Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sunday's sermon - The Spiritual Discipline of Guidance

Philippians 2:12-18, 1 John 4:7-16

Today we will finish off our study of the spiritual disciplines, though we have really only focused on a few of the 12.  And I decided that again we would pick a spiritual discipline that is not so often discussed or focused on in our daily faith life.  That is the spiritual discipline of guidance.
As people of faith, we recognize that we need God’s guidance.  But how do we seek that?  How do you seek out God’s guidance?
We pray, but then do we take the time to listen for the answers? (prayer).
Contemplative listening is a practice that many spiritual directors learn as they listen to their directees, but it is one that we can do with ourselves as we listen to God as well.  It involves asking God a question and then literally sitting in the silence and listening.  We try to listen for God in a non-anxious space.  We try to limit the rattle of our thoughts and our comments to God and simply be with God.  We pay attention to the feelings that emerge in our bodies, the images that come to our minds, the questions that pop into our heads, as ways God might be leading us to think, reflect and move differently.
Another practice in guidance is reading scripture, but as we use it for guidance, we are called to read it differently, to sit with it, practicing things like lectio divina, which means “divine word” and is a call to really listen to what scripture is saying to us in each moment.  (study)
The spiritual discipline of guidance includes other things though as well.  We are called to recognize that God calls not just individuals but communities, and that God’s wisdom is to be found not just within scripture or within one self but also within the community of God’s people.  It recognizes that the Holy Spirit can talk through groups as well as scripture and prayer, and that we are called to seek out the wisdom and guidance of all those whom the Spirit touches.
Many of us are good at asking advice from loved ones when we are struggling to make a decision.  But as a spiritual discipline of guidance, we are called to frame these questions and the conversations with others differently.  Rather than asking, “What should I do?” the spiritual discipline of guidance calls us to ask, “Where is God in this decision?  What is God calling me to do?  Which choice will best allow me to serve God to my fullest potential?  Which choice is best not only for me, but for all of God’s people?  This last question is especially important because it calls us to see that every choice we make impacts more than ourselves and that every choice we make, therefore, is a choice about if, how and how much good we do for God and God’s people.   It again, honors the Spirit in the “other”.
As Presbyterians especially we believe that call, any call, and ALL of us have a call, is discerned in community.  Our call process for pastors involves many people, starting with a committee interviewing and pastors being interviewed, and expands in ever growing circles to our Committee on Ministry, the Presbytery Execs, references and even those the references recommend talking to.  Even before that, our process of ordination also strongly recognizes that calls are discerned in community.  A candidate for ministry goes through not only a school system, not only rigorous testing, but also must pass through a committee at their home church, and a committee at Presbytery, as well as a series of interviews, both one on one and with these committees, finally ending with an examination before the entire Prebytery to discern if that person really is called into ordained ministry.
A few years ago, there was a debate on the floor of our Presbytery about whether or not a pastor seeking ordination through our Presbytery should be required to attend at least a few classes at a Presbyterian seminary.  There was one pastor who argued vehemently that pastors wanting to be Presbyterian ministers should not have to attend any classes at a Presbyterian seminary.  He himself had never gone to any classes at a Presbyterian seminary and he told us all that the Committee on Ministry had insisted that he do so.  He said it like this, “The Holy Spirit was calling me to attend a different seminary, but the Committee on Ministry told me I had to attend at least a polity class at a Presbyterian Seminary.  I refused to do that, and I’m fine as a Presbyterian Minister.”  But I found myself thinking, “No, you aren’t fine as a Presbyterian Minister.  You obviously failed to understand the very basic principle of Presbyterian belief that a CALL is discerned through community.  The Holy Spirit was calling you, through the committee, to take one class at a Presbyterian seminary. You refused the call of the Spirit, and arrogantly assumed that your wishes were in line with the Spirit despite a whole group of people telling you otherwise.  And as a result, you have no understanding at all of what it really means to be a Presbyterian pastor who recognizes and values the Holy Spirit’s strong and amazing work through communal discernment.”
But the truth is that this is hard for all of us.  We all can become arrogant at times and assume that we know what God wants, despite a praying body of people who are telling us differently.  We all can assume that we are hearing the Spirit more clearly than the Body.  We all can, at times, fail to follow the call that we are led to through the discernment of the Body of Christ in community because we are so individualistic and so out of practice in discerning God’s will through community.
