What I Did this Summer

Mixon MusesWell, what did you do on your summer vacation? It’s the classic question every child is asked by teachers and friends as a new school year is ramping up. Depending on what you did and perhaps your age, personality type and who is asking, you may be  eager or reluctant to answer that question. Some summers are crammed with exciting activity and good fun, some drag on in endless boredom, some simply mean more of the same grinding poverty and lack of opportunity. Summer has many meanings, depending on your location – geographically but also socially.

For me, I’m glad you asked because I’m eager to talk about my summer. Part of the joy of summer is living in paradise. The sunny days and moderate temperatures seem unending. Even with the drought there are many shady trees and lovely gardens to enjoy. We had some good times as a congregation, including cook outs, international visitors, baseball and worship in the park. It was a good summer here at FBCPA.

My summer was highlighted by the two weeks in August when I took off for Tahoe and points north. I missed my annual continuing education week with the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. The pictures posted online made it as appealing as ever, so I regret not being there. However, my alternative was to spend a week at Lake Tahoe (not bad, eh?) at annual summer retreat of Companions on the Inner Way. Companions is a program in spirituality developed in the early 1980s by the late  Morton Kelsey and Professor Roy Fairchild of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Initially the program was core to the SFTS Center for Christian Spiritual Disciplines (now the Program for Christian Spirituality in which I am doing my sabbatical work.)

In the early 1990s Companions became an independent program providing spiritual retreats twice a year. It is now a ministry of Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. The pastor of that congregation and the liturgist for Companions is Jeff Gaines, my former Spiritual Director. The summer retreats are held at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The setting is magical as most of the meeting rooms look out on the multi-hued blue waters of the Lake. In the course of the week, we experienced thunder and lightning, clouds and sunshine, whitecaps and mirror stillness on the lake.  Surely God is in that place (though, of course, we know that God is present in every place!) What a treat each afternoon to sit on a bench on the lakefront reading and contemplating as I read and just staring at the lake.

The high point of this elevated experience was the teaching of Brian McLaren. Brian, a prolific writer, is one of the originators of the “Emergent Church” movement. This is a phenomenon with which Pastor Tripp familiarized us during his tenure here. In my nutshell, the Emergent or Emerging Church, is an attempt by contemporary Christians to find ways to be and do church that will speak the “Good News” authentically and meaningfully in the context in which we find ourselves. In this view, church may look  like nothing we’re familiar with, yet it still communicates Christ’s vision of the constantly in-breaking reign of God on earth.

The theme for the week was taken from the writings of the Medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, who prayed that “God would save me from God.” The flyer for the retreat enticed us with this message. “These words, adapted from Meister Eckhart, reflect a struggle that many of us feel: a tension between our conventional images of God, our language for God, our formulations about God on the one hand and our intuitions of, experiences with, and hopes about God on the other. Rather than trying to suppress this tension, we will explore it as an arena for spiritual growth and creative spiritual exploration.”

We will come back to this material in the days ahead. Brian, a brilliant public theologian, former pastor and English professor, challenged us daily to reconsider our view of God, of Christ, of Bible, of faith. His concern is for a living God, a living Christ, a living Word, a living people. His latest book is We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. Among other things, this book provides a creative alternative to the lectionary with 52 chapters of scripture texts, commentary and reflection by Brian. Beginning with the first Sunday in September, we will use this alternate to provide worship themes for the coming year. The book is divided into four large themes – Alive in the Story of Creation; Alive in the Adventure of Jesus; Alive in a Global Uprising; and Alive in the Spirit of God.

As you can see “aliveness” is key to Brian’s thinking and I hope it is to ours well. What would it mean to live out our existence as FBCPA fully alive? Together we can make this enterprise key to our common life in the year ahead. What being alive means is not prescribed. Our aliveness is unique to us, to be explored, tested, worked out and celebrated. As you can probably tell, I am excited about the prospects of this journey, of making our own “road” as we walk it together. We will order some copies of Brian’s book to have available to those who wanted read about the adventure that lies ahead.

