Title: Passion – Transcendence
Date: Night Church. 8th August, 2021
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Revelation 1:1-12
What does it mean for us to be there for each other and for God? In the next sermon Would you like to be part of something extraordinary? Do you have a sense that there is more to experience or feel or know which is just beyond us? This Sunday we are looking at the second of the Passion trilogy on Transcendence and our desire to be moved. How can our faith in Jesus be a place where we can reach beyond the ordinary and experience the extraordinary.
I am not sure what week of our passion series we are up to? We have looked at a number of things – we have tried to define the word passion but that was not easy. Passion is something that drives us, that connects with us deeply. But passion is experienced differently for different people – as we explored in the panel. For some people, when you are passionate about something or someone or a cause – you become single minded focused on it – where as other people can have many passions at the same time … or their passions change over time (as we looked at in the study we did).
But the main content of this series has come from a book by Kenda Creasy Dean on Practicing Passion. Kenda’s theory is that behind every passion is a deeper longing, a desire for something that grows into the passion. And in her book she put forward three different longings that we as humans have (there are more, she just chose these three). Kenda also said that because we are made in the image of God – if we have these longings, not only can they be engaged with our passions … they can be found or satisfied in our relationship with God.
She came up with a table – do you remember this?
- We have a longing to have connected, stable relationships. We long to be accepted and be close to people. For them to be there for us and for us to be there for them. And we can find this reflected in God’s fidelity – that God promises to be always there for us and is faithful to that promise.
- We long for something extraordinary. We want to be moved, to be blown away. And we can find this reflected in God’s transcendence.
- We long for intimacy – to be in a group where we can talk about anything and go through experiences together. We want to be being known and this is reflected in in communing with God – or communion.
We want to be there – be moved – be known.
This week we are up to the second of these … our desire to be moved, to be part of something beyond us, and how this can be found in God.
In Kenda discussion on this topic, she starts with a quote from the book “The perks of being a wallflower” where Charlie is talking about a moment he experienced when he and Sam and Patrick has listen to an amazing song on the radio and as they listened they all got quiet. And after the song finished, Charlie said “I feel infinite” and Sam and Patrick looked at him as if it was the greatest thing they had ever heard because the song was great and the because they had truly paid attention to it. And in the book Charlie remarks “Five minutes were truly spent in a good way”.
Have you had those moments? When the ordinary of life seems to fade and you mind yourself in a moment that is something more. Where you find yourself feeling more, experiencing more, connecting more … to the point of being overwhelmed? When it seems that the world has just gotten a whole lot bigger and deeper and that there is so much more around you and within you?
When we have those experiences – we long for more. We long for be moved.
Sharon Daloz Parks is a researcher and writer and has done a lot of work with youth and young adults. She writes of those profound moments that young people have when they move from childhood and discover that they are now cognitively capable of thinking and feeling extravagantly; that they are able to experience both wonder and dread in new and expansive ways. And when they do, young people embrace and pursue these experiences.
Augustine, a very early theologian, said that young people love to undergo pathos. That we want to be completely affected, to be moved by an overwhelming experience – the louder, wilder, sadder is better so it seems.
Eric Erikson, a famous psychologist, like to use the word Locomotion – not as in trains – but this idea that we all want to be moved both physically and existentially. We want to be moved in a way that makes our hairs stick up or for tears to flow … but we also want to be moved in a way which is beyond us, something to blow our minds, to be touched by the mysterious.
Which you would think that the church is an ideal place for this to happen. We talk about the ability to have a personal relationship with the almighty. The church should be THE place which specialises in those moments which touch us deeply and connects us to the mysterious beyond. And yet, in surveys of regularly worship attending Christians when they are asked, “Have you experienced God in worship” – 1/3 responded with NEVER. That they have never had a experience of God in worship. Woah. How have we got to this point?
Now, just because I am really interested in this I am going to take a 2 minute tangent to explore this. But I will come up.
You see, the church traditionally had a real openness to mystical and personal experiences of God in worship.
Our bible reading for today was the apostle John talking about his experience of being swept up in a vision from God. John writes he was in the Spirit – that he was a place of worship or meditation where he felt he had moved out of the ordinary (his room on Patmos) and into the realm of the Spirit. And here he talks about hearing things, seeing things, Talking with Jesus and Jesus talking back about the mysteries of God. It is wild – and accepted as a genuine yet mysterious religious experience.
Throughout the middle ages and renaissance – we built these massive cathedrals in a way so that people felt that stepping into church you stepped out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, that you have gone into another realm.
People embraced spiritual practices such as fasting, pilgrimages, prayer, even the monastic life as a way of experiencing God deeper. There are stories that Benedictine monks at times used the drug Ecstasy to help feel transcendence – to have a deeper experience of prayer and worship. You can imagine how that went.
But at some point around the turn of the 20th Century, there was a strong Protestant movement to reject emotional religious expression. Faith became intellectual and worship became about learning the dogma and the Bible rather than about experiencing the unexplainable.
While there has been alternative moments such as Pentecostalism … this approach of “to learn and to grow” rather than to be moved still dominates.