So, how do we do this with regular concerns?  There are several practices of guidance and discernment that are available to us.  I mentioned above contemplative listening, study and simply asking God and others for help, and guidance.  But there are other ways as well.
The Quakers practice something called Spirit Rule.  When Quakers worship together, they sit in silence, listening for God.  Sometimes a Quaker worship service will be entirely silent for the whole hour.  However, often times a person will feel called to speak.  He or she will say what they feel compelled by the Spirit to express and the rest listen for the underlying truth in what is said.  Anyone may speak - woman, man, child, visitor, member.  But they see their worship time as a corporate seeking of God’s will.  All present are encouraged not to respond to what others have said, but to continue to sit in the silence and listen for the Holy Spirit’s words to them.
Another, non-denomination practice of guidance is something called a “clearness committee”.  A clearness committee can be called by any individual for the seeking of guidance around a very specific issue.  When I was at seminary, I had a concentration in spirituality and one of the classes we took was a semester long course on clearness committee.  We were divided into small groups and each person brought an issue to the group that the group would focus on for a series of weeks before moving to the next person’s question.  The purpose is for the group to work together to listen for and hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  The person with the question for discernment presents the issue along with any background information that may be informing the question for them.  During the first sitting, the members of the group are NOT to give advice, but to ask questions with the purpose of moving the questions deeper.  The questions are not to be hidden advice.  For example, “Have you thought about doing x?” is not really a question, but advice.  Similarly, “My brother once tried x and it worked for him” is not a question, it is advice.  Instead, the questions might be, “How do you feel when you think about this part of what you shared?”  “What memories or images come up for you around this part of the issue?”  “When you ask God about this part, what do you hear?”  Other questions might ask for more information, clarification, or deeper thinking.  The next session, the person with the question gives feedback as to where their thinking has moved and what has been helpful and then again, the committee asks questions.  At this point, committee members can also talk about how they have been impacted by the question.  But again, it is never framed in terms of advice, but more “when I think about x, I feel anxious because I remember when I made a similar decision and this is what happened.”  Or “when I reflected on y, I felt moved to make a change in my own life…” etc.  Also , the focus person may ask clarifying or thinking questions of the committee. There is a great deal of silence during these meetings as well, as people listen for the spirit, and listen for the movement of feelings, etc.  The process continues for several weeks, but the key component is that while it is a committee of folk helping the person have greater insight and discernment, advice is never given.  We can never fully understand what another person is going through.  So helping another person gain insights, remember factors, explore the issues is helpful.  But giving advice is not because it is always based on limited information.  My own personal experience of clearness committee was that as a listener it was hard to not give advice.  At the same time, the practice of listening I found to be impeded when I was thinking in terms of advice.  When I was just called to LISTEN, the listening could go much much deeper because I was not distracted by what I was supposed to say.  As the focus person, it was extremely helpful to not be bombarded with others’ advice, but simply be accompanied in the journey of discernment by wise and thoughtful people who were willing to ask the questions and reflect back what they were hearing without giving direction or advice.  This is a practice that I think would be very helpful for any of us to try, and when we have finished with our practices of simplifying, I would encourage anyone who would like to experience clearness committee to join me for a few weeks exercise.
     The final method of discernment or guidance that I want to mention this morning is spiritual direction.  Spiritual direction includes many things, and listening to sermons or being part of small groups studying scripture is an aspect of spiritual direction.  But actually visiting with a spiritual director is also extremely helpful.  Their role and their goal, again, is not to give advice.  They listen for God, they help their directees to listen for God, they push questions about where God is acting and what God is guiding us to do.  My personal experience is that seeing a spiritual director is extremely helpful in deepening our relationships with God, which then allow for much clearer decision making.
      I want to point out that the strongest theme here in terms of seeking guidance is that when people seek out guidance as a spiritual practice, it is NOT asking for advice.  It is NOT giving advice.  I can’t state this strongly enough.  The practice of guidance is a practice of listening for God, deepening our relationship with God, being led by the Spirit, truly, whether that Spirit is talking through an individual or a community.  The process of guidance can be distorted, there is danger in it, but that danger tends to come in the form of charismatic voices trying to give advice, telling us what we need to do, and claiming that he (or she) knows what needs to be done because God has spoken to them.  This is a good reason in itself why advice should never be part of it.  And when someone is giving you advice in response to your seeking guidance, I would encourage you to be very wary.  Guidance invites you deeper into relationship with God.  It never seeks to manipulate or control.
