The first three pillars of my faith – silence, presence, and attentiveness – would, I suspect, quickly become little more than self-indulgent navel gazing were it not for the fourth pillar: responsiveness. Allowing silence, in which the music of the spheres might whisper; returning and being fully present to the here-and-now; attending with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength to what’s around me in this present moment – if these practices are not firmly fixed in responses to the deepest movements of life, they’re nothing more than the ego’s idolatry masquerading in the wardrobe of holiness.
Our experience of the cosmic Mystery we call “God” – if it’s an authentic experience, I believe – resonates with the life hidden deep within us and calls for a deep, inner, life-changing response. Our experience of God also resonates with the creation that spreads all around us, and it calls us to respond creatively to every aspect of creation, from the microscopic to the cosmic.
One of the first things faith makes us do is to feel something: joy, pleasure, fullness, perhaps; sometimes fear or guilt. One of the primary aims of much contemporary worship is to manipulate our feelings. If it doesn’t produce good feelings, some people grow impatient and start looking elsewhere for a happier experience. People with adolescent faith have come to judge worship and its music more by its entertainment value than by its theology, more by its comfortable familiarity than by its ability to bring us into a discomforting and transforming encounter with the living God.
True faith, authentic faith, does evoke all kinds of feelings both light and dark. It’s as much a feeling experience as a thinking experience, but it goes beyond that. I continue to learn how faithful encounter with the living God sets in motion something far deeper than feelings or thoughts, which are merely the tip of the iceberg. Faith goes far below the surface to work in the dark recesses of the unconscious.
There it begins to liberate and set in motion aspects of the psyche, of the Self, that may never before have been known to us. Angels and wild beasts live in our inner darkness, and when aroused and given the opportunity – and sometimes when they make opportunities themselves – they will test us severely to see what we’re made of and to see how much of life we’re ready to live (Mark 1:13). That is a necessary and unavoidable part of our growth toward spiritual maturity.
That working of faith demands a response. When those deeper aspects of ourselves push to the surface, aspects of ourselves we’re uncomfortable with or positively dislike, we may respond by pushing them back into the shadowy unconscious, where they continue to work unseen and unacknowledged. We may respond by labeling the unacknowledged parts of ourselves as demons and trying to fling them away from us, projecting them onto others and labeling them as “undesirables” or “enemies.”
Or we may respond by attending to them, getting to know those parts of ourselves that we’ve never known before, or that we’ve been taught are undesirable and that we’ve denied and tried to repress. Even in the church, we’re usually intent on presenting our best face to the public and hiding our darker aspects, and being nice rather than holy. We need to learn how to recognize and embrace the prodigal parts of ourselves, the hidden aspects of our hearts that need to be welcomed home with open arms if we are ever to be healed and made whole. We need to practice that kind of responsiveness.
Faith also calls us to be responsive to the world around us. A healing responsiveness to all that is around us is one of the defining characteristics of Christian faith, and that’s news to many of those whom John Wesley described as “almost Christian,” people who live good, moral, upright lives but who are at least one step short of being “altogether Christian.”
God is not inviting us to respond to the gospel by repenting and being good and just and loving in order to save ourselves from death in the next life; God invites us to respond to the gospel by reorienting ourselves today so that we may be delivered from meaninglessness and futility in this life. God has already saved us from eternal death, no matter how we behave. The good news Paul proclaimed is that “in Christ God was reconciling the world [everybody] to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). God has already saved us, and no trespass of ours, no sin, will count against us.
We’re not Christian in order that we might be saved; we’re Christian because God has called us out of the rest of the pack and given us a task to do, a ministry, to bring the healing of the gospel to the world around us. God has not chosen us to be blessed; God has chosen us to be a blessing to others.
God blessed Abraham, patriarch of our faith, so that he and his descendants in the faith would be a blessing to others (Gen. 12:2). Blessing others was Abraham’s way of being responsive to God. When Israel was in exile, yearning for their welfare and vitality to be restored, God said to them, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, . . . for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). Israel learned that the way to restore the health of their nation was to be responsive to the needs of those outside their nation and to serve the needs of others, not their own needs.
When the church’s founding generation started to think that the work of God in Jesus had been to save them out of a world that was dying, and to restore them to wholeness while others suffered and perished, and to keep their little boat afloat in the storm that was sinking the rest of the world, and when they started becoming more concerned with preserving the church against forces that threatened its demise than they were with serving the needs of others and trusting their own fate to God, they heard Jesus say to them that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35) – a difficult paradox.
Now I’m not going to guess today how that works for any one of you individually, but recently I had what seems a good illustration of how that works for us collectively. Some folks in the congregation were discussing ways to expand our ministries using some gifts we already have. And as the conversation grew, it focused increasingly on how to use new ministries as a way to bring more people and more dollars into the congregation. The needs of our neighbors seemed to be viewed as ways to leverage support for the church.
Of course, the conversation wasn’t as simple as that, and it was a conversation very much in process and unfinished. But I hope it serves to remind all of us that we are not here to serve the church. Serving the church is not a faithful response to God in our tradition. We are here to give the life of the church to serve the world’s healing and transformation.
Understandably, we want a healthy and vital congregation from which to take our ministries into the world. But let’s never make the mistake, the fatal mistake, of believing that the reason we do what we do is to serve the health and vitality of the church. If we want to serve our welfare as a congregation, we will give ourselves in unselfish service to the world around us.