Unused Gym Memberships, 7-11, and Silence

A big thanks to Mark Yaconelli and Frank RogersKurt Willems and Phileena Heuertz (who use Dallas Willard, Thomas Keating, and Marshall Rosenberg) for their words that helped shape mine.

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I was having coffee with a young adult a while ago.  We were sitting outside at Oak Ridge, the sun was shining on us, the wind was keeping us cool, and our lattes were keeping us alert.   They sipped their drink, and said “I’ve pretty much quit everything churchy, and I’ve never felt better.”

That’s an intriguing way to start a conversation with a pastor, isn’t it?

The young person went on:  “I’ve stopped attending church regularly, I’ve pray less, I’ve stopped trying, I’ve stopped giving as much money as I used to, I’ve stopped trying to get involved in my church, I’ve stopped trying to be friends with people because I’m supposed to… And I’m loving it. I feel free.”

Well then… I had never had that type of conversation before.

But since then, it’s stuck with me.  And I’ve seen versions of it pop up in all sorts of places.

As we’re getting ready to get on some float planes and heading up to Pauingassi First Nation for another week of Family Camp, I’d be lying if I told you I was 100% excited.  Maybe 80%, and that number is increasing every day, but it’s hard in the face of all the incredible challenges that face the community.  There was another suicide 2 weeks ago, making it 3 in 6 months.  If you extrapolate that number to Steinbach, we’re talking about a suicide every other day.  Let alone the continued problems of bootlegging, binge drinking, and  violence. 

I ask questions like, “What’s the point?”  “Why are we doing this?” “Does it make a difference?”  And then I realized that it would be much much easier to sit in my back yard or go camping with my friends in the Whiteshell. 

And then I feel guilty… like really guilty.  Jesus tells his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him, and I preach that all the time, but sometimes, I wonder what it would feel like to simply check out and go to the cabin.

This also shows up sometimes in the longevity of the work that we do, both at church, at work, or in the other ways we volunteer.  The idea of public speaking may scare us, so we offer our time and energy as church trustees, fixing the roof, or as Sunday School teachers, teaching our children.  We join community events and boards and fundraisers for all sorts of great causes, like addressing homelessness, community runs, the Chamber of Commerce, the museum, funding for researching a cure cancer, or coaching minor hockey and soccer.  

 But after a while, we find ourselves asking questions about what it’s all accomplishing.  I mean, sure, coaching kids and raising money and making sure the church’s roof doesn’t leak are all very good things.  But what kind of lasting change do they make?  Is all our effort and time and energy and sweat and money we put into these things worth it?   What do we do after 20 years of serving on church committees and our children choose to go to a different church?  Or attend the church of the Mennonite mattress?  What do we do if we if the kids that we invest in make really bad choices?  What do we do when the next, exciting initiative comes our way?   What do if we know what we’re supposed to do, but simply don’t have the energy or desire to do it anymore?   What if we’re tired of the guilt, both internal and external, of what we “should” be doing?

Some of us try harder.  We try harder to not sin, to not give in to our selfish impulses, to be a better Christian.  But we all know that trying harder doesn’t often result in the change we want to see.  Sometimes it does, but often it leads to unused gym memberships and sneaking chocolate during Lent.

Some of us try harder to love our neighbours.  We try harder to be more loving and to meet more people and love our enemies and fix more roofs and join more committees.  Often we end up just wanting to quit and go on vacation and try to not live in so much guilt.

Mark Yaconelli explains it like this: 

 “Compassion, as is widely known, is at the core of Christianity. Jesus summed up all of his teachings with the commandment to love God with our entire being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Indeed, his call is more radical than that. Loving our neighbor involves extending compassion not only to the wounded and needy, the demonized and despised, but also to people who revile, violate, and persecute us. ‘Love your enemies,’ Jesus invites, ‘bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, and show compassion to those who hate and do evil.’

This radical ethic of compassion seems extraordinary to the point of being unattainable—or attainable only to the gifted few. When the Amish find the capacity to forgive a man who has killed their schoolchildren, when Nelson Mandela finds it in his heart to invite his jailor of twenty-seven years to stand at his side during his inauguration, when a Palestinian woman who has lost her son in a terrorist bombing raises an Israeli boy, and raises him as a Jew, it shimmers with the miraculous. Ordinary folk like us stand in awe, amazed and inspired. We also can feel indicted and shamed. For the truth is, loving our enemies is excruciatingly difficult.

Thomas Keating says that this is the difference between faith conversion and the spiritual journey.  At the time of our conversion, we ask the question, “What can I do for God?”  We sing the song, “Here I am Lord”, and we get busy.   Teaching Sunday School and going to Pauingassi and coaching hockey and  feeding people who have limited access to food.  But after a while, we’re left with wondering how in the world we’re supposed to attain and sustain this radical ethic of love and compassion…

The spiritual journey begins with the question, “What can God do for me?”

And it’s not meant as a narcissistic or selfish question, where we ask God for a million dollars to help lose a few pounds or to help us find a parking spot, but rather a question acknowledging that what we desperately need God to do for us is to transform us from what we are today into what God intends us to be.  (Thanks Phileena Heuertz, from Pilgrimage of a Soul)

It’s a shift from understanding ourselves as Human Beings vs. Human Doings. 

Is the Christian faith about doing certain things?

Or is the Christian faith about being a type of person who naturally does certain things? 

And what’s the difference?

Great example:  One of my pastor friends used this as an example:  She said,  “I’m paying for my Slurpee at 7-11.  They give me too much change.   I used to think, “Do I or don’t I give it back.  Well, I should.  So I will.”  But now, I just do.  Being honest is now part of who I am.”

