SACRED PLACES, SPACES AND PRACTICES
What’s Saving Your Life Now? Click here for audio
I Timothy 4:11-16, Luke 13:18-21
Pastor Marty Raths
What’s Saving Your Life Now?
“What’s saving your life now?” It was that question that became the inspiration for Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, which we are using as a congregational book this fall. Taylor is an Episcopalian priest and a college professor, and she had been asked by a fellow priest to come and speak at his church. “What do you want me to talk about?” she had asked him. And he had answered, “Come tell us what is saving your life now?”
From this question came a series of spiritual practices that were important to Taylor in her own walk of faith. She is the first to say that the practices included in her book are by no means exhaustive, nor will they all be helpful to everyone. They are meant to be an open invitation to discover those practices that work for us, the ones that help us to stay sane, to maintain some balance, to find a sense of purpose, to keep our priorities straight, to nurture our relationship with God.
Now the first thing to be said about these practices is that they are practices. They are more about walking the faith than talking it. “Each practice trusts,” Taylor writes, “that doing something is at least as valuable as reading books about it, thinking about it, or sitting around talking about it.” Not that these other things are not important, but who wants to study a menu, Taylor goes on to ask, when we can actually eat a meal?
So they are practices. They are not so much a thinking or a feeling as a doing, though not one that allows us to show each other up by comparing ourselves to one another. They are practices, so they minimize the role of experts. Spiritual elitism is an age old problem in the church, and this my-faith-is-somehow-better-than-your faith takes many forms. Paul had to address one form of it in his Letter to Timothy, and it had to do with Timothy’s age. Apparently, there were some older members in the church who were looking down upon Timothy because he was so young. But Paul told him, “Never mind that. Trust in your call, set an example in word and deed, and put your faith into practice.”
Practice levels the playing field, whether it be age, or education, or position, or anything else. Now we can be mentors to one another. There is a place for that, and there is certainly a place for that in the church since some of us have gone a little farther on down the road of discipleship than others of us. But when it comes to practice, we all have room for improvement, which means there is no room for comparisons or judgments. There is just the practice. For all of us.
As I typed that last line the other day, I had this flashback to my childhood, to a time when I was taking guitar lessons. And in my mind I heard my mom telling me that I needed to practice my guitar, and I heard myself saying to her, “Ahh, do I have to practice?”
The thought of practice does carry with it some negative connotations. And I feel a little like my mom when I say, “We have to practice the faith.” None of you said it, and I appreciate that. But how many of you said to yourselves, “Ahh, do I have to practice?” And the answer is “No.” It is a choice. But faith is like anything else in life, if we don’t practice it, then we are never going to get any better.
Practice expands the dimensions of possibility. Most of us have heard the story of the man who runs up to a woman on a midtown street in Manhattan and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ And the woman replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” And that story is a rich metaphor for life. Even with all the practice in the world we still may not get to Carnegie Hall, but if we do not practice, then we are guaranteed not to get there. It is the practice that makes our getting to Carnegie Hall at least a possibility.
And the practices of faith help us to be more open and attentive and receptive and responsive to the presence of God, though they in no way guarantee that we will experience it. There is nothing that we can do to force or manipulate or appease God into doing anything. So we are not assured of hearing from God every time that we pray, but we can be assured of not hearing much from God if we do not take the time to pray. Praying just makes it a whole lot more likely that there will be times when we do sense the presence of God in our lives. It is the practice of prayer that makes for that possibility.
And practice readies us for what may come in life, and with some things that is very important because there are some things that we cannot learn to do on a moment’s notice. I think of the basketball player staying after practice every day to shoot extra free throws, not because she likes shooting free throws, but because she is thinking about those 2 free throws she may have to make at the end of game sometime during the season. And she wants to be ready, and the only way she is going to be ready then with all that pressure on her is if she practices her free throws now.
Now there is nothing glamorous about practices, staying late to shoot free throws by yourself in an empty gym. But then Jesus rarely spoke about the faith in glamorous terms. His terms were far more down to earth. The kingdom is like mustard seed that someone sows into a field, he said, or like yeast that a woman mixes in with the flour when making bread. Yeast and seeds are small stuff, behind the scenes stuff. But they too are about making ready. There is no fall harvest without a spring sowing, and no rising of the bread without the mixing in of the yeast.
Now we are always in need of the grace of God, but there are going to be times in life when we really need to rely upon God. And if we have not been nurturing that relationship beforehand, staying in love with God, as Bishop Reuben Job puts it, then it is going to be that much more difficult to turn to God when we are really in need. And that takes us back to practices again, doing those things that will help ready us for faithful living come what may in life.
And in the end these practices can be transformative, bringing forth grain from seeds and bread from yeast and flour. These practices can actually create new capacities within us. Love is not a feeling, at least not from the biblical perspective, it is a capacity. It is like a muscle that can be strengthened by practice. And this is true of all the other fruits of the Spirit as well, patience, kindness, joy, peace, gratitude. They are all strengthened by practice.
