A Room Full of Friends: Jana Childers

A Room Full of Friends: Jana Childers

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 29, 2021

Luke 11:1-13

 

We are nearing the end of our sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, in which I have introduced you to authors who have come to reside on the bookshelves of my study, and who have, over time, become wise friends. One such friend is Presbyterian minister and author, Rev. Dr. Jana Childers, who is Associate Professor of Homiletics and Speech-Communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The following is a sermon I happened upon while working on my doctoral thesis, “Practices before You Preach.” During those months of research, I read endless sermons but this one entitled, “A Shameless Path,” remains one of my favorites. I pray it blesses you as it has blessed me.

Nearer than hands and feet. That’s what God is when we pray. “Speak to him for he heareth and spirit with spirit can meet. Closer is he than breathing. Nearer than hands and feet.” Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The poets have a high view of prayer—some of them anyway. The mere mention of the subject seems to send them running for the card file marked “sublimity” where they pull out adjectives: sweet hours, precious moments, privileged meetings. Before you know it, the violins are swelling and we’re wending our way through a dewy rose garden, walking and talking with a certain Someone whose voice, as one gospel songwriter put it, is so “sweet the birds hush their singing.” Prayer to a poet—or a gospel songwriter—is like romance to Barry Manilow, an irresistible topic.

I don’t know about you, but as much as I love the poets and especially the gospel songwriters, and as much as I want to know the nearer-than-hands-and-feet God, I have to say it: My prayer life is not much like a walk through a rose garden. Not only does Jesus not come to the garden alone to see me, not walk with me and talk with me, not meet me in the garden, lots of times I wonder if I’m even in the right zip code. My prayer life is not much like a dewy garden path. And that’s why I come to today’s scripture lesson with high hopes.

After all, I believe—I think many of us instinctively believe—that there is something to this thing called prayer. We know about what happens in foxholes. We pay attention when a person we admire says she will pray for us. We see prayer working in other peoples’ lives.  And we believe Mother Teresa—don’t we?—when she says, “No prayer, no faith; no faith, no love; no love, no devotion; no devotion, no service.” “Yes,” we say, “I need that in my life!” For once we are right there in the front row of the classroom with the disciples, waving our hands and saying “Lord! Teach me how to do this!”

And Jesus says, in the translation of the New Testament scholar, Anne Wire, “Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks, finds. And the one who knocks, gets in the door.” The Gospel according to Luke is not easy to hear today, not easy to preach, because it is not easy to believe. “Ask and it shall be given you?!” How could Jesus have said such a thing? How could that be true?

If it were true, of course, all the eight-year-old girls in the world would be braiding pink satin ribbons into the tails of their very own ponies. If it were true, all the eight-year-old girls in the world and their brothers and sisters would go to bed every night with just the right blend of fats and carbohydrates and proteins in their bloodstreams. If it were true, all the children of the world would at the least—at the very least—be living in peace. “Ask and it shall be given you” is an outrageous thing, perhaps even an obscene thing to say [in light of things happening in our world today]. How could Jesus say such a thing?

“Oh well,” we say, “maybe this is just meant for the ears of the disciples. Maybe Jesus was making that promise to those who are, you know, the spiritual elite.” I have to say I don’t think you can interpret the text that way, since, in Luke, the disciples are pictured as anything but elite. “Okay,” we say, “maybe Jesus means that eventually, out at the end of time, you will get what you ask for.” But that’s not a very convincing argument either, especially since Jesus goes right on from making the ask-and-receive promise to comparing the whole thing to hungry children asking their parents for food…not an “eventually” kind of thing! “All right,” we say, “maybe it means that if we ask in accordance with God’s will, then we will see our prayers answered.” And maybe that is true. But I don’t see how that helps explain this particular text, because there is no such qualifier in the immediate or larger context of this passage.

Okay, then, how could Jesus say such a thing?

The first thing we notice when we look closely at what Jesus said was that he did not say, “Ask and you will get what you ask for.” What he said was something more like, “Ask and you will get something good.” Notice the syntax of the rhetorical question he asks after he makes the great promise: “If your children ask for fish, will you give them a snake?” Do you see how that is not the same thing as saying, “If they ask for fish, don’t you give them fish?” Even Jesus’ word choice makes it clear that the promise he’s making is not as tit-for-tat as the promise we want to hear.

The second thing we notice is that there is something lost in the translation of the New Testament Greek into English here. The Greek does not say “Ask and you will receive.” It says “Aaaaassssk and keep on asking…Seeeeeek and keep on seeking…Knoooock and keep on knocking.” The Greek verb implies ongoing action. Be persistent, Jesus is saying. Be shameless. Run right up to that door and pound on it. Make a fool out of yourself with your asking.

