This is the second sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.”
When I was growing up, we went to outdoor tent revivals put on by Helen’s uncle, George Brunk. Growing up in an isolated Amish-Mennonite farming community, we didn’t have ready access to live theater or dance clubs. Plus, all the drama and ecstasy you would want was more than present at George Brunk’s tent revival meetings. I can still smell the sawdust put down on the hay fields to keep the dust under control; I can still see hundreds of my neighbors gathered on a May evening, under the bright light of a string of bare bulbs, the dark fields right outside; and I can feel the powerful Spirit that was present when George Brunk spoke. Brunk was an amazing preacher. Helen gets her gift of drama genetically. With his thunderous voice and imposing presence, you could easily believe God was speaking directly through him. When he gave the altar call at the end of each evening, droves of people would get up out of their seats and, with tears in their eyes, walk to the front of the tent to dedicate or re-dedicate their lives to God.
By college, I regarded these tent revival meetings with cynicism, but in my older age, I have come to believe that people were experiencing something real there. That they were having one of those religious experiences we talked about last Sunday, an experience of the “depth dimension” of life. That they were having an encounter with Spirit, no matter my misgivings about the packaging around that encounter. I have come to believe the power of Spirit can break through even bad theology and emotionally manipulative showmanship.
But then, those people who had walked forward had to come down from the mountaintop, get in their cars, drive home and figure out how to translate that experience into a life of discipleship, into a life of following the leading of the Spirit in their daily lives. Ecstasy was easy, it turns out. It was ordinary life that was hard. And, unfortunately, they often didn’t get a lot of help from either George Brunk or their churches in making that translation.
That translation is what spiritual practice is about. Just like you don’t become a good basketball player or a good pianist without hours of practice, neither do you become a “good” follower of Spirit without practice.
This point came through clearly when our Lent worship planning group held its first meeting. When people were asked, “How do you experience Spirit,” they kept talking about practice. Beverly said, “I experience God when I take time to be in prayer and study the Bible… when I’m singing or listening to worship music… when I’m in nature, away from people, in the woods and the mountains. (But) I find that I can be in nature and not experience Spirit if I haven’t been taking time to intentionally seek God in prayer or journaling, etc. If I’m paying attention, I can experience God in a patient or in walking down the street.” Jennifer Adams said she experiences God in a variety of places — her patients, in nature, in children. But she is more likely, she said, feel God in those places when she has been journaling and practicing the Examen, which is a form of spiritual reflection often done at the end of the day. Finally, Pat said she experiences Spirit as a “web of energy that connects everything” but also said, “There has to be a practice of opening oneself to that realm. A practice of recognizing our interconnection.” In other words, we need to practice the presence of God or Spirit or Connection in a daily, ordinary way to remain open to the reality that we experienced in those more dramatic experiences. We need to build that spiritual muscle.
Thomas Kelly, the Quaker man that I mentioned last Sunday, was blessed to have a number of mystical experiences early on that opened him to the presence of this deeper realm, this Living Center in himself, as he called it. But as he matured in his faith, he came to de-emphasize those experiences and to emphasize the centrality of devotion, which is what he calls spiritual practice. He writes in his book, A Testament of Devotion:
Let us be clear that mystical exaltations are not essential to religious dedication… Many a (person) professes to be without a shred of mystical elevation, yet is fundamentally a heaven-dedicated soul. It would be a tragic mistake to suppose that religion is only for a small group, who have certain vivid but transient inner experiences, and to preach those experiences so that those who are relatively insensitive to them should feel excluded, denied access to the Eternal love, deprived of a basic necessity for religious living. The crux of religious living lies in the will, not in transient and variable states… .Where the will to will God’s will is present, there is a child of God. (24-25)
Where the will to will God’s will is present, there is a child of God.
So what does it mean to will God’s will in daily life? What does it mean to practice openness to the Divine Reality? We could do a whole Lenten series on that alone, and we have. We’ve heard members of our planning committee talk about their spiritual practices — praying the Examen, journaling, being in nature. Others mentioned their yoga practice or regularly showing up for justice work in acts of concrete solidarity. These times of set aside practice are important, even if they’re only 10 minutes. I’m also aware, however, that it can be difficult — with our kids and our commutes and our careers — to faithfully set aside times for spiritual practice. And that the inability to do that can make us feel guilty or lazy or that we’re not spiritual enough, which makes us even more unlikely to try to begin a regular practice. I invite you to breathe and let go of all of that self-talk.
