Monday, March 17, 2014

Spiritual Presence - Sermon Part I

Twelve years ago I met a religion professor who was about my age. (Paul Allen Laughlin, author of Remedial Christianity and Getting Oriented) He had been ordained a Methodist minister after graduating from Emory in Atlanta. I had been ordained Presbyterian after graduating from McCormick in Chicago.

He asked me “What 2 important things didn’t we learn in seminary?” (I think this was while he was playing jazz piano in a bar in Santa Rosa CA.) “I don’t know,” I responded, “I would have to think about it.”
“The first one is World religions,” he said. “Everyone needs to know about them in today’s world. They didn’t seem so important 30 years ago, but after 9/11 we all see how important they are.
“The second one is the common element in every religion, but we didn’t study it: Spirit. Spirit is the lowest common denominator of all religion.”

He was right. After leaving seminary in the early ‘70's the world began changing more rapidly. It became smaller. We learned more about other peoples and other religions. People everyone seemed to be talking about Spirituality.

In Lent people have always had special services and adopted special practices, in order to meditate on the death of Jesus. In doing this we are hoping for a religious or “spiritual” experience; a direct experience of God. That’s the big change in the past 40 years. People don’t want to hear about faith; they want to experience it for themselves.

At a church on Long Island I brought a large canvas labyrinth into the church fellowship hall. Several people who walked it in silence, for the first time, broke into tears, it evoked such strong feelings in them.

I have been trying to recall how I came to faith and what it was like in those early years. I have been thinking of the intense, extended experience of Spiritual Presence I had during the 4 years I lived in Chicago and attended seminary. I can remember the excitement I felt then, and the enthusiasm that was in all of us in the church we belonged to on the near north side of Chicago in 1968 until 1972. I was all excited about my new Christian faith and the books I was reading in seminary. I had a strong feeling of life and freedom and creativity, of energy, and the life force. (I was going through a lot of changes: Going to seminary was a new direction for my life, moving to Chicago was a big change for an Iowa boy, I was facing prison for refusing induction to the Army, and in 1970 our first daughter was born.) I thought of all this excitement as the presence of the Holy Spirit, a feeling of being caught up and surrounded by the power of God. I remember an outdoor festival our church sponsored on the seminary field, on Pentecost Sunday, promoting the freedom and joy of the Spirit.

This feeling of the Spirit is an awareness that God is with us, but not judging us. It is a sense of being open to others and to the future, it is a sense of an inclusive and caring God, and belonging to a community led by the Spirit. It is feelings of awe and wonder at the whole of the universe and in the depths of our personal being. The whole world looked different to me, infused by this great light and energy.

That church at that time was an amazing fellowship and community of people. We were a people with a sense of communal belonging. We cared for each other and each other’s children. We studied together. We cleared out the area at the front of the church so that all of us [as many as 100 or more] could have communion together around the table. We ate together frequently, at church and in our homes in small groups. We went to movies together and discussed them afterward. We were involved in the anti-war movement together. We met with Black neighborhood groups in attempts at racial reconciliation. We raised money for good causes to help others in need. We were a community bound together in following the spirit of Jesus.

We were filled with ideas about things to do and changes to make so that we could be both faithful and relevant. Church life became so intense – too intense. We were making so many changes – you couldn't be sure that anything that happened on a Sunday morning would be familiar at all – that our Session [church council] declared a moratorium on all meetings for six months just to cool things down!

Eventually, people moved away and new people joined. I was ordained in that church and left to be pastor of a small town church where life was very different. I was disappointed to discover that most churches were not like the one I had known in Chicago. I was disappointed to learn how hard and slow it is to bring change to a church. Now I think I better understand what happened in Chicago and what didn’t happen elsewhere.

I think I know now what makes that kind of church, a community of the Spirit, a community of spiritual presence that Paul Tillich wrote about, or the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King spoke of – I think I know how it comes into being.

[to be continued]

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