Finally, the thing that is most often overlooked about the story Jesus tells here is that this is primarily a story about intercessory prayer. One friend goes to another friend on behalf of someone else. This is not a story about little girls praying to get a handsome husband when they grow up. This is not a story about young adults who beseech God for help in getting the right job. This is not even about older believers who bring their legitimate prayer concerns about their own health before God. This is primarily a story about intercessory prayer.

It is this kind of prayer—shameless, persistent, intercessory prayer—that Jesus guarantees.

I hope you have known a prayer warrior. I have. When she died some years ago at the age of eighty-eight, I took the plaque that had hung in her house for more than sixty years and hung it in mine. It says, “Prayer Changes Things.” I fussed and puttered for a while over the question of where to hang it. The front hall seemed so public. The dining room? Too preachy. The den? Well, it looked quite out of place over the big screen TV. I wondered what the people who visit my house would think. Such an old-fashioned thought. The words not even attributable to a respectable theologian. Ultimately, I hung the plaque in my old-fashioned kitchen. I do see people eyeing it sometimes as they chat to me before a dinner party. And I do wonder what they think. Maybe if they know it was my grandmother’s, they think I’m sentimental. And I am. Maybe if they know me well, they think I need help to keep on believing those words. And I do.

It’s not easy to believe. It’s not easy to keep on believing in prayer. But if you’ve known the kind of prayer warriors I have, you have to stay at the table with the question. Because beyond coincidence and synchronicity, beyond luck and happenstance, there is something that Jesus was pointing to and that prayer warriors know, something that changes people if not things. Something our grandmothers called, “answered prayer.” On my own grandmother’s prayer list there were lots of them: the alcoholic son who finds his way home against all odds, the troubled community able to mend its fences despite the things that were said, the word of forgiveness that comes at the last possible moment.

“What is the secret to answered prayer?” the disciples asked Jesus. “What is the secret to answered prayer?” “Asking.” Little by little, and here and there, and now and then, the kingdom of God is breaking in through the efforts of those who ask.

Oh yes, in the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known there are unanswered prayers and prayers that stay on the list for decades. There are seasons of doubt, sometimes even public failures. But there is not much of one thing. There is not much shame. Not much spiritual shyness. There is instead a gung-ho-ness—a readiness to ask, a willingness to throw themselves headlong into a situation of need—to jump off the porch and take off running across the backyard, skirts flying and apron flapping, through the fence and up the steps to that oh-so familiar door. There is a willingness to beat a path, to beat a shameless path to God’s door…in the asking, the prayer warriors say, is the secret.

Last year, I set my foot on an ugly path—a path not entirely my own. I was keeping company with my friend Lucy as she followed out the last twelve months of her life. During those months I learned what many of you who have walked with cancer already know—what a privilege it can be to join your prayers with those of a woman of faith who is facing her death. Time and again last Spring, Lucy urged me to accompany her to heaven’s door, as she rang its bells, rattled its gates, and slammed its knockers, not on her own behalf, but for those she would leave behind. We prayed for her husband, her little girl, her mother, and her father. We prayed. Some of us for lack of anything better to do. Some of us out of hearts full of faith. Some of us because we believed Lucy when she said she could feel our prayers. She was buoyed by them, she said, reminding us of what Charles Williams called the intercessory prayers of believers—”the glorious web.” We did form a kind of a web with our prayers. Me praying for Lucy in Atlanta from my home in California, Ron from Indianapolis, Gene from Kansas City, Pam from Toronto, and countless others.

In the last few months of her earthly life, Lucy’s own prayers were filled with a deep sense of God’s presence. It often came to her, wrapped in the words and music of a hymn. She came out of surgery one time with the words rolling up through her—“The Lone, Wild Bird,” one time, and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” another. Toward the end, she told me, it was the gospel songs that sustained her. As they welled up in her, she gathered visitors around her bed to sing them. This web of song and prayer sustained Lucy until that morning in July when her feet were lifted off the path and she was ushered through the door. The word of Lucy’s death went out quickly over the well-established grapevine, and by the time the hearse came to take her body, fifty-five friends had gathered. They flanked the walk and filled the porches of the little house, and they sang the body out. They sang “I’ll Fly Away.”

In the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known, there is heart break and loss, but there is not much despair. There is instead an invisible web that buoys them up and, ultimately, carries them home. What did Lucy get for all her praying? Did she get remission? Did she avoid pain? Did she see an angel? No. What Lucy got is what we all get. She got God, the God who is nearer than hands and feet.

God’s own presence is the answer to every prayer, the answer that surpasses anything we could ask for. Ask, Jesus says, and it shall be given you. [Amen.]

