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.
Life Is a Holy Adventure
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
13 March 2011
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
1 God said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your parent’s home to the land that I will show you…. 4 So Abram went, as God had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran…. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then God appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to God, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to God and invoked the name of God. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
This past Wednesday — Ash Wednesday to be precise — marked the beginning of the forty-day Lenten season in preparation for Easter Sunday. I should perhaps quality that the traditional “forty” days of Lent does not include Sundays since they were traditionally considered “Little Easters” and were not counted toward the forty day total. So, for those of you still discerning what to give-up or take-on for Lent, keep in mind that one traditional option allows you to indulge on Sundays in whatever you have given up for the other six days of the week during Lent as a foretaste of the Easter feast. Otherwise, know that if you begin your fast on Ash Wednesday, you are giving up chocolate (or whatever you choose) not merely for 40 days, but for the full forty-five days that run from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Not that five days one way or the other makes that big a difference, but you should know what you’re signing-up for with your Lenten discipline.
The tradition of a forty-day Lenten season before Easter originated over time in imitation of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness following his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11). And the tradition of a ceremonial imposition of ashes on the foreheads of worshipers as a sign of mortality and penitence dates back to at least the 10th century. In the 12th century, the tradition began of creating the ashes by burning the branches used on Palm Sunday the previous year.
And as I mentioned earlier, during the season of Lent, Christians have traditionally either given-up a bad habit in order to loosen attachment to the aspects of our lives that unduly occupy our attention or — as has become more popular in recent years — taken on a spiritual practice that helps focus this regained attention on the love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31). Examples of spiritual practices include Bible study and devotional reading, fasting and almsgiving, prayer and the traditional works of mercy from Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. Christians have used these and many other disciplines throughout history to deepen their journey of faith.
Traditionally Lent has often been a somber season, characterized by penance, self-examination, and admonitions such as “May you observe a holy Lent!” or “You are from dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) or “Repent and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15)! So for any of you accustomed to this more traditional Lenten mood, our sermon series using Bruce Epperly’s book Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living is perhaps a refreshing — or challenging — contrast, inviting us to have not only to observe a “Holy Lent,” but also to experience life during Lent — and for the rest of our lives! — as a “Holy Adventure” of partnering with God to live more abundantly.
To tell you a little about the author, Dr. Epperly is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who is also a popular retreat leader and who has taught in a number of settings including Lancaster Theological Seminar in Pennsylvania and Georgetown here in D.C. He is the author of nineteen books and a earned his Ph.D. at Claremont in California.
With this present book, he is intentionally drawing a contrast with evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life. Epperly writes that
Warren charts a road map in which God chooses the most important events and encounters of our lives before we are born and without our input. Our personal calling, according to Warren’s vision, is to discover and live out God’s eternal purposes in our daily lives. We can find our true purpose only when we follow the directions and color inside the lines that God has already planned for us. (21)
When I was in middle school, I can remember a church youth group lesson that was given from a perspective similar to Rick Warren’s. I remember our teacher drawing a long vertical arrow on the chalkboard and saying something like, “This arrow represents God’s perfect plan for your life. If you correctly follow God’s will for your life and never sin, then you will follow this straight and narrow path to heaven.” Then he started drawing arrows curving out in a fan from the main vertical arrow, and said, “Every time you sin, the trajectory of your life moves father and farther away from God’s perfect plan for you. And of course if you sin enough, your path, (instead of eventually leading up to heaven) will curve so far down — so far away from God’s plan for you — that your path will curve down leading you into hell.” Seriously, talk about some anxiety-inducing, terrifying, fear-based theology! You can see why some people worry so anxiously about discerning God’s will.
In contrast, listen to the alternative Epperly paints in his book:
I believe God’s holy adventure calls us to be creative and innovative right now as we listen for divine inspiration, and then to respond by coloring outside the lines and giving God something new as a result of our own personal artistry….. God calls us to become creative companions in God’s new and surprising creation.
Instead of fear-based, anxiety-inducing theology, Epperly invites us to embrace our free will with creativity and imagination. His perspective is exciting, inviting us on a holy adventure in partnership with God who values who we are an what we are uniquely gifted to contribute to the world. Dr. Epperly, by contrast, is not trying to “scare straight” a group of kids into conforming to a narrow, pre-ordained path.
For this introductory week, Dr. Epperly offers us the story of God calling Abram and Sarai as one model of holy adventurers. As we heard in our scripture reading, “God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your parent’s home to the land that I will show you…. So Abram went, as God had told him.” Notice in particular that “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran,” so you’re never too old — or too young! — for God to call you on a holy adventure.
Dr. Epperly also invites us to “Notice that at each stopping point on the way to their promised land, Abraham and Sarah placed altars of gratitude to honor the Voice of Adventure” (10). At the oak of Morah Abraham heard God’s call again So he built there an altar to God.” And in the hill country east of Bethel, Abraham again “built an altar to God and invoked the name of God.” And so, Lent is a time not only for giving up but also for taking on spiritual practices where we literally or metaphorically build altars — “places and times that will help you experience God in your most ordinary tasks.”
Sometimes, as with Sarah and Abraham, God’s call prompts us to move across town or across the country or to the other side of the globe, but this first part of Holy Adventure invites us to see each moment of our life, even — or perhaps especially — the most mundane tasks as an invitation to experience God and engage in a holy adventure. Accordingly, the female, Mesopotamian, sufi mystic Rabia of Basra (c. 717-801) famously wrote the following poetic reflection of experience the sacrament of ordinary chores:
putting my hands on a pot, on a broom,
in a wash pail.
I tried painting,
but it was easier to fly slicing
Rabia is sharing how she was able to be fully present — with her spirit “flying” and her soul soaring — while performing the simple task of slicing potatoes.
We heard similar themes in our prelude from Carrie Newcomer’s song “Holy as a Day Is Spent.” She sings:
Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Showerheads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent….
Hymns of geese fly overhead
And stretch their wings like their parents did
Blessed be the dog that runs in her sleep
To catch that wild and elusive thing
Holy is a familiar room and the quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can….
And morning light sings “providence”
As holy as a day is spent.
In this spirit, I have often experienced a cup of warm coffee as a sacrament; a simple shower as a time to be deeply grateful for having clean, hot water; and walking our dog as a time to be silently aware of Creation’s slowly-changing beauty throughout the seasons. So as we begin our Lenten experiment of considering life as an opportunity to partner with God in living a holy adventure, I invite you to be open in the coming day 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. As we pause for a few minutes of contemplative silence, I invite you to consider how God is calling, luring, and prompting you this Lent toward holy adventure.
1 In evaluating Rick Warren’s work, Epperly is employing a perspective known as Process Theology. For those who are interested in going deeper into this theological point of view, Epperly has a book that is scheduled to be published on May 12 of this year titled Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, which is already available for pre-order through amazon.com.
2 More poetry from Rabia can be found in Daniel Ladinsky excellent and luminous book Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, 10. The singer-songwriter David Wilcox has set a number of these poems to music, including “Slicing Potatoes,” on his album Out Beyond Ideas.
3 You can listen to Newcomer’s song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qZyoRiBteI. For more on embracing the sacredness of ordinary tasks, see Kathleen Norris’ The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality).
4 A classic Christian resource for cultivating an constant experience of the present moment as a sacrament is Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God (c. 1611 – 1691).