My oldest son (age 4) often shares the prayer when we sit down at the table to eat dinner. Tonight’s prayer was just awesome, so I tried to quickly jot it down while we remembered it.
Thank you Jesus for our food.
And thank you for this nice snack.
Thank you for (my brother) going to church.
In Jesus name…
And for (preschool friend) coming back to school.
And for (another preschool friend) coming back.
In Jesus name…
Our 2 year old son checked out by this point and just started eating.
For Mommy and Nona having a good exercise time.
For going to church.
For (my brother) making this (a craft) in Sunday School.
In Jesus name…
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. -Matthew 18:1-5 NRSV
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near. (Rev 1:3)
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Rev 3:22)
In September my congregation will begin a series on Revelation in our Sunday worship gatherings. I enjoy studying this letter, which I have been doing once again this summer in preparation for the series using Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination. For some additional resources on studying Revelation please see this earlier blog post.
Peterson points out a spiritual practice that clearly stands out in Revelation’s messages to the seven churches (also vital for engaging the entire letter): listening. The instruction to each church includes a call to “listen to what the Spirit is saying.” Therefore Peterson provides the image of churches as “listening posts” (48).
How adept are we at listening? Do we regularly practice listening-to each other in our congregations, and also to voices in our local communities? Do we know how? I see a lot of “doing” in churches and each week I participate in more than my fair share of it. Might we at times neglect the use of our “ears” because our “hands” and “feet” are so busy? Whatever our experience is with this sense, the revelation of Jesus Christ gives a repeated call to listen to the Spirit. Which implies that the Spirit is speaking. Right now. Today. But to discover this instruction we will need regular practices that form us to have ears to hear.
Listening is an act of collaboration. It requires conversation. It’s an invitation to interruption. It’s a willingness to potentially experience discomfort or challenge. It’s a path to constructive engagement with those whom we disagree. It’s a chance to say, “I see your point” or “I hadn’t thought of that” or “Tell me more.” It means I’m not the only voice that matters. It’s an opportunity to patiently stick together. It (hopefully) leads to reflection and action. It’s slower than the fast-paced culture that often forms us. It’s an expression of peace. This is what life together can be in a “listening post.”
This John who we meet in the pages of Revelation demonstrates evidence of being a good listener-both to the Spirit and to the churches he obviously cared about and ministered to. As I try to comprehend what John meant by being “in the spirit” (1:10) I tend to imagine his expression as being some kind of spiritual and physical posture of listening.
Peterson sees churches as being,
the one place in the world where persons deliberately come together and uncover their ears so that the sounds of God’s word will be heard, accurately and believingly. (49)
That’s a lofty goal, and one that we will need to intentionally work at together to realize. Today I see much value in welcoming (uncovering our ears to) a wider and more diverse participation in the life of the church, trusting that through hearing one another we will be better able to discern the powerful voice of the Spirit as we listen together. As we follow Christ, may we develop as “listening posts,” communities willing to truly listen, to hear, and to trust the guiding voice of the Spirit.
Last Sunday was an important day in our congregation. It was the day we hold our annual congregational meeting, which is like the start of a new year for us. This context is one where we consider the “business” of the congregation (budget, team appointments, etc), but it’s also an important time to reflect on our life together. We take time to intentionally remember what God has done in us and in our local community.
Our worship gathering set the tone for this time of reflection, vision, and hope for the coming year. One of our scripture texts was 1 Samuel 7:12:
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer, explaining, “The Lord helped us to this very point.” (Common English Bible)
For this day it seemed appropriate to develop a new spiritual practice, a new tradition, something that could help us commit to God and to each other. But it wasn’t something new that fit this special day best. By investigating the scriptures, the practices of other congregations, and the landscape of our local community a direction emerged. The scriptures tell of ancient spiritual practices using stones. My friend Pastor Rose shared a meaningful Ebenezer stone practice that her congregation participates in annually. And our town of Spring Mount is literally full of boulders of all sizes and shapes (including some rock formations with interesting historical significance).