*Cover art photo by Reiseuhu via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Tom Long

A Room Full of Friends: Tom Long

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 22, 2021

Matthew 7:21-29

 

In this sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, I have introduced you to several people who have come to reside, figuratively speaking, on the bookshelves of my study. Over time, they have become a room full of friends. Because I value good preaching, one of my friends is Rev. Dr. Tom Long. Preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, he is the author or editor of 14 books on preaching and worship. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Dr. Long was named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world by Baylor University. The following is an excerpt of a sermon he preached a few years ago at the Washington National Cathedral.

A sermon, as we all know, is made out of words and I brought some words with me this morning, but even though sermons are crafted out of words, I think it is important for us remember that in every sermon there are two powerful moments of silence. The first of these comes at the very beginning of the sermon. You may have not noticed it; it was brief and fleeting but it was there. The scripture lesson is read [perhaps special music is offered]. Then the congregation sinks back into their seats. The preacher takes a deep and anxious breath and there it is.

It’s so routine we hardly even notice a silence, but down at its depth it is an electric silence full of anticipation and expectation. What’s going on in it? I think the African American church has it right when it says in that moment of silence for everyone, for preacher, for choir, for congregation, there is the wonder: is there a word from the Lord? Amidst all the words of our culture that besiege us, is there a word that can make a difference? A word from beyond that can touch us and heal us? Is there a word from the Lord? It’s in that silence.

I love the way novelist and essayist Frederick Buechner has described this moment of silence. He writes this: “The preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes up his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up the steps. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. The preacher deals out his sermon note cards like a riverboat gambler; the stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely but the silence in the church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening, even the preacher.”

The theologian Karl Barth also talked about this moment of silence at the beginning of a sermon when he said, “When the bells in the church ring and the congregation gathers…what hangs in the air is one question—is it true that God is present? Is it true that there is a word from the Lord today?”

Now I know, I know we preachers often squander the promise of that moment of silence two sentences into the sermon, and the air of expectation has been let out of the room. I think of one of my students who was invited to preach the sermon at a worship service at the nursing home where she was serving as a student chaplain. This nursing home had worship in the big lobby of the nursing home and when she stood up to preach it was crowded with elderly people—some with oxygen tanks, some in wheelchairs. One of the gifts that God gives to people of great age is the freedom to say and do exactly what they want and so she got a paragraph into the sermon when suddenly one of the elderly women listening pulled the joystick on her electric wheelchair, turned it around, went back down the hall to her room, shouting, “Blah, blah, blah!”

We preachers can squander that promise of the first silence, but it’s amazing to me—even congregations who have been numbed into submission decade after decade, they come back the next Sunday and it’s there. The silence of expectation—maybe this time, maybe this time.

But there is a second moment of silence in preaching. If the first one comes at the beginning of the sermon, the second one comes at the end of the sermon. It is much rarer. In fact, some people wonder if they have ever experienced this moment of silence at all. If the first moment of silence in preaching is the wondering—is there a word from the Lord? The second moment of silence in preaching comes when the Holy Spirit has taken the fragile human words of the preacher and turned them into word of God.

When a word penetrates that separates life from death, wisdom from foolishness, blessing from curse and our lives are touched and transformed, when that happens, you can’t simply pick up the hymnal and go casually into the next hymn. Matthew wants us to know that this is the kind of silence that occurred at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. What Matthew says is, “When Jesus had finished speaking all these words, the crowd who heard him were astonished.”

The word in Greek is even stronger; it’s more like dumbstruck, flabbergasted, speechless. And Matthew wants us to know this is not the only time this happened in the preaching ministry of Jesus. It happened all the way through. It happened at the end of his ministry when he preached to the crowds in Jerusalem. They were dumbstruck by his words. It happened in the middle of his ministry when he was preaching to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. They were flabbergasted at his wisdom. And it happens at the beginning of his ministry when he preaches the Sermon on the Mount. They were left astonished and silent.

And Matthew tells us the reason that they were, is that Jesus did not preach like other preachers. And it created a crisis. If the first moment of silence is a wondering—is there a word from the Lord?—the second moment of silence is when there is a word from the Lord and it turns the world over and creates a crisis… Jesus did not preach like the scribes or the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians. He preached, says Matthew, as one with authority which means that his word generated a crisis. What do we do now? How do we live? Who shall we be? That’s the second silence.

Now if we listen to the end of the Sermon on the Mount we might not like it, because Jesus does not come across as the cuddly warm inclusive Jesus we have learned to love. He says instead at the end of the sermon, “Not everybody who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who hear these words and do them, only those who build their lives around them. There will be a lot of people who will say Lord, look at me. I did wonderful things in your name. I was a very powerful person in terms of communicating what you wanted us to communicate. Look at me, Lord. And I will say to you, I don’t recognize you. I recognize only those who have built their lives around the words that I have given, who have built their lives on solid rock. If you build it on sand, the winds will come and the storms will blow, and blow you away.” These are words of judgment. I don’t want to take the sting out of them, but I don’t want us to misunderstand them either, because in the gospel the judgment of God is a good thing.

