End of the Road

Picnic at FBCWe had an excellent Rally Day last Sunday. Thanks to everyone who pitched in to help with the last cook-out of the summer, especially when Eleanor Satterlee became ill. We are grateful for all the good work she does organizing our hospitality. We don’t always see what a task it is until we have to step up. Hugh reports that she is “on the mend.”

This week the road we have been walking with Brian McLaren sadly comes to an end.

We have spent a year working our way through Brian’s book, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation. I hope you have been as refreshed by this lectionary alternative as I have.

Appropriately, the final chapter is entitled, “Alive in the Spirit of God: God in the End.” Of course, God in the beginning and God in the End. McLaren saves three significant scriptures for our final consideration – Luke 15:11-32, The Parable of the Prodigal Son or the Waiting Father or the Dysfunctional Family (you choose); Romans 8:31-39, “nothing can separate us from the love of God”; and 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, “the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible”! We will focus on the passage from Luke and its joy when the lost is found, the dead resurrected. Come, everyone! Join in the party!

We will also kick off this year’s Adult Spiritual Formation class as Hugh Satterlee leads us in a consideration of the The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein. There are copies available in the church library.

Come, everyone! Join in the “party” Sunday at 10:00 AM. Share the joy with your family friends, colleagues, neighbors or a stranger off the street.

May we continue to grow together as God’s people.

Pastor Rick

Come! (9/20/2015)

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Text:   Revelation 21:1-7; 22:16-17, 20-21

 Does anyone besides me share a love for a good mystery? I wouldn’t say I was obsessed but I enjoy Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis, Sherlock Homes in his many manifestations, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and most of the other British mysteries on PBS. I have read all of Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter series and several of the Wallander tales by Henning Mankell. Now I confess, I am not very good at figuring out “whodunit.” I actually enjoy being surprised in the end when the erstwhile detective reveals it all to you. Maybe you’re one of those people who reads the end of the book first because you are impatient to know how it will all turn out. Personally, I would rather savor the story, even delaying the final disclosure in order to remain immersed in the experience of the adventure. Revelation will come in its own time; there is something satisfying for me in the enjoyment of the journey.

Or how many of you predicted the outcome of all the college football games yesterday? Who knew that the Texas kicker would miss the extra point and Cal would hang on to win 45 to 44? Who had scripted ahead of time Stanford’s masterful victory over 6th ranked USC or Mississippi’s upset of Alabama? There’s an old adage that proclaims that no one can guarantee the outcome in advance, that’s why you play the game. I suppose in this age of fantasy football one could make a fortune if she could predict accurately the outcome of all the games.

Sometimes we are eager for all to be revealed; sometimes we would rather give ourselves over to the journey. Often, we have no control over the outcome of a given story or situation and must patiently await its unfolding over time. We may find ourselves living in hope of a certain something that is to come but find we have no way to guarantee that our particular desire will be fulfilled.

Sometimes we dream. We may have a vision of the future. We may be flooded with imagery of some thing or some place or some story. It may be a revelation, but dreams and visions are not always clear, at least on the surface. They offer curious characters and situations and relationships that we cannot easily grasp. I know over the years some of you have engaged in dream work through this church. I admit that I am not a great or gifted interpreter of dreams. When I have done dream work with clients or parishioners or spiritual directees, I have always begun by asking the dreamer what they think the dream meant. I believe that that is the most fruitful way to enter another’s dream world rather than offering pre-packaged interpretations.

However, with John of Patmos, his vision was written down and distributed to his community. Others picked it up and, strange as it may seem, included it in the Bible. That means, as people of the Book, we are at least invited to consider it. Volumes have been written by scholars and schemers, seekers and dreamers, trying to make sense of John’s vision. More than one purported prophet or eschatologically-oriented community has tried to use it to predict the actual unfolding of the future. This great beast or that bloody battle are indicators that some tyrant or other fierce being is foreordained to bring about the end of the world. In spite of Jesus’ clear instructions to leave end things to God, many a Christian claimant has given over ministry and even life to following the belief that a particular piece of Revelation will lead them through Armageddon to the gates of heaven, avoiding the eternal flames of the lake of fire.

