I think those of us who participate in the life of the Church often promote an unhealthy attitude about what God can accomplish. We underestimate God’s ability to work in our lives, in the work of the kingdom, in transformation. And so we set the bar accordingly. In other words, low.
We have a tendency, I believe, to think that we know how all this works. That people don’t change, or that our lives—collectively and individually—will not get better.
And that anemic view of God’s kingdom holds us back. It limits what we hope for. It makes us hamstrung.
That’s not to say that I am promoting a “health and wealth” understanding of the faith. I don’t think that God’s desire for Jesus’ disciples is to be wealthy. Jesus himself was homeless, so I just can’t buy into that belief that some Christians hold on to dearly (and more often than not they are getting that idea from charismatic leaders who have created a lifestyle that others desire—yes, I’m looking at you, Joel Osteen).
This past Sunday those of us reading from the Revised Common Lectionary heard two parables about the kingdom of heaven starting small—with a mustard seed or some yeast—and getting to be huge. Jesus was saying that the kingdom is like the energizer bunny, it just keeps growing. It may look like it’s insignificant or too small, but it doesn’t stop. And then it becomes a place where the birds can come and nest.
If he were living in the US today, Jesus might say the kingdom is like kudzu—that ivy like plant that has grown over tress, signs, even houses, in the southeast. It doesn’t stop once it grows. In fact, even though it lies dormant in the winter, in the spring it picks up where it left off. The kingdom is like that.
People in my denomination sometimes dole out statistics about the church’s impending doom. That somehow we can see the end of the church. Nope, Jesus says. While we like to sometimes latch on to scarcity and the frailty of God’s work, God pays no attention to what we think and keeps on working. God wants to use us in that work to be sure, but even if we don’t God’s work continues. The kingdom just keeps on growing.
So what view do you take of the kingdom of God? Do you think of it as a dying vine or a flourishing tree? Is your view of how God can work in our world—in your life—limited or is it hopeful that God will bring life?
We got back this past weekend from some time in Acadia National Park. We camped for 8 days — almost perfect weather! — and spent time together as a family and were mostly unplugged. 8 days with no phone calls, emails, Facebook updates, twitter feeds, online news (save Red Sox scores), and the rest.
It was heavenly.
And we so needed it. You know how it gets when you don’t get time to just be. You get harried. Fried. Overwhelmed. We were getting to that point since we’ve not had any time “away” since our arrival here in Southborough.
But part of the problem is that when we get away we still stay tethered to our electronics. We still text or check email or whatever and that means that we aren’t present with the people we’re with.
I know it’s hard. Some have jobs that mean they always need to be connected (as a priest, I know when I’m around, the on-call part is all the time). But how can you get unplugged and away for just a bit because we need the time to rejuvenate.
Here are a few tips:
1. Make a covenant with the people you’re with about technology usage.
Take time before you leave to decide what the expectations are. And be specific. Saying, “No texting while we’re eating meals” or “I won’t check email more than once a day at Noon” can help a great deal. In my case, I checked to see if I had voice mails once per day (when we got cell coverage while driving—no coverage at our campsite).
2. Try to go technology free at least part of the time.
Even if you are staying home for vacation this year, make plans to go technology free. No calls, emails, texts. I personally think we should try to do this once a week for Sabbath, but this is certainly a good idea, if not a necessity, while on vacation.
3. Spend time with the people you love doing things you love.
If the outdoors are your thing, go hiking. If it’s reading, browse bookstores. While you’re doing this you can engage in some great conversation—it doesn’t need to be “deep”—about life, or our dreams, or even what’s so great about the place you’re at. We don’t spend enough time connecting in our hectic lives, so vacation can be a time to readjust this.
4. Think about taking a vacation once a week.
Imagine taking a true day off once a week. No calls or emails. No house work. Just an opportunity to do what delights us. I’ve written about Sabbath Keeping before and I know how hard it can be at times to keep this practice up in my own life, but being away reminded me that we can “get away” once a week — and God actually commands us to do this — if we’re intentional.
So I hope you are making plans this summer to get away, and maybe even considering getting away regularly by keeping a Sabbath. If so, tell me about and leave a comment below.
When Melissa and I were getting married, the minister who did our pre-marital counseling gave us a copy of the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. The test—which can be taken online—asks if certain life events have happened in your life over the last year or so to see how stress can be wreaking havoc on your body.