One day I was walking across the campus and one of my students hailed me and said, “Dr. Long, could I speak to you for a minute?” I said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, you want to go?” She did, and as we were sharing coffee, she told me what was on her mind. She said that she was serving as a field education student in a local church and that her supervising pastor was requiring her to preach next Sunday. I said, “Good.”

She said, “No. It is not good. He’s making me preach on the lectionary.”

I said, “Good.”

She said, “It’s not good. Have you read the lectionary text for week? They’re all about judgment. I don’t believe in judgment. I believe in grace. I believe in mercy. I believe…it took me three years of therapy to get over judgment. I am not going to preach judgment.”

We talked about it for a while and then we moved on to other things, and she started to tell me about her family life. She and her husband have several children, only the youngest of whom—a teenage boy—was at home and he was giving them hell. He was into drugs, maybe dealing them, in trouble with the police. She said, “Like last night we were sitting at supper, we had no idea where our son was. In the middle of supper, he comes in the back door and I said would you like some supper and he practically spit at us. He just stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.” She said, “I don’t know, something got into me…I’m afraid of my son physically. Physically afraid of my own son. But something got into me and I got up from the table and I went down to his room and I pushed open the door and I said to him, ‘You listen to me. I love you so much I am not going to put up with this.’” I said, Caroline, I think you just preached a sermon on judgment.

God loves us so much God will not put up with the foolishness in our lives. We have foolishly hungered for success and power and status, and God says through Jesus, that’s foolish. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. That’s what makes life free and good. We have been those who have foolishly trusted in military might and made war on others and Jesus says that’s foolish. I love you so much I’m not going to put up with that. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.

As one theologian put it, do not fear the wrath of God. Fear the love of God, for the love of God will strip away everything that stands between us and God. To misunderstand the Sermon on the Mount as a series of rules is the same thing we do to the Ten Commandments. We think of the Ten Commandments as ten things we’d really like to do but God doesn’t want us to, so to please God let’s don’t. But we miss the way the commandments begin—I am the Lord your God, I brought you out of slavery into the land of freedom and this is the shape of freedom. You are so free you don’t even have to have any other gods. You have been given so much you are free not to covet what is your neighbor’s. You are free to have the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. It’s not a list of rules; it’s the shape of freedom.

I’ll tell you who I recognize, said Jesus. Those who build their lives on the shape of freedom.

When my wife and I moved to Atlanta eight years ago, we shopped around for a church. We finally decided that we would join Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta. We liked the worship, we liked their mission, we decided to join. The minister invited us and all the others who were joining during that particular season to come and meet with the church officers on Wednesday night and have dinner. So we did. We were in the fellowship hall around a square table and when dinner was done, the pastor said, I would like to go around the table and each person joining the church say why you are joining this church. Well, we did and you heard the kind of things that you would expect. One person said, I’m a musician; this church has the finest music program in the city and therefore I’m joining. Another one said, I’ve got two teenage daughters and the youth program is fantastic here and that’s why we’re joining. Another person said, I didn’t like the minister in the church I belong to and I like the minister here fine, I’m going to join. And then it got around to Marshall. His story was he was high on crack cocaine in the streets, stumbled into the outreach center and begged to be helped. The director said, I’m out of money. I can’t get you in a treatment program this month. I can do it next month, but you will stay with us, we will stay with you. She took his hand, they knelt on the carpet of her office and they prayed and he stayed. And he said I’ve been sober for three years now and the reason I’m joining this church is that God saved me in this church.

The rest of us looked at each other sheepishly. We were there for the music and the parking; he was there for the salvation.

Amidst all the words Dr. Long shared in his sermon, these are the words that give me pause: “We were there for the music and the parking; he was there for the salvation.” So, in the silence that follows, I invite you to consider one question: What are you here for?

*Cover art photo by Mohammad Alizade via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Cynthia Bourgeault

A Room Full of Friends: Cynthia Bourgeault

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 15, 2021

Psalm 23; Matthew 5:1-12

 

This morning our summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, continues as I share with you another favorite writer of mine—someone who has taken up residence on my study shelf and has become—to me—a dear friend and wise teacher. Allow me to introduce Cynthia Bourgeault. Bourgeault has studied and taught in a number of Benedictine monasteries in the US and Canada. As an Episcopal priest, she is well known as a retreat and conference leader, teacher of prayer, and writer on the spiritual life.

