What if you found out that God doesn’t need you, but instead wants you, simply because God finds you delightful?
(This is the homily I had the honor of giving at The Practice Retreat, a retreat for pastors and church leaders who are looking to go deeper into the ancient spiritual practices and gifts of the Christian tradition. The first half of the retreat was focused on spiritual practices for personal restoration and the second half was focused on spiritual practices for the restoration of the world. I gave this homily at the very intersection where we began to transition from the first to the second.)
As much as I love the liturgy of the of my chosen faith tradition, my first few times leading a service left me jittery. As a participant I love the consistency, rhythm and stability that Liturgy it brings to my chaotic and ever changing life but as a leader who leans heavily on her ability to improvise, the fear of getting it wrong unnerved me from the beginning. Having grown up a Baptist preacher’s kid and then serving in ministry positions at several non-denominational churches, I have internalized the rhythm of a typical evangelical service. A song, a welcome and or prayer, more songs, some announcements, maybe another song or something artsy if the church is progressive – a skit, an interpretive dance, maybe some responsive reading… then, a sermon given with just a brief outline, another song, maybe another improvised prayer and an altar call of some sort along with a closing song, and prayer.
This kind of service I could do with my eyes closed. But learning how to lead the more structured and jam packed liturgy of the Episcopal Church was like relearning how to walk. Nothing felt recognizable or intuitive.
Different services have different structures, Morning Prayer, Noon Prayer, Evening Prayer, Eucharist Rite I, Eucharist Rite II, Healing Service, Compline, they are all a little bit the same and a little bit different. And don’t get me started on learning when to sit, when to kneel, when to stand, and how to know (if it isn’t marked, and it isn’t always marked,) when we are to read together or responsively. So many variables, so many ways to get mess up.
I had only been an official Episcopalian for a few short months, when out of necessity I was called upon to lead our weekly Wednesday night healing and prayer service (that’s right, even Episcopalians believe in the laying on of hands and orienting with oil), a service I had only witnessed once or twice.
Clutching my Evening Prayer bulletin tightly with sweaty hands I forged ahead.
I put on a confident face and plowed ahead, as we read O Gracious Light and the Psalms together, and listened to the lessons. I was just about to start the Song of Mary, the Magnificat when I heard a passionate voice call out from the pews. “Can we stop for silence and reflection?” And I realized with a start that I plowed straight through our moment of silence. I had been so intent on getting to The Next Thing in Bold, that I had overlooked the small italicized line of text that read Silence May Be Kept Here.
So we stopped. I sat down. The small congregation sat down. And there we stayed, in silence, in stillness, while I counted to sixty four times in my head, hoping that was long enough.
After the service was over I hugged Ann and thanked her for stopping me, for calling us all back to stillness. Not everyone would have had the courage to say something, and if she hadn’t I don’t know that I would have ever noticed my mistake. I probably would have spent the rest of my life barreling through that portion of the service.
Since that night I have led Evening Prayer several times. I have even reworked the service bulletin to reflect both the place where we share prayers for healing and the laying on of hands. And perhaps most importantly the place where we pause for silence is marked by bigger, bolder type. And in my copy of the bulletin it is starred, circled, and underlined. And slowly but surely, I have stopped counting to sixty four times, and now simply sit in silence and stillness until the moment passes, whenever that may be.
I am a doer. I learned early f I couldn’t be the smartest/richest/prettiest person in the room, I could at the very least be the most useful. So I became a helpful, useful person. And it turns out that I am good at it and I enjoy it. I like being useful, I love having a task, I like helping.
I like to be always on my toes, to keep moving, keep fixing, and keep managing. After all, useful people always have something to do and someone to talk to. Useful people, for all appearances, are not lonely people..
But this way of navigating the world can also be a crutch. A way to keep myself distracted and out of focus. Which is perhaps why I often keep busy by being useful. Being a helpful, busy, useful person – especially when in ministry – and is a safe thing to be. A busy, useful person like this can do a lot of good in the world, and but the flip side is that a busy useful person can also drown in their own usefulness, they can suffocate from never stopping long enough to replenish their own spiritual and physical oxygen supplies. Usefulness and stillness can be partners, or they can be enemies and for a long time, I only knew them as the latter.
We live in a culture and we belong to a faith traditions that puts a high value on Doing.
As American’s we value Getting Stuff Done.
In my chosen tradition we value activism, and service.
In other traditions the emphasis is often on programs, or multiple action packed services, while others put heavy emphasis on non-stop witnessing, or healing marathons.
And while there is nothing inherently wrong with getting stuff done, with having a strong work ethic, with striving to change the world, with finding a hundred different ways to communicate God’s love during the week, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps, in the midst of all this busyness, we are all suffocating.
We are now a society that is now counting our steps, not our stillness.
We walk laps around the kitchen island at 10 pm in order to make sure we hit our FitBit goal for the day, while our prayer books and bibles stay unopened on our nightstands, while every member of our family stares into a screen when gathered around the table.
In these hard, strange, dark, confusing, and divisive times, the temptation to stay busy and distracted is a powerful one, and I think we may have forgotten how to sit in the heat of the day and wait for the Lord. How to sit in stillness at the feet of Love.
Maybe it is now, when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams, that we should trade in some of our Doing – counter-intuitive as it is – and begin to practice Being. Waiting. Sitting. Silence. Solitude. Stillness.
