Category Archives: Worship

Irony and Bliss

 

TrinityIcon

On Trinity Sunday I arrived early at First Congregational Church, a block from where I live, and settled into my pew to contemplate the glory of the Holy Trinity. Yes, I know, who does such a thing? But the Trinity is something I can actually get carried away by. Before I left for church I read the beautiful prayer to the Trinity by Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. Her prayer begins with these words,  O my God, Trinity whom I adore; help me to forget myself entirely that I may be established in You as still and as peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity.(You can find her prayer below. Be careful, if you read it, though. It is pretty hot stuff for Protestant non mystical types.)

First Congregational United Church of Christ is a denomination, whose Reformed roots I share, and I feel gratitude for.  United Church of Christ folks hired me,  a young Presbyterian minister, fresh out of seminary, and pregnant to boot, to be interim pastor of one of their churches here in Topeka, Seaman Congregational Church. That baby she was carrying, whose footprint you can still see in the sidewalk behind the church, turned 32 last month.

Sheep

As my imagination was roaming around the abyss of God’s greatness with Elizabeth, the good Rev.Tobais Schlingensiepen was moving about the sanctuary checking on his sheep as they arrived.  He passed along the rows in his robe, sleeves billowing, shaking hands, and patting shoulders like a benediction. No skinny jeans and sport coat for this pastor. Nor was he busy checking his twitter feed.  He spoke to the sheep by name, asked questions, looked for nettles, matted coats, signs of infection, injury, illness.  Had any wolves slipped into the fold over night? Were the pregnant ewes eating well? The lambs coming along okay? He checked the weather and the flock’s energy. What do they need from him today? Is what he has planned on track with what he is seeing this morning?

Arriving at my row, he reached to shake my hand. “Hi, how are you today?”

I responded with something like, “Splendid, just fabulous,” all smiles. (Because I really was in that high dazed state of the fullness of love for God that comes upon me sometimes.)

He smiled, looked in my eyes. And asked again, “How are you…,” leaning in a bit more, waiting. He knows how sheep lie.

“I am great!” a little embarrassed by my own high spirits. “Sometimes I feel people shouldn’t be this blessed.”

“I just wanted to be sure you were not being ironic. People use irony so much.”

Let’s take a moment to let this sink in. Is this the world, the church, we find ourselves in? A place where bliss and ecstasy are so rare that they may be mistaken for irony?  Or has irony, that sarcastic twist of reality into its opposite, created a world of smoke and mirrors, where what one says rarely matches with what one means?

Without irony the psalmist shouts, “I was glad when they said, ‘Let us go into the House of the Holy One!’ I among many others have carried a  heavy heart with little or no joy into the house of the Lord on some occasions. And on those days I also know how very much it matters that someone notices, shows concern, and checks for any irony in my voice.

Yet are really happy sheep, saturated with love and joy, rare? I do not think so.

“The kingdom of heaven will come when men and women are willing to be penetrated by bliss.”

Years ago in a very unhappy season of my life I read these words by poet and potter, M.C. Richards.   Richards’ words opened my eyes to my own freedom and responsibility for the joy in my life. I knew deep down that her words were true, absolutely, and I have been wriggling my way into such a reality ever since. I believe that joy awaits us and is ours by virtue of our willingness to open the door, receive it, and to offer that willingness on the altar of the messes in our lives and this world.

Meninger mic

The Sunday before I went to First Congregational Church, I was on retreat listening to Father William Meninger, a Trappist Monk, and one of the leading voices in the conversation on Christian contemplative prayer. We had gathered at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. Meninger is now 81, and an unfettered, jubilant soul, if I ever saw one.

He began the retreat and introduced himself with the Buddhist saying, The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. Meninger said the way (method, creed, practices, and means of revelation) to God is not God. The way (your way, my way, the Presbyterian way, the bumblebee’s way) is a finger pointing beyond itself toward ultimate Truth.

Meninger might have been channeling the German theologian, Karl Barth, who said that the Bible is a whole gathering of people pointing up at the sky. The Bible is not God; it points us in the direction of God. The particular mode through which God reveals divinity is less than the reality to which it gestures toward. For God is always beyond any particular description, form or conception of God, which we can reduce, carry around in our minds, and try to shove down somebody’s throat as The Way.

Speaking of contemplative practice in the church Menninger addressed the group of 140 lay people, nuns, pastors, and priests from a wide variety of Christian faith traditions, including Assembly of God and Evangelicals. The group included one or two young people under thirty. Meninger is quite clear that contemplative practice arrives for most people in the second half of life and did not gnash his teeth over the lack of young people in attendance at the retreat. “They are not ready yet. They have other things to do first.”

But he refuses to let us off the hook when he says, “Our churches today take their people to the door, but we hold them back. We don’t lead them into the silences.”