It was a hunger for a deeper spiritual life that led me to Bourgeault in the first place—but I get ahead of myself. Allow me to share a little back story. While I was in seminary, I developed a friendship with someone who had spent a lot of time in monasteries around the country. The idea intrigued me. At that time, I had never met anyone who had a connection with this aspect of contemplative life, and I had yet to be introduced to Kathleen Norris’ work, The Cloister Walk. Still, Wes planted a spiritual seed in my heart that simply had to be watered and the only way I knew to water it was to entice my friend, Gloria, to go to Mepkin Abbey with me for a 3-day retreat after graduation. It was a celebration, of sorts.

While the experience was phenomenal on many levels, one lesson has remained central to my faith journey and that is the importance of singing or chanting the Psalms. In a matter of weeks, the Benedictine monks chant the entire Psalter—month after month after month. By doing so, the Psalms become a part of their DNA—their very being. And it just so happens that part of the hospitality offered to retreatants is to invite them to sing along. So there Gloria and I were, with a few other strangers on retreat, trying to keep up with which book to open and which reading to read. Fortunately, the singing was simple, with only a few chords on a guitar played as accompaniment. But that was all that was needed. It was more than enough.

Since that visit many years ago I have been on retreat at Mepkin Abbey numerous times. And each time, the chanting really speaks to me. So much so, I was left with a burning desire to sing the Psalms on my own. (In fact, that’s one of the things I love about our new hymnal. Finally, the Psalms have been set to tunes that are sing-able! What a concept!) Anyway, in my desire to sing the Psalms, God opened doors for me.

First, when I completed my doctoral work at Columbia Theological Seminary, I bought myself a graduation present—a guitar—and with a little help from my son, Shane, I began to learn one chord, and then another. Finally, I was able to play a tune or two. After many hours of practice, I could even play a few Taize pieces for the Celtic worship services at Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church.

Then, God opened a second door when I happened upon a book written by Cynthia Bourgeault entitled Chanting the Psalms. There was even a CD included. Needless to say, I was tasting a bit of heaven as I learned more about simple chants as well as a little history of Taize and Iona. But here was the greatest pay off—I learned that I could write similar tunes—using Scripture passages that touched me. And so that’s what I began to do. It wasn’t a plan: Let me sit here and see if I can write a song. No, it was more like I would be in morning prayer, reading Psalms, and other passages of Scripture. Then my eyes would fall on a certain phrase—a phrase that really resonated with me. And sometimes, sometimes, a tune would come and then more words—enough to piece together something to offer back to God in praise and thanksgiving.

One morning while reading Psalm 55, I was struck by verse 7, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” Isn’t that beautiful? No doubt all of us, especially during a global pandemic that shows no signs of stopping, have felt the pressures of life closing in and we have thought, “Oh, if I could just get away for a while…things would be better….” After sitting with this phrase a few moments, I noticed other phrases like, “Hear my prayer, O God” and “I will call upon God, and the Lord will deliver me.” It was then that the words and tune began to come together. You may remember the prayer song from our 1st Friday Contemplative services or from the days when we were livestreaming from our home.

O that I had wings like a dove

I would fly away and be at rest.

Hear my prayer, O God.

I will call on you.

And you will deliver me.

You will deliver me.

 

Singing the Psalms—whether chant or otherwise—is a perfect way to allow Scripture to move from your head to your heart. Let me give you an example. If I were to ask you to recite the 23rd Psalm, most of you could do it without blinking an eye. Knowing the 23rd Psalm is head-knowledge. Now, what if I asked you a different question. What if I asked, “Tell me about a time when you experienced the Lord as your shepherd.” Do you see the difference? This is not a head question. It is a heart question. In a similar way, reciting the words to a Psalm is one level of understanding—but singing it or chanting it—well that’s a deeper way of engagement.

God used the writings of Cynthia Bourgealt to fill a hunger in my soul—a hunger to learn to sing Psalms and other Scripture passages—and to share them with others. Along the way, I have learned many other things—not the least of which has been to see Scripture in a different light.

 

In another work, The Wisdom Jesus, Bourgeault speaks of seeing Jesus, and thereby Scripture, in a different light. She proposes that Jesus was less a priest or prophet and more a wise sage. For her, he was not only a teacher of wisdom. He was a master of wisdom. And while his wisdom is evident in many Scripture passages, this gift is especially evident in the Beatitudes. While time does not allow me to go into each of the Beatitudes and Bourgealt’s discussion of it, I would like to highlight one in particular. It is the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

 

Bourgealt writes, and I quote,

To our…ears, righteousness is a synonym for virtue. It means being moral, behaving correctly. But in Israel of Jesus’ time, righteousness was something much more dynamic than that. You can actually visualize it as a force field: an energy-charged sphere of holy presence. To be “in the righteousness of God” (as Old Testament writers are fond of saying) means to be directly connected to this vibrational field, to be anchored in God’s own aliveness. There is nothing subtle about the experience—it is as fierce as picking up a downed electrical wire. To hunger and thirst after righteousness,” then, speaks of this intensity of connectedness. Jesus promises that when the hunger arises within you to find your own deepest aliveness within God’s aliveness, it will be satisfied—in fact, the hunger itself is a sign that the bond is already in place. As we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning. Some spiritual teachers will even say that the yearning you feel for God is actually coming from the opposite direction; it is in fact God’s yearning for you.

