A Different Relationship with Time

A little over a decade ago the novelist Alan Lightman penned a national bestseller entitled: Einstein’s Dreams. The book plays with time. Lightman describes a series of imagined dreams. Einstein’s conscious is hard at work by day on the theory of relativity. But by night his subconscious produces a number of different worlds, imagining how time *could* function. In one scenario time moves more slowly the farther you get from the center of the earth, so the wealthy build palaces on top of the highest mountains and keep the poor in the valleys below. In another dream, there is a spot where time stands still. Lovers and parents clinging to their children make pilgrimage to the place, to hold one another through time. Lightman’s novel debuted at the beginning of our recent cultural obsession with Einstein. But I wonder is there something more to the relative appeal of these stories and of the scientist? Do we long for a different relationship with time?

“You know not the day or the hour.” Jesus tells a simple story about wise and foolish bridesmaids. Some come prepared for the wait, others are left out in the dark. Be like the wise bridesmaids, Jesus exhorts his disciples. Keep awake. Except the story Jesus told wasn’t literally about staying awake. All of the bridesmaids fall asleep in the parable. The bridesmaids who make it into the banquet also slept. Wisdom in not about sleeplessness.

We know about sleeplessness in this country. We know about worry. I worried this week how the news of last week’s shooting in a Texas Church would affect our attendance today. Of course we’ll pray for the victims. And I worry that we still won’t be able to address the problem with guns in this country. I worry a lot, but maybe not more than most these days. Left to my own devices, I can descend into worry.

I want to venture, following our readings, wisdom is about being awake, but not about anxiety. You can’t worry your way to wisdom. Wisdom is a different kind of awake-ness. And Wisdom has something to do with how we relate to time.

Jesus’ choice of descriptor for the bridesmaids: “wise” is an important one. Our reading from the book of Wisdom raises the stakes a bit. Wisdom is Sophia, lady Wisdom. Christians have often read this divine description as a way of speaking about the Holy Spirit, one of the reasons some Christians tend to gender the Spirit feminine. For Christians Wisdom “capital W” and the Spirit “capital S” are one. To be wise is to be awake, to be awake is to be Spiritual. These wise bridesmaids have their finger on something. The oil is parabolic. Oil is a metaphor. The distinction between wisdom and foolishness has something to do with spirituality, something to do with preparation, and something to do with time.

“One who rises early to find Wisdom will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.”

In so many ways, Spirituality is made out as a pursuit. We religious officials prescribe specific postures, practices, and prayers. So often people respond: “I don’t have the time.” But the writer of the Book of Wisdom answers. Wisdom, Spirituality, isn’t just for the professionals. Spirituality is for the busy. The Spirit will find you. She will meet you in your path.

Spirituality is not about accumulating hours of prayer for the sake of appearing holy. It isn’t about adding. Spirituality is about deepening. Often that deepening comes by subtracting. Spirituality is being awake to God’s presence in every moment. Wisdom is found when we are fully awake, fully present. We don’t find God in all those hours we don’t have in a day. God finds us in the moments we do have.

One of the great teachers of mysticism in the Anglican tradition was an English lay woman, Evelyn Underhill. Her books on Mysticism became best sellers in the years spanning the First and Second World Wars. Underhill was a pacifist, an active Anglican lay leader, and most importantly, a mystic. She argued that mysticism, contemplation, the life of prayer, isn’t just for monks and nuns. Spirituality is for practical people. Learning to be awake, learning to truly see, are the outcomes of the Spiritual life. Listen to Underhill describe the work of contemplative prayer as “looking with the eyes of love:”

To “look with the eyes of love” seems a vague and sentimental recommendation: yet the whole art of spiritual communion is summed in it, and exact and important results flow from this exercise…When you look thus, you surrender your I-hood; see things at last as the artist does, for their sake, not for your own…The doors of perception are cleansed, and everything appears as it is. The disfiguring results of hate, rivalry, prejudice, vanish away. Into that silent place to which recollection has brought you, new music, new colour, new light, are poured from the outward world.

Prayer, Contemplation, Spirituality are practical. They are about being awake, truly awake, deeply awake. Wisdom comes in the moment we are consciously in time, when we are able to “look with the eyes of love.” Such gaze takes practice. But the practices of Spirituality are not “busy work.” We don’t pray just to pass the time. Prayerful practice is about cultivating the “loving gaze” to use Underhill’s word. Spirituality is about learning to be more and more deeply awake in the midst of time.

As Underhill hints awake-ness has another dimension, beyond the personal. I want to return to the Gospel and play for a moment with the wise bridesmaids. I want to ask, what is spiritual about their seemingly small decision to bring the extra oil? Why does this small act matter? To dig in, we have to talk for a moment about first century weddings.

