Two people wander into church on a Sunday morning. The weather is cold or pleasant, calm or windy. The markets are up or down. The job carries its usual stress. Family life is busily satisfying. It’s an ordinary Sunday, the start of another ordinary week. Both persons come to church with cares to shoulder: they have responsibilities, questions, hopes and dreams. But this is where they separate somehow, and I can’t tell you why.
For one, their heart is absolutely captured, moved, struck by something said or sung. Or maybe its just the feeling of being mindful of God. The other person? Well, they fidget: the service is too long or too short, the room too warm or too cold. There is something else on their mind, some place to go, something else to get done.
This past Sunday we concluded our Bad Religion series. We have taken time to clarify what is, for us, the essence of a true and properly focused faith. This is work we need to continually do. But there can be another question. What if our religion is sound, but we ourselves somehow fail to be vitally connected to it? What if, in our attempts to clarify what is true and worthy of commitment, we somehow fail to encounter the living God?
I have been thinking this week about Moses and his burning bush.
… the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” [Exodus 3:2-3, NIV]
This is a famously definitive moment of course. If you know the Biblical story, you will know it is here that history shifts, that destiny forms. But it happens so simply, so otherwise missable. A bush burning in the desert is not in itself remarkable. What is unusual is that the fire does not consume the bush, as natural fire must. The fire exists in the bush, but it doesn't need the bush. And Moses notices that. As Moses moves toward the mystery he finds himself in conversation with the living God.
If there is anything that defines the heart of Biblical faith it is the need for divine encounter, for the ravishing of our hearts in mystery and wonder. Bad religion has none of this of course, but even good religion can feel anemic at times. What we need is divine encounter. What we need is an experience of beauty and love, of power and grace. And divine encounter requires that we move towards the evidences of God in our everyday lives.
I probably mention Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek more regularly that any other book I know. But as I have just checked, I have never written about it. Huh. So for my reading friends let me tell you about one of the most important and impactful books I have ever read.
For me, the brilliance of Dillard’s Tinker Creek is what she finds in the ordinariness of her subject matter, a muddy stream running through a Virginia field. If I ever drive through that part of the world, I think I would take a closer look at the place. I probably wouldn’t see what Annie saw. Tinker Creek was already remarkable before Annie set her fascinated attention on it. Its just that nobody really noticed before.
But Dillard does take notice. She pays sustained attention to what is there, the God-infused livingness of the world outside her back door. She reports on unsung glory — of bugs and birds and animals, water and trees and wind — its all so common, except through Annie’s eyes it is nothing less than divine spectacle. All that is going on in that muddy creek becomes an occasion for the Hallelujah Chorus.
Do you know these lines by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?
Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries… [Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Aurora Leigh, 1856]
Pushing away from bad religion is a start, but it’s not enough. Our hearts hunger for the living God. Find some way to pay attention. See you Sunday.
- what does worship mean for you?
- are there any burning bushes in your life? moments when you encountered God and moved past normalized religion?
- what helps you / hinders you in your experience of the wonder of God?
- instead of another question, let me give you a simple suggestion — the next time you spend time chatting with a friend, take time to pray together for a few moments — you will find your time together enriched immeasurably
I am always happy to hear your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org