Thursday, October 17, 2013

Searching for Everyday Sacredness

April 23, 2013, 11:24 AM

Searching for Everyday Sacredness

I am caught by Jesus’ claim that his sheep know his voice.  The metaphor of the good shepherd resonated deeply in Israel.  But I don’t think we hear it in the same way.  Most of us would not want to think of ourselves as herd animals.  We are much too independent for that.  And yet the 23rd Psalm remains one of the most beloved pieces of scripture there is.  We want to be taken care of and we want to be independent—or is that just me?   I want to be safe in God’s love and I want to do things my way.  I believe that Jesus has something profound to teach us about how God’s will for us to thrive—together—for us to all thrive in God’s abundant creation.  I believe that—I just fail to follow Jesus in ways that would make me thrive—make me whole.  Truly, I want to know Jesus’ voice so that I can follow him, but I hear my own voice a whole lot better.  And if I were to be honest, I am more willing to think that God thinks like I do, than to spend time listening so that God can teach me.     
You know how you finally get to that place where you’re ready to go on a diet or start exercising.  Your clothes don’t fit, or you’ve had a health crisis, so you’re ready to do what you’ve seen works for others.  The kids on the island are preparing to present Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.  The conman Harold Hill pockets money for instruments and uniforms promising to create a band for the youth of River City, Iowa.  He keeps the citizens busy by teaching the children how to play their instruments using the “think system.”  Instead of learning the fundamentals of music and practicing their instruments, the children and youth think about the music.  I’ve been using the think system for years with diets and exercise and my own spirituality.
I have the privilege of working in the same building with Gaye Detzer who teaches violin.  I hear her young students playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and then moving up to more difficult pieces.  I hear the wrong notes and gentle encouragement and trying again.  And sometimes I hear incredible music, fast and light, and joyful or complex and hauntingly beautiful, and I know that the teacher, Gaye, is practicing.  Practice is what makes us good at anything, whether it’s sports, or writing, or dance, or computer programming, drafting, woodworking, quilting, or cooking.  Practice is what turns novices into masters.  Dan McLaughlin, a commercial photographer from Portland, Oregon, decided that he wanted to play in the Masters Golf Tournament, in spite of the fact that he had “barely swung a club in his life.”[1]  He quit his job and dedicated himself to learning to play golf.  So far he has logged about 4,000 hours of practice time.  And he’s gotten the attention of UCLA psychology professor Robert Bjork, a respected cognitive scientist, who is testing a theory developed by Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson that, “on average, 10,000 hours of deliberate, efficient practice can produce international expertise in fields like chess, dance and swimming.”[2]   I’m looking for the kind of practice in which I can find every-day sacredness.
Practice produces expertise.  If I want to be able to hear God’s voice, I need to practice.  Christians who have come before us have developed practices that produce results, a deepening spirituality, closeness to God, deeper faith, and lives that show the fruit of discipleship.  I read about spiritual practices like a read about the latest diet.  I might try it, but I lose interest if the results aren’t instantaneous—well, sometimes I just lose interest.  The Church has learned that if you practice in community, with partners, mentors, and encouragers that you tend to stick with your practice.  I am fascinated by the growth of the new monastic communities in emerging Christianity.  These are modern groups of Christians whose commitment to following Jesus calls them to covenant together in small communities built around a shared rule.  They devise their own rules, much like older monastic communities, around spiritual practices.   Brian McLaren has written the first book in The Ancient Practices Series, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices.  He lists seven practices that have been recovered by the emerging Church: fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving.  There’s a book in the series for each of those practices.  I liked this paragraph in his book so much that we put it on our Facebook page.   
Spiritual practices are actions within our power that help us narrow the gap [between the character we want to have and the character we are actually developing].  They help us become someone weighty, someone worthy of a name and reputation, someone who makes survival worthwhile by turning life’s manure into fertilizer.  They’re about surviving your twenties or forties or eighties and not becoming a jerk in the process.  About not letting what happens to us deform us or destroy us.  About realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to what we become and who we are.  As such, spiritual practices are pretty earthy, and they’re not strictly about spirituality as it is often defined; they’re about humanity.  Which brings us to the second reason they’re important—aliveness.
          Spiritual practices could be called life practices or humane practices, because they help us practice being alive, and humanely so.  They develop not just character but also aliveness, alertness, wakefulness, and humanity.[3]
Steve, Faye, and I attended a lecture by Phyllis Tickle on fixed-hour prayer following her lecture on emergence Christianity.  I am always curious about spiritual practices and have spent some time reading about and even preaching about them, but not doing much with them.  Phyllis described her discovery of fixed-hour prayer by coming across a breviary in a used book shop.  A breviary is a pattern for fixed-hour prayer observed in monastic communities.  First Phyllis said she had to learn how to “drive the thing” that so fascinated her.  And once she began praying it, she couldn’t stop.  Phyllis is incredibly smart and funny and a little irreverent as only a Southern lady can be, but her whole demeanor changed when she led us in the prayer that she had been practicing for over 30 years.  It was like looking into a perfectly still pool and seeing to the bottom.  And that’s what I wanted.  Until I decided that I didn’t much like all the confession in the prayers.  And I put down the idea until I prepared the sermon for last week and realized that I am hungry for the still pool—hungry for the presence of God.  I’m hungry for every day sacredness.  I know it works best in community, so I’m looking for anyone who would like to try the practices with me.
We’ll start with fixed-hour prayer.  Phyllis was asked to put together a prayer book for fixed-hour prayer for Protestants.  In the Catholic Church the practice is known as the Divine Hours.  The basic idea is that the Church prays as one throughout the day, that we join our voices and hearts together.  As the earth turns the prayers continue around the world, the Church always at prayer.  But what is important to me is how, as Brian McLaren promises, my character might grow and along with that aliveness, alertness, wakefulness, and humanity. 
Here’s what I propose.  There are a number of times during the day that fixed-hour prayer is observed: midnight, the night watch during the middle of the night, dawn, morning, noon or midday, vespers in the late afternoon or early evening, and before retiring.  I want to start with morning, midday and evening prayer.  There are a number of sources.  Phyllis has a book of prayers, morning, midday, and vespers, for each season of the year.  I just bought the book for spring.  She has a small book with all of the times for prayer in a handy one week travel book.  You can take a look at that one.  I also have a book from the new monastic movement that you might like.  They may have more confession in them than I like, but I’ll tell you after praying before retiring last night, I could identify my failures in my relationships and work during the day and had a deep sense of peace and clarity about how I wanted my life to be. 
Each prayer time is scripted, so sometimes it doesn’t feel like my prayer, but I know that I’m joining someone for whom the prayer is true and we pray together.  Sometimes it seems as if the prayer is written just for me. 
This practice may not be for everyone, and I know from my own experience that it may take a conversion experience to even be interested, but I’m inviting you to pray about how you might begin the kind of practice that will let you hear and recognize your shepherd’s voice.

[1] Sean Gregory Encino, “Practice, Made Perfect?  An Amateur’s Golf Quest Sheds Light on How We Learn,” TIME, vol. 181, No. 14, 2013, 56.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 14.

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