Romans 12:1-8

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and faithful and mature.”

Paul wrote these words to the young Christian Church in Rome about thirty-five years after Jesus died. At the heart of Paul’s teaching among the many churches he founded in his time was his concern that the new Christians be about forming faithful communities of faithful individuals to serve not their own purposes, but God’s purposes. Two thousand years later, I would say these words continue to be relevant to us and to our church family, as we face the many challenging situations of our own time. But Paul reminds us that our faith calls us to ask, in the midst of our daily lives, what is God’s loving will in this situation? What is God’s desire? How is God’s Spirit moving within us and calling us to respond faithfully to our lives and to the relationships around us? How do we begin to discern God’s desires for us in the world, both far and near?

Paul urges us, as people of a faith, to begin by remembering that we have a Spirit within us—the Holy Spirit of our Living, Loving God whose wisdom, compassion and strength is the very foundation of our lives. Given this, we—and indeed all people who so choose—seek then not to be conformed to any life-denying ways of the world but rather transformed by God’s Love so that we can discern God’s will and give ourselves to life-giving ways of Love in the world.

Discerning God’s presence and being as faithful as we can be to God’s will in our lives and in the life of our church community is a spiritual practice that we return to–again and again—we try, we get it wrong, we try again, we mess up, we begin anew, perhaps listening more deeply, maybe we get closer, maybe not, and so we try again. . .

One way to practice the discernment of God’s loving will in our lives is through the Christian practice of contemplation which is very simply being aware of God’s presence in all things. Or, as I heard it said this past week, being present in the present to the Presence.

I’m looking forward to continuing to learn and practice with you this ancient and yet contemporary art of contemplation. Toward this end, I’m excited to share with you my experience of this last week when I began a sixteen month program sponsored by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C. This is an at-home continuing education program for church pastors and their congregations on contemplative spiritual life and leadership. The program begins and ends with a week retreat near the Shalem Institute, so I found myself last week on retreat in New Windsor, Maryland—about an hour from Baltimore—with our Shalem teachers and six other church pastors from across the country and New Zealand!

I’d love to give you a glimpse of this life-changing week for me, with the promise of much more sharing to come. After all, we are on this journey together. This continuing education experience—at its heart–is about our life together as a spiritual community seeking deeper awareness and trust in God’s presence in our lives and in our world.

First of all, a word about the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. The word shalem comes from the Hebrew word meaning whole. Our Scripture invites us to worship God with a lev shalem, a whole heart. The Shalem Institute was founded about 35 years ago by a small group of Christian pastors and spiritual leaders in the D.C. area who were seeking to bring a contemplative heart to their ministry. Presently Shalem has dozens of teaching staff members with programs on contemplative spirituality offered to clergy and laypeople alike in several countries throughout the world. There are brochures at the back of the church about the Shalem Institute, if you would like to learn more about it and I will always be interested to talk with you about it further.

So a week ago Tuesday, I arrived at the Church of the Brethren retreat center in New Windsor, Maryland open and excited to be in this new area of the country (to me!) and to be beginning this new program. It turned out that even the setting, itself, of my retreat was particularly meaningful to me. First of all, Maryland—what a beautiful state—home of Laine Gillespie, Bill Chappelle, Mike and Karen Anikis, Susan Turner and maybe others of you in our congregation. I thought of you often, those of you who hail from Maryland, feeling connected to you while on your home soil. But in the rural area of New Windsor, I might have thought I was in New Hampshire, with its a small town of huge oaks and pines surrounded by fertile farmland—fields and fields of corn and soybeans, cows, red barns and white farmhouses. From the retreat center, we looked out upon an expanse of land that reminded me of the Taylor Farm. I felt right at home.

This small retreat center where we were happens to be run by the Church of the Brethren—a small Protestant denomination akin to the Mennonite Church and sharing some things in common, as well, with the Amish community. Some of the women there wore long home-spun dresses and little white pleated hats. As you would expect, it is a peaceful place but certainly not isolated from the concerns of the world. As a historic peace church, the Brethren are actively involved in peace and justice issues and service to the world. Amazingly, this little Brethren retreat center in New Windsor is the world distribution center for SERRV, the non-profit, fair-trade organization that markets and sells crafts and foods from 36 countries, supporting the local artisans and economies in the effort to decrease poverty. I had the privilege of volunteering a couple of hours in the basement of the warehouse, helping to sort items that had newly arrived.