The definition of marriage has shifted a great deal in the last two millennia, thank God. But in the time of Jesus, brides were usually purchased. Women were the property of men. Wedding parties were elaborate multi-day festivities, but they began with a negotiation. Before the feast, before the bridegroom processed to the banquet hall, there was bargaining to be done. The price for the bride needed to be set.

Scholars tell us that the parable’s “bridesmaids” were most likely members of the bridegroom’s family. They would have waited outside until the deal was settled to follow their relative into the banquet and greet his new wife. Knowing this background, the wise bridesmaid interaction gets a little deeper. These particular women know their kinsman. They know him well enough to think through the evening’s likely events: “With this guy we might want to have some extra midnight oil. He’s apt to offer too low a price and this negotiation might drag on. Better bring the backup.” (This reading might also explain why the jerk won’t let the other women into the banquet later.)

The wise bridesmaids have not simply prepared ahead, they’ve thought about their context. They’ve contemplated the likely scenario. These women are awake in a specific way to their time. They are conscious of the economic, gender, and power dynamics in their society, and in their own family.

As an aside, if all of this discussion about first century chattel marriage makes your skin crawl, if the idea that a young woman might be bought and purchased by an adult man makes you uncomfortable, you might not want to move to Alabama.

The Alabama State Auditor this week tried to defend Senate Candidate Roy Moore (noted for his zealous opposition to marriage equality for same sex couples). Moore has been accused of sexual assault on a minor. When the alleged events happened, the candidate was in his thirties and the girl was 14. The State Auditor, coming to Moore’s defense, tried to point to the Bible and say, “well Joseph was an adult and Mary, [the mother of Jesus] was a teen.” Speaking just for this church, let me say, “No.” You don’t get to use the Bible to justify abuse of a minor. Religion should never justify abuse. This seems pretty basic. His misuse of the Bible should be condemned from pulpits across Alabama today. It should be.

Our definition of marriage has shifted from the first century. As I said before, thank God. Yet in this parable, even in the midst of his particular time, Jesus seems to be advocating a specific kind of awareness. Jesus was woke. Jesus encouraged his followers to develop cultivated consciousness toward the dynamics of economics, gender, and power. Here in our day, in our city, we would add race, class, immigration status, ability sexual orientation…

Woke-ness is important for Spiritual folks who live in the bounds of time. The Islamic Scholar Omid Safi quoted Dr. Martin Luther King in an article published about this time last year. He reminded his readers that Dr. King once said “Time is morally neutral.” Safi then elaborated:

Time is morally neutral…Things do not get better by themselves. They also do not get worse by themselves. That’s true whether we are talking about a society bending the arc of the moral universe towards the good and the just, or sliding towards an abyss of authoritarianism.

Time marches on, says Safi, and we have to choose whether we are along for the ride or working to change direction. Time does not heal all wounds, not on its own. Time does not always mean progress, just as age does not always equal wisdom. Awake-ness matters if we seek to make change in our time. If we move from a place of ignorance, if we do not listen deeply to the voices of those who are marginalized, we risk bending the wrong way. We risk making life worse for those who suffer.

Fortunately the levers of power are never solely in our hands. Those words are difficult for folks like us here at Holy Communion. I know that many of you, like me, like to be in charge, like to feel in control. In that sense, time is a great reckoner. We can’t manage the flow of time. Time marches on. We can really only control our own attitude and attention, and even in that realm, we’re working with subtle nuance. A spiritual director of mine once shared a parable he heard from a Navajo friend: “White people have all the watches, but Indians have all the time.”

Jesus’ followers encounter the conundrum of time in a particular way. His earliest followers were waiting for an imminent return. Jesus was coming back, soon. But as the days turned to years, the years to centuries, Jesus’ followers have had to ask: “What are we to do with all of this time?”

How can we use our time intentionally? How can we become more attuned to the Spirit as she is living and active? How can we, like Evelyn Underhill, cultivate an inner life that allows us to more fully see the outer world? How do we stay awake to the dynamics of power inviting us to act for justice?

If for you, time seems fleeting, if you find yourself rushed by errands, trying to find oil for your lamp, could Jesus today be inviting you to find a new relationship with time?

Surely God is in this Place: Jacob’s Ladder and Unlikely Spiritual Geography

Jacob’s story today is a claim of unlikely sacred geography. Jacob finds himself on the run. He’s tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, his birthright. Essau, as we heard last week, isn’t someone to be messed with. So Jacob, the trickster is on the run. Away from home, away from the lands of his grandfather Abraham, he has a dream and declares. “Surely God is in this place.” The claim is surprising. God is in the “place,” the “holy place,” of people of Haran. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?

Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old of the ladder in old spirituals, and have you ever been in a guitar store and not heard someone learning Led Zeppelin’s stairway to heaven? Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?

We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, the infinite and the finite touch. “Thin places” the Irish call them. Some of us have experienced the thinness. Do you have a sacred spot? A place you return to? I have a few. There’s a certain sage field at a camp I worked at in my early twenties in Colorado. I made it through a lot of angst spending quiet time in that field. There are places in our lives, old-worn paths that lead us to God.

But don’t miss what Jacob says when he wakes up. Surely God is in this place and I, I did not realize it. Our English translation misses a point of emphasis in the original. For you language nerds out there, we have an unnecessary pronoun: “I, I did not realize” Jacob says. The grammar of the Hebrew points to his realization that he, he has missed something. He has missed the presence of God. The responsibility for not noticing God in this territory belongs to Jacob.

Which leads me to ask: “How often do I, I not realize?” How often do we, we miss God? One of the biggest blunders in the spiritual life, and one I commit with great regularity, is assuming I know where to find God. God however, keeps ignoring my maps, showing up where I least expect. Jacob’s ladder touches down in unfamiliar territory.

Many of you know that I spent a year after college living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a freshly minted Bachelor of Liberal Arts, I was convinced that I could make a difference. I came to Honduras fully expecting to find God, and I did, eventually, but not where I was looking.

You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.

I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient short term volunteer groups who came to visit from the states. I arrived to discover El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months.

To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.

I said as much in an email home to a priest in San Diego, the rector who had sponsored me for the volunteer program. I told him that I had applied for some jobs that would take me home early. His response came like as a wake up call. He said, in three sentences: “Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness. None of it was positive. Stay in Honduras.” I did.

And somehow I let go of my crippling need to find God in “meaningful work” at El Hogar. I discovered that, for the sake of trying to find God in serving others, I had missed God in the laughter of the kids around me, in games of soccer, in shared meals, in simple conversations, and hugs. Surely God was in that place and I, I did not realize it. Until I let go of my expectations, my assumptions about where God was to be found.

Sometimes we don’t make the best judges of God’s presence. I think there is wisdom in Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat today. I think he may be trying to tell his disciples not to go weeding before they learn the distinction between the wheat and the weeds. I could have easily uprooted myself too early from Honduras, and if I’d done so God’s presence to me in that place would never have blossomed.

Sometimes we can be so sure where we are to find God, so expectant about how God is supposed to act, that we miss where God is present. Wearing blinders that we’ve constructed, we pass through life looking for the God we can’t see, until we trip over the rungs of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

I have a secret to share with you. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I don’t think God is just an Episcopalian. Years ago, because of some crazy friends at seminary I had a profound sense of encounter with God while whirling with dervishes in a Sufi muslim mosque. Over the last months and years, I’ve prayed with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Presbyterians as we work for justice in our region. I think God has been getting around. I think this story of Jacob encountering God in the pagan temple of a strange people has something to say to those of us who live in a religiously plural world.

If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhists, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine. God can be found in the most surprising places, the upstairs room of a bar, or even in a laundromat.

As Jacob, that trickster, discovered, sometimes the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain. When we find ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we try the unexpected. Sometimes what makes a “thin place” thin is the loss of our sense of security and surety. If you find yourself somewhere unexpected, keep your eyes out. Pay attention to your dreams. Surely God is in this place.

“Spirituality” A sermon for Pentecost

Pentecost, today, we celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit, the coming of the tongues of flame, what we used to talk about as the “Holy Ghost.” This day begs a series of questions: “what do we mean, as Christians when we talk about “Spirituality?” What (or who) is this “Holy Spirit?” and finally, “Why bother with Christian Spirituality? What is at stake?”

I confess, I sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the popular phrase: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” I understand why people want a distinction. Religion in the eyes of the twenty-first century can seem old-fashioned at best, and often religion can be downright regressive.

While I sympathize with the sentiment, for me, the jig is up. (If you can’t tell by my outfit, I’m pretty pro-religion). But here is my caveat: while I can understand WHY people use the label “spiritual but not religious,” I can’t really tell you what they mean.

It seems to me that “spirituality” is something you might be able to buy at a specialty bookstore, you know the kind that smell like patchouli and feature a number of wind chimes? There you can pick up your copy of the Zohar, along with some prayer beads, a locally made beeswax candle, and then you can go home, light incense, and chant “OM” to your hearts content. Is that what we mean by “spirituality?”