I suppose it is partly because Revelation comes at the end of the Bible that Brian McLaren has chosen to treat it in the penultimate chapter of his book. I actually like that he pairs John’s great apocalyptic vision with hope. I believe he is right about this. More than anything, John’s vision is an offering of hope for the fulfillment of God’s Beloved Community. I know there are lots of beasts and battles, bloodshed and burning, before one reaches the golden shores of the River of Life. But, following McLaren and other scholars, I can see how Revelation offers hope for an oppressed people.

We have considered before how little most of us know about oppression, at least the sort that John’s community was facing. Although it was not necessarily a period of wide-spread persecution, it was a time when Christians were a decided minority. In a polytheistic culture, it was tolerable for Jews and Christians to worship their God, but it was a curiosity that they would limit themselves to only one God when a multiplicity of gods could be so much more useful. I imagine that today we don’t understand their world view any better than ancient peoples understood monotheism. In our culture, we turn exclusively to “our God” and often treat other religions with disdain, both subtle and obvious. As Christians in the USA we don’t really grasp the oppression those early Christ-followers faced nor do we see the elitist attitude we often take toward faith traditions outside our own today.

In addition to the general skepticism and disdain for the religious practices of the early church, there was also the problem of emperor worship, which had social and political implications for Christ-followers. If the emperor claimed to be a god and demanded worship as well as tribute and if the emperor was as mad as Nero or Diocletian, any noncompliance could be met with bloody persecution. So you can see how those first followers of Christ were caught in a dilemma. If they spoke up for their faith they were liable to experience social ostracism and outright persecution. If they kept their mouths shut they were guilty of failing to spread God’s Good News to the ends of the earth. It was not a comfortable position to be in. Today, we may choose to keep quiet about our faith in order to maintain social nicety or not rock the boat or respect others’ points of view, but I doubt that most of us know well the dilemma our ancestors faced in following the faith.

McLaren and others suggest that Revelation functions as kind of code – not code for us to use in deciphering literal end times and the disposition of heaven and hell. Rather it is an allegory about the ultimate failure of all principalities and powers that place themselves in opposition to the living God and the final fulfillment of creation in God’s Beloved Community. We can get hung up on the intricate and gory details of John’s dream. Many have, but in the end John means to offer a word of hope to a people who were struggling to maintain their faith in an inhospitable environment. In the end, John says the powers that be will be overcome and God’s reign will be fulfilled on earth. How exactly that will happen is in God’s hands. It will be accomplished in God’s time and God’s way. In the meantime, God’s people are asked to remain faithful, to put their trust in God, to live in hope for the fulfillment of God’s future.

McLaren writes, “Rather than giving its original readers a coded blueprint of the future, Revelation gave them visionary insight into their present situation. It told them that the story of God’s work in history has never been about escaping Earth and going up to heaven. It has always been about God descending to dwell among us. Faithfulness wasn’t waiting passively for a future that had already been determined. Faithfulness meant participating with God in God’s unfolding story. God wasn’t a distant, terrifying monster waiting for vengeance at the end of the universe. God was descending among us here and now, making the tree of true aliveness available for all” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 256).

Hear again these words that sum up John’s vision, his great revelation, the way the story ends – “’See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…See, I am making all things new.’” Then,”The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. “

It’s a complex invitation. On one side we hear the invitation from heaven to come, partake of the wedding feast of Christ and the church. On another we are encouraged to speak up, to invite others to come, share the feast with us. And from a third perspective, we shout to heaven, “Even so Christ Jesus quickly come,” as we long for the fulfillment of our hope that the Beloved Community will become our reality as soon as possible.

As McLaren writes in our Words of Preparation, “What was true for Revelation’s original audience is true for us today. Whatever madman is in power, whatever chaos is breaking out, whatever danger threatens, the river of life is flowing now. That’s why Revelation ends with the sound of a single word echoing through the universe…It is a word of invitation, welcome, reception, hospitality, and possibility. It is a word not of ending, but of new beginning. That one word is Come! The Spirit says it to us. We echo it back. Together with the Spirit, we say to everyone who is willing, Come!” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 256). “…let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Come!

