Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances. I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word. Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord, and teach me your ordinances. I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law. The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts. Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.
As we read these ancient words from Psalm 119 on Tuesday, I was struck once more by their power and beauty. I admit that I sometimes wrestle with the language of the Psalms. That’s why I most often turn to Nan Merrill’s lovely paraphrase when including a Psalm in our liturgy. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a paean to the Torah, the ancient Jewish law. What hit me Tuesday is that this Psalm is in no way a tribute to the letter of the law but rather to its enlivening spirit. “Your word, O God, is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” This is no dry legal brief; this is a love song to the law, to a living word.
“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.
Doxology – “a short hymn of praise to God,” according to Wikipedia. I was thinking about this because Jan and I were talking Sunday about changing our “Song of Response” (our modernized term for “doxology.”) I imagine that some of you are aware that we change that sung response from time.
During World Mission month, In October, we have been using “For Fish and Poi” in that slot. In the Advent/Christmas season, we use the verse from “What Child Is This?” that begins “So bring him incense, gold and myrrh…” Other options have been the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” and “We Give Thee but Thine Own” (a personal favorite for both Jan and me.) Recently we have used the 5th stanza of “Rejoice, the Lord is King”:
Praise God who rules all worlds, the risen Christ adore.
Praise God the Spirit, Holy Fire, one God forevermore!
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.
All my life in the church (which is, of course, ALL my life,) there has been some form of doxology at the point in the worship service when the offering is brought forth and prayed over. So, I have always associated “The Doxology” with gratitude and giving. Everyone knows that’s the offering song. It is interesting, then, to discover that the song is not necessarily about the offering, it is about praising God, which, of course, should be the focus of all our worship.
To me the obvious connection is in praising God for the ways in which we have been blessed and recognizing that whatever we give is a return, in gratitude and joy, for what we have received. Another of my favorite hymns sings:
There’s not a plant or flower below, but makes Thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow, by order from Thy throne;
While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care;
And everywhere that we can be, Thou, God art present there.
Surely this recognition of God’s presence in our lives and throughout is
cause for gratitude and songs of praise.
We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.
All that we have and are is a trust from God. What would our lives and the world around us be like if carried this concept into every aspect of our living? This concept fits well with the journey we have been on with Brian McLaren. Remember the starting place, God created all there is and called it good, including you and me. Then God invited us to share in God’s love and care for creation, including one another. This is foundational to our faith. The word we commonly use for this is stewardship.
We are co‐caregivers and sometimes even co‐creators with God. We are invited to look around to see the treasure that God has embedded in even the least of these. Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us of “every common bush afire with God.” I’ve mentioned before the artistry of our friend and colleague, Sue Yarborough, from New Community of Faith, who takes amazing photographs, close‐up, of the interior of flowers. At times the “God‐presence” in those photos is palpable. We used one particularly powerful one on the cover of our bulletin for Pentecost Sunday. We have responsibility both to care and share with God in the abundant and surpassing beauty and goodness of creation.
Now to the mundane. The above is preface, or maybe it’s grounding for this “Season of Gratitude.” We know that this is the time of year in which every non‐profit does some appeal for funding. Our mailboxes fill up with the letters and flyers. There is an assumption that holidays ahead breed a giving spirit. The church is no different.
This is the time of year when we appeal to you to support the church’s budget by making pledges for next year. It can be very awkward to ask others for money, but, because I believe in FBCPA and its ministry, I am not reticent to ask for your support. There are many good things happening here in ministry to and with this world so full of God. We have been faithful in our stewardship of our community and our facilities and I pray that we will continue in that faithfulness into the future God has for us. Remember, “We make the road by walking” and part of that journey is our financial support, the gifts we give back to God, because we have been so blessed that we want to bless others through the ministries of our congregation.
Is it too far‐fetched to think of our giving as “doxology” – a song of praise to God for all that God shares with us? I invite you to join me in a “Season of Gratitude” in which we open ourselves in every way – spiritually, compassionately, financially ‐ to praising God from the very core of our being. In gratitude to God for all we are and have, let us claim identity and practice as
“More light, more love, more life” – God bless and keep us, inspire us and guide us on this journey into God’s future. Pastor Rick
There was a lot on Moses’ mind as he followed the flocks across the Sinai Peninsula, finding food and water where they could. One could say he was distracted as looked back over the way he had come – growing up in Pharaoh’s court, his curious feelings for the Hebrew people, both the ones who had helped raise him and those he saw in hard labor for the Egyptians. He wasn’t really sure how he fit in anywhere. Then there was the day he had struck out in rage, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He didn’t know exactly what had made him so angry. It all just seemed so wrong.
