A delightful video appeared on the news Saturday morning. The story told of a couple of young men in St. Pete Beach, Florida, who were wakeboarding – water skiing on a single board, without the accompanying ropes, in the wave created by a speed boat – one young man was filming the other as he skied.
Suddenly two dolphins appeared, leaping high out of the water then diving back in. The dolphins raced along in the wave near the man skiing, with a playful intentionality, with no other purpose than to have fun. And then quite easily the dolphins caught up with the speed boat, astonishing everyone who watched.
The video is pure delight – catching the dolphins in and out of the water – simply playing. Moments like these, when the beauty of nature breaks into the world of human beings, surprising us and delighting us, are mystical moments. Caught by surprise mystical moments burst open our sense of life and give us a new, deeper understanding of what is possible. Mystical moments point us to God, and the reality that there is so much more to this world than we normally see.
Mystical moments of the in-breaking of God are what we hear in our scripture readings this morning. In the reading from 2 Kings we have the story of Elisha and Elijah. These two prophets are well known in Hebrew stories as the prophets who point the way toward the coming of the Messiah. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the presence of Peter, James, and John, like the story of the ascension of Elijah, is meant to break open our understanding of who God is, how God works in the world, and invite us into a deeper relationship with God.
No doubt mystical moments, when we are able to perceive them as such, sustain and deepen our faith. But more often we live in a world of skeptics, or as Mark is fond of saying, a world in which we fail to see God’s presence around us.
The Huffington Post Religion page had an article on Saturday by Diana Butler Bass. Bass was reflecting on her latest book, “Christianity After Religion, The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” Bass writes:
Something startling is happening in American religion…
…In 1999, when survey takers asked Americans "Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious," ….54 percent responded that they were "religious but not spiritual." By 2009, only 9 percent of Americans responded that way. In 10 years, those willing to identify themselves primarily as "religious" plummeted by 45 percentage points.
In the last decade, the word "religion" has become equated with institutional or organized religion. Because of crises such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Roman Catholic abuse scandal, Americans now define "religion" in almost exclusively negative terms.
….There may be hope, however, regarding the future of faith. Despite worry about the word, "religion," Americans are extremely warm toward "spiritual but not religious" (30 percent) and, even more interestingly (and perhaps paradoxically), the term "spiritual and religious" (48 percent). While "religion" means institutional religion, "spirituality" means an experience of faith. Large numbers of Americans are hankering for experiential faith whereby they can connect with God…”
"Americans are searching for churches -- and temples, synagogues, and mosques -- that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world..” (Huff Post Religion, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012: Diana Butler Bass)
I find this excerpt from Bass’ article intriguing because it segues with the vestry discussions from our retreat last weekend. Focusing our work on the idea of discipleship as a call from God that asks us to “go and do” we pondered the ways in which Christ Church is offering people a place to experience the presence of God, both in worship and in moments outside of Sunday morning worship.
Take for example all of the people who come through our doors for AA meetings, martial arts, the League of Women Voters, the AAUW, the Moms Take-A-Break group, Zumba class, stretching class, Creating Hope International, and Sekeena’s work with women and girls in Afghanistan, the many people who came here for the Alternative Holiday Market, the boy scouts and girls scout troops, and Chapel Day pre-school – as just a few examples of the many ways this building offers people a place to experience the presence of God simply by the ordinary work they do each and every day – whether or not an experience of God is a primary focus and intention of the group. Part of our mission is to function as community center for these many groups that meet here.
Another part of our mission is help people become formed in their faith. Christianity is not intended to be a solo faith experience - rather it is intended to be a community experience. Scripture reminds us that our faith is nurtured when we gather to pray, celebrate, and sing. Our faith is nurtured when we develop a language of faith which can articulate our experiences of the profound in-breaking of God’s presence. Even as we are called to do this, gather, worship, be formed, and share an experience of God, we are also called to go out and do. Jesus makes that perfectly clear to Peter when he tries to limit and contain Jesus on the mountain top. No Jesus says, let’s go! And so a third part of our mission at Christ Church takes place out in the world around us. This is our work in soup kitchen and homeless shelters, and building wells in Africa.
The vestry’s work over the next year will include telling our story at Christ Church and the wonderful ways we encounter the mystery of God and share that mystery with others.
Lent, which begins this week, is a season that journeys through mystery and transformation: mystery of what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and the transformation that is the result of God’s in-breaking Spirit.
Lent is distinctive and beckons us to take notice. Like other seasons our worship space will be transformed. Members of the worship planning committee and other parishioners are busy creating the look and feel of Lent for us. Flowers will be replaced with bare branches and rocks, startling but symbolic of the season. Lent is a season of ash and dirt, bearing an earthy quality. Our Lenten bread will be a hardy rye, wheat, and bulgur. Our Lenten communion wine will be a dry burgundy. Our Lenten vessels will be glass, the color of Lent is purple. Our worship will invite us to engage our senses of sound, smell, touch, sight – to reflect on the ways God is present in ordinary ways – in life and death, in simplicity and solemnity.
Part of our mission as people of faith is to engage in creative energy. Lent will stimulate our senses in a particular way. Lent invites us to use our imaginations, and to be attentive to the ways God is breaking into our lives. Lent invites us into the mystery of death and life. Into the mystery of examining the ways we are broken and the ways God breaks in and heals us.
For God’s presence is essential to our lives, like breathing – in and out, willingly and unwillingly, consciously and unconsciously, we breathe and go on breathing – and so it is with God – always present whether we know God’s presence of not, filling our lives with God’s sustaining love, whether we know it or not. Inviting us to be playful, like dolphins in the waves, in a faith journey that engages all our senses and imagination. The great season of Lent is upon us. May it be a mystical journey of faith.