2 Epiphany, Year B, 2018
Some people love the night sky, some people do not.
Those that do, can look above to darkened dome splashed with glitter
and feel invited to wonder.
Those that do,
can fall into the vastness
of interstellar space
and feel their nerve endings incited by their own insignificance.
Those that do,
can free their imagination to spacewalk. Untethered from anxiety or dread their wonderment is a tiny probe, free to explore every nook and cranny of meaning in the universe.
Meanwhile, there are those
that walk along underneath
all that nocturnal enchantment
never inclined to look up, and rather,
pleased to see what is before their feet
so as not to stumble.
Still others huddle against the darkness,
fearful of what they cannot see, knowing
dangers lurk at the end of their vision.
To look up, to really gaze into the night,
is to know there is no end to the distance
and no protection from anyone or anything.
The stars offer only anxiety
and so they look away.
For some, the vastness
is a come-on, for others it is ghastly.
For some, the darkness
is a warm pool, or others a prison.
A complimentary phenomenon is also true.
Some people love
the slender silhouette
of aloneness, some people really do not.
Sometimes the very ones who would bravely
explore the vastness of the cosmos above,
become timid and feeble
at the doorway of self or soul.
There are those who could sit all day
in the blessed quiet of the self,
rendering it a garden of delight
where distractions are few and peace
the hedgerow of safety.
For others, the prospect of sitting within,
where no voices other than one’s own
interrupt the conversations,
For some, aloneness
is a nurturing freedom,
while for others it is an hourglass prison
dripping a single grain of sand at a time.
Religious spiritual traditions
tend to be dominated by monastic practices,
and not just in Christianity.
The presumption of prayer
is that it is a quiet, stationary activity
of sitting alone and communing with God.
For some, that idea makes them want to puke.
Likewise, meditation and contemplation
are assumed to be confined
to solitary activity, to which
there is a single entrance.
We have developed a kind of either/or
caricature of spiritual practice,
with introverted prayer
and extroverted worship.
But as with all things,
binary choices are a straight-jacket for the crazy.
Like most things in life,
nurturing a balance gets us farther,
and deepens our wellness.
When we can value the things we struggle with,
and work on them a little – even when it is hard –
we will discover
it strengthens muscles we didn’t know we had.
Likewise, when we go with our strengths
and use them to power us through tough times,
we will be energized and buoyed.
So, here’s the deal.
Centering prayer or meditation
is not for everyone,
any more than yoga or tai chi
will appeal to everyone.
But quiet, contemplative prayer,
or breath-meditation with a mantra,
is something that can be practiced by everyone.
They are tools to be used.
For some folks, they will be a utility tool
whipped out and used daily.
For others, they will be a specialty tool
only worth it in particular situations.
But having the tool,
being able to use it for suitable purposes,
is a vital practice.
There is not a single way to pray.
Not everyone has to be Thomas Merton
and can instead, be Tevye
from Fiddler on the Roof.
But having facility
with several different kinds and style of prayerfulness,
will strengthen and deepen our spiritual practice.
In times of grief, for example,
quiet contemplative prayer is simply too painful
for most people to practice.
Then rote prayer –
the prayers of childhood that roll off the tongue,
can become life-savers.
In the midst of personal turmoil and crisis,
sitting and simply taking five slow deep breaths
at morning, noon, and night,
may be all we can do.
The tormented mind
may not be able to gather itself
around the sound of a mantra
in periods of struggle.
That is okay,
so using a partial technique might be enough.
But having alternative options may be even better –
things we would not normally do,
but which might work well in that circumstance.
Walking a labyrinth, which would seem
painful and confining in one circumstance,
may be the only thing tolerable
Or swimming laps
while contemplating a gnarly conundrum
may be exactly what the doctor ordered,
but only at certain times, under particular circumstances.
Having an array of tools
for practicing our spirituality,
is a simple, homely wisdom for the 21st century.
We are not monastics,
and one kind of prayer does not fit all.
Nor will we continue to grow
if our spiritual practice is limited to corporate worship.
We need to get comfortable enough
with staring into the vast darkness of the universe,
and with entering the silence within,
that we can do both.
We probably will not do both equally well,
or with equal comfort and facility,
but we need to learn to do both.
That is why, unlike the Book of Common Prayer,
we have begun to use things
like prayer stones and candle lighting
without spoken prayers,
as forms of intercession from time to time.
Some like it, some do not,
but whether we happen to enjoy it or not
is really beside the point.
Our corporate worship should not merely comfort us,
it should push us and challenge us as well.
and sermons and affirmations –
should stir us up as well as nestle us in.
Spiritual practice is not a methodology for digging
better and more foxholes,
rather, for building a diversity of tools
and strengthening our endurance
so we can advance across the field.
So, let’s drill down to the bottom of this well.
You and I, most of us here anyway,
have been baptized.
We got sprinkled on the head as an infant,
or dunked under water as a youth,
or in some other way,
we were brought into this practice ritually.
The question now is,
are we going to practice our baptism or not,
and how well are we going to practice it.
I hate to say this,
but church-going is not the practice.
Coming to worship on Sunday is not the practice.
Saying prayers at night or mealtime is not the practice.
The Christian spiritual practice of baptismal ministry
is a multi-faceted engagement with the world around us
and participating in a spiritual community
strengthens us for the practice.
In other words, this is not the practice,
it is a piece of it.
It is the place we come
to be with people we know love us,
and find strength and solace in the arms of community.
It is the place we come to get armed
with ideas and methods and opportunities
to become more skilled practitioners of baptismal ministry.
But church is not our primary ministry.
No program we do with or from church
is our primary ministry.
Our primary practice for baptismal ministry
is among the people with whom
we live, and work, and play.
Church should strengthen us to do that,
and church should make us better at it.
But church is not the ministry.
Rather, our spiritual practice
in the context of our lives,
is our ministry.
We have inverted it over the years.
Baptism became about belonging –
affiliation with a particular kind of church,
instead of a spiritual practice.
It became about what we did in church,
and with church-people,
instead of about how we lived and practiced our spirituality
where we lived.
I can’t believe Jesus risked torture
and execution by the State,
so that we could create a church
in which we found comfort and people we agree with.
Jesus gathered friends and students
and sent them out to engage with people,
and change the world
as they shared the love of God.
Our task, together,
is to continue building a spiritual community
that enhances the tools and means
by which we practice our baptismal ministries.
We do that with one another,
but we also do that alone or in pairs,
and among those with whom we live, and work, and play.
We also do it by comforting one another
as we create a safe place like church.
Safe, so that we can be challenged,
and grow, sometimes even against the grain.
The poet, David Whyte, says it well:
“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.”
That goes for church as well.
But the psalmist adds the other dimension:
God has “searched us out and known us…”
and God has “…traced our journeys and my resting-places,
and is acquainted with all ours ways.”
In other words,
whether we free our minds to plumb
the depths of interstellar space,
or walk down the narrow steps
into the basement of the self,
we are not alone –
whether we know it or not.
Our baptismal ministry
is to carry the knowledge of that abiding love
and complete presence,
to those with whom we share the world daily.