As most of you know, my primary job here at Saugatuck is to work with our young people. So I spend a lot of time hanging out with teenagers. And teenagers can be terrifying. But I have to be honest: the most terrifying part of my job is not actually them. It’s the “being responsible for them” part. The scariest moment I have had in this job thus far was the moment when, on my first mission trip with our Saugatuck Youth to New Mexico, one of the field staff we were working with said to me, “yeah, if somebody gets bit by a rattlesnake we have to call in a helicopter because we can’t drive to the hospital fast enough.”
Notice that I’m telling this story well over a year after the fact…
So after they told us this, there was a certain amount of “caution,” a level of “being careful,” that quickly became part of our lives in the desert. And thankfully, there were no rattlesnake bites that week.
There’s a kind of “careful” that, like this example, is motivated by fear.
But there’s another kind of “careful,” isn’t there?
There’s the “careful” as in “careful, thoughtful planning” or “carefully keeping to a schedule” or “carefully following the instructions.”
And this kind of “careful” isn’t motivated by fear. It’s motivated by upholding something, whether it be a relationship, a process, or a goal.
When Paul describes the life of wisdom as one lived “carefully,” this is the kind of “careful” I think he has in mind.
It’s the kind of “careful” one might use to describe a “rhythm” of life, whether that rhythm take the form of a consistent morning routine or whether it be the more elaborate rhythm that guides a community like the one Rebecca and I visited in Iona: a rhythm designed to create a common life, intended to forge a community around a particular purpose.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked with you all about shifting how we think about church. You are getting the benefit of my own ponderings about what church is and what it means to be the people of the church. What I was trying to imagine with you all a couple of weeks ago is a shift from thinking of the church as an “activity” in which we choose to engage to thinking of church as a “community” to which we belong, and which then acts as a lens or a filter shaping our interactions with the broader world. Much the same way that our family relationships can shape the way we speak and act, the things we are interested in, the habits we have, the traditions we hold to— in the same way, I believe, the community of the church and the relationships we find here can shape who we are and how we live.
And this idea of a carefully chosen “rhythm” helps me better understand how this kind of community might come to have such an impact on our lives.
Communities are based on relationships. That seems like a simple enough fact, but it’s a starting point we have to keep in mind. Without relationships, you have no community. So fundamentally, to form a “community-centered church,” you have to start with relationships among the people of the church.
Relationships form through either a shared interest or shared experiences. Relationships that are formed only based on shared interests tend to be kinda weak. In today’s world we might connect online with people who enjoy the same restaurants as us, and therefore have some basic relationship based on our common interest, but that relationship is not likely to have a deep, meaningful impact on us. If we are imagining a community that shapes how we connect with the world, we need a stronger set of relationships. And those stronger relationships are ones based on shared experiences.
What makes the church distinct is that we have two sets of shared experiences which unite us. We have the shared experience of our communal life with one another. And we have the shared experience of God at work among us and through us.
And it’s that second shared experience that Paul hones in on in our reading today.
“Be filled with the Spirit,” he says: let your experience of God in your life flow through everything else you do.
Since arriving here at Saugatuck two years ago I have been hearing about a project that MaryEllen Hendricks has been working on called the “Thin Places Project.” Have you all heard about this?
MaryEllen’s project was inspired by former pastor John Danner’s trip to Iona. John came back and talked about the Celtic notion of a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth are close together and a real sense of spiritual connection comes through.
There are places where we have those sorts of really profound spiritual experiences, for sure.
But we could also talk about “Thin Moments”: experiences we’ve had in which we felt that spiritual connection not necessarily because of the place but because of what we were doing or the people we were doing it with.
For me, some of the conversations we had with our youth on the mission trip were “thin moments.” Taking time for quiet and reflection, which I try to do as part of my morning routine is a “thin moment” for me, too. For some people, the practice of praying the labyrinth is a “thin moment.” For others it might be the act of taking communion that awakens that spiritual connection.
The point is that for us to be “filled with the spirit,” for us to make space for the experience of God to flow through our lives, for us to be able to say that shared experience of God unites us as a community, we have to pay attention to what those “thin moments” are. And we have to make them a regular part of our lives.
Proverbs tells us that the life of wisdom is grounded in God. Our reading from Proverbs this morning personifies that life and imagines it as a conversation around a table, perhaps a “thin moment” experience. Paul tells us to “be careful to live wisely,” and encourages us to do that by being “filled with the spirit”— overflowing with the experience of God in our lives.
The reason they can point to the experience of God as the foundation of wisdom is that being immersed in an experience shapes how we view other experiences.
This is part of the beauty of the mission trips we take our youth on: they are immersed in a different culture or lifestyle for a week. And it changes the way they view their own culture and lifestyle. You may have had similar experiences if you’ve ever studied abroad or spent a lot of time in a very different environment from your “normal.”
So likewise with our experience of God in our lives. When we pay attention to those “thin moments,” when we integrate them into our lives in some sort of rhythm, when we immerse ourselves in the experience of God, and when we are intentional about sharing those experiences with others in our community, then that spiritual experience changes how we view other experiences. It becomes a lens through which we can examine and understand the world. It becomes the basis for the wisdom by which we live our lives.