Sometimes preaching is an act of desperation, because, I think, we are desperate to make sense of the world. A woman who survived the Nazi holocaust is gunned down in a Pennsylvania synagogue. Our country’s leaders spew hate-speech. A California community is destroyed by fire and another threatened. A graduate from Vintage High School, a Pepperdine University freshman, is gunned down at a dance club in Thousand Oaks. Disease ravages people we know and love. Terrible things happen and we’re desperate to make sense of it. I don’t want us to lose hope or become cynical or be filled with hate… all options when life takes a turn for the worse. I want to tell us, as people of faith, that God is still here, and that love has the last word, and that love and forgiveness and compassion are the only things that will change the world… I want to make some sense out of this heartbreaking life. I want to live as a person who lives with God.
At its best, Sunday worship is when life and faith intersect; when we encounter the Holy Spirit and know ourselves to be held and surrounded in the presence of love; when we allow love to permeate our Sunday suits of armor; when we allow God’s love to change us. That’s a lot to ask of an hour… but at its best worship is when we’re present and receptive and vulnerable enough for the Holy One to get God’s hands on us and do some grace in us and with us. That’s what I’m praying for this morning… that our souls are fed some grace. Grace is a word that means favor, mercy, and pardon. In theological language, grace means the freely given, unmerited love of God. God loves you and there’s nothing you can do to stop God loving you. It’s simply who God is. Two weeks ago, we handed out little notebooks, gratitude journals, and I challenged us to list one thousand things we’re thankful for. Notebooks of God-sighting, of noticing God’s grace.
Week before last I was at the Academy for Spiritual Formation, a program sponsored by the Upper Room, that’s spread out over eight weeks in two years, that gives me continuing education units, challenges and nourishes me spiritually and intellectually. Each time we gather at the Academy – there are fifty of us from all over the United States and a handful from Korea – there are two faculty members with us who are authors, seminary professors, or theologians. At this last session Rabbi David Horowitz from Akron, Ohio, was one of the faculty. It was humbling and poignant that we gathered with Rabbi David the day after eleven Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh during worship. Rabbi David taught us about the Jewish understanding of life and death and all the spaces in between: in other words, the ways they live that make Jews Jewish… the rituals, the rites of passage, the prayers for specific things, the details of everyday life. And Rabbi David explained to us that these acts remind Jews of who they are, and who God is. It made me wonder when we left behind our Jewish roots, and why Christians stopped observing daily life as a sacrament the ways an observant Jew does. Rabbi David said that all of the details in Jewish life help preserve Judaism, but also help preserve the hope and wellbeing of an oppressed and persecuted people. He said that these words from Deuteronomy help explain Judaism: “I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life – so that you and your descendants will live – by loving the Lord your God, by obeying God’s voice, and by clinging to God. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors.”
Choose life, Rabbi David told us, and choose joy, even in the midst of conflict and struggle and heartbreak. He told us that struggling (or wrestling with God, as Jacob did on the night he wrestled with the divine being, saying to it, “I will not let you go until you bless me”) is a time-honored experience of Jewish spirituality. And he said that people who are grieving are required to pray these words in worship, “Blessed are You, O God,” because it reminds everyone, including the mourner, that God is present in the grief, and the prayer invites God into the pain and the struggle.
After each faculty lecture at the Academy, we were given an hour of silent reflection to journal, or walk, or pray. Rabbi David had told us that Israel is not historically a place but a people – a people who are devoted to and who wrestle with – God. I wrote in my journal: “As Julia Child said about imagining herself to be French because she felt French, felt herself to be one of them, ‘I must be French”; I, Marylee, must be a child of Israel, because I wrestle with God. I struggle to see God in the struggle, and sometimes feel like a failure and a fraud. How do I wrestle with God (not letting go) until God gives me a blessing? Or… I wonder if God is holding onto me, until I bless God?”
I’ve been reflecting, since the Academy, on what rituals and actions define us as Christians, the way specific prayer and blessings and wrestling with God define Judaism. Jesus, a Jew, gave us the example for a life steeped in holiness, steeped in mindful observance of God. By four of His actions – His spiritual practices – Jesus showed us what defines us as His followers. First, Jesus gave thanks. He took bread, and gave thanks for it, and took a cup, and gave thanks for it. Giving thanks, and counting our gifts is a way of praying, “Blessed are You, O God.” When we’re grateful, when we notice and count God’s gifts, which is God’s grace, we’re blessing God for blessing us. Thanks-giving changes us. This is from an article in the Greater Good Magazine: Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life. “Recent evidence suggests there’s a promising approach to complement psychological counseling that is not too taxing for clients but yields high results. We have zeroed in on one such activity: the practice of gratitude. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier. When we dug deeper into our results, we found indications of how gratitude might actually work on our minds and bodies… that gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions; gratitude helps even if it’s not shared (for instance, there are benefits of writing a letter of gratitude, even if you don’t send it); and gratitude has lasting effects on the brain.”
This past week my gratitude journal has been in the outside pocket of my purse. The anxiety that started the day of the midterm elections was like a snowball rolling downhill, getting fatter and heavier as the stress and heartbreak of the week escalated. But prompted by the Holy Spirit, I took it out on Friday and began to notice, and to note, what I’m grateful for. And then I could see God… even in the awful events that have happened… I’ve been able to see God. I’ve been noticing and thanking and blessing God for all that God is doing. Thanks-giving is a spiritual practice my spirit can’t do without. Gratitude builds a little nest in my heart for God to reside.
