Personal Holiness: God At Work In Us
Please pray with me. Beloved God, please take these words and shape them into a word from you. Where they are in error, I pray that no harm would be done. But if you are at work through them, I pray that they might stir up and inspire the souls gathered here. Amen.
So which is it? Should we “go and do”, as Jesus told the lawyer in last week’s story about the Good Samaritan, or are we to “sit and listen” as Jesus implies in this story? Well, which is more important: inhaling or exhaling? Exercising or stretching? Charging your phone or using it? Going to sleep or waking up? Your brain or your heart? You get the point. One is not more important than the other. In order to be disciples of Jesus and followers of the Way, we must do both: intentional action and intentional stillness.
Last week we talked about John Wesley’s two methodical ways of moving toward holiness, or as he would say “going on to perfection” - Social Holiness and Personal Holiness.
Last week we focused on Social Holiness and this week we’re looking at Personal Holiness. Our back to back stories in Luke’s gospel are helping us along beautifully.
Whereas last week we learned about not only who is our neighbor but what it means to truly love our neighbors - getting uncomfortable in the work of the kingdom - this week it is about intentionally stopping and resting from the work.
How many busy people do we have gathered here? Are you ever too busy? Do you ever compete for the “who is the busiest” props? We live in a culture that is one part false leisure and another part false bravado for being over committed. Yet we have no parts true stillness. We spend far too much time caring about things that don’t matter - like the rushed guy who cut us off in traffic or envying the social media friend whose vacation looks better on instagram than ours did, if we even had one - and we forget to carve out time for God to be at work on our lives and in our relationships.
If this sounds like your life, don’t feel bad, we’re all susceptible to it from time to time. But Jesus taught us a better way. Let’s figure out how to be in the world, but not of it.
Now let me get real with you here. I am still learning how to do this. I try very hard to preach what I’m practicing, but sometimes I preach what I should be practicing or what I’m trying to practice. Being perpetually busy is an addiction from which I’ll probably always be in recovery, that and my addiction to being in control. They are basically the same thing. Part of my morning prayers every day include a petition for God to help me let go of my need to be in control. You see, I’m a recovering superwoman.
According to Wikipedia, “In sociology, a superwoman (also sometimes called supermom) is a Western woman who works hard to manage multiple roles of a worker, a homemaker, a volunteer, a student, or other such time-intensive occupations.” It goes on to explain how the expectation is that not only can the superwoman do all these things, but she expects herself to excel at all of them all of the time.
Let me busy-brag for a moment here… back when I started seminary I had a 9 month old baby and a two and a half year old toddler. The following year, due to some economic realities, I was helping raise these two little ones, working 30 hours a week at a local church, and taking three classes a semester at my seminary. You think you’re busy? I was so busy!...
Now, wait a minute. Why is that even bragging? Why is that even something to brag about? It’s just so weird! Why do we brag about how busy we are or were? I’ll tell you. Do you know what all that bragging is covering up? It’s covering up what was a slowly failing marriage. It’s covering up the short temper I had and some major meltdowns. It’s covering up some epic loneliness and self-doubt. Heck, the busyness itself was covering for all those things and more. It covered up some poisonous theology and awful feelings about never believing that I was worthy of God’s love, or my dad’s, or my partner’s. And I definitely didn’t trust God to take care of me or my family or my church community or the world. I had to do it all and I would go go go until I literally made myself sick.
Then, when I got sick, I could say “look how hard I worked. I worked myself to utter exhaustion! Ta-da!”
Man, that’s messed up. It has taken some serious therapy, a confessional lenten blog, a season in Al-Anon, and a few years with an excellent spiritual director to help me come to grips with the shadow side of my busyness. I have also had to take my spiritual disciplines very seriously in order to tame the tendency.
So when I tell you that busyness is an addiction, I’m not kidding. Sometimes it’s even harder to quit than some others because it’s an addiction that our society applauds and supports. If your pastor is addicted to drugs you might leave the church in disgust or maybe compassionately stage an intervention, but if your pastor is a work-a-holic…. you’d probably find yourself admiring them... and you might emulate them. That is definitely not what I want to role model for my people… or my children… or anyone. So I had to kick the habit, but how?
Well, step one, for anyone who is familiar with the 12 step process, is admitting that we have a problem beyond our control and that our lives have become unmanageable because of it. Now I don’t want to go through the 12 steps right now, though they can be incredibly rich as a spiritual practice. Rather, like the 12 step program, the “going on to perfection” model of John Wesley is a slow incremental experience. It is also richly rewarding.
