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.
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.
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.
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org