New Associate Pastor; Death and Life

Rev. Rick MixonI am personally thrilled that Gregory Stevens has accepted our call to serve as our Associate Pastor for Faith Formation and Family Life. Our candidating weekend went very well, with a fine cook out and time for sharing on Saturday evening, followed by an excellent worship service and special business meeting on Sunday. Gregory acquitted himself with grace, good humor and thoughtful reflection as we considered together how we might link our lives as pastor and people.

The latest word I have is that Gregory is hoping to join us as soon as September 4. He is eager to get started! I trust that we will offer him our customary warm FBCPA welcome and do everything we can to support him as ministers with us. Thanks to everyone who helped to make the weekend such a special time.

We are coming to the end of the road we have been making by walking with Brian McLaren. This Sunday’s theme is “Alive in the Spirit of God: Spirit of Life.” Ironically this chapter focuses as much on death and the afterlife as on life as we know it. Our focus scripture will be from Paul’s letter to the Philippians leading to an exploration of “Living in Christ.” “For me to live is Christ,” Paul proclaims. What would such a claim mean for you and me? Patio Hour will be hosted by Nana Spiridon.

Plan to be here to share in worship and Sunday School starting at 10:00 AM. We have a   special treat Sunday as our service and special music will feature the playing of several Native American flutes. What a great time to bring some others along to join us.

May we continue to grow together as God’s people.

Pastor Rick

To Be God's People

Plotting the Jesus Way (July 26, 2015)

Rev. Rick MixonA Sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Text: Ephesians 5:15-6:9; Philemon 1:3-21; Hebrews 13:1-8; James 5:1-6

As we have worked to make our road by walking it with Brian McLaren this past year, we have been given a set of three or four scripture passages to consider each week to direct us on our journey. This week we have four particularly challenging passages, especially for our contemporary context. I chose the one from Philemon for this morning’s ancient word but any of the four could have been used to explore what McLaren calls “the Spirit Conspiracy.”

The dictionary defines conspiracy as “an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; a plot.” It also indicates that it is a combination of persons for a secret, unlawful, or evil purpose.” This is hardly language we want to apply to the work of the Spirit or claim for our Christian enterprise. The last definition offered seems more in line with McLaren’s word play: a conspiracy is “any concurrence in action; combination in bringing about a given result.” So the Spirit Conspiracy is more a “concurrence in action,” a coming together in service of a common goal that will lead to a radical change in a situation. It’s plotting to upset of the status quo. It’s working in community toward a transformation of life.

In commenting on these passages, McLaren actually plays with the language of Mission Impossible – “Your mission, if you choose to accept it…” Conspiring with the Spirit in bringing about the Beloved Community of God is exhilarating but challenging work that we must choose and commit ourselves to. Sometimes it operates underground, works behind the scenes, is downright surreptitious in its progress toward bringing newness to life.

In each of the four passages from New Testament Epistles there is at least a hint of subversion to the status quo following the Jesus Way. The first passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:15-6:9). This is the passage in which Paul urges wives to “be subject” to their husbands,” husbands to “love” their wives, “children to obey” their parents. These are some of the words Southern Baptists and others use to “keep women in their place,” specifically, outside leadership in the church. But when Paul urges that the husbands love their wives and children and that familial relationships be characterized by honor and respect, he is subtly challenging patriarchy in which the male head of household had the right to treat wife and children as property with which he could do as he pleased. Is there conspiracy with the Spirit here to undermine the status quo in service of family life rooted and grounded in love? Love brings power to disrupt might, control, domination in establishing and sustaining human relationships.

