Sermon for Sunday, July 16, 2017
I began this two-part sermon last week talking about our partnership with God in Christ; how Jesus’ invitation to “take his yoke” upon us is an invitation to plow the field with him, walking alongside each other. If you’re anything like me, you find this invitation easier to accept during terrible and tumultuous times, and you lay aside the yoke during the mundane dailiness of life. I closed last week’s sermon asking these questions: How much more meaningful would our lives be if we invited God to be present in those mundane times: to be part of the washing up and the lawn mowing and the daily commute? To be part of studying for a test and eating dinner and jogging? How much more often would we notice God already at work in the world around us if we invited God to be at work in the world within us?
This noticing happens when we pay attention. And when we pay attention we discover God is already at work in our lives whether or not we sent the invitation. I’d like to take the rest of this sermon to introduce you to a spiritual practice I have been using for the past eleven years in order to remain attentive. It is called the Ignatian Examen, a daily introspective prayer of awareness derived from the work and witness of 16th century Saint Ignatius Loyola.
In 2006 during my second year of seminary, my spiritual director, the Rev. Margot Critchfield, offered me this spiritual practice when I was floundering following a life-altering break-up compounded by the summer chaplaincy I mentioned last week. “Pray these five steps every night for the next month,” she told me, “and write them down if writing makes you focus better.” This was a prescription for soul medicine, and, in my desperation, I saw it as a cure. She might have said, “Take two Examens and call me in the morning.” Of course, that’s not how spiritual practices work. Spiritual practices help us enter God’s true reality; discover God’s movement in our lives and the life of the word, and give us sustenance for our daily walks, plowing that furrow yoked with Jesus. So here’s my practice. I offer it to you as Margot offered it me, a prescription for soul medicine, but one you take for a lifetime. There are five steps, which I write down every morning about the day before.
Step One: Be Mindful.
I write the words, “Yes, Lord, you are here,” and thus acknowledge God’s presence around me and within me. This is important because I tend to forget this fact several times a day. Writing these words brings me back to the truth that God doesn’t need me to be aware of God’s presence in order for God to be present. This is both a comforting and a humbling truth; comforting because God exists independently of my capacity to pay attention and humbling because I so rarely do pay attention. These five simple words —“Yes, Lord, you are here”— ground me in the reality that God moves in and through everything, my distractedness included. After writing these words, I listen and I breathe. And something, one huge or tiny thing, detaches from my consciousness, and I write it down. This is the best example of God’s presence for the day. When I see it scribbled on the page, I realize that it’s not the Lord who is here with me. I realize that I am here with the Lord.
Step Two. Be Thankful.
After opening myself up to God’s presence, I give thanks for all the ways I felt blessed today. They can be as simple as a beautiful sunny day or a delicious meal or a hug from your kids. Or they can be as momentous as listening to the ocean’s heartbeat in the pounding surf or helping someone in need or meeting the love of your life for the first time. Saving these blessings by putting them down on paper functions as the outward sign of something that happens within. Every blessing is permanent, no matter how quickly it may come and go. Blessings sink down to form the bedrock of the soul. As the current of today’s instantaneous world pulls us along more swiftly every day, pausing to count blessings is as important as ever.
Step Three. Be Humble.
I reflect on all the events of the day and ask God to show me what God would have me see. I focus on events that brought me closer to or pushed me farther from God. With little time to reflect during the day, I rely on these few minutes to watch my day in slow motion. Every action and inaction has the potential either to move me closer to God or to put another brick in the wall that I erect to keep God out. More often than not, the events of my day are fairly mundane, so chances are that I probably didn’t notice my relationship with God changing. But it did—for better or worse. Reflecting on both mundane and extraordinary events helps me sort out where exactly I am in my walk yoked alongside with Jesus.
Step Four. Be Reflective.
I reflect on a particular encounter or conversation with an individual during which I either did or did not fulfill my promises as a disciple of Jesus Christ. These promises derive from Jesus’ instructions, and they are fairly uncomplicated: Love God. Love other people. Serve the poor and neglected. Don’t let the world snooker you with quick fixes and painless answers. Of course, uncomplicated doesn’t mean “easy.” As I reflect on the day’s singular encounter, I thank God for God’s presence in it or ask forgiveness that I didn’t realize God was addressing me through the other person. Taking time with this step often reveals uncomfortable truths about my willingness to serve God every day.
Step Five. Be Responsive.
I read over what I have written and write a sentence about tomorrow in light of what happened today. The first four steps allow me to stop and process my day. Carving out ten to fifteen precious minutes to engage this spiritual practice of reflection is all that stands between me and total system failure. But the practice is not complete without seeing past the reflection to the future beyond. And so the final step collects the day’s blessings and reflections and distills from them a few words of discernment about tomorrow’s walk with Jesus. I re-read what I have written. And again, I listen and breathe. And something else detaches in the form of a prayer to God: “Lord, grant me focus for tomorrow,” or “Lord, I need practice welcoming people,” or “Lord, help me slow down.”
These are the five steps of the Ignatian Examen as I practice them. I offer this practice to you to try on this summer, especially if you find it difficult to remember God is at work in your life at all times, not just the big moments. I pray that each of us receive the grace to step into that yoke with Jesus and plow our furrows alongside him. I pray that each of us can practice being mindful, thankful, humble, reflective, and responsive. I pray that each of us can carve out those few minutes everyday to breathe deep and say, “Yes, Lord, you are here.”