The purpose then of seeking guidance is not to have all our problems fixed and to know exactly what we need to do in any moment.  The purpose of seeking guidance is to deepen in our relationship with God.  That is why it is an important spiritual discipline.  We deepen our hearing of God, we deepen our seeking of God, we deepen our experience of God.  And we do so with the humility to recognize that we can’t do any of that alone.  We are led by the community of God’s people as well as the Holy Spirit in our deepening.  We acknowledge that none of us has all the answers or really any of the answers.  Only God does, and when we have the humility to seek guidance in these different ways, we remember that God is always there to lead us when we but ask.  We remember that God wants us to be in full relationship with God because in choosing that, we are choosing to be the most whole, genuine version of ourselves that we can be.  We remember that God’s answers are perfect, and are waiting to be given.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Spiritual Discipline of Celebration

John 2:1-11, Luke 15

     Today we are looking at the spiritual discipline of celebration.  This one may be one of the hardest practices for us to recognize as a spiritual discipline.  How is it a discipline to celebrate, to laugh to party?  Aren’t disciplines supposed to be hard?
     No.  As I said the first week we talked about this, the spiritual disciplines are ways to come closer to God.  That is their purpose.  If something is too hard it can be a distraction in itself.  That is the problem, often, with people who choose total austerity as a spiritual practice.  Just as our stuff can distract us from God, total lack of stuff can also distract us from God.  Hardships of any kind can claim our focus, and the purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to limit distractions from God, or to figure out ways to still focus on God through the distractions of our lives.  So then the question might be asked, isn’t celebration also a distraction from God?  When we are partying and celebrating and happy are we focused on God?  Well, it depends on how and why we are celebrating.  If our celebration is about God, and if we include God in that celebration, it is an invitation for joy with God, for dancing with God, for expressing gratitude to God for all that God has given us and does give us.  We hear today in the passages from John and Luke all the many times that God celebrates.  God celebrates when we are with God.  God celebrates when we return to God.  God celebrates when we get married (as in the wedding in Cana).  God celebrates when we find new life and when joy finds us.  God celebrates us.  And we, in turn are called to celebrate God.
     Some may say that lent is the worst of all times to focus on celebration.  It is supposed to be a somber time of reflection and preparation for Jesus ultimate sacrifice.  We celebrate after lent.  But actually, the forty days of lent exclude Sundays.  If we included Sundays, lent would be 46 days.  But we don’t.  Sundays are supposed to be the days off from lent.  They are set aside to celebrate the resurrection, the return to life, the glory and wonder of a God who loves us so much that even death is overcome by that love.  Sunday is the day of celebration – of God’s love and resurrection and new life given to us each day.  So perhaps especially during lent we are called to set aside the seriousness of self-reflection, repentance and preparation on Sundays and simply to be and celebrate God’s love and grace this day.
     It may, then, seem odd to offer up ways to celebrate.  Surely we all know how to celebrate.  But I would say that if the typical traditional church service is any indication, we really don’t know how to celebrate God.  It’s like when a pastor stands up and says, “This is the day the Lord has made” and gets back a “let us be glad and rejoice in it”.  That is not rejoicing.  That is not celebrating.  Are the words we say simply words, detached from the rest of us?  Or are we called to genuinely celebrate with all of our being the amazing things that God has done and is done for us?  Celebration is an expression of true joy.  Celebration therefore involves all of who we are, our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our emotions.  (pass out toys).  It looks like gratitude, deep: heart- felt gratitude.  It looks like a joy that can not be contained in a sitting, still, solemn body.  It should look the same way that we celebrate birthdays and weddings and graduations.  But it usually doesn’t, does it?
     When we first began our Wednesday evening service, the kids were quite young.  And they would dance in the aisles and move around.  And I have to admit that I, too, found this “inappropriate” and for that I deeply, deeply apologize to the kids – to my own kids, especially, whom I told that they needed to not move around as much.  They gave me the perfect example of true joy.  They truly embodied and demonstrated for me the celebration in each of those services of joy in their faith, in their community, in each other.  But I was uneasy because I, too, had ideas about what “church” should look like.  I was wrong.  And I encourage all of us, as we look at lent and these spiritual disciplines to think much more seriously about how we celebrate God as a spiritual discipline.
