February 11, 2018
Our children’s ministry leaders use a curriculum called Godly Play. What I love about Godly Play is it follows the whole Arc of the story of God and God’s people from Creation through Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and into the early church communities. Godly Play uses wooden figures and props to help tell the stories, much like you may remember with felt board stories or something similar. What is great about the props is the people are faceless and therefore the stories are not just about people stuck in history but also about them and about me and you. When I was being trained in Godly Play our trainer told us the Story of the Ark and the Tent, which is a story that tells the journey the people of God made after Moses received the 10 commandments and they journeyed on.
So, its Training Day. She begins by telling us the Story of the Ark and the Tent. She drags out the desert bag which is basically a sand box and begins telling the story. All the stories of the people of God that take place in the desert begin the same way. The story teller moves their hands along the sand in a dramatic and intentional fashion. Showing us how dangerous the desert is, how hot it is and how cold it gets and how it changes shape all the time.
The story tells us and shows us, how the people of God, after receiving the 10 commandments or the 10 best ways from God, build a beautiful ark in which they keep the 10 commandments, their covenant with the God of Israel. As they continue their journey through the desert to their promised land, they take the ark of the covenant with them. As they settle from place to place they make a tent for the ark.
It seems to be human nature to try to encapsulate a moment or experience with and of God. We have done this over time by marking holy sites, places where some people have had a dramatic encounter with God. Over time, marking the space isn’t enough and we want to protect this site and set it aside with a tent or booth for protection. That isn’t enough and eventually we want to build it a home.
Eventually that isn’t enough and we make a home within the home to mark the exceptional holiness of this site and we began to believe that in order for us to enter and come into contact with this holy site, we must be holy and purify ourselves. So we build another room for people to wash, pray and give offerings to God before encountering the holiness in the next room. But then that isn’t enough, we begin to believe that only certain people are ever holy enough to enter and we create a hierarchy where only priests (male priests) may encounter this holy place. Di tells us this story by first placing the ark in the sand and then she adds two walls, then a third, then a covering, then a door, then another wall and door to give the ark its own room within the tent. Then more coverings on top. So, this experience of God which once was free and everywhere is now preserved in a box in a room within a room that only really special and chosen people can see and touch.
And it is beautiful and loving that we, people, want to care for and preserve holiness. That we want to respect God and give God what we perceive is our very best. It comes from a joyful place, it comes from the heart. But these experiences of the holy, are not meant to be preserved or kept in one place. They are meant to be shared.
As she finishes the story, she begins to wonder with us. Following the story and the wondering time, she asks us how we felt as she was telling the story. I was quiet and so she asked me, specifically, how I felt as she told it. I said I was really angry and angry at her for telling it. Even though I am the one who told her to tell it. I was so annoyed that we would keep enclosing God in these tiny spaces and think that we are unworthy of engaging with the presence of God until we do all the things we think are the right things to do.
To me, it felt like we were putting God in a prison and building up stronger and stronger walls to close God in and try to control God’s freedom to move and go and act.
IT reminded me of an experience I had years ago, I was leaving a church meeting, leaving in frustration. As I pulled away, I looked back at the church, and I had a vision. I saw the altar area with the three chairs. In the middle was Jesus and clergy on either side. Jesus was in an alb (like this, like the other priests too) but he had a pillowcase over his head. I heard as clear as day, him struggling to breathe and saying “Let me breathe, let me out, let me breathe my spirit into this neighborhood”.
We, the Church, were restricting God’s breath and holding Jesus captive in our little space. Because we stubbornly held onto what made us continue to feel really good. Here is the problem; all of this, all of this life thing is in constant motion, constant transition, constant change with only short periods of stability.
Some of us may be familiar with the way of St. Benedict as we did a study on this in the fall. There is a called the Benedictine model is a circle with three points, Obedience to God, Conversion and Stability. This explains our journey as Christians as followers of Jesus, in this way. As we are obedient to God, as we listen for God’s voice, God’s call and direction on our life, we then encounter an experience of conversion and that conversion changes us and we reach a period of stability. But then we keep listening for God and we obey that voice and that calling and we are led into another experience that converts us to deeper and new ways of being and living.
We then reach some point of stability and we keep listening and we obey God and we experience another conversion. That conversion changes us and we live differently and think and feel differently and so on and so forth continuing into our eternal life.
Here is my point. We all love that conversion experience, right? We all seek it and pray for it. We want our hearts to open more and more. But when we experience it we want to hold onto that moment, that feeling. We want to hold onto it so tightly that we want to build it a home. Like Peter on the mountaintop with Jesus. Peter says, this is amazing, let us build tents so we can stay up here, so we can preserve this moment forever and stay in it. We want to stabilize in that moment.
The problem is we can’t stay there. Because conversion, converts us to something new, it changes us, changes our direction or understanding of our direction. And we have to give ourselves that opportunity to deepen our understanding of what has been revealed to us and that is challenging and that means listening to and being obedient to God’s will and not our own.
Eventually we hope that one day our will and God’s will align, but that is when we reach perfection and that is not for this life, so until then we keep listening, we keep obeying, allowing ourselves to be converted. Live into our new way of being and keep the cycle going, we never stay the same.
Peter, James, John and Jesus cannot stay on that mountaintop. They want to. They want to hold onto this moment, this experience for a while longer. They know that when they head down that mountain that that experience if they fully embrace it will change them, and they aren’t so sure they want that change or that they can handle it.
God tells them "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" In other gospel accounts it says that When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid.”
Jesus tells them and Jesus tells us now, “get up and do not be afraid.”
Now we may not have been on that mountain with Jesus and seen Moses and Elijah appear. But we all have had some kind of mountaintop experience, whether it be through church, a vacation, an experience with friends or a partner. And we want to experience it again. We think If we can just rinse and repeat we will have the same kind of mountaintop, conversion experience just like we did before. So, we go on the same vacation again and again, we do our Easter or Christmas service the same year after year. We might hold the same event or retreat so we can experience that conversion experience again. And we probably do feel full of love and joy, but it’s never the same experience as it was when it converted us the first time. IF we want to experience conversion and mountaintop experiences again and again, we have to give God the space and the opportunity to breathe new life and new ways into our bodies and our community gathered.
We have to listen and silence ourselves to hear God. God is so desperately trying to communicate and help us and guide us. And we keep building tents, and walls and doors.
We keep enclosing God into the spaces we are comfortable with and into what we have always known and like.
I don’t think God wants us to hold on so tightly to that mountaintop we know and love and have had incredible moments with God. I think God wants us to find a new mountain where we can be open to something radically different and even greater than what we experienced before.
I wonder, what mountain in our life we are holding onto and need to let go of in order to let God breathe. Breathe life into our bodies, in the Church, this church St. James and into the world.