When I started my first church in Detroit, Michigan, I got to know an African American woman in the neighborhood who had been ordained by her congregation not because she went to seminary, but because of her many spiritual gifts for ministry. Rev. Regina wanted to attend a neighborhood congregation, so she became involved at the church I was serving. I marveled at her deep spirituality. She would say things like, “Well I was going to ask Bob about being a reference for my application to seminary, but the Spirit said, ‘ask Alex.’” I thought to myself, “the Spirit talks directly to her?! I don’t think I have that spiritual gift.”
When people, even strangers, would see me in a clergy collar and ask me to pray for them because I “have a direct line to God,” I would pray for them but inside, I was thinking, “well, maybe, but not really—it’s Regina who has the direct line to God, not me.” Ministry for me early on was all about “doing.” I am a perfectionist, Type A, people-pleasing personality and being a pastor was about doing for others—visiting, preaching, leading youth, summer feeding programs, bible studies, worship, teaching, Vacation Bible School. These are all great things, but they do not encompass all that God calls me to as a pastor.
We live this pattern as a congregation and often as a denomination, church is a pattern of things we DO—we attend worship and sing, collect food for the hungry, have fellowship meals, prepare school kits and health kits, make quilts, make sure the building is maintained, cut the grass, write a newsletter, do Bible study, learn, give an offering, and pray for the sick. Our ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands,” and it’s a great motto because doing these things is important, but again, it does not include all that God calls us to.
Over time, I realized that God really did want to speak to me, I just wasn’t listening. It took many years for my “doing” personality to learn to listen. My mom called me “motormouth” when I was six, and when I got too excited or worked up, she made me sit still on the couch without talking for five minutes. It felt like torture!
In our Gospel reading from Mark, the disciples are also out “doing” ministry as well. Earlier in Mark chapter six, Jesus sent out the disciples two by two to teach, heal, and forgive others; in our passage today, the disciples have come back to tell Jesus all about what they have done. We at St. Luke’s have also been out doing ministry by asking strangers who check us out at the store and the doctor, or who wait on us in a restaurant, if they have any prayer concerns we can include in our prayers.
To the disciples and to us, Jesus says, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Jesus spent time in a personal relationship with the disciples and Jesus calls us into the same kind of relationship. Jesus invites us to go out and spend time with him. Unless we intentionally take time to be with Jesus and plan it, we’re not going to get there; I learned I had to choose to take time to listen. Even in the Old Testament passage in Jeremiah, God expresses personal concern for the people. God is concern for the nation is expressed in the language of a personal relationship—my pasture, my people, my flock.
Jesus wants a personal relationship with us. Many of you filled out one of the blue cards as part of your offering, sharing what you experienced in asking to pray for strangers you encountered, and I’m going to read what some of you wrote down. Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting with Jesus and the disciples as you hear these expeirences: peace; surprised they responded so well; a connection; concern for their safety; felt good sharing God’s love; hope; it was easier than I thought; encouraged. Can’t you imagine Jesus smiling at you and the disciples? How does Jesus feel listening to them and to us? Perhaps pride, love, joy, taking delight in who we are and who we are becoming!
Jesus was teaching the disciples a spiritual practice!! Keep your eyes closed and let the disciples and the others fade away, and now it’s just you and Jesus. We’re going to practice being with Jesus, and I invite you into a meditation of “beholding Jesus beholding you and smiling.” Take a few deep breaths to relax a bit more, and “behold Jesus beholding you and smiling.” We will share the communion of silent meditation for a moment.
This is just practice, so it’s ok if nothing happened! I learned this meditation about 4 ½ years ago when I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I did this meditation, “beholding God, beholding me and smiling" for 5, 10, or 15 minutes every day, and nothing happened. But then on day 57, almost 2 months in, I had a physical sensation of something moving from by head to my chest and gut, from my mind to my heart. It really startled me and with a quick intake of breath, I opened my eyes, looked up and spontaneously said, “you really do love me, don’t you? I had been a pastor for twenty-four years, and this was the first time I had a physical sensation of being loved by God.
This is what it means to move from meditation to contemplation. Meditation is me doing the mental work or focus, and using my imagination, and then at some point, it shifts to God doing the work in me. Remember I started out as "motormouth" and sitting quietly felt like torture, so this will be much easier for you than for me! And your experience will be different—God will communicate with you in the way that you can receive it. I am a person of action and movement, so I needed a physical sensation. But a person of logic or the mind may receive a new thought; people who can’t turn their mind off, may experience a new kind of silence; you may receive a feeling of peace, or release of anxiety; others might get a feeling of expansiveness, like the sky just got bigger; others might get a sense of freedom or the lifting of a burden; an artist might receive a new image; a musician may hear a new sound; an engineer or carpenter may sense things fitting together in way they never have before.
Only by spending time with God—when I stop doing and start listening—that I’ve grown into a deeper relationship with God. It’s all about learning to make myself available to God offering my time and attention. That's why we call them spiritual practices--we always practice and never arrive at perfection! We also want to practice this together—because I can’t wait to hear how Jesus is delighting in you and God is communicating with you! We can grow in our faith just by learning how God is working in each other’s life. Your story of this experience may help someone else hear God in their life in a way that’s very different from mine.
Now when people joke that I have a direct line to God, and I think, “Heck, yeah! I do, but not because I’m a pastor, not because I’m a more spiritual or a better person, it’s only because other spiritual teachers taught me how to be quiet, to imagine, and to listen. The best news is, YOU HAVE A DIRECT LINE TOO! Want to try a new way of praying?!”
Our part is to show up—to make ourselves available for God to move, work, and communicate with us! The truth is there are as many different ways to have a relationship with Jesus as there are people. I invite you to practice this meditation on as many days as you can—you may have 5 minutes, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 10 minutes. Set a timer on your phone so don’t have to worry about when to stop, being late for work or an appointment. Behold God beholding you and smiling; behold Jesus beholding you and smiling; behold Spirit beholding you and smiling—whatever image of God to which you feel most connected.
I often receive questions about distractions. They are always a part of prayer. You can do three things: 1). If they are minor, let them float by like boat on a river—don’t get into the boat, just let it pass by; 2). You can also acknowledge and notice the distraction without judgement, and then let it go; 3). If something occurs to you that you don’t want to forget, keep paper and a pen nearby, jot it down it and then come back to your meditation. Every choice you make to return your attention back to God is a prayer!
Mark 6:33 gives us a great image for pursuing this kind of relationship with Jesus. “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.” People were “hurrying there on foot” to spend time with Jesus. What does it feel like to have relationship with Jesus that we hurry to spend time with him in rest, in meditation, being loved and delighted in by him? We go out into the world to do our work, and continue to ask people you meet if they have any concerns you can pray for—and then we hurry back to Jesus to tell him what happened and to be loved and strengthened. You can continue with your devotional readings, and prayers for other people, and then spend time listening in quiet meditation as God takes delight in you!
In my prayer journal from Ignatian exercises, I wrote in the margins early on, “Prayer is a relief—not a task.” This is what our passage from Ephesians is ultimately talking about—what relief and joy come from being connected to Christ. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” You are a dwelling place for God—and we together, as St. Luke’s, are a holy temple in the Lord! As we each grow in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, the stronger our temple becomes, the more love and forgiveness we have to share with Richardson and the world! So "come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” with Jesus your Lord.
Image The Gospel of John movie