This Friday is the big Coffeehouse. We have two a year. This one--youth only--has always been the largest in terms of both participants and audience. There is an art show attached to it as well. The visual artists display their works and we keep them up for Reformation Sunday, which is also a big day in our church that includes worship, a "pageant" (about Olympia Brown), D&D, pumpkin carving, and the Jack-O-Lantern competition. Anyway, Friday is an important day for some of the kids and they work pretty hard to get the weekend going properly.
It has always been interesting to watch the youth prepare. As young artists they are learning a variety of "languages" they can use to express their inner thoughts and feelings. It is a challenge for them. We all want to be understood. We also all know that our audience--our "public"-- will fall short of fully comprehending our message. Still, we try to get it right, don't we? To be fully human we have to try. A song--a painting, a poem, a photograph--comes from deep inside us. As artists our hopes are high. However, it helps to keep our expectations more realistic without also crushing that dream we wanted to share in the first place.
I know how the kids feel. I have struggled to be understood in a variety of media over the years. However, the one I care about the most is preaching. I will never be a great (or even good) musician. My photography doesn't get much past the "pretty picture" phase. In pottery class I once made a 4-foot tall unbalanced black vase which may have been the ugliest thing ever offered up at a school art exhibit. I admit that I abandoned it. I walked away. For all I know it still sits there by the door to the North Yarmouth Academy teacher's lounge collecting cigarettes and dust.
Preaching, though, I care about doing well. I feel it when I don't quite hit the mark.
Yeah, preaching is an art. At least it is sometimes. It falls into the same category as chairs and benches. They can be built just to keep your bottom off the ground or they can be built to also elicit a feeling or a thought. I bet they--chairs--can even inspire action. I can go to the Museum of Fine Art to see (and sometimes sit on) a wide variety of items, or I can sit at my computer to get my emails done. One chair is not better than the other. They just have different purposes. One is a practical item that helps support our daily living. Our bodies and our backs are grateful for its presence. Another is all of that plus art. It makes us look up, out, down, or in. Even though we may be physically stationary we are, in fact, moved.
Sermons should fall into that second category, even when people do not notice the "soul" within it. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who work in professions where talking is part of the job. Politicians and lecturers (the good ones anyway) often use some of the techniques of preaching to improve their own work. Others believe there is no difference between a good lecture and a good sermon. Those folks are wrong, of course. You can give a fine presentation, but performing it in church doesn't necessarily mean you have come close to touching the sacred.
After all, I can make a witty, informative, entertaining, motivational talk using the tools I am teaching those teens in my public speaking class. However, I still fail to preach sometimes. I have done it before (sadly) and I will do it again. The fact is, to create art one must dig deep. A good sermon--just like any of the offerings at our coffeehouses--requires a bit of personal exploration. It requires a moment of connection to the great "out there". In the moment of creation and interpretation we find that part of us and/or our world where normal conversation fails. Then we try once again to articulate it.
As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels and have not love, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging symbol." Finding that love (here used in its broad, theological sense) is the task of any artist--and we are all artists. The preacher tries to find some small glimmer of it each week to issue an invitation and offer up a path for people who hopefully feel drawn enough to walk another mile along the way.
Preaching, like any art, requires discipline. We grow into our voices and into our "vision". Whenever you hear a sermon, you are listening to the product of hours, days, and years of prayer, meditation, and study focused into a tiny window of mere minutes. Sometimes it stinks. Sometimes it just isn't your bag. That said, have faith at least that the preacher is working hard. The colleagues I have met who didn't accept the preaching moment as a sacred one are all doing something else with their lives now. Leading worship isn't something you do without love.
When I think of the kids getting ready for this weekend, I think of this process. I hope and pray that in their important and necessary playing around they find what they need to build a life of deep spiritual expression. I hope they find something that motivates them and makes all the steep lonely hours of practice and study worthwhile. The world of hard matter may never give them a measurable reward for their efforts, but maybe they will find that reward where they keep their souls and spirits. Maybe they will reach others through the foggy chaos of their existence.
Then--maybe--they will make us all a little less broken.
Last night my wife and I slept on cots in the living room as our bedroom ceiling is being repaired and the walls painted. In fact, this is going on in every room in the parsonage, in order. Each time the contractors move on to another room, we engage in a deep cleaning and a culling of stuff. Then we shove what is left into the middle in anticipation of the tarp that will protect our possessions. Then we do it again...and again. Of course each effort reveals a new problem that needs to be addressed. There is some ancient wiring that must be removed at some point before it catches fire. There are leaks in the plumbing that have developed over the last 15 years. There is also the usual sort of wear and tear that can be expected in an old building occupied by clumsy humans.
In a weird sense, it fits right into my experience of sabbatical. In my mind I expected it to be peaceful, with an abundance of time for reflection and study. Instead it has reveled in impracticality and inconvenience. It underlines disorder. It shines a light on places in life where the workmanship has been haphazard.
In my last post I described the church as being a place that sometimes gets wrapped up in measurable tasks at the expense of the spirit. It turns out that pastors get wrapped up too. We are as guilty as anyone of losing track of that path of faith and exploration. As much as anyone, clergy folks like to point to what we have built and--if it is good--say "I did this". At least we say it to ourselves. We also stress out about those times when we have failed. When we do, many of us are still capable of seeing our hands and voices in those moments.