Jesus’ second spiritual practice for us to follow was sharing. When He was at the table with His friends, Jesus shared the bread, saying, “This is My body, broken for you.” He shared the cup, saying, “This is My blood, the cup of the New Covenant, spilled out for the forgiveness of sin.” Sharing who we are, and what we have, is one of the things that define us as followers of Jesus. It’s said that we’re blessed to be a blessing. We are the recipients of a thousand gifts… too many gifts to count… and our spirits cry out to give back. We were created to reciprocate, to give as we are given to. We give financial gifts to the institutions and causes that mean the most to us, that speak for us, that do the work we believe in. It’s usually only once a year, during a finance campaign, that a preacher feels empowered (or perhaps pressed upon) to preach about financial giving as a spiritual practice, one that allows the ministries of the church to thrive. But giving as a response to the gifts we’re given is a regular practice that defines us as Christians. This month is our finance campaign, and one of the reasons we’re counting one thousand gifts is to take stock, if you will, of all we’ve been given… and of all that’s expected of us in return. Sharing our financial gifts is not a goodwill gesture, it’s a spiritual practice that aligns our priorities and gives us the opportunity to (as Bishop Shamana said) “put shoes on God’s dreams.” Every gift given in love makes a difference to the health and vitality of our shared ministry.
Jesus’ third spiritual practice was service. He served the disciples by washing their feet. Washing the feet of people who walked on dirt-and-dung roads in bare feet or sandals would be the equivalent of us offering a shower to a hot and sweaty traveler. Jesus served His friends, and said to them, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should do this for each other.” John Wesley identified the ways we serve… feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, teaching the child, caring for the poor, the immigrant, the elderly, and other vulnerable people, the works of mercy. Works of mercy, Wesley believed, are ways of experiencing God’s grace. Rather than hoping for a spiritual encounter like a burning bush, Wesley was proactive about seeking God’s grace – God’s loving kindness – through serving others. Methodists have a strong history of social justice; understanding that by serving others we are helping to heal the world, and reveal Jesus in the world, and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Serving others is one of the ways we’re known as Jesus’ followers.
Jesus’ fourth spiritual practice was prayer. At the Academy, Rabbi David talked the richness of names and images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. And he reminded us that God is as close to us as breath. One of the prayers we said was simply the name of God: Yahweh. Yah (breathe in) weh (breathe out.) Practice it with me. Yah (breathe in.) Weh (breathe out.) Our other faculty member at this Academy was Marjorie Thompson, the author of Soul Feast and many other books on the spiritual life. Marjorie told us that it’s the Holy Spirit within each one of us that inspires us to pray, because God designed us as relational beings. She described two ways of prayer: communication, which is talking to God, through thoughts and worship and singing, and what we know about God; and contemplation, which is silence and listening to God, and entering into the unknown with God. Prayer, Marjorie told us, is being present to the Presence of God. She had us practice simple prayers, short phrases, that were common with the desert mothers and fathers, and train the mind to focus. We prayed “Kyrie eleison” which means “Lord, have mercy,” and we prayed, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Praying these simple phrases, Marjorie said, make a little resting place in the heart, a little nest for God to reside. Author Anne Lamott famously said that the three most important prayers are “Help. Thanks. Wow.”
Prayer centers us in the present moment, which is the message Jesus gave His disciples when He said, “Steep your life [that is, practice being in the presence of God] in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now [that is, train your mind to focus on the ways of Jesus… such as thanks-giving, sharing, service, and prayer] and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” Prayer is a spiritual practice that helps us, as all spiritual practices do, live more fully into God’s love and the love of others.
When we count our gifts… what are we really doing? Ann Voskamp, the author of One Thousand Gifts, writes that it’s not the gift that matters, it’s the holiness of the seeing God in the gift. Naming a gift, counting a blessing, helps us see God framed in the moment. “Giving thanks,” she writes, “redeems time from neglect, and apathy, and inattentiveness.”
Why does it matter that as followers of Jesus we practice thanks-giving, and sharing, and service, and prayer? It matters because life is more than hard, it’s downright heartbreaking. When our hearts are broken – and why wouldn’t our hearts be broken when a holocaust survivor is murdered in an American synagogue; when politicians act and speak hate; when a community is burned to the ground; when a local family’s beloved child is gunned down… our hearts break. And anything broken is either carefully repaired, or left broken, or thrown away as irredeemable. I think the lack of love and empathy and compassion in the world is the result of hearts that have been left broken, that have hardened and crusted over, or seemed impossible to fix and remained bleeding, gaping soul-wounds. Following the spiritual practices of Jesus helps us find grace – God’s tenderhearted, compassionate, loving partiality for us – in the moment, and helps heal our hearts. Theodicy is the study of God and the problem of evil, and books…thesis… volumes… are written about whether or not God causes or permits evil. In her book, One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp asks, “Who would ever know the greater graces of comfort and perseverance, mercy and forgiveness, patience and courage, if no shadows fell over a life?”
My understanding of God, and my experience of God, doesn’t allow me to believe that God causes suffering and evil… but I’ve learned, and am always learning, to look for God… everywhere. Counting your gifts can help you find grace… and God… in the moment. Blessed are You, O God, for this and all gifts. Amen.