He had been forced to flee for his life, leaving behind all the wealth and privilege to which he had been accustomed. He found his way to the tiny land of Midian, where its priest had taken him in, giving him refuge. In time he had made an uneasy peace with this arrangement, eventually marrying the man’s daughter and becoming a part of his family. Now his responsibility was to tend the flocks of Jethro, a task for which his royal friends and family back in Egypt would have disdained and ridiculed him. “Oh look, the mighty Moses is a shepherd. He’s not such hot stuff now, is he? How far can a man fall? He’s living in the bottom of the barrel.”
It wasn’t that he minded the work so much. It gave him a secure role in the world and often kept his mind from wandering, but for several days now they had been moving farther and farther from Midian. Suddenly he was aware that he was in territory he’d never traveled before. He looked up and looming before him was a mountain with which he was unfamiliar. As he began to look around more carefully, trying to get his bearings, he saw something in the distance that caught his eye. It appeared to be a fire. He decided to check it out.
As he got closer, he could see a thornbush that seemed to be aflame and yet its leaves and branches were not actually burning. That is, they appeared to be unscathed by the fire. He moved in to get a better look. As he got very near, he was sure he heard a crack of thunder. Maybe the bush had been struck by lightning and lit ablaze. Only it was a hot, dry day without a cloud in the sky.
Again the thunderous sound, only this time, he thought he could make out words, like his name was being called. “Moses, Moses.” What could it be? Was there someone in distress in or around the burning bush? But how could they know his name? Again, the sound. This time he was certain it was his name. “Moses, Moses.” There was an urgency to the call. He had to respond, “Here I am.”
Thus did Moses encounter the living God. Lost, distracted, full of the challenges of his own life, God found him where he was and called to him. I suppose in his troubled self absorption, he might have wandered by and missed the whole experience. Barbara Lundblad writes, “I…know, and perhaps you do, too, if we’re honest with each other, that we have an almost endless capacity to keep walking. Schedules can do it. We’re terribly busy. We need to get someplace, no time to stop, we’ll come back later. Rationality can keep us from turning aside: we don’t believe in visions. Belief in an all-sufficient, autonomous God can keep us from stopping: God so totally other that any earthly sign could only be our own psychic illusion. There are plenty of sound reasons to keep on walking” (Barbara Lundblad, “Turning Aside,” March 5, 2000, csec.org). He also might have seen the flames and fled in fear as far and as fast as he could.
Still, there is plenty of evidence that when God comes looking for us, God will find a way to get our attention. Fortunately Moses’ native curiosity led him to “turn aside and look at this great sight.” Some would say that whatever path we take, there is something in each of us that longs for an encounter with the living God. We may be aware. It might be near the surface and a conscious quest or it may linger deep within us, out of consciousness, nagging at us indirectly. At any rate, Moses’ journey brings him to the foot of the holy mountain and here God descends to meet him in the midst of his distracted wandering. God calls him by name. God knows him better than he knows himself.
“That’s close enough, Moses. Take off your sandals. This is holy ground.” Have you ever tried to walk barefoot across burning sand? Hopping from one foot to the other, you look for shade or water or covering that will cool and protect your feet, but Moses removes his sandals and kneels in the presence of the living God. Overcome by the encounter, he covers his face, afraid to look directly at what blazes before him. There is an inherent humility that comes with such a sacred encounter.
My friend, LeAnn, used to remove her shoes to preach. She felt that standing in the pulpit was holy ground and removing her shoes was a meaningful, humbling symbol for her. There is something powerful in removing whatever comes between us and the sacred. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins observes,
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
So much gets between us and the grandeur of God, the sacred wonders of creation, and we trudge on unaware of what is possible all around us. As Anathea Portier-Young puts it, “…in this moment, Moses is told to remove his shoes. Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.”
Bare feet and burning bushes become markers of an encounter with the Holy One, the Living God. Such an encounter shakes us up, changes our lives, transforms us. It becomes source for our seeing, our speaking, our calling. The encounter is with the very ground our being and all being.
Portier-Young continues, “When Moses removes his sandals he will find himself at journey’s end, at the true goal of every journey. He will release himself from every claim so that he can accept the claim God makes upon him. He will strip away strivings for status, success, and stability. He will find his true ground and he will know where he stands” (Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15, August 31, 2014,” workingpreacher.org).
Could such an experience be available for us? Will we turn aside to see this great sight, this evidence of the sacredness of Creation? Will the time come when you and I find true ground and know where we stand? Where in your own journey have you been invited to remove whatever keeps you from digging your toes into sacred soil, from rooting and grounding yourself in it, from accepting the claim that the Living God makes on you?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning advised us that
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware…
(from “Aurora Leigh”)
God is ever present and always calling us, luring us, longing for us to meet God in holy encounter, to see and embrace all of heaven, all of the sacred that surrounds us and for which we share God’s loving care. We will not each have the same experience Moses had. Moses was unique – as is each of us. God had a task for him, a monumental task, the liberation of an entire population from oppression and slavery.