So you simply checked a box if the situation applied. Things like: marriage, divorce, death of parent, death of a spouse, move, work changes, change in finances, different sleep patterns, arguments, and 30+ other items. Each is given a number, and if the total number is more than 300, you have a very good chance of becoming physically ill due to the stress. If it was 150-299, you have a moderately good chance of getting ill.
In the past number of years, I don’t think I’ve scored lower than 200, most times pushing higher. I suspect many of you might be in the same boat. I’ve lived much of the last years with near constant stress. Since my ordination 7 years ago I’ve relocated 3 times for church positions, experienced the birth of my two kids, dealt with the death of my mother, had major surgery, and the list goes on. I’m not looking for sympathy as much as to say these things happen in life and often we are unaware of the long term impact of stress in our lives.
I mentioned in my sermon on Sunday that we have a tendency to isolate ourselves when things get rough. We don’t want to talk about it either because we don’t want to admit that life is difficult right now or because the constant rehashing of our experiences is emotionally draining. And not only do we pull away from friends and family members, we also have a tendency to stop doing things that give us life. We stop engaging in activities that feed us.
One of the things I often ask people who come to see me about issues in their life is this: How are you taking care of yourself? Often in stressful situations we get so bogged down by it all—the pain of divorce, the late nights with a newborn, planning for a new endeavor—that we don’t take the time to rejuvenate or to connect with God.
I wish I could say I’ve got it all figured out, but I too get caught up in the stress at times. But these things have helped me.
1. Set aside a regular time for God. Yeah, I’m a priest and I get paid to say something like this, but it actually works. When I set aside a regular time each day to pray, read scripture, or just sit quietly I am able to recognize God’s deep love for me and that God cares for me and is with me in the stress.
2. Do something I love. This takes intentionality, but if I can go for a walk, do some cooking, see a movie or one of the other things I love to do (I have a lot of hobbies), then I’m able to be fed by those things. I met a person recently who said his thing was trying new beers, so this summer he’s doing just that. Each night he’ll try a single bottle of a new brew and then keep a list of the ones he likes.
3. Connect with a friend. Tell someone you love that you’d like to do something together. Grab a cup of coffee or a meal. Browse at a local bookstore. Whatever. Spend time with them and be honest about some of the stress you’re experiencing. “Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul tells the Galatian church (Gal 6:2), “and in this way you’ll fulfill the law of Christ.” One sure way to reduce your stress is to talk with a trusted friend who can give you support.
I hope you’ll take time this next week to take an inventory of where your stress is at and also to become intentional about how to take care of yourself. We don’t do ourselves any good if we just let the candle keep burning on both ends without becoming aware of how it might damage us or our relationships.
I love the opening from Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It. He writes:
On Sunday mornings my brother, Paul, and I went to Sunday school and then to “morning services” to hear our father preach and in the evenings to Christian Endeavor and afterwards to “evening services” to hear our father preach again. In between on Sunday afternoons we had to study The Westminster Shorter Catechism for an hour and then recite before we could go to the hills with him while he unwound between services. But he never asked us more than the first question in the catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” And we answered together so one of us could carry on if the other forgot, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” This always seemed to satisfy him, as indeed such a beautiful answer should have, and besides he was anxious to be on the hills, where he could restore his soul and be filled again to overflowing for the evening sermon. His chief way of restoring himself was to recite to us from from the sermon that was coming, enriched here and there with selections from his most successful passages of his morning sermon.
The chief end of course, in this case, was to be outdoors to be recharged. To hike the hills, to fish, to enjoy God’s creation.
And why not? God has given us this beautiful creation to enjoy. We heard it this past Sunday about how God made the world and everything in it was good, and that God asks us to both enjoy it and take care of it.
I think it’s in enjoying God’s creation that we also enjoy God. Getting out to the Cape, enjoying the beach, being out on the water, hiking, biking, paddling. It all brings us closer to God and restores our tanks.
Too many of us don’t take time to recharge. We try to squeeze in a vacation that is nearly as jam-packed as our every day lives. We rarely take time to be restored, to be filled again to overflowing, so we can be better for the work before us.
This idea drips with connection to Sabbath keeping. We don’t do this much in our culture. We stay busy to keep the balls in the air. We go 60 or 90 or 200 miles an hour most, if not all, of the time. And we don’t take any time to see the impact it has on us or our families until it’s nearly too late.
So, what is your chief end? How do you “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”? What recharges your batteries and gives you time to pause and know that you are doing what God desires for you?
For me that means hiking, cooking, being outdoors with my family, camping, biking, resting, reading, and a load of other things (I have lots of hobbies, all of which I do moderately well). But those things restore me and make me better able to do the work I am called to do.