In addition to housing SERRV on its grounds, the retreat center also is home to a world health organization called IMA or Inter-Church Medical Assistance of which Church World Service and our UCC Wider Church Ministries are member agencies. IMA World Health distributes—again from this Brethren retreat center–health care services and supplies to disaster sites and developing countries all over the world. I had the opportunity to tour the huge warehouse where boxes and boxes of medicines, blankets, and health kits were poised to be shipped anywhere from New Orleans to Bangladesh. As if the extent of this ministry weren’t enough, the retreat center also is home—both temporary and permanent—to local individuals and families from the New Windsor community experiencing a range of challenges from developmental disabilities to low income to homelessness. I met a little boy named Matthew who was living there with his family after his house burned to the ground. It was truly remarkable and inspiring to me that this small Church of the Brethren retreat center in rural Maryland witnesses so humbly and significantly both to the pastoral and the prophetic dimensions of Christian faith. Clearly, faithful discernment of God’s loving will and the movement of the Spirit is happening in this place!

So this was the setting I was blessed to be in for my retreat week. Our retreat time itself for us seven pastors and numerous teachers was a beautiful and intentional rhythm of extended silent prayer, spoken prayer, thoughtful teaching on a variety of topics related to contemplative ministry and practice, animated discussion in our peer groups, worship and singing. For me, it was affirming and confirming—over and over again—of a call I have experienced to contemplation and contemplative leadership. Again, contemplation is simply being aware and responsive to God’s loving presence in the moment. This is something we are all called to do in our lives and are invited to develop on ever deepening levels. One image that we spoke of frequently this past week illustrates this simple, yet not often easy practice of contemplation and, as well, harkens back to Paul’s call to discernment of God’s loving will in our lives and in our world. It is the image of faithfully listening to God from our spiritual heart, that ever present place within us that is below the fray of all the other voices—internal and external—that clamor for and cloud our discerning attention.

Tilden Edwards, the founder of Shalem and a senior teacher in its programs, speaks of the spiritual heart as that sacred place within us where God dwells and whose Love is available readily for the loving and faithful living of our lives. He writes, “our spiritual heart is an open door through which we most directly realize radiant divine Love as the heart of reality. Our deepest identity, our core being in the image of God, is a unique shaping of that creative Love, however hidden by illusion and the misuse of human freedom. In Christian contemplative tradition this identity is what is seen in Jesus Christ, and what he invites us to realize through the Spirit’s empowerment, when we share the “Mind of Christ.” In that realization we are converted to a truer way of seeing and being, relinquishing over time whatever impedes the way of creative Love, and dedicating ourselves to collaborating with that Love’s overflow into the world’s life in ways that are given to us.”

Simply put, God has given each of us a spiritual heart—the source of God’s Love within us with the power to transform and the place to discern God’s loving will in our lives. Honing our ability to listen faithfully to the voice of our spiritual heart is an integral part of the contemplative journey and one we need to encourage, support and nurture in one another. There is much more for me to share with you as the petals of this exquisite rose of this retreat week with Shalem unfolds before me. I look forward to learning from you and sharing with you as together we journey, contemplatively beholding God in all things and all things in God. For now, though, I would like to close with a Celtic prayer set to music—a contemplative hymn—welcoming God’s loving presence in all aspects of our lives. I will offer the prayer, spoken first, and then I invite you to close your eyes, if you wish, and let the music speak your Love for God and bathe you in God’s Love for you.

God be in my head;
God be in my heart;
God be in my mind;
God be in my soul. 

God be in my eyes,
so that I may see your face. 

God be in on my lips;
God be in my life. 

God be in my work;
God be in my play;
God be in my home;
God be in my prayer. 

God be in my song,
so that I may sing your praise. 

God be in my night;
God be in my day.

My dear friends,
There are many different kinds of people.
And each person does different things well.
If all God’s people were the same,
only some things could get done.
But with God’s help, we can work together.
We can be different people and
we can have important work to do for God.
This is living God’s Way.
Remember, you are very special to God.
Love from your friend,
Paul

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