Jesus saw Martha in her busyness. He heard her admonishment of Mary and he knew the social code for women. Women were to be busy about the work of hospitality, homemaking, and generally caring for others. (It hasn’t changed much in 2000 years, really, it’s just that we’ve added to the already over-full plate and, in the up and coming generations, the burden of homemaking has finally become a gender-neutral activity. Thank the good Lord!) Women definitely were not supposed to take a man’s place at the foot of the visiting rabbi. What was Mary thinking? Martha was clearly irritated and resentful and possibly embarrassed.
Have you ever been busy working around the house or around the church and noticed someone else, perhaps a spouse or a child or another parishioner just sitting around or at least they didn’t seem to be working as hard as you? Did you get irritated? Have you ever started resenting people because you were busy while they were not? Has that resentment ever developed into a feeling of entitlement - like “well, I did all the work. I should have more say in what we do.” I’m not saying that sometimes we aren’t justified in those feelings. There are indeed people who take no responsibility, never lift a finger, and expect others to do everything for them. Those are folks with an entirely different set of problems that need to be addressed. However, we need to be very careful when we begin to judge, because resentment is really a sign that we are overworking. It is one of the primary side-effects of the busyness addiction and it can get down-right poisonous. I’ve seen it in play at churches quite a bit over the years, because churches these days tend to attract people who are more comfortable with doing than not doing.
But here’s a secret that I have learned and a remedy for the busy person’s busy tendencies: stillness is not about “not doing anything.” It is about intentionally doing the practice of stillness. Quieting our minds is not about failure to think about things and vegging out, it is about intentionally focusing our minds on quietness. Personal holiness, with its spiritual disciplines and self-care, is about intentionally recharging our batteries and resting in God’s love. It takes self-discipline to do it and yet it is the very thing we need in order to be able to do all sorts of other things in our lives. Through personal holiness practices like meditation, prayer, bible study, reading, fasting, contemplation, communal worship, breaking bread together, and mutual accountability God recharges our batteries and transforms our lives. It is in these moments that we allow God to love us and to return that love by spending time quietly together. Truth is, one of the things our world needs most right now is people who are calm, non-anxious, and centered in love. Active faith, social holiness, is important, but it is best done from a place of quiet love.
A wonderful model for personal holiness lies within the monastic traditions: Contemplative monks prayerfully going about their daily tasks: the liturgy of the hours, chores, study, communal eating, vows of silence, fasting… all undertaken in a spirit of prayer. Thomas Merton, a trappist monk and writer from the last century, said this in his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, “activity will only be more perfect than the joy and rest of contemplation if it is undertaken as the result of an overflow of love for God in order to fulfill his will.”
Our attempts at social holiness should come from “an overflow of love for God” and, I think Jesus would add, neighbor. Love should be the driving force behind our active faith practices and to have an overflow of love, we need to intentionally rest in God’s love.
How exactly we do this is as up to us as our practices of social holiness. Not everyone of us is going to cook and serve food to the hungry, some of us might be better at visiting with the sick, or activating for justice.
In the same way, not all of us need to meditate in the same way or even read the bible in the same way. Some of us meditate while running (sometimes stillness is more a state of mind than of body) while others of us meditate through yoga or singing or simply breathing. Bible study can be as simple as having an app on your phone that sends you a verse a day to contemplate. Or you can do lectio divina. Or participate in a bible study group. The same is true for all the versions of spiritual discipline. Find what works for you, it may take some trial and error, but then practice it until it becomes habit, and then hone it until it becomes integral to your life and can be a support in times of inevitable crisis.
Don’t let the distractions of the world keep you from the pure joy of social and personal holiness. Sit by Christ’s feet for a while every day, rest in God’s loving arms, let the Holy Spirit recharge your drained batteries.
"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
We are not made up of Marys and Marthas. I’m not one and you the other. Both Mary and Martha live within each of us. Both Mary and the Good Samaritan are the unexpected heroes of their respective and complementary stories.
Social Holiness and Personal Holiness. These are the marks of a Christian. These are the means of grace that John Wesley taught and handed down to us. Don’t worry too much if you aren’t that good at it yet, that’s why we work together as community and hold one another accountable. We are to be made perfect in love and this is the method. On to perfection! Amen.