I hope you take some time this summer to do what recharges you and that you see it as a gift from God. And maybe you will take a minute or two and comment on what you do to restore your soul.
A bunch of us saw Rob Bell’s Nooma video called “Noise” at our adult forum on Sunday. (Want to see it, get it here at You Tube). It raised a lot of questions for me about how noisy our world is and what that is doing to us, especially spiritually. We have a lot of noise thrust on us and also thrust a lot of noise on ourselves.
And we were reminded in the video that when God came to Ezekiel, God wasn’t heard in the earthquake or fire or wind, but in the sheer silence (see 1 Kings 19:11-13).
Can you remember the last time you were in the presence of sheer silence?
Yeah, it’s hard for me too. I try to get away once a year on a silent retreat to do this, but it’s hard, especially for those of us with younger children. There is never a time of sheer silence.
But if God is to be heard in the sheer silence, how can we open ourselves up to the possibility of hearing God in those times? What would it be like to turn of the cell, get away from it all and experience some uninterrupted silence?
Scary for some, I’m sure. We keep it so busy so we don’t have to deal with some of the inner thoughts of our hearts. But what if God wants to bring healing to us, and the only way to receive it is for us to be still?
So, think about your life and try to find some time for quiet. Maybe a walk or shutting the doors, or just getting away somewhere to steal some time and experience the quiet. It might not be easy, but every time I do it, I know it is so worth it.
In my sermon yesterday I asked if the people of St. Mark’s (and others who want to) could covenant to prayer and the study of Scripture for 10 minutes, twice a day. I think it could make a tremendous impact in the life of our community if we were intentional in doing this.
So to help out, here are couple of tips.
1. If you keep a calendar, schedule the time.Make it repeating. Maybe it’s getting up a few minutes earlier. Maybe you can set aside the first ten minutes after the kids are out the door. Maybe you know that after you get your morning coffee, you can sit for that time in quiet reflection. Perhaps you can take a small break in the evening. As I said yesterday, if you leave it to chance, you probably won’t do it.
2. Find a short pattern of prayer to use. There’s the daily devotions for individuals and families in the Book of Common Prayer (I’ll reprint it at the bottom of this entry). Or Phyllis Tickle’s book The Divine Hours Pocket Edition. Others are out there (see my post about keeping the office). But if you have something to follow along, it may make it easier for you and you won’t be stuck by an uncertainty of how to pray.
3. Consider praying during regular activities. Melissa read a fabulous book last year called PrayerWalk: Becoming a Woman of Prayer, Strength and Discipline that really gave her an idea to combine exercise and prayer. I know some folks who pray on the train or while driving. When we first had Noah, a priest friend said we’d be saying a lot of our prayers over the changing table, and he was right. While it can be distracting at times (or filled with noise), I think it would be better to pray while doing something else than not praying at all.
I hope you’re able to take this on. Maybe you have questions or comments. Click below and let me know what you are thinking.
Daily Devotions from the Book of Common Prayer (pgs 127-130)
In the Morning
From Psalm 51
Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
A Reading Either this one or another reading may be used
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. I Peter 1:3
A period of silence may follow.
A hymn or canticle may be used; the Apostles’ Creed may be said.
Prayers may be offered for ourselves and others.
The Lord’s Prayer
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the Early Evening
O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds.
A Reading Either this one or another reading may be used
It is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus’ sake. For the same God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine,” has caused his light to shine within us, to give the light of revelation–the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:5-6
Prayers may be offered for ourselves and others.
The Lord’s Prayer
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.
We’re on Day 22 of our Great 50 Days of Easter, and our lessons turn from Resurrection Appearances to how we are to follow Jesus. We got the great lesson from Acts 2 where we hear that tons of people began to follow the Way of Jesus and devoted themselves to this endeavor.
It’s enough to make any clergy person giddy.
So that’s what I talk about in my sermon. Here you go.
Easter 4A—Acts 2:42-47
If you talk to clergy about the reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, you will probably encounter some good old- fashioned envy. What we clergy know as well is that in the previous verse we hear the results of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It’s a pastor’s utopia, with the people spending much time at the temple, with their generous hearts sharing their possessions with one another and the Lord adding to their number each day. A priest could sit and daydream about such a place for hours.
