Yesterday was my final day of sabbatical time: twelve long weeks set apart from (at least some of) my normal rhythms. I spent a good chunk of it in my basement. The parts I didn’t spend in my basement I spent in Alabama, North Carolina, and Israel-Palestine. I also visited my spiritual director three times, and her insights were (as always) helpful, inspired, compassionate, and kind.
I went into this sabbatical time with four written goals and one unwritten goal. The unwritten one was not to be so bound to my four written goals that I didn’t move where the Holy Spirit was leading me. The four written goals were:
Integrate through personal writing much of the reading I’ve done about racism and white supremacy.
Prepare myself for pilgrimage to the Holy Land and make the most out of that opportunity.
Rest, rejuvenate, and step back to see the proverbial forest instead of the trees.
Begin habituating a spiritual practice of silence and Christian meditation into my daily life.
Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2014 || Last Epiphany A || Matthew 17:1-9
In the end this is going to be a sermon about prayer, but first I’d like to start with a quotation from my favorite book:
“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
Does anyone know what book that quotation comes from?Let me add the next few lines:
“At last Aragorn stirred. ‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight?”
Yes, my favorite book is and probably always will be The Lord of the Rings. Isn’t it cool that J.R.R. Tolkien seems to be alluding to today’s story of the Transfiguration (not to mention the Resurrection) in this passage from The Two Towers?
The coolness of this allusion aside, I think Tolkien is on to something with his description of Aragorn’s reaction to the bright and gleaming figure before him: “Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
If Peter were a little more laconic, Matthew might have written the same thing about the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Words fail James and John, but Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind – something about honoring the moment with shrines for their brilliant Lord and his impossible companions. But before Peter can finish speaking his mind, the weather shifts. Sudden clouds engulf them, and they hear a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved…”
And like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli encountering the white wizard in the wilderness, the disciples Peter, James, and John stand on the mountaintop, stand between wonder, joy, and fear – and find no words to say.
And this is where we bring prayer into our discussion. How often have you tried to pray and ended up not really having anything to say? You put your hands together, closed your eyes, took a deep breath. You said, “Dear God, it’s me…” And then your mind unraveled. Random thoughts spilled in and maybe you voiced one or two, but then you felt silly because they didn’t really feel special enough for prayer. So you gave up, put the attempt out of your mind, and went about your day.
The trouble is that when you quit you were just on the cusp of a breakthrough. You were just on the cusp of the least awkward silence imaginable. You were just on the cusp of beginning to listen.
While the Transfiguration is not outwardly a story about prayer, we see this same progression. Peter sees Jesus dazzlingly bright there on the mountaintop, and he addresses him: “Lord.” And then Peter’s mind unravels. Random thoughts spill in. He voices the first one: “It is good for us to be here.” Talking gives him some semblance of control, so he plows ahead: “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for…”
But the word “Elijah” dies on his lips. The cloud consumes him. Silence consumes him. And between wonder, joy, and fear, Peter stands and finds no more words to say. In the midst of the cloud, he hears a voice. He hears a voice, but not with his ears. The silence remains even as the depths of his being resonate with the truth of God’s words. He feels their truth as a glow in his chest, like a reflection of Jesus’ transfigured radiance. The words shimmer – an afterimage before Peter’s eyes: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
And then, I think mostly for Peter’s benefit (as well as ours), God adds the all-important instruction: “Listen to him.” With this command, God gives Peter and us the permission to lapse into silence when we pray. God invites us to be the respondent in the conversation, not the speaker. God asks only that we listen with the ears of our hearts.
So I invite you to close your eyes now and let us practice for a few minutes this silent prayer, this listening that is so hard for most of us. We’ll end the sermon with a long moment of silence, so please know it is intentional. Close your eyes now and we’ll begin.
You do not need grand words lofty enough for the Almighty. You do not need to pen personal litanies worthy of Shakespeare or John Donne. You do not even need the right words. When you come to God in prayer, you need no words at all. You need only the willingness to be patient, to be still. Let the random thoughts dance through your mind before prodding them toward God as tangential offerings. As you sink into stillness, notice not the absence of noise, but the presence of silence – because true silence is a presence, like the cloud that engulfed the disciples on the mountaintop. Notice that the depth of the silence makes unnecessary any words that might now float through your mind. Brush them aside.
As you listen to the silence, as you tune yourself to God’s movement in your prayer, feel yourself suddenly living between wonder, joy and fear. Wonder rises up as a symptom of consciously inviting yourself into God’s presence. Like the disciples viewing their dazzling Lord, you see with new eyes and hear with new ears. Luminous mystery abounds and the only thing you can do is drink in a deep breath of the Spirit. You wonder where God is calling you, and you lose yourself in the wonder of the silent, indefinite moment. And you listen.
Along with wonder comes joy – not happiness, exactly, because happiness is too fleeting an emotion to describe the solid companionship you feel right now. You feel the presence of Christ. You are not alone. You have never been alone. He touches you on the shoulder as he did the disciples after they fell to the ground upon hearing God’s voice. You realize that joy is a natural byproduct of being aware that you are in God’s presence. And you listen.
Along with wonder and joy comes fear. You have laid yourself bare before God. So used to praying the same words in the same ways, you no longer have their protection. You are vulnerable. You realize that if you listen, you might actually hear something. You’re not sure if you’re ready for God to be that present in your life. But then Jesus’ words from our story today rise up from your gut: “Do not be afraid.” You continue to feel the joy of his touch, and you know in a place deeper than normal knowing that he will never abandon you. The wonder returns – more radiant, more real. The silence remains. The wonder remains. The joy remains. But the fear is gone. And you listen.
