Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Mind Is Its Own Place

Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension
– the day when Jesus passed the torch of his mission to us
and promised that we would receive his power to continue
his mission.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church,
the day we received the spiritual power to change the world.

But as we celebrate the fact that we are here,
I find myself considerably confused as to what it is we are doing.
This is what confuses me.
Only 10% of Americans attend church.
But 92% of Americans believe in God.
By my count, that means 82% of Americans,
believe in God but don’t see the connection with Church.

These numbers make me wonder about several things.
What do they think religion is for?
What do they think Church is for?
What do we think Church is for?

One of our greatest living theologians, John Hick, looks at these facts
-- most people believe in God
but only a tiny minority attends Church –
and he has this observation:

“(T)he small minority of church attenders are generally happy
with the message they receive from the liturgies, hymns, and prayers,
and enjoy meeting with their friends there Sunday by Sunday .
They see the Church as destined to always be a small minority . . .
and believe this is an OK situation.
It means we are where we should be within our comfort zone.
But is this the right way to think?
Personally,” John Hick says, “I don’t think so.”

So what is wrong with this picture?
A few hundred years ago Christianity got lost
and drifted into a carrot and stick religion
all about going to Heaven and staying out of Hell.
Going to Church was our admission ticket at the pearly gates.
If we put in enough hours listening to boring sermons,
God rewards us with a get out of hell free card.
That's a far cry from the Bible and the teachings of the Early Church
which have surprisinglylittle to say on that whole subject
which became the end all and be all of Christianity in the Middle Ages.

But eventually some theologian decided
all we really have to do is believe that God exists.
In the words of the country singer, Don Williams,
“I don’t believe that Heaven waits
For only those who congregate.”
So church just doesn’t seem necessary.

That’s right as far as it goes.
God does not require us to log x hours of church time
as our price of admission to Heaven.
But without the inner transformation that comes
from a lifetime of spiritual practice,
Heaven may feel pretty uncomfortable.

As John Milton said,
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”//
Getting God to let us into Heaven is not the point.
Transforming our minds so that we are capable
of experiencing Heaven is more like it.
St. Paul said, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

What we do here is not to buy our way into Heaven.
We are here to be changed right down to the core of our being.
Yes, this is to prepare us for Eternity,
but Eternity doesn’t begin when we die.
Eternity is now.

What we do here is to change us now and for eternity
into the likeness of Christ.
Christian practice -- which includes study, prayer, worship, and service –
changes us now.
We receive the Holy Spirit – not when we die – now!

And what difference does that make?
It changes our hearts and our minds so we become
new people with new capacities – new powers.
Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ,
that person has become a new creation.
The old has gone. The new is here.”

That’s what it means to receive the Holy Spirit.
We become capable of new things.
In Galatians, Paul gives us a list of 9 of the new things
we can do and experience by the power of the Spirit.

The first is love. Everybody wants to be loved.
But the problem is we are not very good at loving
– needing maybe – but not so good at loving,
at caring for someone, at appreciating them.
We are here to learn how to do that.

Second is joy. How much joy do you have in your life right now?
How much deep down shout hallelujah joy?
Is it that the universe is not wonderful enough?
Or is it that our hearts are not sufficiently open to it?
We are here to learn and practice the art of joy.

Third is peace.
How many of us have mastered true serenity
– the capacity to be the eye of the hurricane?
Deep inner peace comes from training our hearts to pray
without ceasing until we float in grace
no matter what is happening in our outer circumstances.

The fourth is forbearance.
That means the capacity to keep our mouth shut
when words will do more harm than good,
the capacity to be still and wait.

Then there’s kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.
The last is self-control.
Have you noticed that most of the world is out of control?
Have you noticed how often we are not in control of ourselves?
Someone says x so we automatically feel y and then do z.
Other people push our buttons and we bark to their tune.
What would it be like to pull back
and be ourselves instead of reacting to the button pushers?

So about the 90% of Americans who are at home this Pentecost
-- will God let them into heaven? Sure.
But how much joy do you see in their faces?
When they enter a room, do they fill it with peace?
Have they mastered self-control?
If we want to do those folks any good,
we need to get clear on what we are here for
and what we have to offer.
It’s not admission tickets. This is not the celestial box office.
We are here in the business of spiritual transformation.

In Ezekiel, the Lord said,
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.
I will remove from you your heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.”
That’s what we are here for new spirits, new hearts
– hearts fit for this life and fit for the life to come.

We are about changing hearts, changing minds, changing lives.
That is what we ritualize in worship.
It’s what we pray for and accomplish through meditation.
It’s what we study in our ancient wisdom teachings.
It’s what we practice in our relationships and in our service.

When we change our hearts, when we change inwardly,
the change doesn’t stop inside our skin.
We become change agents in the culture.
We Anglicans are not defined by a detailed set of theological opinions
but by our spiritual practices and our mission.
We have 5 marks or points of our mission:
To proclaim the good news of God
To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
To respond to human need with loving service
To transform unjust social structures; and
To safeguard and sustain the life of the earth.

This is about transforming the whole tone of our personal lives, yes.
But it’s more than that.
It’s about changing the world in which we live.
It’s about filling -- not only our own homes and friendships
but the whole world --
with love, peace, forbearance, kindness,
gentleness and self control.

That’s what people do when they have new spirits and new hearts.
That’s what we do when we stop just believing in God
and become disciples of Christ.
That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing through us.
Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more
than we can ask or imagine.