But then something in our heads pops up and says, “Wake up and smell the coffee. Such a place doesn’t exist, at least not today.” It’s easy to give in to this “nostalgia for those biblical days,” as one pastor put it. But, he warns, “from there it is a short step to nostalgia for our own church’s better days, when pews were full, programs were exciting and we had an impact on the large community.” We don’t live in those times anymore, for better or for worse. We live in the here and now, and longing for the past will leave us blind to the present. It will so shade our understanding of things that we will lose our focus and mission in the present day.
So I want to assure you that this is not a sermon in which I ask why you all can’t be more like those first converts a couple of millennia ago, which would lead to me pointing a stern finger and having you all feel guilty and also questioning your desire to ever come back here again. I want to live in the present day, and see it for the blessing and challenge that it is. “Holding all things in common,” and pooling all of our money won’t work today, and in fact, it wasn’t even something that happened in other churches throughout Acts.
Yet I don’t want to go on as if there is nothing to learn from this text either. This is a challenging piece of scripture if we allow ourselves to hear it. Rather than imagining clergy nirvana, what might these verses be saying to us in 2011—this post-modern, fragmented, overly-busy world that we live in?
Personally I am not really struck by the sharing of money here, but by the deep building of community that happened. We’re told that these new converts “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Those words may sound familiar, since it is the first of five questions asked of us when we renew our baptismal covenant or baptize someone for the first time. “Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?” we are asked. “I will with God’s help,” we respond whole heartedly.
They did this, these first followers of Christ. They devoted themselves to this. They spent much time, day by day, together. In worship, in sharing meals. In living their lives in community.
If I had to speculate about what keeps many of us from this kind of life—that is a life centered on our faith, building community, saying the prayers—I would say quite certainly that for many it is one thing. Time. We are so mind-numbingly busy in our day and age that we hardly have time to rest, let alone fully putting our faith into practice. We are overly scheduled. Both us and our kids. Even those who are retired will often say that they have never been busier in their lives. Often in social settings this topic comes up, and we talk about our over-loaded schedules almost with a sense of pride, each trying to outdo the other. We think it makes us important. Or we don’t know how to say no. Or we are scared to face the demons of our inner life so we keep ourselves busy so that we never have to.
I promised not to head down the road of nostalgia to a time when 24 hours was magically longer than it is today, nor would I stand up here and point a finger saying that you must add more things to your overly-extended calendars. So how do we do this? How do we devote ourselves to the life Jesus wants for us as his followers?
If there were easy answers, I could write the book and make a bundle. Many have tried, of course, and the results are all somewhat unsatisfying. There aren’t magic bullets in the spiritual life, no pill we can take that will somehow make everything better. It is, I think, as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long obedience in the same direction. I think it takes intentionality and perseverance. Without either of those two, our faith life will take a back seat to the other distractions in our lives. And for many of us—a great deal in fact—it’s because we don’t know how to live into this life. We haven’t been taught how, or given a reason to see its importance. And that, if I am honest, is because we who are clergy have failed you. We have for too long felt as if we needed to hold the information to ourselves and give it out in palatable doses, or we think that you aren’t mature enough or intelligent enough to handle such a life, or we think that you won’t listen to us anyway so why should we bother. Or, if I am even more honest, it’s because many of us haven’t been really taught how to live this type of life ourselves. And for that, on behalf of all the clergy you have known and let you down, I am truly sorry.
You see, I think Jesus invites us into a better life. The way life is meant to be. Peace in our homes, deep and lasting friendships, time set aside for prayer, caring for one another, enjoyment of God’s many blessings, compassion for those who face injustice, having generous hearts, finding fulfillment in the work we do in this world. But this life often gets lost in the busyness of our days.
I’ve recently discovered a blog written by Michael Hyatt, the chairman of the board for Thomas Nelson Publishing. He writes a great deal about productivity and the things that steal our time, and about intentionality. He says that many of us spend more time planning our vacations than we spend on planning our lives. We live from moment to moment, crisis to crisis, experience to experience. And so we may, like I have been doing this weekend, give hours of our time to watching the Red Sox and Yankees, while also feeling as if we have no time to devote to the life we desire. If you desire a certain type of life—and I hope you’re like me and desire the life that Jesus wants for us—you have to make a plan.
That sounds so much like a First World problem, but in my understanding of things, I cannot think of any other way to put it. If we start with the reality of our overly-busy lives (also a First World problem), then most of us cannot address our desire for a new life without intentionality. If we desire authenticity in faith and devotion to Jesus, we must begin somewhere. And we begin best of all by making a covenant to look at our lives honestly to see where we spend our time, and then finding a way—even if it’s small—to begin living the life Christ calls us to.