Stillness is not the same thing as relaxing or being lazy, as Martha suggested of Mary, all those years ago. Being still, isn’t just a physical act. It is an internal act as well. Stillness and Silence are about being present. About having the humility to say “this isn’t all about me or what I can do or what I can say.” The spiritual practices of Stillness and Silence is about cultivating an awareness within ourselves, opening ourselves up to what is beyond us – beyond our abilities to fix, or mend, or solve, or do. Practicing stillness and silence allows us to open ourselves – our hearts, our eyes, and our ears – to the messages of love and new life that God is sending us, in whatever forms they arrive.
But in order to practice true stillness, in order to get to the place of humility in which we can say “this moment is not about me or what I can say or what I can do”, and to instead open ourselves up to the Spirits leading, I think we have to first believe that we are loved.
Really, truly loved.
Not loved for what we can do or say or change or make happen. But instead loved simply because we exist.
In his marvelous book, The Supper of the Lamb, Father Robert Farrar Capon writes the following:
The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms, the purpose of wine is to be wine.
Things are precious before they are contributory.
To be sure, God remains the greatest good, but for all that, the world is still good in itself. Indeed, since He does not need it, its whole reason for being must lie in its own goodness; He has no use for it; only delight.
Things are precious first. God has no use for them, only delight in them. How amazing.
If Capon got it right—and it resonates so deep within me I cannot help but think so—then what is the purpose of my existence? What about your existence? What about our ministries?
Earlier today Father Michael reminded us that God made us because he wanted us. He wanted to love us. To be with us. To delight in us. God created humans simply to know us.
If this is true, then is it possible that my purpose is to first be Jerusalem? That before I am a mother, a wife, a minister, a writer, I am Me. And that I am is a delight to God just as I am?
Is it possible that God delights in my existence – Aaron’s existence, Ben’s existence, Lindsey’s existence – regardless of our usefulness to the kingdom, or to the bottom line? Is it possible that we, like mushrooms, are precious before we are contributory?
I believe that when we embrace the amazing good-news that God is loves us and delights in us, simply because we existence, that our hearts and our souls can become rooted in such a deep and abiding security, that only then are we are able to turn away from our own agendas, which are often formed from our insecurities, and turn instead towards the world’s needs.
You see, I don’t believe that God needs us. But I do believe that God wants us. Delights in us. Calls us precious. Loves us radically for no good reason that we will ever comprehend.
So no, God doesn’t need us. But the world does.
The world needs the message that life can be radically different. The world, and us, we all are radically loved. And we need to be told and reminded over and over and over.
But first, before we can proclaim this message, we have to stop worrying about whether we were worthy or not of love, and instead we must began to love the people society deems unworthy.
What if we just went out as we are – talented, untalented, smart, average, cool, dorky, – the apple of God’s eye, and loved people the way we are loved. For no good reason other than they exist?
Tonight, as part of our Liturgy we read the story of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes, In this story, we first see the disciples and Jesus attempting to go away for a respite. But the people show up anyway, and he cannot resist them. Eventually it is obvious that everyone is hungry but no one has made a dinner plan.
So the disciples come to Jesus with a problem, looking to him to fix it. And what does Christ say?
Christ says: You feed them. You figure it out.
And they do.
Why? I don’t know. But I think maybe it is because they believed that they were loved first and useful second.
A couple of passages before the feeding of the 5,000 we see Jesus commission the twelve:
The Twelve (Mark 6 MSG)
7-8 Jesus called the Twelve to him, and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority and power to deal with the evil opposition. He sent them off with these instructions:
8-9 “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple.
10 “And no luxury inns. Get a modest place and be content there until you leave.
11 “If you’re not welcomed, not listened to, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”
12-13 Then they were on the road. They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different;
Jesus commissions the most rag-tag, unimpressive group of disciples ever, and they went forth -securely rooted in his love and delight – preaching with joyful urgency that life could be radically different.
So when it comes time to feed five thousand people, Christ turns to them and says “figure it out.”
And their solution – their wacky, totally inept solution is that they bring him five fish and two loaves.
But it is enough. It is more than enough.
Because it was never about how much food they would find. It was always about believing they were loved anyway. It was about believing that no matter what they turned back up with, Christ would bless it. It was about having the courage, the humility, rooted in their identity as beloved, to go out and try.
Which brings us back to the practice of stillness and silence.
Learning to practice stillness is a gift of kindness that we can give ourselves and the world. It is a gentle loving, a balm to our weary souls, one that we may not even realize we need, that our community needs.
It is in our stillness and our silence that we are given the opportunity to stop trying to prove our worth. It is in the quiet non-productive, non-useful moments where we can bring all of our -good, bad, unpolished, over-educated, questioning, pious – selves to God and know that we will be unequivocally loved fully, simply because we exist.
And it is here, in this knowing, that we will have the security and confidence to offer up whatever we have – the loaves and fishes of our lives – our broken hearts, our worn out bodies, our cynical spirits, our desire for change, our bravest dream, – letting Christ bless it and transform it for the sake of the world.
But if we are never still, if we are never silent, how will we hear God whispering how delighted he is in our existence? If we are never still, or silent, how will we ever believe that it is not our actions or our intelligence or our talent or our service attendance numbers that causes God to love us?
God does not need us. God wants us. God does not depend on us. God delights in us.
The world needs us because the world needs to hear the joyous news that this unbelievable, radical life changing love is for everyone.
So sit in the silence and bring your loaves and fishes with you. Not because they are impressive, but because you want to share the goodness, because you want to be part of Gods restoration work in the world.