I’m sure this is more than enough for now. As always, I am glad to be with each of you on this faith journey.

Pastor Rick

You will see elsewhere information about “Campaign Nonviolence,” organized nationally by Pace e Bene and locally by MultiFaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Their literature says, “Campaign Nonviolence is a long‐term movement to build a culture of peace by mainstreaming active nonviolence and by joining the enduring, nonviolent struggle to abolish war, end poverty, stop the destruction of the earth, and challenge all violence. Campaign Nonviolence invites you to practice nonviolence toward yourself, toward all others, and toward the world!”

Spirit of Sabbath

Dalai LamaIt takes a bit of time and effort, after spending three weeks “on the mountain top,” to adjust to life in the lowlands. While it’s not actually a mountain top, San Francisco Theological Seminary does sit atop a high hill in San Anselmo, with sweeping views of Mt. Tamalpais to the south. It is a blessing to be able to take this sabbatical time for study and refreshment. One of the wonderful books we read for this year’s course on “The Art of Discernment” was the classic, Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s insight, wisdom and eloquence help us to understand Sabbath as spiritual discipline rather than time off to play or just be lazy. Of course, play and rest can be integral to Sabbath, but it is so much more.

In her introduction to the book, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, describes Sabbath in their household as a re‐membering of ancient Jewish rites. There was ritual and reading, discussing and sharing with family and friends. There was worship and reflection and practice of the presence of God. There was a blessed ordering of life, both familiar and sacred.

On the seventh day God did not just settle down for a nice nap. On that day, God reveled in creation, loving what had come to be, calling it good and blessing it. It was a time for taking stock. It was a time of replenishment. It was a time for beauty, for reflection, for blessing. And so God, recognizing its importance, gave Sabbath to creation, inviting humanity to share in that sacred time.

After six days of creative work (or any other kind, for that matter,) even God Almighty chose to change the tempo, to slow down, to contemplate. When we treat time with this sort of care and respect, we may find ourselves face to face with questions about the meaning of life, about the nature of things, about the creative process, about God and our relationship to the Holy One. Heschel insists that this is good and right – to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, to bring oneself with purpose and devotion, with joy and humility into the presence of God. In fact, Heschel argues that we were created for the experience of Sabbath, for communion with the Holy, for giving ourselves over to the grace of God.

Jesus uses this same argument when his disciples are chastised for plucking grain on the Sabbath. In the spirit over the letter of the law, he reminds his critics that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath…” (Mark 2:27). It is not some rote repetition of rules or ritual that makes the Sabbath sacred. It is the opportunity to enter deeply into the holy presence – which may be quite difficult on an empty stomach! Of course, the ancient rules and rituals do have their place in helping to develop the discipline needed to enter fully into Sabbath.

Sabbath is not a practice we fall into easily in our frenetic culture. Give me a weekend so I can “veg’ out,” napping in my easy chair in front of the football game. I need time to do my laundry, clean the kitchen, shop for groceries, visit family and friends, hang out with my spouse and kids. There is so much pulling at me, screaming at me, coming at me that I sometimes feel I can barely tread water until the weekend comes. I need “me” time! And this says nothing of those who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet with no time left over or those whose time is disordered by homelessness, hunger, refugee status, imprisonment, oppression, abuse.

The spiritual discipline of Sabbath is as challenging for most of us as it is rewarding when we discover its true meaning and value. To take time or make time to draw just a little nearer to the heart of God, in whatever form that may take, is sacred exercise. There is always the possibility that seeking to dwell in the presence of the Most High will have inevitable ramifications for the living of our lives over all. I don’t mean that we will win the lottery or every trouble will disappear, but somehow committing oneself to living closer to God, to embracing God’s way and God’s will, can’t help but bring shalom to us – some deeper sense of peace and fulfillment.

