From the prophet Jeremiah, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Says the LORD. Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
Larry Crabb tells a story when he and his wife were touring Miami beach. He writes,
“One block west of the luxury beach hotels—the ones pictured on all the postcards—was a very ordinary big-city street, noisy, dirty, heavily trafficked with cabs and buses and plumbing repair trucks. The street was lined with less-than- elegant businesses and shops and row dwellings, with the occasional green shrubs poking its way out of a square foot of dirt in the concrete. A patch of blue sky was visible only if you looked straight up. No one was snapping pictures to send home or put in scrapbooks. At one point, we walked in front of a wood-slatted porch, maybe ten feet deep, with perhaps sixty feet of sidewalk frontage. At least a hundred chairs were arranged in neat rows and columns, none touching, each in exactly the same position to the others. The occupied chairs (and most of them were) each held one motionless retired man or woman staring straight ahead at the street. I can’t recall seeing anyone rocking, though I’m sure someone was. I do remember that no heads turned to follow a passing taxi or pedestrian, or to chat with another porch-sitter…There were no paperback novels or newspapers, not even a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea…there was no conversation…I remember thinking, ‘all their lives everyone on this porch worked hard in Detroit or New York with the dream of retiring in Florida. And now they’ve made it…Everything they’ve lived for has come to this…sitting in chairs looking straight ahead, never into another person’s eyes, never knowing anyone, and known by no one.’”
Welcome to the American dream. There are many different directions I could go with this. In many ways this story was the inspiration for this whole series on Benedictine spirituality and I will return to it often because it says the worst about our epidemic of individualism. And about or values and what we consider success in life. Remember the three areas of focus—obedience, conversion and stability. Last week we talked about possessions and put it under the heading of conversion, this week we’ll talk specifically about conversion. Why do I choose this story? Because obedience, conversion and stability can only take place in the body of Christ. Of course we listen and obey as individuals, are drawn to Christ personally, but we were made for more than staring off into space in rocking chairs that don’t even face each other. We are made for communion with God and each other. Today we talk about specifically about conversion.
One key aspect of conversion for Benedict was to consider the end of one’s life—which ought to dictate how we live life now. Benedict says, “Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself you are going to die.” Pratt and Hamon say, “The power of conversion is invested in the sense of our mortality. It slaps us with the question we’ve reduced to shallow meaninglessness rather than face like grown-ups. You’re going to die…So what are you going to do with your life?”
Again, this is not far from what Jesus is saying in our gospel lesson. The time is short, he has a sense of urgency and says,
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ Matthew’s version is less soft, ‘not peace but a sword.’
Jesus is a threat to every social order and convention. Jesus brings division. Jesus brings fire. The baptism he is referring to is his baptism. These words of Jesus do not fit in with the wise sage Jesus of popular religion, but we can’t get around Jesus’ words this morning. They are meant to bring conversion.
You might say, ‘I am already a Christian, I don’t need to be converted.’ That is true. Jesus paid the price for our salvation on the cross. Those who have committed themselves to Jesus in faith need not fear for their eternal destiny.
However, the Christian life is more than fire insurance. It is a transformation of life. It is not very common to have that transformation take place instantaneously. I mentioned Eugene Peterson’s image of the Christian life—it is more like literature than journalism. Each and every one of us have areas in our lives that need to be converted to Christ.
You remember the 80s song ‘One moment in Time?’
I want one moment in time
When I’m more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away
And the answers are all up to me
Give me one moment in time
When I’m racing with destiny
Then in that one moment of time
I will feel
I will feel eternity
Life rarely works this way, when it does, it is somewhat of a disappointment. That’s why actors, entertainers and athletes are so messed up. Life doesn’t usually work in a moment when everything comes together and neither does the Christian life. No instant transformation. But there is urgency and conversion.
Jesus means business.
Jesus brings division. Father against son. Mother against daughter. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. These are some of the most intimate relationships that we encounter in the human experience, and yet Jesus says that his presence can divide even the most intimate of relationships.
It is difficult for us in our culture to get the drift of what Jesus is saying. But we have heard stories families of other religions that have disowned other family members who have become Christians. In radical cases around the world, converts to Christianity are killed on the spot, sometimes by close family members or friends. This has been true in communist countries when converts to Christianity bring the new faith home. And whether it is family members or neighbors, the cost can be high.