Here, then, are some of the ways that I think we can celebrate God’s love and presence and resurrection:
Laugh often
Attend and throw parties
Visit special places
Visit friends, old and new
Be generous with your time, talents and resources
 Sing or make music another way
 Be silly
 Notice the blessings around you and practice gratitude
Be excited about what is happening and what is coming
Let go of fear
 Appreciate nature and celebrate the seasons
 Enjoy the physical things in life: eating, drinking, walking, etc.
 Smile often
Use all of your senses in life: smell, taste, seeing, hearing, touching.

     I think the hardest time to celebrate is when something bad has happened, when there is a tragedy or a big loss.  I hear people who’ve lost a spouse or a child tell me that they feel guilty celebrating when their loved one is gone.  I get that.  I understand that.  But I also know that it is the times of celebration that sometimes pull us through those hard times.  I remember dancing, almost every morning, with my youngest child as she got ready for school when we were at our hardest times.  Sometimes we would hold hands and dance, sometimes I would pick her up and swing her around the room to some of our favorite music.  We did this almost daily as a way of surviving; of moving when it felt hard to even breathe; of saying, there is still love here and life and that is worth celebrating no matter what; as a way of remembering that joy was still accessible, even when happiness was elusive; as a way of saying, “God, we still experience you in life.  We still honor you with our actions.  We still choose to walk as the resurrection people, even when it feels like death is upon us.”  We did it as a way of being in and held by love for each other and for God in each moment.  We still do this sometimes, though not as often.  The physical activity, the connection with a loved one, the laughter, the smiles, the joy – these things don’t make us forget what we have lost.  They are not sinful distractions from caring for someone else.  Instead, they take the edge off, they renew our strength and energy so that we can get through the harder times, so that we can support each other going through hard times.  They remind us that what is important in life is not just the pain, not just the losses, but the people who continue to love us and surround us and care for us.  They remind us that God still wants good for us, joy, wholeness, peace, even when things are hard.  It is good to take breaks from our grief just as it is good to have a weekly break from our more serious Lenten practices.  It is good to take time to remember the joyful blessings that surround us - the beauty of the earth, the bounty of our food and friends, the smiles, hugs and love that come our way, the unexpected surprises of new friends or seeing old friends, the gifts that surround us daily.
We are so very blessed.  Celebration is a way to honor that.  To acknowledge it.  To express our gratitude to God.  And to say, as God said at the beginning and every day, “It is good.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - the Spiritual Discipline of Solitude

Psalm 46
Lamentations 3:22-28
Mark 6:30-32

            During Lent we are focusing on Spiritual Disciplines.  For those who were not with us last week, those disciplines as outlined by Richard Foster include:
Inner disciplines:
1. Prayer
2. meditation 
3. fasting 
4. reading or study.  
Outward disciplines:
1. simplicity
2. solitude 
3. submission 
4. service  
Communal Disciplines: 
3. guidance 
4. celebration. 
    Last week we focused on simplicity and today we will talk about solitude.
        As a people, we spend a lot of our time being busy.  Being very, very busy.  We run around with our work and our errands and our activities.  But even when we aren’t running around we fill our lives with noise and activity.  Music, television, computers, smart phones, texting, emailing, tweeting, our machines that take care of the house – vacuums, dish washers, washing machines, mixers, coffee makers, etc.  We fill our heads with busyness, thinking about what will be happening next, what needs to be done, problems that need to be solved, places we want to visit, conversations we’ve had with people, etc.  We are not comfortable with silence.  We are not comfortable with stillness.  We are not comfortable with solitude.  Of course there are exceptions to this.  Some people are very good at taking quiet time for themselves.  And I think the older generations are generally better at this than the younger generations.  The last time I was in an airport I noticed that all the people my age and under were busy on their phones, but several older couples, whom I guessed were in their eighties seemed much more content to simply sit and wait.  So I will grant that this is a condition of younger people, but for many of us, I think we avoid solitude in many ways. 
We run from quiet, we run from stillness.  We run from anything that seems like “wasting time” and by wasting time I mean doing anything other than being busy.  But in running from solitude, I think we are really running from two things.  We are running from ourselves.  And we are running from God.  Sometimes even our relationships can be ways of running away.  Sometimes we avoid ourselves, we avoid solitude, we avoid quiet by being focused on someone else and on the drama of that relationship.  I speak from my own experience here.  From the time I was 16 on, I was never NOT in a relationship until my divorce. I didn’t get married until I was 29, but I could not tolerate being without a partner of some kind.   Being ALONE in the sense of not being with a partner was, therefore, something I had not done since I was a teen. I was afraid alone.  I was lonely alone.  And rather than looking at what that meant and why that was, I simply made sure that I was never alone.  When Mark went away, for the first time ever as an adult, I had to face being alone.  Not completely.  I had children to fill the space, constantly, almost all the time.  They filled the empty time, they kept me busy.  But at night, after they were in bed, it was just me, for the first time.  And it was hard.  That quiet.  That stillness.  That solitude.  I experienced that as a difficult and lonely place to be.  Sometimes it was so hard, so lonely, that I wondered if I really existed in those times alone.  It’s kind of like all the jokes about if a tree falls in the wood and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound. Or my personal favorite, if a man is by himself and there is no women around to hear him, is he still wrong.  