 

When my heart yearned to sing psalms, God opened doors to show me the way. Oh—there is no doubt—I am not a stellar singer or guitar player—but that’s hardly the point. The point is God put a yearning in my heart that God then satisfied.

 

This morning, as you think of your own spiritual life, what are you yearning for? It’s a good question to ask. Because simply asking the question is a good first step toward having the eyes to see God’s fulfillment of your longing. It might happen through wise writers like Cynthia Bourgeault, life-changing preachers like Fred Craddock, amazing musicians, poets, a random conversation with a friend, a spouse, a neighbor, a stranger. There is no end to the ways in which God can open doors and windows and paths so that our holy yearnings may bring us ever closer to God’s own self—which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the Lord is our Shepherd.

*Cover Art photo by Claudia Testa via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Annie Dillard

A Room Full of Friends: Annie Dillard

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 8, 2021

Job 38:4-18

 

Annie Dillard, now 76 years old, is an American author, known for her works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as novels and a memoir. She attended Hollins College in Virginia, graduating as an English major. Her best-known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won her the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 29. “By the time I finished the book, I weighed about 98 pounds,” Dillard said. “I never went to bed. I would write all night until the sun was almost coming up.” She admits that she has changed since then…

Needless to say, her next work was a grueling, painful effort—I mean, how do you follow up a Pulitzer? Dillard is a bit hard to pin down—one of the reasons is the variety of topics and genres to be found in her writings—that cover everything from giant water bugs’ frog-eating habits to outrageous practical jokes her mother pulled at beaches and zoos. Dillard considers everyone from burn victims to stunt pilots, wanders everywhere from Virginia creeks to arctic ice floes, from the Galapagos Islands to Puget Sound. She is interested in Chinese writers, Eskimos, and Pittsburgh Presbyterians as well as moths, solar eclipses, and sycamores.

Environmentalists have compared Dillard to Thoreau, Dickinson, and Emerson.  Others have reckoned her a naturalist, a scientist, a poet. Nevertheless, she isn’t one to take herself too seriously. In an interview she commented, “People are always trying to convince themselves that their times are really important. But if you really, truly understood that you are going to die, and how many people there are now and how many people there have ever been, just beads in this never-ending string, how, then, do we live? How can you take yourself seriously?”

She admits, “I am no scientist. I am a wanderer with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts. As a thinker I keep discovering that beauty itself is as much a fact as a mystery…In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find mystery, newness, and a kind of exuberant, spendthrift energy.”

God and religion are recurring themes throughout her works and one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotes happens to be about church.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

It was Evelyn Underhill who wrote that one of the worst things that happened with the Protestant Reformation was that we took all the poetry out of religion. To this I would add that we are also guilty of trying to remove the mystery. How often do we gather with hardly a nod to the wonder and magnificence and boundlessness of this God we seek to worship?

It is with the wonder and magnificence and ongoing creative nature of God in mind, that we will venture forth this morning reflecting on a few of Dillard’s words, particularly those regarding nature. Most of the quotes we will consider come from Dillard’s work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The plan is this: I will read a quote and then I will ask you to reflect on a certain aspect of it. After a moment of silence, those gathered here in person as well as those joining us via livestream will have an opportunity to share our responses. Now, don’t be shy—this is meant to be an interactive experience.

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops…. You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over. The creek is the one great giver. It is, by definition, Christmas, the incarnation. This old rock planet gets the present for a present on its birthday every day. [Reflect on a body of water that holds healing or mystery for you.]

If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies…down aeons of emptiness…the whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames. [Reflect on a landscape that takes your breath away.]

Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can’t think about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and, in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their real business just out of reach. A blind man’s idea of hugeness is a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner fresh water; they abide. [Reflect on a tree that speaks to you.]

I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should…and I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will. [Reflect on a creature and what it has taught you.]

It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free. [Reflect on how you have experienced God’s grace in nature.]

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork — for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl — but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the Creator loves pizzazz. [Your final prompt is to reflect on your image of God as Creator.]

The God we worship and love and seek to obey cannot be contained in a temple, in a church, in a tradition—Presbyterian or otherwise. God is always greater than our imaginings, deeper than our understanding. God is here and there and everywhere creating, transforming, renewing—even in nature—maybe, especially in nature—if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear. Job 12:7-10 says it so well:

…ask the animals and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.

