Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Sand on the Streets: Cultivating the Desert in the City

What might interest [God] on His strolls in our cities could be to find oases of spirituality 
where there are individuals capable of waiting and hoping instead of hurrying and worrying.
— Alessandro Pronzato

Lenten Luncheon at St. John’s Episcopal Church
Psalm 46 • Luke 10:38–42

Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures

Sermon available on YouTube by clicking HERE.

and as a PDF by clicking HERE.
The Sermon
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire.  Amen.

By Way of the Desert
Good afternoon. It’s good to see you all, and it’s good to be here today, on loan, as I am, from Pleasant Valley Middle School. I must say that it is quite a treat to be speaking to a group of adults, most of whom want to hear what you have to say, which I must say, is rather different from my daily experience as a middle school teacher.
     Well, today is the last of our Lenten Luncheons, and the question we have been asking these past several Wednesdays is, “How do we engage people in God’s mission of reconciling the world?” Each of the speakers have answered this question in their own way, and today, I want to focus on the how of that question. In this sense. I don’t want to focus on what we do, but on how we do, that is, on the manner with which we go about participating in God’s mission of reconciling all people to himself and to one another. I want to reflect on this by taking you on a brief trip to the Egyptian desert.

     In the late 1990s, after my wife Rebekah graduated from Friends, we moved to Pasadena, California so that I could pursue my Masters at Fuller Theological Seminary. In my second year, I took a class called, Desert Spirituality for City Dwellers. Isn’t that a great title? [1] This class offered an introduction to the desert fathers and mothers. If you are not familiar with the desert fathers and mothers, they were Christian monastics who lived out in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries. I became intrigued by these desert abbas and ammas, these men and women who were drawn to silence and solitude, because they found these practices to be essential for the life of faith, to a life of obedience and reliance upon God. And yet, they found the cities increasingly filled with noise and distractions and people! So they traded in the city for the Egyptian desert. Some lived in small communities, while others lived as hermits, far away from people and society. Some might say that they buried themselves in the sands.
     They don’t sound very missional, do they? But here is the odd thing. Here is the inexplicable thing. They were unable to remain hidden. Somehow, people found about them. Somehow, the civilized city folk heard about these crazy sand people, and they scoured the Egyptian deserts for them, much like archeologists scour the desert sands for the lost tombs of the pharaohs. But those who sought the desert fathers and mothers weren’t searching for treasures of gold, they were searching for words of wisdom, words of life. In the desert literature, there is story after story of people making pilgrimage to see the fathers, and the constant refrain was, “Give us a word, Abba. Give us a word.”
     How ironic. People seeking a word from those who practiced silence. Those living in society seeking the advice of those living in solitude. It’s ironic, and yet it makes perfect sense. It’s just another example of the law of supply and demand at work. In the city, words were plentiful, and therefore cheap. But in the desert, where words were as scarce as water, they possessed immense value. And we have some great stories that illustrate just how much value was placed on the words of the desert. One of my favorites stories goes like this.
A young man makes his way into the desert and finds a hermit. “Give me a word, Father,” he says. The old man looks at this very sincere, young man, and says “Love God.” Immediately, the young man turns around and walks away.
Twenty years pass. Then, one day the old man looks up to see this same young man coming toward him in the distance. When he arrives, the old man says, “and love your neighbor as yourself.” At which point, the man turns around and walks away.
     Here we see how the words of the desert were treasured. Their words weren’t imprinted on necklaces and plaques to be used as decorations or jewelry. Rather, they were put into practice.[2]
Of course, as the years passed, things changed as these desert monastics became more and more “popular.” It became something of a fad to go out and get a word from a desert father, to collect their words like little souvenirs or trinkets. And so, we have this story about Abba Felix.
Some brothers . . . went to see Abba Felix and they begged him to say a word to them. But the old man kept silence. After they had asked for a long time he said to them, “You wish to hear a word?” They said, “Yes, Abba.” Then the old man said to them, “There are no more words nowadays. When the brothers used to consult the old men and when they did what was said to them, God showed them how to speak. But now, since they ask without doing that which they hear, God has withdrawn the grace of the word from the old men and they do not find anything to say, since there are no longer any who carry their words out.” Hearing this, the brothers groaned, saying, “Pray for us, Abba.”
Abba Felix is a bit of a character. This very devout man is totally annoyed because God doesn’t talk to him anymore. The words he once dispensed were not put into practice, and so the well of God’s gracious word has run dry. There is something here to be learned about the lack of wisdom in our own age, but I want to return to a point that I made earlier.
     The desert fathers and mothers were not what we would typically describe as missional. Instead of going into the world, they withdrew from the world, and yet they still participated in God’s mission of reconciling the world. They spent much time in silence and solitude in order to draw close to God, and in turn God used them to draw all manner of people close to Him.