Well, all joking aside, I truly felt in some of those moments that if there was no one beside me, maybe I didn’t exist in those moments.  Or rather, that my presence didn’t matter in those moments.  My existence didn’t matter, didn’t have purpose, didn’t have meaning in those times.  A lonely, hard place to be.
            A very wise spiritual director said to me during that time that every search to be filled – with noise or busyness or community or connection is, ultimately, a search for a deeper connection with God.  That when we feel alone, when we feel lonely, when we feel empty, and even when we feel anxious because we are not DOING anything in a particular moment, that these feelings are ultimately and deeply a search to connect with the divine.  So if we can actually turn our yearning for fulfillment, for connection with others, for feeling filled into what it really is, if we can focus that yearning on connecting with God, we can find ourselves filled in a much fuller, truer, more whole way than we might otherwise experience.  If we can choose, through prayer and meditation, through the intentional search for solitude, decision to seek solitude, through time set aside to be alone with God to ask for that closeness with God rather than filling up the emptiness with others, with food, with busyness, with addictions, we can find God in new ways.  We are invited through the discipline of solitude to just BE in the quiet, in the aloneness.  We are invited to truly “be still” and know that God is.  We are invited to be still and come to know more about who God is, and through that, to come to know more about who God calls us to be.  We can experience God more fully and completely, and in doing so, come to know ourselves more fully and deeply as well.
            That achy loneliness that we have all felt is a call from God to be in the quiet and to listen.  Rather than to push those feelings away and fill the emptiness with stuff. 
            I am reminded of the story in 1 Kings 19:11-13 of Elijah’s encounter with God –   “Go out and stand on the mountain,” the Lord replied. “I want you to see me when I pass by.” All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  Finally, there was a gentle breeze, and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat. He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.
The Lord asked, “Elijah, why are you here?”
            We tend to think we can experience God in the big, in the dramatic, in activities in our busyness, especially when we are doing work FOR God. But the work and busyness we do FOR God are our response to having encountered God.  They are responses of service that should stem from gratitude about our relationship with God. But encounters with God, while they come in many forms, are often most deeply to be found in solitude.  We won’t find them in the loud earthquakes.  We won’t find them in the big dramatic fires. We won’t find them in the crazy windy storms of our lives.  We will find them, we will find GOD in the quiet.  In the stillness.
            We have Jesus’ examples, too, of that spiritual practice.   Jesus, who “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Jesus, whom we are told that after healings and time with the people, withdrew for solitude with God.  Mark 1:35 “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” After John died, Matthew 14:13, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.”  Before choosing the twelve apostles Luke 6:12–13, “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.”  When he retreated to the garden in Gethsemane, and at many other times.  Sometimes he invited his disciples to join him.  “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place”.
            Solitude, or that quiet time away, is an important practice for all of us.  So how do we practice solitude? 
            Here are some concrete suggestions:
1.      Turn off the noise and distractions for 15 minutes a day.  That means turning off the ringer on your phone, getting away from TV, radio, music, media, the computer, machines, and intentionally seeking out quiet alone time.
2.     Go for a walk in the woods by yourself.
3.     Go on a silent retreat.
4.     Take time to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary any time, by yourself.
5.     Find another alone spot, at a time and place where you will not be disturbed.
6.     Walk the labyrinth, again, by yourself.
7.     Spend time reading scripture, in quiet, by yourself.
 Alone time, solitude time, allows us to get to know God and ourselves more deeply.  It invites us into prayer and reflection on where God has been in our lives, is currently acting in our lives.  It invites us into self-reflection and into a time of listening for where God is calling us to move, how God is calling us to be, and what God is calling us to become.  It is an invitation for closeness with God.  One we don’t accept easily, but one that is filled with gifts from the Spirit.  Amen.