Great is the mystery of our faith. Amen.

*Cover art photo by Karim Sakhibgareev via Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Anna Carter Florence

A Room Full of Friends: Anna Carter Florence

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 4, 2021

10th Sunday after Pentecost

Acts 2:1-7

 

Today we continue the sermon series, “A Room Full of Friends,” which has allowed me to introduce you to some folks who have come to reside, figuratively speaking, on the bookshelves of my study, and who have become dear friends. This morning I bring to you The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence. Ordained as a PCUSA pastor, she is a preaching and worship professor at Columbia Theological Seminary who just so happened to be my doctoral project advisor. The following is a Pentecost sermon she preached a few years ago at Duke University. Now you may be thinking, “Glenda, it isn’t Pentecost.” Well, that’s true. It’s actually the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. However, since I strongly believe that Pentecost and the work of the Spirit need more attention in the church, I trust you will be enriched by Ann Carter Florence’s sermon entitled: “Wind, Fire, and Galileans.”

Pentecost—it’s a funny kind of holiday. It isn’t exactly a traditional family time for Christians, as in, “So where are you celebrating Pentecost this year?” We don’t gather in homes for big meals, we don’t exchange presents, we don’t get vacation days, and the post office isn’t closed tomorrow in commemoration of Pentecost, and then there’s the issue of what to cook. Did you inherit any treasured family recipes from your grandmothers for red Pentecost cupcakes or tongues of flamed barbeque sauce? I didn’t and the magazines and grocery store are not exactly brimming with ideas. And all this reticence seems very strange when you think about it. Pentecost is a birthday party. You’d think the church would go all out like we do for Jesus in December—but we don’t. Not really.

In most Protestant churches, Pentecost is a rather understated holiday—modest—as if the church were shy of throwing itself a party or it preferred that you not make a big fuss, please, that it is another year older. Even though—even though the story is all about a great big noisy fuss which is what makes it a really good story.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

You know maybe some of us prefer to take an understated approach to Pentecost because the church has entertained such extremes in the way we celebrate it. I know a Disciples pastor, for example, who grew up in a Hispanic Pentecostal Church. He says his congregation loved that Acts 2 passage so much that the preacher read it every 2 weeks. And the people never tired of hearing it and they especially loved the joyous and raucous freedom of that vision from Joel, your young ones shall see visions and your old ones shall dream dreams and everyone would jump up and shout and give thanks to God for what God was doing in their lives. Oh, my friend says, it was awesome and from an outsider’s perspective, complete chaos.

On the other hand, I know a little congregational church in New England—it happens to be the one where I grew up that had a very different way of celebrating Pentecost. The minister wore red and we passed the peace—once a year—and that was a big deal for us because we didn’t usually leave our pews or invade another’s worship space—you know, by looking at them—or touching them.

Because shaking hands was for after church and the only other time the minister wore red was on Reformation Sunday in October when we sang “A Mighty Fortress” and thanked God for Martin Luther. Two very different approaches to Pentecost in those two churches. But I think each of them is reaching toward something I learned growing up, which is that on Pentecost we go a little wild—you know—wear red—shake hands—overflow the space—whatever going wild in your context is—it’s what we do because the Holy Spirit requires us to give more room on this day. The Holy Spirit requires that we do at least one thing in worship that makes us nervous and re-draws our boundaries.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

You could say that the first nerve-wrecking thing about Pentecost—at least for the disciples—is that it is literally a birth-day. They are waiting for something to be born with no control whatsoever. Jesus told the disciples he would send the Holy Spirit. He just didn’t tell them when—he didn’t give them a due date. And what’s a due date anyhow? Every pregnant mother has one and it’s just an educated guess on the part of the medical team. Babies do not generally consult due dates. They keep their own schedules in their own time and we just have to wait until they’re ready to come—sometimes a lot longer than we had planned. And the Holy Spirit—the disciples learned—works in the same mysterious way. There is a lot of sitting around for days—unable to make plans—unable to travel—unable to think or talk about anything else. Knowing we have a ballpark but not an exact date and probably muttering that if Jesus had just scheduled the equivalent of a spiritual caesarian, they could at least point to a day and say, “Okay. We just have to hold on for one more week and then it will be here. The Spirit is a lot like a baby. It shows when it shows and our job is just to watch and wait and get moving when its time.

So the day the Spirit finally does show up, of course, is Pentecost. 50 days after Easter. And in the Bible, Pentecost is already a holiday before the Spirit comes. It’s the festival of weeks—the Jewish celebration of the first fruits of summer and the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This means that the church shares its birthday like a baby born on Christmas day or New Year’s Day or the 4th of July. It also means that the Spirit interrupts a party that is going on for someone else. Listen to this:

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all of these who are speaking Galileans?’