God may not challenge you or I to such a grand enterprise. But God calls each one of us – “Mary, Mary. Lois, Lois. Thelma. Thelma. Lynn, Lynn. Alan, Alan. Rick, Rick. I have work for you. There’s a place for you, a calling for you, a task for you.” How will we respond, you and I? I imagine we might be as reluctant as Moses. We may offer as many excuses or more. We’ll try to talk God out of it. “Why don’t you choose someone else who is younger, better qualified, less busy, not as burdened with obligations, more faithful, more spiritual, a better person, a better Christian?”
Well here are the universal words of assurance I take from this text. In the midst of voicing his protest and making his excuses, God says, “I will be with you…” The promise is that we will not be alone; that God goes with us; that whatever the work to which God calls us peacemaking, justice work, liberation activity, compassion for others, care for the earth, it is shared work. Bare feet and burning bushes, our journeys and our encounters, our working and our living, when grounded in God, will bring us again and again to worship on God’s holy mountain. May it be so. Amen.
My writing time this month has been taken up with papers for my Spiritual Direction classes, so I thought for this month’s musing I might share some of what I wrote for my class on The Art of Discernment. I reflect on my own experience and some learning I had from the experience and reflection. As I have mentioned, San Francisco Theological Seminary, where our classes are held, resides on top of a hill in San Anselmo.
Personally, as I recall it now, one of the gifts of our class time “up on the hill,” was the invitation this class offered to pay attention, to notice and then to reflect on the spiritual nature and depth of what we saw, heard, felt around us and within us. This is not an exercise to which I have been overly prone and, I will confess, since coming down “off the mountain,” I have settled back into the inevitably undermining stress of a full and busy life. So, the exercise of going back over the observations I made and journaled is a useful one. It reminds me of that this sort of reflecting, discerning exercise is invaluable to spiritual formation or to life in the Spirit, if you will.
A long time ago, Robert Raines wrote a little devotional book entitled, Surprised by Joy. The gist of that slender volume is the surprising richness of the presence of God in and around us, all the time, if we’re open to it. Being open is key. I do believe there is much in life that weighs us down, that blurs our vision and blunts our perception. Life can become consumed with stultifying ritualization. Both surprise and joy are forced out and it may seem as if God has abandoned us – that is if we ever make room or take the time to think about God in the first place. I’m sure this is something of an overstatement, but I have always been drawn to the wisdom in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic phrase:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware…
I take this to mean that wonder is all around us, if we open our eyes. Thin places are more prevalent than we can imagine. God is ever present and is as near to us as we will allow God to be. The potentiality for surprise and for joy is so much more than we make room for. So a crucial element to spiritual formation is a willingness to slow down, to listen, look, smell, taste, feel how God is present in myriad ways we never expect or look for – sometimes as tiny and fragile as a butterfly’s wings, sometimes as overwhelming and immense as the moon and stars on a cloudless night.
The third theme is beauty [on which I focus.] I don’t know if I would have chosen this theme if I hadn’t gone back over my reflection papers. Since the experience of what I call the “nature walk” that we did for this class, I have been more conscious of beauty all around. I think I have always been strongly affected by what I find to be beautiful, but the intentional focus of the exercise invited and assisted me in seeing how much more beauty there was around than I was aware of and just how important it is to me. Another aspect of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning quotation is the encouragement to look for and find the beauty of holiness in the small things and the everyday.
The beautiful, which can be an indicator of God’s presence, if not a synonym for it, can be found in decaying leaves, gnarled oaks, oddly placed cacti, a labyrinth that looks out a cloud-capped mountain peak, the song of a flute or the blaze of a trumpet, the words of the poet or the mystic or even the preacher, the smell of bread baking or summer’s harvest, the crash of the waves or the swirl of the dancer. I love the lines from Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town, when the newly deceased Emily is allowed a last look back over her life in the tiny town of Grover’s Corners and exclaims,
But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another. I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners, Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?
Let’s look at one another. Let’s look around at the glory of the mundane and the beauty of the everyday. Let’s learn to take it all in while we can, for there is something in this seeing and realizing that leads to love in all its richness – to love for God, for one another, for ourselves, for all creation. Love becomes the way and destination, the journey and our home. The gift of life is more beautiful, more wonderful, more precious than we can ever know. There are “…openings through which my love can flow into the life of the other, and at the same time locate myself in openings through which love can flow into me.” May our practice of spiritual direction lead us ever more deeply, fully, richly into the beauty of holiness. Whatever touches us and lifts us to a higher plane or accompanies to the deepest depths is beautiful.”