Summertime and Church

    Summertime and church.  My experience would tell me that most people find those two things incompatible.  I say that with a sense of humor, of course, and while I often wonder where everybody went on those summer Sunday mornings, I also get that folks need to play and to re-create.  I support that, by the way—the missing of church (occasionally) to get out and enjoy this natural playground of a world in which we have been placed.  I support it because taking time to play is important not just to our physical selves, but to the way we live the rest of our lives.  There is something regenerative about making time to break the routine (even of worship) that lends perspective and new energy to our individual and shared lives. 

    I think it is important also to spend time in leisure because of its sabbath nature.  For sure, Sundays are important to our lives.  Setting aside time for worship and for community is vital to how we are in the world the other six days of the week.  We need to pray in community, to be reminded of our role there, to reconnect with other praying souls, and be fed by something other than the weekday buffet of less than spiritual food.  But sabbath has a double meaning—it means to pray and to play.  To have a true sabbath day is to get down on one’s knees as an intentional act of worship and to get out into the world’s sandbox, so to speak, and to remember what is it like to move and to wonder as playfully and freely as a child.  

    I once heard a quotation attributed to a French writer who said “People who never laugh aren’t serious people.”  I love that for the challenging notion that without laughter we aren’t fully human.  From different words I have coined a similar idea:  “Grown ups who don’tplay aren’t really adults.”  What I mean by that is that we can hardly call ourselves responsible and mature people when we do not take the time to nurture our inner child by engaging playfully in this world.  So if you think you hear your priest saying that is it o.k. at times to miss church so that one can play, then you heard correctly.  If that sounds strangely anti-church, then consider for a moment that playing is one of the most godly things we do, even—or maybe especially—as grown ups.

    I wish you all a wonderfully playful and joyful summertime.  I hope that God blesses your leisure time by giving you new life and showing you new possibilities for life.  I hope that you will intentionally ditch church a few times (but won’t get carried away) and that you will do so with a free pass—that is, guilt free.  I also hope that while you are playing you will continue to pray for your church community and to keep us in your thoughts.  And I hope that you will play responsibly as good stewards remembering that even though we need to play, our work in the world always continues. 

So Tender and Mild.

I like to read children's books because of the language. It is soft and simple. The words sing gentle notes without sharp consonantal points. They pull you into a more supple place of hearing and receiving. I need that kind of language because sometimes I can be quite hard. No give. No flex. Unable to receive.

Being soft is not appreciated in our world. Sadly, it’s seen as a weakness. Especially for men. If a young man sheds a tear, he is called “soft.” It’s not an endearing term. Hardness uses that word to denigrate what it thinks of as an overly emotional response to the world.  Softness is seen as a liability in a culture that is too intellectual and stoic. Our reticence to allow a softer, tenderer side is an obstacle to living the life we all wish we could live, one in which we are able to let go of our brittle commitments to our even keel existence. Sometimes the best way to see the world is through the soft translucence of a sad or joyful teary-eyed moment. 

That’s why I read children’s books. They have a way of finding the softer more fleshy core, like when you take your nephew to see a Pixar movie and you end up in a puddle of tears while watching a movie that is suppose to be made for kids.  Only, it turns out to be a story for grown ups veiled in doe-eyed cartoon people, clumsy nappy dogs, and red-headed, freckled-faced children so cute they pull out our hearts.

When we talk about God, we should be soft. If we need to get stone hard serious about God, then we can read wordy books about Christian morality and how our failures lead to some sort of hellish existence that lasts for all eternity, and how we all better get right with God, strengthen our brow, and plow through.  Which is about the only way you can get through a lot of the books written about God because they don’t seem to be able to communicate with a softer glow of the lightness of being. The Bible is full of language of wrath and repentance, but that is only part of the story.  The final word of God is one of compassionate, transformative love. Like In Ezekiel when the prophet speaks a softer, more Godlike word. “I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.”

The mystical Persian poet Hafiz has a poem that begins, “We should make all talk about God simple today.” I think that’s what God thought when Jesus was born. Let’s just speak and do the most simple and soft thing we can.  Let’s save the world with a gentle and mild miracle. That kind of godly thought is a far cry from the hard words of John the Baptist as he screams from the banks of the Jordan River, “Repent, or burn.”  I think it’s ironic that God’s response to that hard, prophetic language of wrath is the simple response of a mother and child.  

In my early teens, I was an acolyte. One Sunday when I was assisting an older priest during communion, I overheard him quietly talking to God.  He kept whispering, “Bless your heart. Bless your heart.” Hearing those words and the gentle, loving fragility in his voice was pure incarnation of loving softness. With all the ways we have to speak to God, tenderness is the one that changes us the most. Softness opens us up to receive that which is compassionate and loving.

Each of us has the gift of tenderness somewhere deep inside. Practicing it is hard and, even doing the best we can, we defy our softer sides in the name of protection. Softness is a way of being to be cultivated and nurtured within ourselves. It’s an approach to the world around us that may allow for the hard, unsympathetic reaction. But it also offers an invitation to let our guards down and to re-enter the world as Jesus first came into it. Hard words have never brought anything loving into this world. The final word is love. So tender and mild.