ISAIAH 5:1-7; PS. 80:1-2, 8-19; HEB 11:37-12:1
“They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground…Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 11:37-12:1)
I suspect its not always easy having a pastor with my personality type. God has wired me in such a way that I am driven by a deep desire to learn broadly across the centuries from different spiritual traditions and schools of thought. In a world that prizes the latest gadgets and newest ideas, my bookshelves are filled with the wisdom spanning the early centuries of the church. While many busy themselves scrolling Twitter feeds and reading Facebook comments, I slunk away the past few weeks to read “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” the collected wisdom of the monks who went out into the wilderness to seek after a holy life in the 4th century.
While these ascetics sound strange and a bit “unbalanced” to our modern ears, they seem right at home with the the holy men and women described in our New Testament lesson this week from Hebrews 11-12. These were Christians who “wandered in deserts and mountains” and devoted themselves to the ultimate call to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” The Desert Fathers and Mothers, and many other ancient streams of Christian faith, wrote much about how we can go about dealing with the “sin that clings so closely,” describing the Seven Deadly Sins, and how to deal with them.
Along these lines, I have also been immersing myself in the study of Franciscan Spirituality, the remarkable Jesus-shaped life exemplified by the beloved 13th century St. Francis of Assisi. These writings along with others have all been helping me turn my eyes (momentarily) away from bemoaning and trying to fix all the problems of the world, and instead begin exploring and tending to the inner landscape of my own soul. I am feeling reinvigorated in this quest, and am excited to share more and invite you all into a similar journey this year at MainStreet.
I probably have been dealing with some kind of mid-life existential crisis, arriving on my doorstep like a FedEx package pretty much smack dab on my 40th birthday. The good news is I sense the good and loving Presence of God right next to me in this personal desert. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that the Desert is God’s preferred location for performing heart surgery. Actually, ‘midlife crisis’ is not at all the right language. I feel like I’ve been climbing up a high mountain and reaching the summit I find myself in front of an ancient door suspended in midair, and God is inviting me to open and walk through into a whole new season of spiritual discovery and growth.
What’s this door? What new and strange land lies unexplored on the other side? Is it safe to open and enter? These are some of the questions I’ll begin to address this Sunday as I share some of my personal God-stirrings from my time away, and share the direction I sense God leading us as a church (at least in our teaching) this next year. As a hint, here’s what I wrote in my journal on August 1:
“I’ve spent the past 20 years studying the landscape of the Bible, God, Jesus and His kingdom in its historical context. The next 20 years I want to spend exploring the landscape of the human soul by studying psychology, spiritual direction, the contemplative tradition, and the field of spiritual counseling while sitting at the feet of spiritual masters. I want to exegete the human heart as well as the biblical text. I want to be not only a preacher but a ‘curer of souls,’ not just a church leader but wise counselor.”
If you read the lectionary for this week you will see a theme of God’s precious vine/vineyard, planted in love and caring nurture. You will also see that often God’s precious plants don’t produce the fruit He created them for—sometimes bearing “wild” grapes instead of pure grapes. God’s severe mercy sometimes brings punishment, like a loving parent or wise coach disciplining a child or athlete, in order to bring about repentance and necessary growth.
Likewise, Jesus described the Christian life as one of staying connected to the Vine—that is, himself—in order to produce fruit of righteousness (cf. John 15). I was reminded again this summer that I still need a lot of pruning. We all do. If we at MainStreet are really serious about “running with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1) we are going to have to embark on a more intention “pilgrimage of the soul,” and get to know our own inner terrain more intimately—and discover how we are each uniquely wired and how our various personality types comes with both gifts to share and sins to master.
To lead us on such an inward journey, I am convinced some of our best spiritual guides are sometimes going to be people who lived long ago—like St. Francis—and may not be the latest study by today’s popular teacher on RightNow Media (though those are great, too!). One of my favorite sayings of Jesus goes, “Every teacher discipled into the Kingdom is like a homeowner who brings out of his storeroom treasures new and old” (Matt 13:52). Each summer I take some time away to rest, study and reflect. My prayer is always the same: that I will return with a few more treasures in my storeroom of ideas to share with all of you—treasures both new and, more often than not, very old.
I began by saying my personality type is probably a blessing and a curse in pastoral ministry. What I mean by this is that I know about half the human race craves stability and familiarity—especially when it comes to the most central beliefs of their faith. Protestants, for example, are often threatened by Roman Catholic teachings. Baptists get nervous talking about sacramentalism, and Lutherans get squeemish when someone starts speaking in tongues. Conservative Christians raise an eyebrow when a pastor starts talking about social justice or creation care, and liberal Christians squirm when a pastor talks about the traditional marriage ethic.
As for me, one of my highest personal values is being open to learning from across various traditions, trying to hear both sides of issues, and gleaning and appreciating the wisdom and truth wherever or whenever its found. This trait will stretch some of us at times, as its much more comfortable having our long-held beliefs reinforced each Sunday by the preacher than questioned. I hope you will embrace this trait of mine as more of a gift than a curse. We are living in a moment of unprecendented polarization where many struggle to truly listen to other views. Technology has enabled us to live in ideological echo-chambers where only our own side’s narrative and talking points are seen on our Facebook feed, google search, etc.
But is not all truth God’s truth? Doesn’t each religious tradition and each century of history have blindspots and weaknesses that need exposing? Shouldn’t we humble ourselves and try to learn from the “great cloud of witnesses” from each century of our Christian past? As we do, of course we should heed the Apostle’s warning to “examine everything carefully” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). But in our quest for a deeper spirituality, let’s make sure we bring out of the storeroom old treasures along with the new.