So “the work of the people” this day was to create an Ebenezer stone (“stone of help”). There was no sermon, but instead a series of communal practices that spoke a message. We considered the question, “How has the LORD helped us?”, and took turns sharing our responses which were written on the stone. We sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” And finally we shared in the Lord’s Supper.
The stone has been placed in the garden at the meetinghouse. During the course of the year, each time we approach the meetinghouse we will see this rock and have an opportunity to remember the ways God is helping us as we serve Christ. And next summer, after twelve months of weather have worn away the words, we will bring the rock back inside to reflect on new things God has done.
In our congregation’s 79th year we tried something new. Something which was actually pretty old. And in a meaningful way we were reminded that God is faithful, God is present, and that God is our help.
During his life, one of the (many) gifts my maternal grandfather gave his grandchildren was their own special name. It was a kind of like a nickname though it didn’t always resemble our proper name. I’m not sure exactly why or how he chose all the names, but I’m sure he had his reasons. And these names were the primary way he addressed us. I was named “Pal.” He called my brother “Schnitzel” (my grandfather was of German ancestry). Other siblings and cousins he gave names like “Pretty Girl,” “Tweeter,” and “Mike.” Never once did I enter his presence without hearing, “Hi Pal!” These names were very important to him (and to us), and helped form a wonderful bond in our family.
The sad fact is that naming is sometimes used in very negative and destructive ways in our world. So this is another reason I am so thankful for being formed by my grandfather through a very positive and life-giving practice of naming. Naming is a means of relationship, and if used as intended, can be a vital way to connect with God, with each other, and with God’s creation.
18 Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed from the fertile land all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky and brought them to the human to see what he would name them. The human gave each living being its name. (Gen 2:18-19 CEB)
In the first story in Genesis God is naming the elements of creation that God ordered from chaos. And in the second story humanity is invited to join the Creator in the act of naming. If naming is intended for such a cosmic purpose, then it is no wonder why naming can be so destructive and create so much hurt when it is abused.
Last Sunday in my congregation we reflected on the narrative in Genesis 2. Our Conference Minister Jenifer Eriksen Morales preached on this text and helped us explore the act of naming. Then in conversations around tables we engaged some questions she suggested to explore this story and the practice of naming:
What does your name mean?
Do you know how you got your name?
Does the meaning of your name describe who you really are?
What other names would people use to truthfully describe you?
What characteristics would Jesus use to describe how he wants his followers to be and act?
In what ways have people in the congregation helped to “name” or form you?
We ended our time, naturally, by giving each other a name. It came in the form of a blessing we personally shared with each other: “You are God’s beloved daughter/son.”
Jenifer Halteman Schrock wrote, “Naming is a celebration of diversity…”(1). We are part of a wonderfully diverse creation of God’s making. According to this Story we were created for relationship. Which means we have the opportunity, in how we name and address one another, to build relationship and form each other in life-giving ways.
Among other things, by giving his grandchildren a diverse collection of names, my grandfather helped us all to clearly understand that we were dearly beloved. And four years ago, when the time came to name our firstborn son, my wife and I called him William, after my grandfather.
May our “names” and our “naming” demonstrate the kind of relationship and shalom that God desires for all creation.
There are rituals, especially initiation rituals, that one undergoes only once, where the transformative power works partly by overstimulating the psyche and by heating the emotions to a new fever. But the rituals that are meant to sustain our daily lives do not work that way. In fact, they work the opposite way. They are not meant to be an experience of high energy and creativity, but are meant precisely to be predictable, repetitive, simple, straightforward, and brief … The rituals that sustain our daily lives do not work through novelty or by seeking to raise our psychic temperature. What they try to effect is not novelty, but rhythm; not the current, but the timeless; and not the emotional, but the archetypal.
-Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, p.236
I played competitive baseball from age eight to twenty-two. This period took me from little league all the way up through four years of NCAA college baseball. The experience of being part of many different teams meant that I received a lot of coaching. I was formed as a player by these coaches, and I became a better, more complete player through their guidance in practices. Following my college career I also coached jr. high baseball for a local school district for a number of years. This too, was a learning experience. Coaching is part of a formation process: we receive instruction and learn a way of doing something by doing it over and over and over again.