We heard similar language when the Amish in Nickel Mines forgave the man who killed their children.  Almost immediately, while they were still trying to figure out what happened, members from the Amish community went to the man’s family’s members to sit and cry with them.  I don’t think that they had to make a choice to do it.  I think that it was just an out-flowing of who they are.   When you pray every day “Lord, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, I think it simply becomes part of who you are.  It still wouldn’t have been easy, it wasn’t condoning the terrible violence done to their families, but it was seeking reconciliation and restoration where possible.  

All these great Christian virtues – forgiveness, love for enemies, solidarity for the marginalized and oppressed, responding to evil with creative non-violence, generosity – often we treat them as goals, when really, we should be treating them as fruit.  We should work on becoming faithful followers of  Jesus, and the fruit will grow.  Or, as Dallas Willard puts it, “Jesus invited people to follow him into that sort of life which behaviour such as loving one’s enemies will seem like the only sensible and happy things to do.  For a person living that life, the hard thing to do would be to hate the enemy.”

When we’re asking the question, “What can you do for me God?,” we’re putting ourselves in a place where our actions – teaching Sunday school, sharing our money, making sure there’s a roof on the church, flying to Pauingassi, fundraising for a cure to cancer, ensuring every kid can afford minor hockey or band trips, loving our enemies, standing in the margins with those who have been placed there – flow out of what God is doing inside of us. 

To use the tree analogy, because we’re rooted in something deep, because we’re nurtured something bigger than us, we’re able to bear fruit.

 “What can you do for me God?”

I also think it’s a question that we don’t like to ask.

Because in order to try to get an answer for it, we must sit.  We must sit in silence.  We must sit and listen to the all the competing voices inside of us.  We must tend to our souls.   We must admit that there are deep places  of fear and anxiety and pain within us.  Because almost all of our outer actions are reactions to our inner pains, fears and anxieties.  Sitting in silence is an invitation to acknowledge the logs in our own eyes, and pray for them.

And sitting in the midst of the logs in our eyes, those fears and pains and anxieties, those deep wounds, isn’t always pleasant.  But when we acknowledge them, and offer them to God with the words “Lord, have mercy,” then we are starting to understand the spiritual life.  Then we are starting to ask the question, “What can you do for me God?”

So we sit, and light a candle, and pray.  Often in silence, without answers.  But it’s here that we begin to trust that God, the one who goes after the one lost sheep, the one who is personified as love, meets us to tend our wounds and heal us.

Back to my life giving conversation at Oak Ridge over our lattes… “I’ve stopped doing churchy things, and it feels great.” 

This is how I more or less responded (or what’d I say now that I’ve had some time to think about it).  “Good to hear.  I think that, when you figure this out, you’ll find your way back into doing the things that you stopped.  You’ll find yourself participating faithfully in a faith community, you’ll find yourself looking out for people who are alone, you’ll find yourself giving more of your money away, you’ll find yourself caring about the least of these… I think, though, that you’ll be rooted in something deeper.  You won’t be compelled to do it out of guilt, or shame, or because you “should” be doing it.  You’ll be doing it out of a deep spirituality where it’s not a choice, but rather simply a way of life.  Where the love you give the world is the fruit you bear from following Jesus.”

I’m going to light a candle, and I’m going to invite us all to sit in silence.  And as we sit, our minds will probably be busy bombarded with thoughts, as you exhale I’d invite you to meet them with the words, “Lord, have mercy.”

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The above was preached at Grace Mennonite Church on June 22, 2014.  

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Some thoughts on conversion, communion, and cats.

The following is a short sermon from Pentecost, where we celebrated baptism, membership transfer, and communion.

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These are the words from Anne Lamott’s, as found in her book,  Travelling Mercies.

“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said ‘F— it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’

So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.” 

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I love Anne Lamott. 

We find ourselves today celebrating practices that have been going on in faith communities for 2000 years: Practices of baptism, testimonies, joining the church, and communion.   2000 years!  This is bigger than us.  These are the practices of saints and sinners, of strong leaders and humble servants, of the faithful and the faithless, of popes and prisoners and priests and paupers.  These practices are bigger than any one of us.  These are the practices of Jesus himself. 

We find ourselves here, celebrating these moments, over and over again.  Some of us were baptized a long ago, and today we recall our own stories as we see the water.  Others of us marvel at how our testimonies have changed over the years.   Many of us speak with fondness  about this faith community, and how important it has been to our spirituality.  And we constantly remember Jesus when we participate in the bread and the wine.

We all have these stories.  And it’s through our practices that we find our stories being part of the big story, part of the long story, part of God’s story… A story of hope and healing, a story of grace and peace, a story of God redeeming the world, bit by bit.  This is the story that we find ourselves living in, over and over and over again.  Every time we share in a baptism, we share in joining a church, we share in communion, we find ourselves living in God’s story.

Sara Miles is one of my favourite authors, and writes the following about finding herself in God’s story (as found in Take This Bread).

“Conversion isn’t, after all, a moment.  It’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt.

 The faith I was finding was jagged and more difficult. It wasn’t about abstract theological debates.  It was about action.  Taste and see, the Bible said, and I did.  My first questioning year at church ended with a question:  Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?’

Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?

God is constantly moving towards us, sometimes like a cat, inviting us to participate in the Kingdom of God.  We come, we taste, and we see that the Lord is good.  So what are we going to do? 

May God guide us as we continue to find ourselves in God’s story of grace and peace.