Cultivating a Desert in the City
So what does this mean for all of us? I think it must mean: “Get thee to a desert, quick! If you want to be missional, withdrawal from society so that God can use you.” Well, that doesn’t sound particularly practical does it? Of course, there are those who are called to a life of silence and solitude, a life of retreat from the world in order that God might use them to serve the world. We generally associate those so called with monastic communities, but there are some in our own time who have actually gone out into the desert to follow in the footsteps of the desert fathers and mothers.
     In particular, I am thinking of a man by the name of Alessandro Pronzato, who appears to have spent some years in the desert and then later returned to live in society. When Alessandro returned to the city, he tried to bring a bit of the desert with him; he tried to make a desert in the city. He offers his reflections in a book, Meditations on the Sand. Listen to what he writes.
Have I succeeded in making my desert in the city? I do not know. But now I do not think of the desert in geographical terms. The desert is all around me and within me. I think of it now as an essential dimension of life, the natural habitat for Christians.
Perhaps God is not partial to the city or the desert. What might interest Him on His strolls in our cities could be to find oases of spirituality where there are individuals capable of waiting and hoping instead of hurrying and worrying.[3]
I love that last part. “Perhaps God is not partial to the city or the desert. What might interest Him on His strolls in our cities could be to find oases of spirituality where there are individuals capable of waiting and hoping instead of hurrying and worrying.” I find this absolutely inspiring. What could we become, what would our lives be like, what impact could we Christians have on our broken world if we were to develop the capacity “of waiting and hoping instead of hurrying and worrying.”
     Our world is in desperate need of oases of spirituality, places of spiritual restoration, refreshment, and rest, places where people can encounter the God who loves them, the God who has reconciled himself to them through Jesus Christ, the God whom they are totally unaware of, either because they are too busy and distracted to notice him or because they live in a world that neither recognizes or acknowledges this God, a world that has forgotten its Creator.
      And when I say places of spiritual restoration, I don’t actually mean places, I mean people. I mean individuals and communities that are sprinkled throughout society, sprinkled throughout daily life and work. I mean people who can listen, people who can be present to a busy, broken, and hurting world, because they themselves have been shaped by desert practices—like silence, solitude, prayer—practices that foster a simple, yet profound trust in God’s grace, love, and mercy, a trust that attracts others.