Paul’s little letter to his friend, Philemon, is highly controversial. Paul has been faulted for not challenging the institution of slavery head on. That may be a fair critique. In this very personal communication, Paul sends the slave Onesimus back to serve his master. We know that this is one biblical passage that has been used to support institutional slavery. At the same time, apologists note that though Paul sends Onesimus home, he also urges Philemon to receive him as Paul’s adopted son and a brother in Christ. Instead of invoking legality, Paul appeals to Philemon on “the basis of love.” Again, we see the subversive power of love lifted up with Paul’s hope that it will transform the relationship of these two children of God and brothers in Christ.

In the passage from Hebrews (13:1-8), the writer addresses issues of undocumented aliens, prisoners, torture, marriage rights and the love of money. Here the writer more directly challenges the status quo. Fear of the foreigner, incarceration of poor debtors, torture of those arrested (as Jesus himself experienced,) marital infidelity and ruthless accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor were social ills in the first century as much as they are today. Some things seem never to change.

Make room for strangers, care about and for those in prison, those who are victims of every kind of torture, learn to live in faithful relationship and honor all those who have committed themselves to one another, free yourselves from the love of money and be content with all with which you have been blessed. And, once more, it’s all undergirded by that transformative power of love. The writer begins his exhortation with these conspiratorial words, “Let mutual love continue.” Life in the Beloved Community depends on this mutual love.

Then James, perhaps the most outspoken of all, pulls no punches in his challenge to business practices that cheat the worker for the greed of the owner and to an economy in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you” (James 5:1-6). Not a text many preachers would choose to preach on most Sundays, and yet here again we hear the word that undermines the status quo in the service of justice and equity, in service of building up the Beloved Community of God.

When it comes to the Spirit conspiracy, to plotting the Jesus Way, there are three key elements to consider. I am indebted to our friend and webmaster, Andy Kille, for sharing these in our ministers’ support group last week. He says there are three concerns that the world’s great religions hold in common – compassion, hospitality and service. My response was to say that most surely these are foundational to Christianity, necessary to plotting the Jesus Way – compassion, hospitality and service. In each of these difficult passages we see one or more of these elements at work, transforming the situation into something closer to Jesus’ vision of God’s beloved community.

Compassion, the capacity to feel with another, to walk in another’s shoes, to get inside another’s skin. If we take the time and make the space for compassion, it will be hard to hate, difficult to judge, challenging to mistreat. Compassion carries forward empathy, that capacity to care for another and to work for their well-being, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Compassion is crucial to Paul’s advice about how husbands and wives, parents and children, lovers and partners, ought to treat one another – with love and respect, tenderness and care for the well-being of all.

Hospitality is essential to the Jesus Way. All are welcome in this place. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the author of Hebrews says, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Make room at the table, open your door, cheer the weary traveler, who knows what wonders God has in store for the hospitable. Ask Mary Granholm and others in our congregation how their lives have been blessed by the practice of hospitality. As the old spirituals sing “There’s plenty good room in my Father’s kingdom, just choose your seat and sit down” and “We’re gonna eat the welcome table one of these days.” Hospitality asks, why not now? And it’s not just the strangers. It’s prisoners, those who have been beaten down and tortured, those who have been left out and left behind, those who have been lied to and cheated, terrorized and abused, poor and struggling, the least and the last and the lost.

Service is the Jesus Way. It’s not enough to feel compassionate and hospitable. Something has to be done, making room, making a way, making life better for all creation. This is crucial work in the Jesus Way. To love God with your whole being, to love your neighbor as yourself, to let mutual love continue means there is work to be done. Earlier in his letter, James writes “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

Husbands and wives, partners and lovers, children and parents, families of every size and shape, friends and neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, strangers and enemies, rich and poor the Jesus Way insists that we all come together in one big tent, that we learn to live together and share with one another and care for one another wherever we find ourselves in whatever circumstances on this small, fragile planet. Indeed we need to extend compassion, hospitality and service to the whole of creation.