To add to this, there has been times when the more recent church has misused people’s emotions. I grew up in the end of the “altar call” era. A time when we would shape youth events in a way that would heighten people’s emotions and then call them to “give their lives to Jesus”. And while I would argue that God was involved and it was God who was working in people’s lives – in hindsight I also confess that there was a level of emotional manipulation happening. And so, I wonder whether my (and others from that era) wariness of not being manipulative has led us to be less focused on the emotional side of faith and worship … but at what cost?
Are people still looking for spiritual highs? Yes we are! (as long as they are genuine)
Do people still wish to be moved deeply by the mystery of faith or to be overwhelmed in worship? Yes they do.
Kendra in her book was talking to one pastor who noticed that many young people of his area were turning to mystics and mediums, other religions such as Islam & Buddhism and even some wacky cult-ish groups because there was a sense that in these things they could tap into the spiritual unknown that was beyond them. And this pastor was lamenting … but that is what we offer in the church, isn’t it?
We believe in a God who is beyond all things and in all things, the almighty creator of the universe which is beyond our understanding … and yet this God knows me … not only knows me but can interact in my life.
Why have I stuck with Jesus all my life? Because when I was 14 I prayed a very specific prayer that was answered in a very specific way. Either there was an extraordinary cosmic coincidence or God heard my prayer and reached through the fabric of the spiritual realm and said, “I want to help you with that”. I believe it was the second.
As people of faith, we believe a transcendent and immanent God who can be part of our lives … which is extraordinary … too often churches has squashed that good news. Or we have domesticised God to a point where Jesus our buddy and have forgotten that our God is an awesome God.
How are we all going with this? Do you agree with what I am sharing? Happy to hear your comments in the comment section.
There is a whole chunk I had to cut out of this sermon about how we view God – really interesting stuff. Maybe if you or your bible study group wish to know more, invite me for a chat and I show you this great activity about a shipwreck that Sharon Daloz Parks uses to help us understand how we view God and how that can impact on our way of understanding or tapping into God’s transcendence.
But to finish with we must ask the question – How can we recapture the transcendence of God in the church? How can we open opportunities for people to experience God in a personal, genuine, mysterious and moving way?
Kenda in her book suggests a few simple starting points for us to consider.
- Spiritual Practices.
People have for thousands of years have found that the core spiritual practices of prayer, meditation, reflecting on scripture, solitude, fasting, spiritual guidance and worship to be the best ways of experiencing the transcendence of God. And yet we sort of shrug our shoulders and said meh. One of the things that Kenda is really big on is how do we reshape some of these spiritual practices to make sense in our context – but at the same time she makes it clear, you wish to tap into the deeper parts of God, your starting point in doing the hard work of spiritual practices.
One in particular that she uses as an example in her book is pilgrimage. We often like to say that a pilgrimage is more about the journey to get there, which is can be, but Kenda says that a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place. A place or a time of the year which the membrane between this world and the reality beyond is thin and is helpful for us to have those experiences of beyond.
Where are our sacred places? When are our sacred times?
Where is for you a place where you can go (within a 5km limit) where you feel closer to God?
- Praise and Lament
Kenda also touched on our experience of worship and asked how we might be able to be more open to feeling more in worship. She suggested two things that might be good to explore. Firstly, how we can be ecstatic in our praise – not just sing our praises but deeply feel our praise and express that praise physically, emotionally.
The other areas was lament. How can we express the deep feelings of sadness, hopelessness, grief, or our desperate pleas for help or intervention. How can we show and feel lament in worship. Two good questions to explore.
- Experimental and Experiential
Tapping into the transcendence of God in our worship, in our spiritual lives, in our communities is not something that we can take an idea from another church and just plug and play. It must be shaped by the people within our community and sit within our context. Therefore the best way to explore this is through … simply trying things and see what works. I encourage us to have a bias to trying things that are either experimental (lets just see if this works) or experiential (things that tap into our emotions or something we have to participate in or something that reaches into the unknown or mystery of God).
If you are wondering what this could look like, here is something that I have sometimes shared with kids as a way of experimenting and experiencing prayer. Tonight when you get into bed, try this. Just for a minute or two, lie in bed and say, “Hi God” and listen for the “other voice” in your head (which will sound like your voice in your heard but just for this moment, let’s not think too much as assume that the other voice is God responding) Nearly always, the other voice will say hi – or something like it. Now – you will be feeling that this is silly – but just preserve once more and ask God a question. Not a theological question that requires a long answer, a more personal question about something you are struggling with or just about life.
If you have no idea what to ask, take the lead from Psalmist and ask God “Why do you love me?” and listen for the other voice again. Ask yourself if the response sounds like something that God might say … and if it is God like … then assume that God is speaking to you. And if you are brave … keep going.
Will this work for you … who knows? It worked for John in our bible reading and it has worked for some people who have found that this opens up the fabric between the real and the beyond. It is worth a try.
We are also going to explore some different experimental and experiential ideas in a few weeks time when we have our online ALT worship night.
I need to wrap this up and I am aware that this sermon has been a little mystery of God, a bit all over the place and hard to hold together neatly.
I affirm that if you are looking to be moved, to tap into the extraordinary mysterious of beyond – that we can find that in God or in our relationship with Jesus.
I pray that we might find new ways to embrace those experiences, to pursuing those experiences, to shape our worship and church life so that people can find those experiences here.