I invite you to remember this meditation when you bring yourself to God in prayer. As for now, let us remain silent for a moment. Between wonder, joy, and fear you stand and you find no words to pray. So instead allow the silence to descend like a cloud. And listen.
A new weekly feature here on Wherethewind.com brings a week’s worth of devotions from my other website devo180.com and puts them together in one long blog post. I will be editing them for continuity, so the text isn’t exactly like it is on the other site. You can go there and get the original. This one is from the first week of September.
I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. (2 Timothy 1-5; context)
“May you continue to have the space for reflection, the silence for relationship with God, the time for relaxation, and the temperament to recognize and rejoice in all of creation.” You probably don’t recognize the name of the person who wrote this quotation. And that’s okay, because she’s not famous (except in genetically exclusive circles). She’s my mother, and she is one of the wisest and gentlest people I know. She could easily be a saint except that her miracles aren’t the flashy kind that gets you noticed by the canonization committee. Anyway, she wrote those words to me over the summer in a card celebrating the third anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. The card has been propped open on my desk ever since, and I’m excited that I get to share it with you.
So I invite you to dig up some wisdom from your own mother. If you can’t, dig up some wisdom from one of those surrogate mothers that everyone seems to collect (I’ve got about five, I think). Reflect on that wisdom, and then we’ll pick up with the first phrase of my mother’s message.
Space for Reflection
In her note to me, my mother prayed that I have “the space for reflection.” Now, the word “reflection” is one of my all time favorite words, so I’m sure my mother knew that it would resonate with me. We use the word “reflection” in two main contexts: we see our reflection in mirrors or still ponds and we engage in reflection when we think back on previous events. In both of these contexts, gaining space – both spatial and temporal – allows us to make the most out of reflective moments.
They say that you don’t learn from experience; rather, you learn from reflection on experience. If the middle linebacker (yea football season!!) takes a bad angle and gets blocked out of the play by the left guard, he now has gained some vital experience. But there’s a good chance he’s going to get blocked out of the play again unless he reflects on the mistake and takes time to correct it. For football players, the space for reflection is the film room. For the rest of us, the space happens when we intentionally pause to look back over our days and discern how we succeeded and failed at living the lives God desires for us.
Now let’s get back to the mirror context of the word “reflection.” The word comes from the Latin word flecto, which means “to bend.” Literally, “reflection” is “to bend again” or “to bend back.” So when we allow ourselves the space for reflection, we literally “bend” or, to make the action physical, we “bow.” We bow to the God who is patiently waiting for us to hold up the mirror to our days and see God reflected back at us.
Silence for Relationship with God
My mother prayed that I develop the silence for relationship with God. On the surface, this may seem like a strange juxtaposition – silence and relationship don’t usually go very well together. In a human relationship, a “silent” party may be accused of being incommunicative or may be cowed by an aggressive partner into non-speaking.
But there’s where we make our mistake – too often, we think of silence as a “non-something,” as an absence of something. But silence, when we are speaking about how it functions in our relationships with God, is the exact opposite. Silence is a full something. Practicing silence does not mean shutting off all the noises around and within you. Rather, practicing silence means replacing those noises with attention to what is there, hidden in the background beneath the noise.
This fullness of somethingbeneath is God’s presence. It is beneath the noise because God’s presence is the framework of existence, the structure, the undergirding support for all things. It makes sense, then, that when we find ourselves in silence, we notice this behind-the-scenes presence. When we become attentive to this presence, we can begin to participate in our relationship with God. And it is then that we will notice that God has always and forever been participating in God’s relationship with us.
Time for Relaxation
The third prayer my mother had for me was that I find the time for relaxation. She apparently has some inkling into the fact that I would probably work all the time if I didn’t have people around me to tell me to slow down.
I remember during my first year of college having so much work and reading to do that I never had any time to relax. I always told myself that I would relax when my work was done. The trouble was that when I finished reading for one class, I would need to start it for another, and by the time I was done with that reading it was time to start reading again for the first class. And then there were papers and projects and studying for exams and…and…and…
Finally, a day came when there was just too much hitting me all at once. Then I realized that there was never a time when I wouldn’t have some work for class to do. So I started scheduling relaxation time in order to be more effective when I was working. And that put me on the right path.
The best time to relax is at the moment when you say to yourself, “I am just too busy right now to even think about relaxing.” You (not to mention everyone around you) will be better for it. Remember, Jesus often went off by himself for a bit of a recharge. You can too.
The Temperament to Recognize and Rejoice in All of Creation
The final prayer my mother had for me in that card back in June was that I have “the temperament to recognize and rejoice in all of creation.” I love that she didn’t simply pray for me to recognize and rejoice in creation. Rather, she prayed that I have the “temperament” to do so. In so doing, she asked God that I be granted a specific tool for my faith’s toolbox, not just the effect the tool brings.
Growing into a temperament that recognizes and rejoices means nurturing a certain demeanor, a set of behaviors that leads to the expectation that there is and always will be something to rejoice about. This temperament is not about glossing over the bad stuff or pretending that everything is fine and dandy when it’s not. We aren’t trying to delude ourselves when we seek this temperament. In fact, we are trying to do just the opposite.
Remember two days ago, when I talked about the fullness of God’s presence being the something beneath the silence. In the same way, nurturing the kind of temperament my mother is talking about has to do with searching for the greater reality around and upon which all transient reality clings. Discovering God’s presence in our lives, both when times are great and when times are tough, is all about acknowledging that God is there, undergirding our existence with God’s own greater existence. When we discover this, or more often, when we rediscover this (considering we have a tendency to forget about it), we can recognize and rejoice in creation.
And in so doing, we recognize and rejoice in God’s creating movement in our lives.
I leave this moment with you, God, wishing for open ears to listen, a sensitive mouth to speak, and strong arms to embrace your people.