“The Spirit that moves among us,” writes Brian McLaren, “is the same Spirit that moves in and through all creation. If we are attuned to the Spirit, we will see all creatures as our companions…even as our relatives in the family of God, for in the Spirit we are all related” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 238). This is the wisdom of the Spirit Conspiracy. This is how we come to walk the Jesus Way – “to see all creatures as companions…as…relatives in the family of God.” So the plot thickens as we conspire with Spirit, as we make the dangerous, thrilling decision to walk the Jesus Way, as we devote ourselves to working for the Beloved Community. In today’s Word of Preparation, McLaren offers the challenge, “There are circles of people that the Spirit of God wants to touch and bless, and you are the person through whom the Spirit wants to work. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to conspire with the Spirit to bring blessing to others” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 235).

Rooted in our lives

labyrinth01This week we will finish the third section of We Make the Road by Walking, the one that focuses on the life and ministry of Jesus, Paul and the early church, carrying us through the Lenten and Easter seasons. Here the focus is on Paul and the others in the early church who sustained their faith through all the difficulties and persecution that came their way. They truly “made the road by walking it,” keeping the movement going in spite of all they had to struggle with.

Today, when we live in an environment that is at least tolerant and often hospitable to the church, I wonder if we don’t have it too easy. I’m not advocating increased suffering as a means of strengthening our faith, but these texts make me think of those people around the world who hold on to their faith at great risk. I think of Christians in Myanmar, India, the Middle East, parts of Africa, who are persecuted and even killed for holding fast to what they believe about the Gospel. There is something stirring about sisters and brothers in the family of faith who are willing to lay down their lives for what we often profess so easily and glibly.

Brian McLaren has challenged us to see the Gospel as fomenting a “global uprising” for peace and justice, for love and compassion, for establishing the Beloved Community of God on earth today. As people of privilege we have unique challenges in living into that Beloved Community. How do we let the Gospel be so rooted in our lives that it transforms us in the way it has transformed the lives of those around the world willing to risk their lives to make it real? How do we partner with them in bringing the Body of Christ fully alive?

We did begin the series, “Painting the Stars: Science, Religion and an Evolving Earth,” last week as the pastor found the video at the last minute. (Sigh!) The video is thoughtful and well produced, inviting us to understand an “evolutionary paradigm” as compatible, even helpful, in understanding our faith tradition. As usual the discussion was lively and helpful. We will continue the series this Sunday with a consideration of “A Renaissance of Wonder.”

Please plan to be here by 10:00 AM for worship and Sunday School, followed by Adult Spiritual Formation. What better time to bring others along to share in the life of our community than this blessed Easter season?

May we continue to grow together as God’s people.

Pastor Rick  

When You Pray (March 8, 2015)

meditation_table.fwA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 8, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:1-18 (The Message)

“Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like these heathen. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income. Thank you, God, for making me so special. Oh, and by the way, I hope everyone is getting video of this on their cell phones. Amen.”

“God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner. Save me by your grace for I have no other hope.”

Now who do you suppose went home right with God? I’ll tell you, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself” (Luke 18:9-14, The Message).

This parable from Luke’s gospel is his version of Matthew’s story that Melanie read for us this morning. Both link the practice of prayer with humility.

When I was in seminary, there was a kind of prank going around. We would drop a reference to Hezekiah 6:4 into the conversation as if anyone worth their salt would be familiar. The more honest folks would not pretend to know the verse but would grab their Bibles to look it up. Can anyone here this morning quote that verse?

Of course you can’t, because there is no book of “Hezekiah” in the Bible. It just sounds as if there should be. One variant on the prank was for you to quote the verse before people scrambled to find it. As I recall, the quoted verse was, “He who tooteth his own horn tooteth loudly.” Silly as it may seem, I think this made up quote actually follows Jesus’ teaching in bringing us to a place where we can turn round right. He who tooteth his own horn not only tooteth loudly but also with little or no substance. It is a loud, empty braying as with the one who speaks with all the eloquence of mortals and angels, but having no love at the center, rings like a noisy gong or a lonely, clanging cymbal.

We talked Tuesday in Bible study about how hard are these passages from the Sermon on the Mount. They challenge us to live more fully not only into the righteousness of God’s Beloved Community but also ever nearer the very heart of God. Jesus’ teaching is not just to give us a set of standards by which to live our lives. It is, more importantly, to bring us into right relationship with God. Of course, one of the principal practices of establishing right relationship is prayer.

