I love the church. Not just this one, but I love this one, too. I have been at home in the church for my entire life. Unlike most of my Baby Boomer generation, I have had no extended period of my life, no more than a couple of months, without being connected in a particular church community. Yes, I slept in some Sundays in college. And when I go on vacation, I don’t always attend worship services. I have just returned from a vacation when I did not attend worship services. Perhaps that is what got me to thinking about entering our question for today from this perspective.
I don’t feel guilty about not attending services. I don’t feel like my spiritual life has stagnated; in fact, my soul has been nurtured. And I do not feel disconnected from my church community at all. You have been my community of support and connection, even while I was away from you, as has my family and my broad community of friends.
If you relate to me on this love for and connection with the church, then we are in the minority in the Northwest. The Oregonian just ran an article which asks the question: “Does nature religion explain Pacific Northwest spirituality?” Quoting from the article: Nature religion is engagement with the great outdoors that stirs the soul of the hiker and leaves the rock climber speechless. Nature religion, said Lewis & Clark College professor Susanna Morrill, is experiencing the natural world in a way that feels supernatural.” This is a popular form of worship, spirituality, religion – whatever you call it! – in the Northwest. The human spirit is drawn to experiences of awe. But is that enough? Is spiritual practice all about awe? I don’t think so.
For me, during the past couple of weeks, I have spent a great deal of time with family, in intense, emotional conversation. And in the middle of it all, I took bits and pieces of days to be out in the world, in nature, and it helped to bring me back to center. I went to places my Mom loved, driving the hills she may be lost in, looking for her, and at the same time taking in the beauty she loved. I also went to places which have been meaningful to our family, and explored them in a fresh way. I could sense why these places were those we chose.
Nature was for me a healing place. A place where I knew I was connected with the God of the universe. And I said “thank you!” so many times! In many ways, this was worship for me. It was certainly the way God’s arms held me in love. So, am I drawn to nature religion? In a way, yes. The created world is a place where I encounter God in powerful ways, sometimes more powerful than in church. But is it enough? Is it all there is?
This question, frankly, has nagged me for most of my ministry life. Why should people be in church on Sunday morning rather than out hiking or bicycling? God encounters them there, as well. God IS everywhere, after all!
Reading this week’s chapter on the “Spirit of Service,” helped me to see again why church is so important.  McLaren’s book drew me to another book on my shelf, Down We Go, by Kathy Escobar, a pastor and writer from Denver, Colorado. Both of these writers reminded me of the core truth from the Scriptures we have read today, and, which run through the entire New Testament.
McLaren begins with the bold statement: The Spirit leads us downward. [2, p. 231] He goes on to explain that the church, especially in its institutional life, has gotten caught up in the human tendency to climb ladders, to seek the top of the pile. Even our faith has become focused on getting up and out of this world, to a heaven far away, with streets of gold and jeweled crowns. In our religious life, we have separated heaven and earth and made heaven – up, out there, beyond, unknowable. We can become so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good, as the old saying goes.
But the Spirit leads us downward. To the bottom, to the place of humility, to the posture of service, even slavery. Philippians 2 reminds us that Jesus reversed our priorities. While he was God, he chose to give up all the privileges which that might entail, and to join us here in a human body, enduring all the suffering and humiliation which can come to a human being. And, lo and behold, that is where the honor is after all! In the downward journey, Jesus himself found the honor due him. It came from unlikely places, from the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Jesus left us with a hope and dream that one day the whole world’s priorities will be turned upside-down and in mutual service, we will glorify God by living the way we were intended.
The way of Jesus leads us down into the world and out of the Holy of Holies. Into the daily life routines, dirty jobs that someone has to do. Get down on the floor and wash dirty feet. Do what you are asked and more. And if you are persecuted for it, that is as it may be; but keep at it, for it is the way of peace, love and healing. Someone may get it! One day, all of creation may get it, if we keep it up as a lifestyle. Will it be costly? Of course!
