Reflections to start the week
Monday, March 10, 2014
Reading other people’s mail
It’s bad form, but you can learn stuff by reading other people’s mail. A while ago, a colleague gave me a copy of a letter written in the 1930’s by Evelyn Underhill to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang. (Is that a cool name for an archbishop or what?) You may or may not know Evelyn Underhill. You might know Archbishop Lang because he’s the guy who shows up to do weddings at Downton Abbey. For my money, the more interesting of the two is Evelyn Underhill, writer, mystic, pacifist, Christian who thought a lot about spiritual practices. She wrote the Archbishop to express concern about the state of the church in her day. Focus had been lost. The church stood in need of renewal. She longed for a renewal of the “great Christian tradition of the inner life”, a renewal that would take place among both clergy and lay people.
As I read this letter, I imagined the voice of Maggie Smith reading this hard hitting letter to the Archbishop, which begins with the words “May it please your grace”, and perhaps a classic, withering Maggie Smith eye-roll. One line in the letter in particular leapt out at me. She wrote:
God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God.
She went on to say that the real hunger among the laity is not for halting attempts to reconcile theology and physical science, but for the deep things of the Spirit. It was so simple, so obvious, so bald, so bold. God is the interesting thing about religion. Did it even need to be said? Apparently so. Apparently the Archbishop, presumably an authority on things religious, needed to hear it. Maybe I do too, because the fact is that I spend a lot of life as a functional atheist, forgetting that God is there, that God is love, acting as if I’m in charge. Evelyn, write me a letter.
Welcome to this first Monday in the season of Lent. It’s an opportunity to go deep in the life of the Spirit. Amid all the distractions, how might we return to the basics, to the understated recollection that God is the interesting thing about religion, that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God? What will you do to address that hunger? It’s not too late in the season to adopt a spiritual practice, practice in the sense of committing to practical action, practice in the sense of getting better, going deeper as you do.
Don’t think badly of me, but here’s another impactful letter I read that was not addressed to me. It is St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter that talks about the spiritual journey and how we can go deeper in that journey. In it, Paul expresses this aspiration: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
This morning, what would you say is the interesting thing about religion?
– Jay Sidebotham
PS: A reading of Evelyn Underhill’s letter in its entirety is well worth your time. Google “Evelyn Underhill letter to Archbishop” or some such and you should find it pretty easily. Let me know what you think.
|O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
When I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
I am going to read Evelyn’s letter to our Adult Christian Formation committee, to try to get the idea across that people come to church because they’re hungry for God, and because they’re hurting and need spiritual nurture and healing. They don’t come for program. And if what they find is not spiritually uplifting, they won’t be back.