Imagine if each person at St. Mark’s covenanted to spend 10 minutes each morning and each evening in prayer and reading of scripture. 20 minutes a day. The average adult watches somewhere between 3.5 to 5 hours of television a day. You may not be the average adult, but I suspect you could find that pocket of time for prayer if you wanted to.
And I want to covenant with you that I will be a priest that provides you with the tools you need to live this life. I will spend my days by giving you ideas and tips for living this way, in deepening relationships with you, in providing opportunities for you to devote yourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And I will invite you to walk alongside me, and share in this leadership. I cannot do this work alone–that is a damaging fallacy that has run its course much too long in our churches. All of the disciples, and apostles were lay people. They were folks like you who had families and day jobs and had to pay their taxes and all the rest. The Way Jesus invites us into is not only for those who are seminary trained. We are all called to walk in this way, to grow and deepen in our faith and to share that faith with others.
If as a community St. Mark’s lived in this fashion, I bet we would see the same sorts of things happening here that they saw in the Early Church. That we would worship together, sharing meals with one another with a spirit of generous hospitality, praising God for our many blessings and caring deeply about the goodwill of all people. This is the life Jesus holds out before us. I pray that we intentionally desire this life for us and for others in this community, and that we devote ourselves to authentically following Christ. Amen.
 Gary Neal Hansen, “Acts 2:42-47 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year A Vol. 2, eds David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Pg 424.
Rather than using the Bible as a tool or a place to go to get answers, one of the best things to do with this holy Word of God is to pray with it. The most common way of doing this is called Lectio Divina, Latin for “divine reading.” If you give yourself a good 20 minutes to half hour or more, this can be a very rewarding practice. I’ll give some details below.
Lectio allows us to really have God’s word get deep within us. It opens us up to the Holy Spirit leading us to new understandings about Scripture and to move within us.
And what it does most of all is open us to hear God’s words to us fresh without bringing our own agendas and understanding to a text. By slowing down and listening, we begin to see things that we might not have noticed before in a passage.
There are four stages to Lectio. To that end, I’ve copied the following from another site (the United Church of Christ website), but I thought it was a great reference to describe the four stages.
In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk named Guigo described four stages in the practice of Lectio Divina.
Read the Word of God slowly and reflectively. Any text from the Bible can be used for this purpose, but the reading should not be too long.
Think quietly about the text you read it. You can read the text many times to let the words sink into your mind and heart.
Leave your thinking aside and simply let your heart speak to God.
Let go of your own ideas and plans. And you can go deeper: let go of your holy words and thoughts. Simply rest in the Word of God. Listen at the deepest level to God who speaks within you with a still, small voice.
So if you read the story of Jesus calming the sea, see Mark 4:35-41, you may after reading begin to reflect on the phrase “Peace! Be still!” Soon your reflection on that phrase (which may last for a number of minutes with you simply saying every so often that phrase again and again) may lead you to speak to God about the storms in your own life and the longing you have for Jesus to speak those words to your storms (This would be Oratio). Then, after some time, try to release your desires to God and open yourself up to what God may be saying to you in the midst of this.
This takes practice, and you may get frustrated that you “can’t do it right.” You’ll be relieved to hear there is no rights way. And, more importantly, that we are all beginners. Sometimes this will go very well and feel very fruitful in our lives. And other times, not so much, and we might feel discouraged because we aren’t connecting with God.
This isn’t a simple formula, but rather an invitation to spend time with God. As you mull Scripture over in your head, it gets inside of you, shaping you into more and more the person Christ is calling you to be. In this way, you’re able then to draw closer to God and to recognize that God desires relationship with us, and desires us to be in relationship both with others and God.
A follow up on a question about Lent and Easter resources and books for kids. Here are some things that we’ve found helpful.
Resurrection Eggs — These eggs allow you to tell the story of Passion through the use of symbols leading up to Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. Great for helping children understand the story of this season. $15 online here.
All Through the Day, All Through the Year — This is a book that is framed around the liturgical calendar from the beginning of Advent through the end of November. It highlights special days and gives concrete ways to commemorate and celebrate throughout the year. There’s a complete section on Lent, Holy Week and Easter. It’s hard to find these days, but well worth the cost.
Veggie Tales: An Easter Carol This is a great video about the message of Easter told through the lens of A Christmas Carol. It revolves around a plastic egg factory and the desire to tear down a church to create “Easter Land” where Easter can be forever. Kids will love it!