Kathy Escobar, in her book, talks about how it was suffering and pain which helped her to discover the way of Jesus. “Pain was the catalyst for engaging what I call my downward descent; I began entering more deeply into the low places of other people’s lives and experiencing Jesus in a way that was completely counter-cultural to what I had learned. For years, I had been fed a theology of ascent. Upward meant victory and success. I had been taught that, with enough prayer, scripture and Christian fellowship, I wouldn’t struggle…. My trek down has not been an easy one…. Over the past 10 years I have kicked, screamed, and resisted the downward momentum in more ways than I can describe….”[3, p. 20-21]
McLaren explores a whole set of scenarios which are of the Spirit, and painful. Using his cadence, here are some things to expect. If you listen to the Spirit, here is what will happen to you. You will find yourself at a gathering you are attending in order to make connections with the right people. Your eyes and heart will be tugged by a lonely-looking person in the corner, away from all the “right people.” The Spirit will draw you to the person in need.
If you listen to the Spirit, here is what will happen to you. You will come to a meeting with a particular thing you want to accomplish. One of the group begins to tear up or become stiff with anger as you describe your goal. The Spirit will draw you to notice the pain, to be come a learner, a servant. What is the pain? How is it related to your cause? How can you leave your cause and become the servant?
If you listen to the Spirit, here is what will happen to you. As you pull out your ballot to vote in an election, you will have your mind made up on which candidate or issues best represent your viewpoints. The Spirit will draw you, perhaps by a plea in the ballot guide, or a niggling verse of Scripture which just won’t go away. The Spirit will draw your vote, to use your power for those who don’t have the safety net of privilege. And it may cost you.
If you listen to the Spirit, here is what will happen to you. It has been a hard day, completely draining. You come home and just want to collapse with your favorite distraction – a glass of wine, a football game, a crossword puzzle. But the Spirit will draw you through the voice of a family member at home or a voice on the phone – “tell me about your day…, no, fine is not good enough. What is really going on with you today?” And your spirit will be prised open to the deep work that the Spirit wants to do.
Think of some other scenarios…. Where have you been tugged by the Spirit off of your life plan? Did you follow? What was the outcome?
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was God, did not see equality with God as something to hold on to; instead, he became like us, fully human, experiencing all our pain, suffering and humiliation – to the point of his unjust execution.
In the face of this kind of radical lifestyle, doing the hard and good thing, accepting the pain it entails, where do we turn for help? God has given the Holy Spirit of grace and love to the folks who follow Jesus. That gift is there for everyone, but those who listen – their value is beyond calculation! This life is so radical, so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive, that we absolutely need help to continue on the journey. We cannot do it alone.
This is why the tradition of spiritual direction arose in the monastic communities of the first few centuries. Each want-to-be monk or nun, was assigned to a spiritual director who would hear their confessions and help them untangle their experience of God in Scripture and community. It was not done alone. Even the desert Abbas and Ammas, who lived nearly alone, went to each other for counsel and correction when their way seemed blocked.
In order to live this life of downward mobility, we need each other. Going to the mountains, the beach or the golf course every Sunday won’t lead us into this life Jesus calls us to. It may renew our spirits to do this sometimes – to take sabbaths for the good of our souls. But we must come back to community for our strength. What the “church” does is to gather folks who are exploring the Jesus way to give each other comfort, support, wisdom and direction for life when we are not together in person. We remind ourselves of our commitment in the presence of each other, strengthening our life for the next steps on the journey. We become what Kathy Escobar calls “pockets of love” for each other. These pockets of love, she says, help teach us interdependence, a critical characteristic of Kingdom living.” [3, p. 18]
I have sat with my sister in these last couple of weeks as she has identified this deep need in her life – for a community to be there, to support her, to be the hands and feet of Jesus letting her know that she is not alone on this painful part of our family journey. Her heart has been broken as the church she has been attending has ignored her cries for help. She has come to realize that while this church has wonderful resources in programming and teaching, it is not for her a place of belonging. I am not sure what she will do. Will she teach this church how to do personal care-giving, or will she find a community which already has this skill? I don’t know, nor does she. But she has come to know her need for the church as a “pocket of love.” And it is pain which has opened her mind and heart. I am glad that she has identified the need, and doesn’t walk away from church because of the hurt.
Jesus did not walk around pain, but right into it and through it. From the temptations in the desert to use power rather than walk the human path, all the way through his own torture and death, Jesus knew the struggles we live with. He is not surprised or disappointed by our pain. Rather, he carries us through it. And we get to help each other in our pocket of love and beyond, as we listen to the Spirit’s call.
Therefore, if you have any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind….Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:1,2,5)
 We Make the Road By Walking, by Brian McLaren, pp 231-234.
 Down We Go, by Kathy Escobar, Civitas Press, Folsom, CA, 2011.