Did you hear that? Devout Jews from every nation under heaven. They were already living there in Jerusalem, and they weren’t lapsed believers. They weren’t non-members or pagans or secular or lukewarm. They were devout. They already had a firm relationship with God and they were observing the Feast of Pentecost with all the appropriate prayers: Thank you, O Lord, for the first fruits of summer and may our harvest this year be a plentiful one. Thank you, O God, for the gift of the law, the sweetness of Torah. The learning of it is like the taste of honey to our mouths. Devout Jews, from every nation under heaven all gathered in one place to celebrate what they know and believe—that everything we know and everything we have comes from the hand of God. And the most precious of those is Torah—the gift of the law.

Now that is not a holiday that needs correction, but it does get an interruption in the form of wind and fire. What is the Spirit up to with that? Well, maybe the whole point here is the Spirit has its own timing—just like babies and due dates—and so human plans only extend so far. The disciples didn’t know when the Spirit would come so they just had to wait. And they didn’t know any more than the devout Jews knew that it would show up on Pentecost. They just had to go with it. Pentecost—go with the flow. It’s a good bumper sticker—you can read the text that way and there are good and faithful things that can come of it.

OR maybe the point here is that the Spirit interrupts what we expect—kind of like no one expects conversion—devout people do not expect to wake up from a faith that is important to them—it just happens. Pentecost happens—you could make a bumper sticker from that too—it’s not bad. And you could read the text this way also and the church could be nourished by that. But what really challenges me and maybe you, too, is something that is harder to fit on a bumper sticker—not because it isn’t succinct—it is. But because it is so hard to swallow. And that is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just interrupt us—it interrupts what we know—devout persons gathered together in one place to worship God for what we know God has given us and the Spirit will interrupt—violently—with wind and fire and Galileans.

You know if you have a certain respect for nature, you can get your head around the wind and fire of this equation. Wildfires raging—violent interruption—or if you’ve lived through a hurricane or tornado or earthquake—you get what wind and fire can do. And you can almost fathom what the disciples and the devout Jews must have heard that day.

There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

The miracle question aside, you can conjure up an image, if only from some disaster movie. You can affirm that yes, the Holy Spirit, if it takes the forms of wind and fire—will violently interrupt what we know—absolutely. But Galileans? Galileans? That’s harder. Because it calls into question how I organize my world, how I sort people into groups that I either respect a lot or I don’t respect very much at all. It implies for a start, that there are Galileans in my life, people I might dismiss because of where they live or how they talk or where they went to school—if they went to school.

Aren’t all those who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear—each of us in our own native language.

The reason people didn’t take Jesus seriously at first is that he was from Galilee and in the New Testament, Galilean is shorthand for ‘hick’ and Jesus grew up in the center of that—Nazareth—the capitol of hick. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? That’s what Nathaniel asked of Philip. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? People really talk like that. Can anything good come out of Detroit or New York or Idaho or that end of town? Are there any progressives in the state of Mississippi? Where I come from people really talk like that which is why my family is still worried about the fact that I now live in Atlanta and my sons are growing up in Georgia. Of course, I try to tell them, yes, there are many good things, progressive things even that come out of Georgia and if you visit us you would see.

But I still, I still have Galileans of my own. I do. Most of us do—if we are honest. People we would never expect to know more than we do about certain things. People we don’t expect to relate to as peers, colleagues, equals, because of where they come from or how they talk.

But there were devout Jews living in Jerusalem—devout Jews—cultured people and when they heard the disciples speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability, they said, “Aren’t all those who are speaking, Galileans? Right. We thought that’s what they were. And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language—how is that?” Well, that is unexpected—that is unexpected. If we can hear in our own language what a Galilean says, that totally changes the whole picture for me because if a Galilean—[some hick] can talk to me in my language and show me Jesus more clearly than I have ever seen him. If that’s what Pentecost is, well that totally changes the whole picture for me. That means I am going to have to go home and rethink everything I thought I knew about God and the world and our place in it and everything else actually. I am going to have to go back to square one and start over.

Can the Holy Spirit do that? Reshuffle the whole deck as far as life and faith are concerned? Is it allowed to do that? Because that’s not why I came to church this morning—to be violently interrupted—even by grace—even by grace. Maybe the church, maybe the church is born again every time we gather together in one place to hear what we know, only to be addressed by what we never imagined. And if that’s true, if that’s true, then heck yeah Pentecost happens, you know it, go with the flow! You might as well, since it’s going to interrupt you with the big huge noisy fuss anyway—reconfigure all your boundaries, make you overflow your space, move over for Galileans—might as well enjoy it—might as well go wild—and pass the peace.

Amen.

*Cover Art by Stushie via Unsplash, used by subscription