some thought the Messiah would destroy all the evil in the world and institute God’s kingdom. That’s not the script that Jesus followed. Instead, he allowed the corrupt powers to take his own life. In doing so, he exposed sin for what it was. He exposed the ugly underbelly of the Roman Empire and their collaborators among the Jewish leaders; he exposed the godless lust for power cloaked behind Roman regalia and temple piety. But if you caught anything from the Ezekiel reading, it’s that there is not always a clear and steady line between righteousness and wickedness. So it is that Jesus also exposed the weak faith of the disciples when they abandoned him. So it is that God did not destroy the wicked, but received all of this sin with mercy. Just like Paul said in last week’s reading, God did not overcome evil with evil, but overcame evil with good. God did this in one mighty act at the resurrection; and that resurrection unleashed a triumph over sin and evil through the power of love.

And so love becomes the guiding principle for the new community that gathers in Christ’s name. Paul tells us, a little coyly, I think, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” We are not to be operate like a typical organization, where some achieve distinction or claw their way to power and the rest owe them honor and allegiance. We are not to feel indebted to one another at all. But what we do owe each other is, paradoxically, everything, our very hearts, love. And it’s mutual love we owe; he says that we owe it to “love one another.” That’s interesting. Suppose instead Paul told us simply to love everyone; then if you didn’t show me love, maybe I’d just have to say, “Oh well, I love you anyway.” But if we owe it to each other to “love one another,” if we owe mutual love, then if you don’t show me love, I owe it to you to call you out on it. In other words, Paul is not a calling us to be doormats to one another. This is love that is also justice. I owe it to you that you love me, too, that you love me back.

Anyway, I love to talk about love, but it’s time to get back to time. Jesus both exposed the sin and evil of the world, he called it out, but he also allowed it to be. So those who believed Jesus was the Messiah had to revise their expectations that when the Messiah came, God would judge and condemn the wicked. But the early Christians continued to assume that God was still going to destroy evil; they thought Jesus is coming again soon to judge the world. It’s pretty clear from his writings that Paul thought something like this. Most of the New Testament expresses the same opinion. And what can we say? It didn’t happen. Anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously has to wrestle with this uncomfortable fact. I just don’t think those who say, 2000 years later, “Any day now, he’s coming back—I mean, look at these hurricanes,” I don’t think they are honestly wrestling with this uncomfortable fact. How many ‘signs’ have to come and go?

So it’s our turn to ask: what time is it, Paul? Is it the end time—still? Do you know what time it is? What are we to say to Paul? We have a hard time accepting this biblical time in which the world is soon going to end. So we say, “No Paul, I don’t know what time it is, this time you talk about.” And we are left consigning ourselves to time as everybody else sees it; secular time rather than biblical time.

But that’s not so great either. In our secular world of commerce and business, we treat time like a commodity, something we have and spend. Only rarely are we reminded that we don’t own time. Time inevitably owns us. I’m reminded of this sometimes when I sit watch over someone who is dying, when “our time has come,” as we say.  But mostly we are expected to manage time as if it were ours. I was just listening to a public lecture by my teacher, Kathryn Tanner. She described how, in our modern economy, we put a premium on working toward the future. The young are expected to use their time to make something of themselves, to make something valuable of their gifts and abilities. And they feel that pressure: soon it will be time to get a job. Hopefully, the job we have been preparing for and training for will still be around. We also put a premium on spending toward the future. We are encouraged to commit ourselves to long-term debts: student loans, credit cards, mortgages. And so we find ourselves on a pretty merciless timetable to pay them back. Far from owing no one nothing, as Paul says, we owe our working years to faceless, loveless banks. In exchange, we get the kind of lifestyle that we have come to see as owed to us.  This is what time is for us. We sell a good chunk of our future for what we can obtain in the present. Time can feel oppressive, with our endless schedule of payments, although somehow we’re left with no one else to blame but ourselves.

No wonder we are inclined to escape from this oppressive, indebted orientation to the future. So either we live for retirement, when at last we will own our own home and all our time will be ours, until of course our time comes. Or we declare “carpe diem,” and try to live only for the present moment. We might do this carnally, taking pleasure in the moment as if there is no tomorrow; reveling and drunkenness, as Paul puts it. Maybe we enjoy material indulgences, or perhaps we are led to addictive substances. Perhaps we lose ourselves in the moment by pointless entertainment that is fun while it lasts, but goes nowhere. Perhaps, more spiritually, we dwell in the present mindfully, freeing ourselves from the future by a Zen-like attention to the present.   I find this last option the healthiest and most attractive of the ways to dwell in the present, although I have tried them all; by the grace of God, I did not fall into addictions and did minimal harm to myself and others. But wouldn’t it be good if we, people of the church, had some alternative time to dwell in, besides the debt-spending future that oppresses us and the present that can only be an escape, a futureless present. Wouldn’t it be good if we could grasp this time that Paul is sure we indeed do know about when he says, “You know what time it is.”