Mary and Martha
In other words, when we talk about being missional, we are not just talking about what we do in the world, but about how we do in the world. It’s about how we are in daily life.[4] And I think that today’s gospel reading has a lot to say about how we do what we do in the world.
Now, for the sake of time, I do not intend to go into much detail about this story, perhaps we can talk more about it at lunch. Suffice it to say, the story of Mary and Martha is a study in contrasts. Martha’s busyness and distractedness is set alongside Mary’s calm, focused attention on Jesus. The question for us is, what do we do with these contrasts? How are we to understand Jesus’ response to Martha?
     As David Frenette writes, this story has often been used
to contrast the active life symbolized by Martha with the contemplative life represented by Mary. Jesus not only values and safeguards Mary’s contemplative stance; he says it is ‘the better part,’ better than active service by itself.
 [Yet] we all have receptive and active parts. At times we can identify with the prayerful attentiveness of Mary, and at times we can identify with the busyness, distractedness, anxiety, and worry of Martha…. The greater message of the story is about integration and skillful practice. We are invited to integrate or practice Mary’s prayerful, listening attentiveness during Martha’s activity and service.[5]
In other words, the goal is not to become Mary instead of Martha. After all, we have responsibilities. We have people that depend upon us, and we cannot simply abandon those commitments. Nor do I think Jesus is calling us to. Martha’s problem isn’t so much what she is doing as it is how she is doing it. She is trying to offer hospitality, but she is doing it in a manner that undercuts her intentions. She is worried and distracted by many things, which subverts her desire to welcome Jesus into her home. Jesus honors her intentions, but questions her approach. So again, the goal is not to become Mary instead of Martha. Rather, the goal is to adopt and maintain Mary’s disposition and posture as we go about our daily Martha tasks.
     But how do we do that? After all, we live in a world that values busyness in the name of productivity, and progress. We live in a world that has bought into the myth of multitasking, but you know what multitasking really is don’t you? “Multitasking is the ability to be inattentive to more than one thing at a time.”[6] But our world is not served well by such inattentiveness and distractedness. Likewise, God’s mission of reconciling the world is not served by Christians—clergy and lay alike—who practice these vices of inattention and distraction.
     If we are going to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation, if we are going to become oases of spirituality so that our world might come to know and experience God, then we must develop the capacity to maintain Mary’s prayerful attentiveness as we go about our daily Martha work. But again, how do we do this?
     We can begin by cultivating a bit of the desert where we are, by building brief periods of silence and solitude into our daily lives. And there are lots and lots of ways to do this, but let me offer just a few initial suggestions. We can cultivate silence by fasting from those things that interrupt us or create background noise. We can turn off the radio in our cars. We can spend a week without watching the morning or evening news. We can turn off our cell phones for five-minute intervals throughout the day. We can sit in silence for five or ten minutes, or even for just two or three minutes, to just reconnect with God throughout the day. The possibilities are endless.
     But let me offer a final word of caution. Initially, we may find these practices to be more of a distraction, because in the silence and solitude, we will suddenly become aware of all of the noise that is inside of us, all of the noise that we tend to distract ourselves from. But as we exercise our intention to be with Jesus in silence and solitude, over time we will begin to see the fruit of these practices emerge. We will begin to see our impulse toward hurrying and worrying being replaced by patience and hope. We will find that we are increasingly able to be present with people, to listen to them, to be attentive to them. We will increasingly become oases of spirituality that God will use to draw the people around us into a relationship with himself.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Speaking of great titles, I was in Eighth Day Books a couple of days ago, and I happened upon a book entitled, The Eqyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs. In this volume, an orthodox priest, Father Gregory Telepneff, makes an argument for the Byzantine character of early Celtic Monasticism.
[2] Here, one is reminded of Jesus’ statement following the Sermon on the Mount. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:24–25).
[3] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand. Consider also this quote from Pronzato about the need to hurry up and wait. “In the desert the most urgent thing is—to wait. The desert does not take kindly to those who tackle it at breakneck speed, subjecting it to their plans and deadlines. Instead, the desert welcomes those who shed their sandals of speed and walk slowly in their bare feet, letting them be caressed and burnt by the sand. If you have no ambition to conquer the desert, if you do not think you are in charge, if you can calmly wait for things to be done, then the desert will not consider you an intruder and will reveal its secrets to you.”
[4] It is about how we are in the world. It’s about how we do what we do in daily life.
[5] The quote continues. “The ‘better part,’ the ‘one thing necessary’ that cannot be taken from us, really depends upon bringing prayer and activity together, having a way, a ‘practice’ that deals with our inner turmoil and sense of distraction during activity.”
[6] Fr. Ron Rolheiser

Delivered on Wednesday, April 9th, a.d. 2014
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

The Scriptures
Click Read More for the text of the Scriptures

Psalm 46
Luke 10:38–42

Psalm 46 • Deus noster refugium • BCP 649
   1      God is our refuge and strength,
                  a very present help in trouble.
   2      Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
                  and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
   3      Though its waters rage and foam,
                  and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
   4      The Lord of hosts is with us;
                  the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
   5      There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
                  the holy habitation of the Most High.
   6      God is in the midst of her; she shall not be overthrown;
                  God shall help her at the break of day.
   7      The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken;
                  God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.
   8      The Lord of hosts is with us;
                  the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
   9      Come now and look upon the works of the Lord,
                  what awesome things he has done on earth.
10      It is he who makes war to cease in all the world;
                  he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
                  and burns the shields with fire.
11      “Be still, then, and know that I am God;
                  I will be exalted among the nations;
                  I will be exalted in the earth.”
12      The Lord of hosts is with us;

                  the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Luke 10:38–42
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

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