Monday, July 29, 2013

Questioning the Sermon

After I preached my sermon yesterday, calling the assembled congregation to put Christ first in all that we do, someone asked me: How? How do you do this?

It's a simple question, and remarkably difficult to answer. When I was young, we knew the answer--go down to the altar and "pray through". Pray until you "get the victory". Pray aloud, fervently, even desperately. I am not convinced. For some of us, such theatrics do not touch the heart, but turn us into play actors concealing what is really inside.

More recently I have learned to appreciate the classical spiritual disciplines. I have found occasional (very occasional) fasting to be a good path to a closer walk with God. Occasional silence has also worked well for me (a communal silence: silence alone is a good way to go to sleep). But not everyone is a contemplative. For some of us, such disciplines (a la Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline) don't fit with our need to do something.

Some people find activism a good path to inner peace. Ron Sider (see One-Sided Christianity, republished as Good News and Good Works) provides a good model. he says, "I am not an activist", while acting like an activist. But some of us need to nurture contemplation more fully than does Sider's example.

A true answer to my friend's question is: I don't know. Each of us has to work out our own answer. Some will be revivalistic; some will be activist; some will be contemplative; some will find other paths I haven't thought of.

The best gift we can give each other is to describe our own experience. Then in each other's stories we may begin to find clues to our own answer. For myself, I quote John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Or as the hymnbook puts it:
1. Make me a captive, Lord,
and then I shall be free.
Force me to render up my sword,
and I shall conqueror be.
I sink in life's alarms
when by myself I stand;
imprison me within thine arms,
and strong shall be my hand.

2. My heart is weak and poor
until it master find;
it has no spring of action sure,
it varies with the wind.
It cannot freely move
till thou hast wrought its chain;
enslave it with thy matchless love,
and deathless it shall reign.

3. My power is faint and low
till I have learned to serve;
it lacks the needed fire to glow,
it lacks the breeze to nerve.
It cannot drive the world
until itself be driven;
its flag can only be unfurled
when thou shalt breathe from heaven.

4. My will is not my own
till thou hast made it thine;
if it would reach a monarch's throne,
it must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent
amid the clashing strife,
when on thy bosom it has leant,
and found in thee its life.

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