At First Congregational we had some silent time.  The worship leader took us to the door and gave us some time to check it out. The bulletin said:  Silence (30 seconds). I would have liked 30 minutes, but I figured that was all that the sheep here could tolerate; and that it helped them to see a time limit in print; and that, further, this silence thing was not going to go on and on and leave them sitting there stewing in their own juices forever.

I think Meninger is right. We do take people right up to the door to the deeper mystery and beauty of God, but we stop short. I see this often. Why is that? I wonder – failure of nerve and lack of faith, or maybe because some pastors do not spend much time on the other side of the door – simply surrendered to Christ in love, being in union with all there is – and want to get through the next point of the sermon and the sheep home before noon.

Old Woman Praying (Prayer without End) Nicholas Maes

Our problem is not that the sheep have never crossed over to the silences. You know how sheep are. They will poke their noses anywhere. They know and have experienced union with God, that shimmering silence and peace which rises up in their hearts, but they will call it something else. Day dreaming, sitting on the deck, holding their grandchildren, looking at a sunset… We all have moments where words fail, time stops, and a moment brims over with beauty and joy.

What the church may fail to do is give us time, space, and permission to savor, taste, swallow, and deeply enjoy these moments and value them as holy. Instead we get anxious, feel we are wasting time, need to stick with the agenda, or are being lazy. We worship the relentless, mean, crushing, 24/7 gods of consumerism and production instead of the endlessly abundant, overflowing goodness of the Trinity. As neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson writes, we have a serious problem in our brains and in our culture with our ability to take in, soak in, and absorb the good in this world which is constantly pouring itself out upon us.

On Trinity Sunday the Holy Spirit at First Congregational kept opening the door and I am sure quite a few of us there that morning went over the threshold to  communion with the Trinity.

The sublime guitar and violin duet did it for me.

Pastor Tobias did it too.He swung a door wide open in his thoughtful probing of the creation story in Genesis 1 as he invited questions and observations from his flock. He gave us some history and asked us to see beyond the story to the minds that told this story and found incredible hope in it in a time of their captivity. In this poetic account of the beginnings of things we find a God who stands outside, beyond the fingers of time, space, creation, and history. Here is a God who is sovereign over all that I can possibly imagine and not subject to anything that has been made or thought by the creation. Here was a God who was more than my little piece of history and present suffering who had made a world that is good, surely a God worthy of my hope.  Such a wide open door inspires a long silence, a bent knee, and a prolonged dwelling in the wonder of this God.

So I say, be bold in leading ourselves and others into the silences! Encourage ourselves to take more than a tentative sniff.  Take us gently by the scruff of our necks and say, “Come on, try it. I will go with you.”

Holiness likes to camp out in those nooks and crannies of time and space, for which we tend to have such disdain. We even call them “dead spaces.” Look again. Such unscripted moments are empty tombs resonant with the echoes of a risen God and the swift beat of wings.

Go ahead. Take a chance on bliss.

 

More about fingers and the moon

More about William Meninger

Elizabeth’s Prayer

Note to Topeka Area Readers
Father Meninger is interested in offering a retreat in Topeka next year.  Any persons interested in helping to make that happen please comment or contact me. lross@fromholyground.org

 

 

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Let the Beauty We Love Be What We Do

PalmSunday-06

The children also greet Christ with palm branches and lay their garments on the ground honoring Him as King.

I kept Holy Week and Pascha with Saints Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox church this year. The Orthodox Christian Church celebrated  Pascha (Easter) on May 5. I did not make it to all of the holy week services. There were seventeen, beginning with the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the Saturday of St. Lazarus, the Righteous.  The people and their priest, Father Joseph Longofono, offer their gifts and talents with generosity and devotion. They are warm and welcoming to this awkward Presbyterian who comes among them to pray and learn more about a faith tradition she has long admired from afar.

On Palm Sunday, (April 28 this year) at the end of the service we processed outside with our palms, songs, incense, and other regalia and holy items for which I do not know the words.  I can tell by The Services of the Great and Holy Week and Pascha, the book of Holy Week liturgies I purchased, that most of these words are Greek. I learned enough Greek in seminary to pass the class and my ordination exams. Since then translation is an afternoon’s ordeal involving a concordance, Greek grammar book, Kittle’s ponderous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, and trying to remember the Greek alphabet.

A few startled sparrows rose out of the shrubbery as we poured out onto the lawn.  Cars buzzed by heading East on one-way Huntoon Street. Along our path I smiled to see at my feet a little shrine of twigs overlaid with narrow strips of green moss.  Easy to miss, barely a foot or two in height, the shrine was a small construction of sticks stuck at various angles in a patch of moist bare ground.  Tucked in the crotch of a branch was a white spirea blossom.