Because there is a form of spiritual practice we can do right now and at any moment. You don’t have to set aside special time to do it. We can do it while we are commuting on BART or taking our kids to soccer practice or making dinner or having a tiff with our spouse or parent. You can do it right now! It’s called “practicing the presence of God” by some. It’s an inward orientation toward God or Spirit or Connection — or whatever capital letter you want to use — an inward habit of openness.
This is how Thomas Kelly puts it: “Begin where you are…. Use what little obedience you are capable of, even if it be like a grain of mustard seed. Begin where you are. Live this present moment, this present hour as you now sit in your seats, in utter openness toward (God). Listen outwardly to these words, but within, behind the scenes, in the deeper levels of your lives where you are all alone with God the Loving Eternal One, keep up a silent prayer, (such as) ‘Open my life. Guide my thoughts where I dare not let them go. But Thou darest. (Your) will be done.’ Walk on the streets and chat with your friends. But every moment behind the scenes be in prayer.” (60)
It helps, especially at the beginning, to use a sentence or phrase, repeated over and over again. Like: “Your will be done.” Or “Guide my feet.” Or “Let me be love.” Or “Open my life.” Or, simply, “Help.” The prayer mantra I used when I began meditating years ago was “I Am,” the answer that God gave to Moses when Moses said, “What is your name?” I attached that prayer phrase to my breath, so breathing in I said “I” and breathing out I said “Am.” Though I rarely do formal meditation practice anymore, I often return to that phrase when I feel the need to call my attention back to the Divine Presence. Or, I just become aware of my breathing to remind myself that I want to will what God wills.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God or Spirit. You can do this practice anyway. When I began doing this, I would often say, “God, I don’t even know if I believe in you, if you exist, but even so, work through me. Make me channel of your peace.” The point is to open ourselves to something bigger than us. And you can call that bigness anything you want or nothing at all, and you can even doubt that the bigness exists. Practice anyway.
Please know that you will fail at this practice all the time. You will repeatedly have to bring yourself back to this awareness. You will go a day or more without doing it — maybe months! — and then you’ll remember again. As Kelly says, “Lapses and forgetting are frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. Our occupations are so exacting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer… and begin again, just where you are.” (61)
And last: Relax. Again, as Kelly says, “Don’t grit your test and clench your fists and say ‘I will! I will!’ Relax. Take hands off. Submit yourself to God. Learn to live in the passive voice — a hard saying for Americans — and let life be willed through you” (61). Let life be willed through you. Try to let go of any expectations about what will happen if you do this practice. Maybe the clouds will part and you’ll have some mystical vision… but probably not. Maybe you’ll become a saint… but probably not. Know that even your desire to will God’s will is already the work of God within you. You just have to connect with that desire and let Spirit do the rest.
My spiritual director used to say that the only thing we need to do is provide some opening for the Spirit to get through. And the Spirit is like a camel in a tent, she said. (This must be some sort of Middle Eastern proverb.) Once the camel gets her nose into your tent — once there’s just that little bit of opening — pretty soon the whole came is in your tent. The same is true of the Spirit. If you provide just the smallest opening, pretty soon the Spirit is in your house. Your only job is to continually — when you can remember to do so —- open yourself to this Mystery beyond your control. That’s really all you need to do. It’s all you can do. It’s all you’re asked to do.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says in our passage. Make your home in me, as I make my home in you. John uses this term “abide” often in his Gospel because this mutual abiding of ourselves in God and God in us is what the spiritual life is about. The verb for “abide” has a noun form that appears in one of John’s most famous verses — here in the King James version that many of us might be more familiar with: “ In my Father’s house there are many mansions. The word mansions could actually be translated as “abiding places.” (Insight from here.) We abide in God and God abides in us. We live in a mansion already!
Without this abiding, we can’t do a thing, John says. The only way we bear fruit — fruit that lasts, fruit that matters — is if we abide in the God who is already abiding in us. If we make our home in the One who has already made Her home in us. We don’t make the fruit happen; we don’t squeeze it out and say, teeth clenched, “I’m going to make a grape!” We remember. We release recriminations. We relax. We abide in God, who is already abiding in us. Breathe in and breathe out. Amen.
For our benediction on Sunday, I used a prayer of Thomas Merton’s that is very much on the theme of this sermon:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Amen.