Perhaps we can. Don’t we say that temporally odd phrase during communion: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?” I think we can get back to that Biblical sense of time, but I’m going to have to simplify some things. Let’s, for the time being, say we’re not going to worry about the Second Coming; let’s take the end of time off the table for ‘a time.’ Then we can say this: Jesus came to show us the future. Not a prediction of what is going to happen and when, but he showed us the only future that really has a future. The only future that is not just more of the same: the corruption which breeds selfishness, the selfishness that breeds corruption, with all of it working together to destroy the vulnerable. We are all perpetually caught up in that mess, in one way or another. Jesus exposed it for what it is, and showed us the alternative to it, showed us our real future. He showed us that love conquers selfishness. The worst that the corrupt powers can do to us is death; they can rob us only of the false future that they already own. But if we live in God then death has no ultimacy; death has lost its sting. Notice that Jesus has already showed us this, past tense. Our future has already appeared in the past. The true shape of human life has already been perfected in Jesus. The new way of life already began with Jesus and his disciples.

Whenever we believe in this new human life, this new human possibility found in Jesus, however far away it seems from us and our world; whenever we believe in it and confess it here in worship, we already have salvation. In chapter 10 Paul says: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified; and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” Worship may seem like lip service—get it? a little pun—but to confess that we have a future because of what God did in the eternal past of Jesus Christ, a past that lives for all time, is a mighty act. It defies the corruption. It even glorifies God. I remind you of this because I’m not sure we always appreciate just what an amazing thing it is to worship in church. So if we just pay attention—wake up!—to what we are saying and doing here, we’ll see that confessing our faith is much more than lip service. It frees us from the false future that shackles us, in which we have to make good on our debts. We are not indebted to God. We don’t have to succeed or else. And if that’s how you feel about the future of this church—if the ‘success’ of this church feels only like a burden and source of anxiety to you, then you are shackled to the future of this church, and that’s not the same as freely embracing the promise of the future in God.

Confessing our faith, we already have our salvation, the promise of new life in Christ Jesus. But just as importantly, we also have a future. Notice what Paul says: “Salvation is nearer to us now then when we became believers,” when we confessed our faith in Christ. Salvation is also a future for all humanity that we are getting nearer to. So we don’t have to live this new life perfectly, and we will of course continue to fail and fall back into the old life. Paul doesn’t say, “You must live perfectly!” He says, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are invited and encouraged to live that future now, to wear it now, “to put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and not put our future in the flesh, as Paul puts it—and do you remember how I translate that word “the flesh?” Paul doesn’t mean sins of the body, like lust and gluttony. “The flesh” means living for your self, living for your ego. We are to make no provision for the flesh, for our egos—there’s no future in that. All of this is to say, that we the church, if we truly put on Christ, are the vanguard of the future of humanity; we are living in the only way that really overcomes anguish and corruption. We are truly living the future.

So it was a long detour, but maybe now we know what time it is; that is, we can understand what Paul means by time in a way that we can really believe in and in a way that changes our whole outlook on life. Now we are ready for the Spiritual Inventory. Because this inventory is all about looking to the future. Being a Christian is about living for the future, not anxiously, not in debt or under the gun, but with the confidence that our future lies in way already shown to us in Jesus Christ. That way means that we do live for our egos. (And don’t you want to be a part of a community where egos are not always getting in the way? That’s how things should be.) So when we do our inventory, we can take stock of where we are—honestly and without pride or defensiveness. And then we can picture what our future can be, what we want to become, and how we can start to go there. This makes for spiritual growth.

Now I will help you look to Scripture as a guide, but I cannot dictate to you what’s keeping you stuck in the present, nor how you can live for the future. Only you can discern what can do now to live for the future; only you can give yourself to God’s future. So do not hand in the first part of the Spiritual Inventory that is there each week to guide your self-reflections.  This week gives you an overview of the four dimensions of our spiritual life in our church, as I see it: spiritual practices, beliefs, fellowship, and mission. As Paul would say, “Let us” think about our whole spiritual life in these dimensions, and begin to think about where we might want to grow. Read it now, quietly; and take it home and write some thoughts on the back.

I’ll ask you to hand the second, short form in to me, either today or in the future. There is a box in the narthex. You may keep it anonymous if you like. The first question on that form asks for your thoughts about what you mean by a rich and full involvement in our church, or spiritual growth more generally. If you have thoughts, please share them with me.  The second question pertains to a process I am leading for the whole church and especially the leaders of our church.   I want us to think carefully together and discuss who we want to become as a church; and every week I want to get your feedback. I’m starting this week with a very general statement of our goal as a church: to become spiritually more vibrant. I hope that sounds fair. No one wants us to be financially healthy but spiritually less vibrant, right? So what does a “more spiritually vibrant” future for this church look like to you? What would you like to see us become? Please share your thoughts with me by answering the second question on that short form. I pray that these forms will be for us a way to put on Christ and bring our salvation nearer, together.

Spiritual Inventory Week One