The happy procession wound back inside the small sanctuary, its walls alive with glowing icons of the saints. You can feel them all looking tenderly on from heaven, adding their voices to our prayers and songs and benediction. I read that Orthodox draw no distinction between the Body of Christ in heaven and those on earth. They view both parts of the Church as inseparable and in continuous worship together of God. Orthodox worship therefore expresses this unity of earth and heaven in every possible way so that the earthly worshippers are continually reminded through all their senses of the heavenly state of the Church.  Wikipedia

It is as though for the Orthodox, worship is a continuous act since the beginning of the church. Everyone in heaven is there and we show up to join in the perpetual praise and leave and return as our lives allow. When we return we merely pick up where we last left off. And unlike many churches I am familiar with, nobody here is in any hurry. After all we have eternity.

The church was packed with more children than adults this day. Older children stood quietly with their parents, toddlers sat on the floor, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and aunts held babies crooked in their arms and nestling against their shoulders. Some kids sat on the few pews.  (Orthodox Christians stand for worship. The pews are reserved for the elderly, children, and fainthearted visitors.)  Toddlers wandered about. There was an ease about their presence, parents taking them in and out of the service as needed. The occasional cries, thumps, or exclamations formed a descant of baby babble to the chants and songs sung in four part harmony throughout the service.

After church I chatted with a little girl, admiring her cute flip-flops, and on the way to my car came upon the twig shrine with a red haired boy kneeling before it. The twigs and blossom had been kicked over.

I said to the boy,” Oh did you make this? It is very beautiful.” Nodding yes, he told me that his sister knocked it down.

“I am sorry. It is a holy thing,” I said.

His sister joined us and said, “Luke doesn’t like to sing the holy songs.”

“Hmm,” l said, as Luke worked on rebuilding his shrine, “sometimes people prefer to make holy things than to sing holy songs.”

“He doesn’t like to come to church,” she said in the irksome manner of sisters who broadcast a brother’s private life to strangers.

“Yes, there are people who feel that way,” I said to the little girl as her brother struggled to get the blossom to stay in the crook of the twig. I thanked Luke for making a holy thing and repairing it, and walked to my car.

His sister, shouted after me, “He is hypert,” as she, appearing a little hypert herself ran racing around the church yard in a holy dance of her own.

Luke, kneeling in the dirt with his offering, as brothers everywhere have learned to do, ignored her.

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Hundreds of Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Ground
The impulse to worship and to express the beauty and awe of our souls to the author of our being seems nearly universal in human experience. I believe this desire is placed in us by God in the core of our being, like a magnet, which draws us through our life experience to reach out and connect with the one who put it there. We may spend a lot of our lives seeking ways to express this sublime impulse. Yet if we trust our hearts, we will be led to places and forms of worship, as though guided by a God-given implanted GPS device.

There are many ways to worship God.  Sufi poet, Rumi tells us, Let the beauty we love, be what we do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I believe that our efforts at praise and worship are like building little shrines in the mud, each dear to God, each delighting the heavens, each precious.

When the beauty we love, becomes what we do, even the mundane may hold the potential of sublime worship: Lucille’s macaroni hot dish; the green and pink chintz curtains Elsie made for the ladies room; the deacon holding the door for you; your desperate prayer; a pile of rocks in the desert; your garden. In all kinds of ways we gather sticks, find a blossom, and put it out where someone will see it. Praise will be offered.

To be human, made in the image of the Creator, is to pour out our hearts on something we love which is greater and beyond ourselves.  Our responsibility is to discover ways to kneel in reverence, which will express our deep yearning and connect us to what is good, true, beautiful, and free. For me that is worship of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ.

Luke’s Palm Sunday act of worship reminded me of another child’s offering. When she was around six or seven, my daughter, Diana, brought me a stick with dandelions, grass, and pink phlox wound around it. I wrote about it in my book Letters from the Holy Ground,

“This is a prayer stick, mom. I made it for you.” It was a large stick with flowers woven round the top. Could I let the stick pray for me? For I do not know how to pray aright. I lean the stick against my altar. “Pray stick,” I say. “Pray now.” I go off to other things, while the stick holds the offering pointing toward heaven. Dare I trust creation to pray for me, to bear my prayer? Here stone, pray. Here river, pray. Here moon, pray. Just by being what you are, a maple branch salvaged from last fall’s ice storm, wrapped round with pink petals, transformed by the touch of a child’s hand into something sacred.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? That is the question. For our hearts are heavy, and we, captive by this mortal flesh sit down and weep.

Loretta Ross (-Gotta), Letters from the Holy Ground  – Seeing God Where You Are, Sheed & Ward, 2000, p 67

How shall you sing the Lord’s song? Find that gps device in your heart and let it point you in the direction of the worship of your soul. I would love to hear about the things which lift your heart to God in the comment section below.