Coaches are also known for giving passionate, high energy speeches, in order to inspire their teams to perform. They stir the players’ emotions in order to produce better play from the team. And sometimes this works-for a short time. But what makes a team successful, what sustains growth as a player and as a team, is the faithful, ritual practice of the basic elements of the game. Sometimes we call these the “fundamentals” of the game (as Skip from Bull Durham said, “This is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball”, without “lollygagging” of course).
As a player I was formed most effectively, not by the impassioned speeches of the coach (they got us “fired up” for sure…for about an inning) but rather by the hundred ground balls I fielded every day. Or by long-tossing (throwing to build arm strength) and soft-tossing (hitting into a screen) each day. One particularly boring practice that a junior high coach made us do (and that I later taught my players to do) was to field soft ground balls without our gloves on. This practice taught us to focus on the small things that we often overlooked, like watching the ball all the way into our hands and coming up ready to throw properly. Following this practice, a round of infield/outfield practice often was much less mistake prone. Simple, boring rituals like this one helped sustain me as a player, when I was out in the field and had to make a play on a sharply hit ball. The routine of practicing the boring stuff created muscle memory and an ability to react almost instantly to what I experienced in the field, providing an advantage in the game.
As with sports, in the spiritual life we also need to focus on the boring practices and not just look for the high energy pep talk all the time. In the above quote, Ronald Rolheiser invites us to examine our misgivings (or even misunderstandings) about rituals. Ritual is often dismissed as boring, dead, unemotional, and therefore practically worthless. Give me more high energy/fun/exciting/entertaining stuff so I can get an emotional high! But that may be all it is-a high or an emotional experience, and likely one that will not last. So that’s where the “boring” practices come in. Meditating on a small piece of scripture for weeks at a time. Using a prayer book for morning/midday/evening prayer. Creating space for twenty minutes of silence/solitude during the day. These practices may not seem especially exciting. But these kind of rituals help sustain us in this every day life with God and with others, helping to form in us a rhythm through which we might notice, encounter, or experience God’s presence more naturally.
I am thankful for my baseball coaches, as they formed me both as a player and a leader. But I am also grateful for the other “coaches” who continue to form me spiritually: family members, pastors, seminary instructors, colleagues, and writers like Rolheiser and many others. It took a while, but I am appreciating the importance of the boring practices. This kind of coaching sustains me in the daily walk with Jesus, and at times is a true source of growth and grace.
I am in the process of reading Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. In a chapter on ecclesiology he quotes Alan Jones (Journey Into Christ):
In the waters of baptism we are reminded that we are not born in a vacuum, nor do we journey entirely alone (although loneliness is often part of the burden). Being reborn, being made alive, involves being born into a community. So there are strings attached to this adventure. Far from being the spiritual journey of the solitary individual in search of God, it drags a people, a church, a nation, the human race, along with it. (p.111)
There is much said about the shortcomings and faults of church communities (and a lot of it legit). But let’s look at this from the other side. How have you benefited from journeying with a church or community of faith?
35 James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”
38 Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, 40 but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John. 42 Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 43 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44 Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45 for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”
(Common English Bible)
“do for us whatever we ask.”
This statement feels like the kind of request my young son makes sometimes. “Do this!” Children sometimes want to give the parent direction (we give them directions so often, it’s understandable). Disciples act like children sometimes-children who do not see the whole picture.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
What do I want Jesus to do for me? Jesus asked this question more than once in the gospels, but I usually do not personally turn it around and look at it as if Jesus was asking me directly. I’m often quick to judge James and John (what arrogance/selfishness!), but are my requests really that different? How often do I come to Jesus asking for him to “do something” about this or that? On the other hand I know there are times when I try to accomplish and solve the issue myself without asking Jesus for help. Jesus’ question seems to be pointing me toward balance in this area.
“But that’s not the way it will be with you.”
There is a temptation to create Jesus in one’s own image. When this is done Jesus looks suspiciously like the things I desire, or support, or am comfortable with. How easy it is for me to want Jesus to be what I want him to be. Am I living more like the dominant systems around me, or like the Jesus who challenges them?