When you pray…what? How would you finish that sentence? When you pray…

I think your responses indicate what a challenge, as well as a satisfaction, prayer might be. In many ways, prayer is a conundrum. Volumes have been written on it, sermons preached, lessons taught. It’s clear in Jesus’ teaching that it is not self-aggrandizement. You’re probably better off communing with God in the privacy of your own room than strutting your stuff in public. When you toot your own horn in the midst of the assembly, you’re more likely to drive a wedge between you and God than you are to draw closer.

I suggested in the Midweek Message this week that “though there are numerous paths to prayer…we might agree that prayer is that which brings us closer to God, which supports and enlarges [our] sacred relationship” with the Holy One. I wonder if there is agreement. Is there some sort of bottom line for us in that suggestion? At the same time that routine ritual may not bring us very close, moments of complete surprise may lift the veil to sacred.” As I do so often, I come back around to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic affirmation that “earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God…only those who see take off their shoes.”

What moves us to take off our shoes? What do we see in the world around us that draws us nearer the heart of God? Where do we encounter God in our daily lives? These revealing times and places are the substance of prayer. They may be contained and expressed in sacred ritual and they may burst on us without expectation or warning.

In preparing for this sermon I came across an excellent essay by Jane Vennard, who teaches spirituality at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. While I am reserving the essay for future contemplation in Adult Spiritual Formation, let me share a few things she writes about in exploring a life of prayer. One thing she says in the beginning of her essay about her course, which is entitled, “Life of Prayer”: it “is…an invitation to integrate prayer with life. Life with only a small section devoted to exploring prayer is quite different from putting prayer at the center of life” (Jane E. Vennard, “Exploring a Life of Prayer,” http://www.religion-online.org).  How would our lives – yours and mine – be different if we put prayer at the center?

In our Words of Preparation today, Brian McLaren declares that “The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures. In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us…fruit that can change the world” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 139). Is this what Vennard believes would be a result of a life of prayer? Surely it would be counted among the possible outcomes. We turn inward so that we may eventually turn outward with integrity and power born of our sacred relationship with God who moves in and through us toward the fulfillment of creation.

Some other key things that Vennard asserts about prayer are these. Prayer may grow from a sense of “pain, agony or despair when a prayer [is] pulled out of us with surprising strength” or it may blossom from “times of great wonder.” As with Browning, she insists that “God speaks to us in many ways if we are open and willing to see and to listen” and she concludes that “although…holy people have much to teach us about prayer…a life of prayer is available to all of us — young and old; alone and in the midst of family; working, retired, and unemployed. God calls all of us into relationship.”

Here is a quick review of the forms she suggests that prayer might take. First there is prayer as action. She tells the tale of student bemoaning the loss of her ability to pray. When asked to recall her “first spiritual experience,” the woman tells a story about being on the playground with her peers when she notices another little girl sitting under a tree alone and weeping, obviously excluded from the group. She chooses to go sit with this other child. “We did not speak,” she says, “we just sat together for the rest of the playtime.” The instructor’s tender response was to tell her that her “compassionate response to a person in need was a spiritual experience. Action can be a form of prayer.”

Vennard continues, prayer is “any activity that nurtures our relationship with God. If reading Scripture brings you closer to God, that is prayer. If having tea with a friend nurtures your relationship with God, that is prayer. If sitting still in a summer garden feeds your soul, that is prayer. Listening to music, teaching Sunday School, serving in a soup kitchen – all can become prayer.”

Prayer can take on forms like praise and thanksgiving; sorrow and anger when we lament and cry out, even shaking our fist at God as in some Psalms; or intercessory prayer when we respond in compassion to and for others. There are prayers of the heart in which we take on a mantra, a simple phrase or word that keeps linking us back to God, such as “God have mercy on me, a sinner” or “Help! Thanks! Wow!” Centering prayer is the discipline of committing ourselves to 15 or 20 minutes, twice a day of silent contemplation of God’s presence. Lectio divina is an ancient Ignatian practice of reading, reflection, response and rest, working with a sacred text. Prayer can be spoken, silent or embodied.

