Lord, let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee or thine, but quiet homes of prayer and praise, where thou mayest find fit company, where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away, and wide, sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down and fervent longings watch and wait thy coming.
-Julian of Norwich
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, all for love’s sake becamest poor; Thrones for a manger didst surrender, sapphire-paved courts for stable floor; Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becomes poor.
Thou who art God beyond all praising, all for love’s sake becamest man; Stooping so low, but sinners raising heavenward by thine eternal plan; Thou who art God beyond all praising, all for love’s sake becamest man.
Thou who art love beyond all telling, Savior and King, we worship thee. Emmanuel, within us dwelling, make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling, Savior and King, we worship thee.
It’s a privilege to work with Episcopal congregations through the ministry of RenewalWorks. I am occasionally asked for the elevator speech for RenewalWorks. What is our purpose? We actually have a number of efforts underway, but they can all be gathered under this heading. We are seeking to make spiritual growth the priority for our congregations.
That of course triggers conversation about what we mean by spiritual growth. How would you define spiritual growth? Our answer has to do with relationship, growing in love of God and love of neighbor. We believe that movement toward deeper relationship represents growth. We believe that it is the reason congregations exist. We believe that’s why RenewalWorks exists. That’s our purpose. End of elevator speech.
We are learning a lot in this work, blessed with many teachers along the way. I was recently given a book by a friend and rector of a wonderful congregation. The book is entitled Becoming a Blessed Church, by a Presbyterian pastor named N. Graham Standish. The author talks a lot about the importance of churches staying in touch with their purpose. He notes that most churches began, in one way or the other, with real clarity of purpose. That may have been a recent church plant. That may have been centuries ago. But over time, and for various reasons, the congregation may have lost touch with that originating purpose. Dreaded statements like: “We’ve never done it that way,” or “We’ve always done it that way,” take over without much thought about why we do what we do. I commend this book as it offers a guide for congregations to discern what God’s purpose looks like for them. Spiritual growth can happen in a variety of ways and this book invites people into a process of discerning God’s call and purpose for the community.
Meanwhile, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. And I’ve been thinking about spiritual purpose as we approach Christmas, asking myself about my own sense of the purpose of this observance. For me, it’s about good time with family and friends. Acknowledgement of people who are important in my life. Expressions of gratitude for the gift they are to me. Obligation to have a gift for someone who might have a gift for me. Anxiety that I haven’t done enough. Tasteful decorations. Opportunity to eat favorite foods. Time off. Well coordinated liturgies so folks will think I’m good at my job. The list goes on, all of them a part of my own observance. What would you say is the purpose of your observance of next week’s holiday?
I’m wondering how this Christmas might be different if somehow I could remember it as a piece of the purpose of church, a chance to grow spiritually, a chance to grow in love of God and neighbor? Have I, even I as a member of clergy staff, lost touch with that purpose? Another way to get at the question: Do you think Joseph and Mary would be surprised if given a chance to see how we observe the birth of their child? Is all this what John the Baptist was preparing for? Does our observance correspond to the miracle, the mystery of the grace of the word made flesh, dwelling among us, born not into power but into poverty.
It’s a most wonderful time of the year. Sure there’s craziness and silliness. I served at one church where there actually was a bourbon-infused fist fight at the Christmas Eve service over someone saving too many seats. Might those folks have lost sight of some original purpose? “Joy to the world” became “Get out of my pew.” (Expletives deleted.)
My prayer for my own observance, and while I’m at it, my prayer for your observance, is that the celebration of Christmas may be a piece of a larger movement, a deeper discernment: to grow spiritually, to grow in love of God and neighbor. That would be a most merry result.
RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor. Learn more at renewalworks.org