Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wine Instead of Syrup

We've just started looking for a church to attend. I have a feeling that it is going to be a long and painful search. I came up with an analogy that I think is helpful for seeing one of the primary problems with many churches. I know, I'm pointing fingers and offering solutions, but I think this is a meaningful dynamic to uncover. So let me put it this way, I came up with an analogy that is helpful for seeing one of the primary problems with churches that are programmatic or program orientated (this could mean focus on a literal program, such as the Wednesday night prayer meeting, or a larger program, like saving the world) and a primary problem with us when we become similarly program oriented.

We come to church to meet with God with each other. We come for communion, for wine. (Or for water if that metaphor works better for you.) But what we get instead is someone telling us what to believe and what not to believe, what to do and what not to do. Instead of the wine, instead of communal communion with God, we get syrup. All we want is just a sip or communion cup full of wine. But we get lots and lots and lots of syrup. We have poured into our tiny communion cup a gallon of syrup, an hour or so of someone talking at us and, to make it worse, often trying to be cordial or humorous while talking. We get the wrong thing--and we get way too much of it.

I have some ideas of what I would like in a church service which would help to reverse this problem, minimizing the syrup and opening opportunities for the wine or water, or wine and water. I'm not sure what use this description will be. We can't usefully dream of a "perfect" church. I also don't mean for these to be rules but useful patterns. Perhaps the list can serve as a prayer that we will be ever-increasingly drawn towards what matters.

There ought to be a time of silence.
There ought to be meditative communal reading of scripture.
There ought to be Eucharist.
There definitely ought to be a meal.
Sometimes, there ought to be music.
Often, there ought to be discussion.
Sometimes, someone should present a prepared "word" or sermon.
This should rarely, rarely exceed ten minutes.
Often, people should be allowed to speak unprepared "words."
As the spirit leads.
Almost always for less than two minutes each.
There ought hardly ever to be any announcements.
Particularly not programmatic pleas for involvement.
Everyone ought to participate in the corporate worship.
Never should one or a few people dominate the talking.
Talking itself should not dominate the meeting.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Importance of Being Still, part 2

I think this is the other half of what my mom (Susan) wrote. I didn't know she would write what I was thinking, but here is my "half" of the story.

Teaching is a profession in which being still and centered is not only extremely difficult, but is truly undervalued. I have found, bit by bit, how imortant silence can be in this professon. Learning to be countercultural in this way has been a process, and I feel I've only nibbled a tiny corner of its vastness. Usually summer finds me drained to the dregs, heading to a silent retreat to let the beauty of the silence flow into the dry corners of my soul. This summer, I traded the silent retreat for the whirlwind of planning and executing a wedding, moving from the home I've lived in for the past ten years, and setting up my own house for the first time, not to mention the adventure of being married.

Well, I resisted all of the rushing and preparation involved in marriage at first -- I've never liked rollercoasters, especially not when I get to the part that I know for sure I won't be able to get off. But the experience was surprisingly grace-filled. It occurred to me that this was a silent retreat experience transplanted to life: an opportunity to plant pockets of silence, to feel God's presence "on the run." It was a challenge to be in each moment even when they piled on top of each other like water rushing over a waterfall.

I wasn't perfect. I certainly wished for boring moments to hurry by and became frustrated by little things. I missed beauty because I was not paying attention, and I let go of silence without considering the consequences. But the Spirit was there and was forgiving and present and loving even when I was not.

And surprisingly, the sacrament of marriage, with the mix of earthy and ethereal that so often characterizes sacraments, served as its own silent retreat. In the days that followed the wedding, I found myself as soft and open to the Spirit and to others as I have often been after spending a week in silence.

Even roller-coasters can be filled with grace.

--Sarah Curran (formerly Price)

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Kind Answer Turns Away Wrath

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Proverbs 1.15
They get it right every once and a while, those seers, wise men and women. I was reacquainted with this principle from Proverbs, reading an apparently secular self-help book called Verbal Judo which had several strikingly insightful--and surprisingly spiritual!--points about gentle persuasion (largely meaning verbal conflict resolution) (see it at amazon). Here are the ones that seemed most central:
  1. The first significant insight: In a conflict, don't react to the words being said instead be present to (or empathize with) the meaning or feeling behind what's being said.
  2. But in able to be able to do this: Empty the self and remove the ego.
Both of these seem to be contemplative spiritual principles to me. Most often, they are easier said than done, of course.

One time, however, I remember enacting the "kind answer" principle smoothly while working as a cashier at a drive through window of a fast food restaurant. The food was in fact not usually fast, and often customers would arrive at my window angry about having waited so long between ordering and getting their food. One man in particular I remember speaking kindly to and his attitude drastically changing, and so I thought of the above Proverb. But I mention this instance now to point out how easy it was to answer kindly; it was easy because I had no bit of ego at stake. It wasn't me who took too long cooking his food! Unhappily, most instance when wrath comes our way, our egos are very much more involved.

If there is wrath aimed at us to be turned away, either we are at fault and so we're probably not going to simply stop our problem-making or we're not at fault and so we are indignant about the wrath or, and this is probably most often the case, we are "a little" at fault, but not enough (it seems in our mind at the time) to justify the wrath and so we are both indignant and not simply going to stop our problem making. Or something like that. Whether my analysis here is accurate, it seems plain enough that usually our egos are involved. But nonetheless, being kind beyond the question of our ego is what is essential. Indeed, this point seems closely related to Rickey's recent post on kindness. It seemed to me that these points were very practical ways of implementing our core spiritual values in our daily lives, which include, at least for me, plenty enough conflict.

Dear God, let us embody this. Amen.

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