Sermon: “Holy Adventure: Transforming God”

What does it look like to read the Bible for “formation” instead of “information?” Why would you want to “Start slowly, so that gradually you can slow down,” when our culture wants us to do everything faster and faster? How do we learn to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)?

Holy Adventure: Transforming God

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg

13 March 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

broadviewchurch.net

Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)

Last week, on the first Sunday of our Lenten Holy Adventure, I invited you to be open in the coming days and weeks to how being fully present — even to the most mundane tasks — can allow you to experience the sacred and cultivate gratitude for the simple joy of being alive. This week I want to explore further how we can experience God in everyday places at seemingly ordinary moments. When we slow down, open our hearts, and allow ourselves to be fully present to our surroundings, you will often be surprised at what stands out to you. Whether you are walking down the street, listening to music, or viewing art, you can experience the sacred — and find yourself launched on a holy adventure — from even the smallest detail that you’ve never noticed before. It could be a particular shade of red in a painting, a delightful section of harmony in a symphony, or a bird singing in your backyard. For me this past week, I’ve enjoy watching the first signs of flowers blooming in our yard.

These moments of experiencing the sacred-in-the-ordinary usually happen when we slow down enough to give ourselves the time to notice. And all of these noticings are potential launching point for gratitude and prayer. I would add that your noticings do not have to all be positive.  It can be equally fruitful for your spiritual growth to explore why you noticed something disturbing or dissonant.

A few years ago, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver’s expressed similar sentiments about looking for the holy-in-the-ordinary in a poem called “A Summer’s Day.”  She wrote: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention.” In a more-recent collection of poems called Thirst, Oliver includes a poem called “Praying,” where she expands on this notion:

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

As we continue to explore the theme of Holy Adventure this Lent, I invite you to continue to experiment with such moments of noticing, to explore them more fully, and to discern how they might connect with your life and to God.

During my training as a spiritual director at San Francisco Theological Seminary, we learned many different practices for experiencing God’s presence, but a common theme to those many different ways was slowing down.  The director of the spiritual direction program jokes that we usually expect training to start slowly so that later you can speed up and do thing quickly. But, instead, during each of the three week intensives for our training, he said that our goal was to “Start slowly…so that gradually we can slow down.”  The hope is that we will slow the pace of our busy lives enough so that we can begin notice how God is always present, although we are often too distracted to notice. “God Is Still Speaking” — as the United Church of Christ ad campaign rightly reminds us — but so are newspapers, televisions, billboards, radios, cell phones, books, movies, construction workers, neighbors, traffic, coworkers, friends, and family.  We have to slow down to hear and notice God amidst all the other voices — as well as how each of those voices can point us to God if we slow down long enough to pay loving, contemplative attention.

One of the ways we slowed down in my spiritual direction program was in the way we read the Bible.  Each day in both morning and evening chapel, a scripture was read aloud twice.  All the verses were from Acts chapter 16.  The catch was that we only read one verse a day.  On the first day of our first intensive, we read Acts 16:1.  The second day, Acts 16:2 – and so on.  I have read the Bible contemplatively before, but moving through Acts 16:1-15 at the pace of one verse each weekday over the course of three weeks was an entirely new way of experiencing scripture.

I am most accustomed to reading the Bible for information: read Acts 16 and consult some commentaries to investigate the historical background and theology.  But this was reading the Bible for formation, not information – that is, to be formed by the scripture, not just to learn about its context.

So, Monday morning, day one, I’m sitting in chapel, and the scripture is read: “Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.”  Then we heard it read a second time, followed by a time of silent reflection.  That’s it.  One verse.  And that was far from the oddest verse.

During the closing program for the three weeks, a group of students performed a skit that spoofed this one-verse-a-day practice.  The winner of the stupidest scripture was day eight of the program, when the verse was Acts chapter 16, verse eight: “so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”  There was a long silence, then the verse was repeated: “so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.” Hearing anything? Seriously, notice the voices in your head.  You might be hearing, “Where is Mysia?  Where is Troas?”  Even after eight days, my first reaction to this verse was “Wow.  That was short.”  My second reaction was to intellectualize the passage with questions of geography.  But as I sat with the verse in silence, what stood out to me was the phrase, “passing by.”  How did Paul and Timothy discern to pass by Mysia and go instead to Troas?  More importantly, from there I heard an invitation to reflect on what I was called to pass by in my own life.

Specifically for this Sunday in our Lenten study, the weekly theme is “Transforming God,” and the focus scripture is “Be still, and know that I am God” from Psalm 46:10. Accordingly, I want us to spend a few moments reflecting on how a direct experience with God’s Loving Presence can be transformative. Personally, for many years I have been using a suggestion from the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr of how we can use Psalm 46:10 as a contemplative practice. In the same way, praying only one verse of scripture at a time that we saw earlier, Rohr suggests in his book Everything Belongs that we pray this one verse of this one Psalm slowly, over and over, dropping one word each time:

Be still, and know that I am God.

Be still, and know that I.

Be still, and know that.

Be still, and know.

Be still, and.

Be still.

Eventually we are left with only the single word: Be. And I have often used this practice as a way of centering myself and preparing for contemplative prayer. During times of silent prayer I often return to the word “Be” — saying it once, softly and gently — whenever distractions arise, as a way of returning my focus to the present moment.

In a few moments we will transition into a time of contemplative silence. As a way of entering into this time, I invite you to listen again to the poem we heard earlier. Be particularly attentive to any words or phrases that stand out to you. How is God speaking to you through these words?

It doesn’t have to be

the blue iris, it could be

weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

small stones; just

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try

to make them elaborate, this isn’t

a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which

another voice may speak.

 

Further Reading on Contemplative Prayer

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