Rachel Naomi Remen is a physician who worked as a counselor to other physicians in the later years of her practice. And she tells the story of a gifted cancer surgeon named Josh. He came to her one day as a disillusioned man. “I hear the same complaints day after day,” he said, “I see the same diseases over and over again. I just don’t care anymore. I need a new life.” He had come to this place in his own life, despite the fact that he had literally given the gift of new life to hundreds of others through his skills as a surgeon.
At the end of their meeting Remen gave Josh a very simple task. A practice actually. She told him to take a few minutes in the evening to review his day, asking himself 3 questions: What surprised me today? What touched me or moved me today? And what inspired me today?
Now Josh was more than a little skeptical about this. “It is less expensive than medication,” Remen told him.
He laughed and agreed to give it a try. But a few days later he called Remen, telling her, “The answer is always the same: nothing and nothing and nothing.”
“Perhaps you are still looking at your life in old ways,” Remem suggested. “Try looking at the people around you as if you were a writer. Look for the stories.”
There was a moment of silence. “Right,” Josh finally said. Then he hung up.
Over the next several weeks Josh said nothing about this practice in their sessions, but then one day he took out his journal and he said that he had begun to find some answers to the 3 questions. He read some of them. At first he was surprised when a tumor had shrunk, or was inspired when a new drug had begun to work. But then he began to see more deeply. In very difficult circumstances he saw people affirming the value of life, and he saw how important loving relationships were in sustaining people.
“In the beginning,” he told Remen, “I would not notice these things until later when I looked back on the day. But gradually the lag time became shorter and shorter. I was building a capacity that I had never used before. Then, when I began to see things as they happened, then things really changed for me.”
“What do you mean?” Remen asked.
“My attitude started to change,” he said. “And maybe that showed in me because people seemed to respond to it and their attitude changed too. And finally, I began talking to people about more than their cancer and their treatment options. I began talking about what I could see.”
He recalled one conversation in particular with a 38 year old woman who had undergone major surgery followed by a very debilitating chemotherapy. She had 2 young daughters, and Josh was struck by her commitment to them, despite all that she was going through. After they spoke of her symptoms, he said to her, “You are a wonderful mother to your children. Even after all you have been through, there is something very strong in you. I think this strength could maybe heal you someday.” She smiled at him, and he realized that this was the first time that he had ever seen her smile.
“Thank you,” she said, “That means a lot.” And it meant a lot to Josh too.
“I knew cancer very well,” he said, “but I did not know people.” But through this process, this practice, Josh began to see beyond the disease to the people, and the people responded. They began to express their appreciation in ways that they had never done before, and some even gave him gifts. He sat in silence for a few moments, and then he reached into his pocket and took out a beautiful stethoscope engraved with his name. “A patient gave me this,” he said, obviously moved.
“And what do you do with that, Josh?” Remen asked.
“I listen to hearts, Rachel,” he answered. “In ways that I have never done before I listen to hearts.”
Josh’s practice of medicine had become a very different sort of practice through his practice of a very simple practice, asking himself 3 questions at the end of the day. And those are the sort of practices Barbara Brown Taylor writes about in her book, transformative practices, life changing practices, saving practices. They saved Josh. And we are going to be making our way through her book this fall, exploring some of her saving practices, and learning from her insights into them. But it is our hope that we will take it even further, that each one of us will ask ourselves this same question, “What’s saving my life now?” So I leave us with this question. What are the practices in our own life that are helping us, as I said before, to stay sane, to maintain some balance, to find a sense of purpose, to keep our priorities straight, and above all to nurture our relationship with God? Or like Josh what practice might we put into practice in our lives, that would help us to begin to listen, speak, see, love, serve, be in ways that we have never done before.
Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of this new day, and for your presence with us in all things. By your Spirit scatter in us the seeds of new life. And let your Word work in our hearts like yeast, opening them to hear the words that we most need to hear from you:
You are loved
You are forgiven
You are accepted
Come, follow me
Go and do what I have called you to do.
Bear fruits of the Spirit.
There is much that weighs on our hearts, God, and we lift up to you all the worries and cares of this day, and especially we pray
for those who are dealing with health concerns . . . be for them a healing presence
for those who are grieving loss, the loss of work, a relationship, a hope . . . be for them a consoling presence
for those who are feeling burdened by doubts and fears. . . be for them a reassuring presence.
and for those who are in a time of transition and facing uncertainties . . . be a guiding presence.
We thank you for all your blessings, God, and for all the mercies you have shown to us in Christ. We thank you
for your church, and this community of faith, with all its opportunities to worship, study, and serve,
for the faithful example of so many in our lives and in our world, for encouraging words, sacrificial giving, courageous acts, and steadfast hope, and for all the signs of your kingdom among us, every act of kindness, generosity, persistence, compassion, and love.
Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of this new day. As your people, may we rejoice and be glad in it, and may we use the hours of this day and of all our days wisely and in ways that are acceptable in your sight. In Jesus’ name. Amen.