My sabbatical is full of tasks and goals. It is full of things that I can point to--good, bad, or indifferent--and account for time spent. However, I have lately felt the absence of that Transcendence which makes all the activity worthwhile.
Or maybe I have just gotten around to noticing the absence. Maybe it drifted away a while ago and now as I search around for that connection I depend on, it is finally missed There are plenty of reasons why the feeling would recede, just as there are reasons I need it. Not only are all our possessions being shifted around the parsonage. There is plenty of motion and chaos elsewhere. One son is in college now. The car that has been a constant since before our youngest was born finally kicked the bucket while cruising down Rt. 128. Sabbatical, itself, has its own rhythm and requirements that open and close doors for me every day. I am getting stretched.
Also, there are the more global issues. Black Lives Matter continues to underscore the existence of a system of racism that I--like the rest of you--participate in. The presidential election has made us all think about the pool of sexism we cannot seem to get out of. In fact, any member of the male species who hasn't been challenged by the antics of Donald Trump must be spiritually dead. It is a time for self examination. We cannot say we don't recognize him, even if we have never been like him. What are we men to become in this exciting new world? I know what I don't want to be. I don't want to be a burden, an impediment to progress, or a creep.
What I am trying to say is that, like most people, I want to walk through the garbage dump of life equipped to be the best human being I can be. That is a hard thing to do. There is no way I am not getting some garbage on me. My spiritual life is what I rely on to get me through.
I am (we are) reminded of various inequalities and oppression. We all push through times of personal; transition. We should be. What is the faithful response? What is my faithful response? The question today isn't about my work as a progressive and liberal minister of a progressive and liberal church. We all have jobs and I am blessed to have one that enables me to work toward solutions. The question is more existential and fundamental. How should I act? What should I do as a human being?
More basic: Who. Am. I?
One change for sabbatical is that I have made time for study and--consciously or unconsciously--also ended up with a system of accountability. I have written elsewhere about how Dungeons and Dragons encourages the imagination. That curriculum for the RE program requires not just facts and figures but a a level of religious intention. Those courses I am teaching force me to explain and examine some fundamental elements of my own belief system. Hanging out with teens can change your perspective as well. However, maybe the best articulation of the spiritual problem I found was thanks to good ol' Ralph Waldo Emerson.
If you read this blog you are aware of the fact that one of the courses I am teaching is entitled "Nature and Spirituality". Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the readings--in fact the key one--is Emerson's "Nature". It turns out that it is a bit of a challenge to explain to kids, particularly because I and they get hung up at the same place Emerson did when he wrote it. That place is the philosophical concept of "Idealism". For Emerson this material world (or "nature") is infused with the Divine. Ultimately what is real is the soul, It is God, It is the spirit that has ultimate and permanent substance, not the matter that it inhabits. I could go on about his take, but instead you should read the book.
The problem is that for those of us who try to live a life of the spirit face an enormous hill to climb. The problems that we are all wrestling with and that cast a pall over our regular lives need material ("real-world") solutions as much as spiritual ones. In fact, our basic needs in a world in crisis obscure the spiritual ones to a large degree. How, for example, do you explain to someone who cannot get enough food to eat, or who fears the reality of daily violence that they should contemplate the divine spirit that flows through all things?
Of course, there is another question that should hit closer to home for most readers of Burbania Posts. How do we connect with the spirit in people who put their own ambitions and desires over the basic needs of others? What do we do to make them (us) see that spirit in such a way that there is a change of heart? We aren't starving. In fact, most of the people I know are not lacking in material wealth. We are the ones who can make the changes to create abundance for the rest of the world. In giving up our own material ways we can free ourselves, too. Such potential! Such inertia! Dang!
If you asked me what my bedrock beliefs are I, like Emerson, would claim to be an idealist, but we are living (to quote a certain 20th century bard and philosopher) in a material world or, at least, in a material culture. There lies my own tension (again, in the philosophical sense). I expect it does for others.
To be a person on a faith journey is to be a person who at some level accepts that there is more. There is something greater (maybe "God", maybe not). There is something behind what we see and interact with that is worth knowing better. We expect it to sustain us, after all. We may even hope, like Emerson, that we can experience a holy and absolute connection to that "Oneness" that will give us the strength to let go of all the crap--material, emotional, spiritual--that we cling to. As we let go we may fall, but where we land will be a better land than the one we left.
That said, the journey is long. When we feel the absence of meaning it is important to fill the space with the right thing. I do believe that there is more to the world than what we see. However, it takes patience, insight, and effort to connect to what lie behind our mundane existence. Over the last few months I have gained a new appreciation for this dynamic in life. I have also gained an appreciation for the institution of Sabbath. A question, I think, for all of us as a community and as individuals is how to bring the sabbath back. It is more than "time off" after all. How do we find the structured time to return the sacred to our hasty lives?
Thank God I go to a house of worship. Thank the Divine presence that I can take part in a community to support my own journey even as I support them. I give thanks that sometimes--during my better moments--I can get a glimpse of the spirit that flows through us all. Thanks for the strength to move through the darkness and the struggle. Thanks for the power to grow and change.