The confusion for me comes because to call all of this “spirituality” is to divorce the practices from their originating traditions. You can say holy words. You can sit in the lotus position. You can click beads through your fingers. But by doing so, I don’t think you’re getting “less religious,” if anything you’re piling the religion on thick. And as I said, I think religion is a good thing. Go ahead. Any practice that helps you slow down, hold silence, anything that helps you get to a contemplative space is good in our busy world.

For Christians, spirituality can involve chanting, prayer beads, silence, meditation, even prayer postures. Spirituality can involve a rule of life, a simple set of practices that give shape to your faith. Such a rule can be simple: pray daily; worship weekly; give generously; serve joyfully; learn constantly; make pilgrimage yearly. Such a rule can be as complex as the book handed down by St. Benedict to his followers. No matter how structured your spirituality, a word of caution to spirituality enthusiasts: these practices can take lifetime to develop.

There is an old Zen story about a young convert who comes up to his master after experiencing what he believes is enlightenment. The old teacher listens patiently and then says: “If you meet Buddha on the Road, kill him.”

Like most Zen stories (and like many of Jesus’ parables) this tale is meant to trip up the hearers. Think about what the master says. “Kill the Buddha.” Any Buddha you meet on the road is not the fullness of the Buddha. Any supposed enlightenment you experience so quickly is not the fullness of enlightenment. Beware the early epiphanies. If you experience them, keep going. Don’t get stuck.

There is another deep truth in this Zen story: it is good to have friends and guides. Spiritual directors are not just for clergy people. Gatherings in homes to read the Bible and to pray make good groundwork for the journey. The journey of faith is long, and like any long journey, the walk is easier with companions.

We’ve talked a bit about what practiced Spirituality can look like. But for Christians “Spirituality” isn’t a nebulous concept. Spirituality is specific. It refers to a person of the Trinity, of the Godhead, God’s Spirit, living with us. That very wind which blew over the waters of creation, the wisdom which brings depth to God’s followers, the Spirit of truth and justice which was upon Jesus as he proclaimed good news to the poor. Spirituality is specific, it’s about God’s spirit.

Let’s turn to this morning’s scripture for a moment. In the Gospel Jesus speaks to his disciple’s at the last supper. Philip’s anxiety is echoed around the table. The disciples are nervous about Jesus telling them he’s leaving. So he promises them “an Advocate.” God will send the Spirit. The Spirit abides within you.

Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but God has not left us. God’s Spirit dwells with us, here, now. You know this Spirit, Jesus tells his followers. Christian Spirituality is about access. Through practicing our faith, we access God’s Spirit, always present to us. Across the spectrum of Christianity those practices may look very different. Holy Rollers may find themselves on the floor. Catholics might sit in silence with rosary beads. Protestants might find inspiration in Scripture. Here at Holy Communion, we gather round a table week by week. All these practices help us to become available to the Spirit which dwells with us, remains with us, abides with us.

So, what’s at stake? Why bother with all of this Spirituality mumbo jumbo? Let me venture an answer to this question based on recent experience. A group of 13 of us returned Thursday from a trip to El Salvador.

There is a story about El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero that I believe gets at the stakes of spirituality. Romero was famed for his faithful practice. When you visit his little house, you can see the rosary beads that he wore out by praying so often. It was rumored that the Archbishop spent an hour in prayer each day. The story goes that someone asked Romero: “with all that is going on, with the death threats, and the political organizing, and the preaching, with all that busyness bishop, how do you find time to pray for an hour a day?” Unblinking Romero answered him: “on the busy days, on the anxious days, I need two hours.”

The story from Acts reminds us of the prophet Joel’s words about God’s Spirit: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The day of Pentecost, for us, is a day of celebration. Holy Communion set a series of goals last year, and we’ve met or exceeded all of our goals. We are learning to dream dreams. We are learning to make a prophetic witness in the world.

In Joel’s eyes Spirituality is not a navel-gazing activity. Spirituality is prophetic. When practice our faith, we are sent out, out into the world with a vision for justice, with prophecy. Spirituality is about accessing God’s vision, that another world is possible. The stakes are high. Too many in our world go hungry. Too many live in fear of gun violence. Too many in our world lack access to basic human rights because of their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, ability or other status. We are too divided.

On this day of Pentecost we celebrate that God poured out the Spirit on every race and language and people and nation. We celebrate the indiscriminate love of God, the wide dreams of God, the sweet Spirit in this place. We pray that we might listen to the Spirit still guiding us today so that we might leave this world a little more welcoming, a little more open to diversity, that we might leave this world a more loving community.

Happy Pentecost. May the Spirit of God, who abides with you, lead you to deeper faith and prophetic work for justice.

Amen