It is easy to see then how a life of prayer involves the discipline of finding and cultivating forms that work for you. Vennard teaches that “The practice of prayer can be comfortable, challenging, easy or difficult. Like human relationships, our relationships with God will go through many stages as we become more intimate. Sometimes the relationship will fill us with great joy, other times it will seem boring and stale. Sometimes the relationship will be as natural as breathing. Sometimes it will demand hard work and require a lot of time and energy. We may even have times when we break our relationship with God, going our own way, paying no attention to God or to prayer. But God does not turn away. God keeps calling. And after a time, a longing wells up in us to return to God. This longing is a sign of faithfulness, for our hearts have been touched; we have heard God’s call.”

What is it that draws you closer to the heart of God, that brings you into right relationship with Holy One, that helps you see the sacred in every common bush as well as in the challenges and struggles of living for you and others? When you pray…fill in the blank. I imagine it involves all of the above and more. Still, God calls and our hearts are restless until they find a way to rest in God. Amen.       

Lent: A Journey with Jesus

candleringThe seasons cycle round and once more we find ourselves in the season of Lent. For forty days our focus will be directed toward the longing and pain of Christ’s Passion, the harsh reality of the Crucifixion and the life giving promise of Easter. We’ve considered before the ancient Lenten practice of giving something up during this season to help sharpen our focus and move us more deeply into the events we remember through these forty days. And we recognize that sometimes that “giving up’ can seem routine or punitive. I don’t think either of these qualities are to be desired as part of our Lenten practice.

In the Ash Wednesday service in recent years, we have turned to the lovely old hymn that urges drawing “near to the heart of God.” As we look for-ward to walking the road with Jesus, moving inexorably toward Jerusalem and all that will take place there, we sing,

Oh Jesus, blest redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before Thee
Near to the heart of God.

It is this holy heart of God from which we come and to which we long to re-turn. Though this journey with Jesus moves surely toward all that Holy Week holds, the good and the bad, the ugly and the glorious, it also carries us beyond into the center of what it means to be God’s people, a people always wanting our lives to be held in the heart of God.

If giving up something helps lighten your load so that it’s easier to make the journey, by all means do so. Let go of anything and everything that blocks the way to that place of “quiet rest,” of “comfort sweet,” of “full release,” of “joy and peace” found near the heart of God. I’m sure many of us carry more burdens than we need to do as we wend our way through life. Learning to travel light is good spiritual discipline and serves the Lenten season well.

But it may also be that there are things we need to take on in new or more in-tentional ways. To pray, to contemplate, to sit in silence, to seek out the wonders of God in the world around us, to help another along the way. These and other disciplines also may help to sharpen our focus and move us closer to God’s heart. One of the things we are learning in the classes I am teaching this spring is the importance for pastoral counselors and caregivers to pay attention to cultivating spiritual disciplines in order to make our practice of care more meaningful.

Above all, Lent is a time to pay attention to those things, those elements, those practices which help or hinder us on our journey. Give up chocolate or meat or Facebook or anything that you sense may be blocking your way, if you be-lieve that will truly bring you nearer the heart of God. Set aside regular time for prayer, meditation, silence, reading, helping, if you believe that those prac-tices will move you more surely along the path to the heart of God.

Wait, watch, walk with Jesus. What is it he lets go of, turns his back on, fore-goes as he moves along? What are his disciplines, his practices, his commit-ments as he walks the road laid out before him? What might we learn from his walk and his walking with us that moves us along the road laid out before us? Using Brian McLaren’s, We Make the Road by Walking, we will use texts from the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5, 6 and 7 – as a scriptural guide. What better place to observe Jesus at work for the Beloved Community of God.

Sometimes it may seem that we walk the lonesome valley by ourselves for no one else can walk it for us and sometimes we take the hand of our neighbor, our journey partner, our beloved and walk the road together in blessed company. However we travel through this Lenten season, may it lead us ever nearer the heart of God.

Yours on the journey,
Pastor Rick