Well, this is what you get for allowing me to spend time on the mountain top. Perhaps, you can see why it’s not so easy to re‐enter the routines of daily life. Don’t get me wrong. I love living here and working here and sharing life with each of you. It is a blessing in itself for which I am deeply grateful. But one of the things that I think about up there in San Anselmo is how I can share with you some of that Sabbath experience. As I said in last Sunday’s sermon, a significant goal I have for us as pastor and people is that we might find ways together to deepen our spiritual life. How can we cultivate Sabbath and celebrate it as a people? What will bring us closer to living in a constant awareness of God’s presence in us and around us? And how will that sense shape our living? This is the challenge, the work and the promise of spiritual formation. It is a joy to walk this way with you. Thanks for the time away and thanks for the home to which I may return.

God bless and keep us on the way.
Pastor Rick

Growing in the Spirit

candleringMany thanks for the opportunity to take this month as part of my sabbatical. I am looking forward to spending three weeks in San Anselmo at San Francisco Theological Seminary with a cohort of other students working on a Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction. This on-site experience will be repeated the next two Januarys, so I am spreading my sabbatical out rather than taking three months in a row. I believe this will be beneficial for our congregation as well as for me as your pastor. It is good to be able to leave our congregation in the capable hands of Pastor Tripp, Oleta, Jan, Carolyn and the Council while I am gone. We are blessed with capable leadership across the board.

Though I will not generally be available during the month, I will not be so far away that I cannot respond to an emergency. It is my hope that in learning the art of spiritual direction, I will not only deepen my own spiritual life but also discover ways of deepening the spiritual life of our congregation and in the wider community around us. We hear over and over these days the claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For some I know they have turned their backs on organized religion, including the church, because they have been ignored, wounded, abused in those traditional settings. Others have found nothing relevant to their lives in hide-bound, musty tradition. Still others have experienced the church as a place where their wonderment has been extinguished and their questions not welcomed. Especially on the West Coast, in communities like ours, the competition for time and energy among vast opportunities for both work and play has left the church far behind, struggling just to “tread water.”

It seems the very existence of the institutional church as we know it is threatened. The peak days of church life from the 1950s and 60s, which shaped for most of us who hang on what we understand to be church life, are long gone and are unlikely to return. We are faced with the dilemma of trying to hold on to the church we love while wondering why younger folk (who do not share our experiences) don’t want to help us keep our enterprise going. Everybody has ideas about defining the problem and what to do about it but nobody has a patented solution. There are, of course, churches that use the slickest tools of modern culture to lure people in and keep them entertained, hopefully long enough to capture their commitment to keeping the organization going. But in a time of sound bites and information overload, it’s much easier to move on to the next fascinating thing than to commit to something for the long run.

From all the material that I have read and studied over the last several years, it seems to me that the pattern that has the most value in church life is among those congregations and communities who have focused on their growth in the Spirit. I am not sure that everyone who claims to be “spiritual but not religious” is really interested in the Spirit’s movement in this world. That movement can be as challenging as it is comforting. It can invoke awe as well as make us feel good and warm inside. I am concerned that much of what passes for spirituality is “spirituality lite” not the Spirit that transforms life and threatens to turn the world right side up. And as Pastor Tripp and others have pointed out, there is no reason to assume that those who list themselves as “nones” (having no church or religious affiliation in their lives) have any interest in being lured into any church, regardless of how hip its programming might be.

Still, a witness to the movement of the Spirit in our lives and in the life of our congregation might make a difference for those in our communities, in our families, friends, colleagues, acquaintances who are hungry for something spiritually relevant and deep. I don’t know exactly what that witness will look like for me and for us, but I am hopeful that in this time of Sabbath study I might find some insight and tools that will be beneficial to all of us in our witness to the work of the Spirit in our lives and in our service of the reign of God on earth.

I believe with all my heart that our Christian faith has good news to bring to a world desperately in need of this very good news. This is the struggle that I feel daily as a minister of the gospel – how do we share this good news in ways that can be heard, understood, embraced? Though many of us love the church as we have known it, sharing the good news is not, cannot be, dependent on any particular institution or skill set. Finding ways to share what we have found in our faith, what we have encountered in the living Christ, what we know of God, what we experience in the movement of the
Spirit is still a high calling. I look forward to sharing with you as we respond to this call.

Blessings on us all,

Pastor Rick