I read these words from an Anglican missionary who is following the situation in Iraq:
“Most of one Iraqi congregation in Bagdad has little food, electricity for about 1 hour a day, and many are getting threatening letters nailed on their doors advising them to leave, or die. I will never forget what a visiting chaplain told them. He said, ‘I couldn’t pretend for them that all was going to be all right. I couldn’t tell them that they wouldn’t die. I told them that my only consolation, the only thing I could offer was that when they see Jesus they will be like Him. And so after a time, they were moved to praise God.”
The cost is high in many places. But perhaps it is more difficult to live for Christ in our context.
No matter where you live or who you are, Jesus means business. Jesus sets father against son. Jesus brings division because he shares loyalty with no one, not even our closest family and friends.
Not only does Jesus bring division, but more dramatically, he says he brings ‘fire.’ ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’
The metaphor of fire that Jesus refers to is the purging fire of judgement, brought about by the Holy Spirit. This is far from destructive fire, though, this fire is restorative, purging, or purgative fire; fire that refines and transforms, however painful it is to be within its heat. Another aspect of conversion.
Jesus is God’s love revealed. He is God’s unconditional love made flesh. But it is an inadequate portrait of Jesus and an inadequate portrait of love to characterize him only in terms of peace and sentimentalism.
Jesus is not only the love of God, he is the power of God and he brings the conviction of God. He asks us to be converted.
‘I have come to bring fire,’ says Jesus. He has come to bring his Holy Spirit among us to take us beyond our depth, to take us beyond where we want to go to change us, to transform us, to make us new. To convert us.
‘I have come to bring fire.’ The Lord wants us to be aflame, not only burning with desire for him, but also refined and transformed by his Holy Spirit. Love brings repentance, as our reading from Hebrews says, love brings discipline.
‘I have come to bring fire.’ What does that look like for you? What areas of your life needs conversion? What does the flame of the Holy Spirit bring to your life? How would you want the power of the Holy Spirit to transform you?
Of course the power of God is not magic. The transforming fire of God often takes time and happens in a variety of circumstances. Jesus spoke of a ‘baptism’ he must undergo. He was referring to his death. Crucifying the Son of God on a bloody cross of wood is the primary event God has used to bring life and transform his people. This is no magic wand way of curing all ills. The cross is a reminder that it takes blood, grit, and the deepest kind of love to change us.
And why the image of baptism for the cross? Because not only is baptism a dying and rising to new life, it is a cleansing. The cross of Christ is a cleansing of the sins of the whole world.
‘I have come to bring fire on the earth.’
Today is traditionally the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin, actually it is the commemoration of her dormition, or ‘falling asleep’ of Mary. Putting aside debates about the Virgin Mary, there is a tradition that her pious parents Joiachim and Anna dedicated her to the Temple, like Hannah dedicated the prophet Samuel as a child. One tradition says that Mary, like Samuel, grew up sleeping near the 10 golden lamp stands, by the ‘bread of the presence’ just outside the holy of holies. There she was near the presence of God.
Eventually, as foretold by the angel Gabriel, that presence of God would envelop her and she would become in herself a sort of Temple. The presence of God was contained in her womb. Jesus, the Son of God, whom the early church fathers deemed like the sun in the sky, grew inside of Mary. She became the ultimate ‘fire-bearer.’
What would it look like for us to be God-bearers, or fire-bearers? What would it look like for us to be a fire for God, so much so that his presence envelops us? What would it look like to be converted?
Ruth Haley Barton, whom I took a class from in July, has written on the experience of discovering silence and other spiritual disciplines in her own life. She found these things the hard way—because she had become desperate in her own life. She said that about age 30, she was burned out by life. She had three small children and was doing some ministry work in a big church—yet she was extremely dissatisfied in her own life and walk with God. In fact, she found that she no longer knew how to love her husband or children. She felt frustrated and wanted to get away from everything. She found a spiritual director who told her that she was fried and primarily needed stillness, to be silent before God.
We may not realize the places in us that need converting. We go to the doctor usually when we have what? Symptoms. What are symptoms that we need to be converted in a certain area? Galatians five give us a good indication. We know the fruit of the Spirit, but Paul also talks about the ‘acts of the flesh.’ He says,
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
There are ‘biggies’ in Paul’s list but notice the subtle ones: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” Sounds like a couple of hours at your office does it not? Or in our houses or in our cars…
Back to Miami Beach. Larry Crabb uses the image of turning the chairs to face each other as a solution to ending life in a chair facing no one looking at nothing. How do we do that?
Joan Chittester, a Benedictine nun offers 5 places for conversion to take place: in silence, in community custom, at the community table, lectio and what she calls ‘statio.’
I won’t look at Chittister’s 5 things today. But two are important for us to take with us. Silence and statio. Before we can face our chairs to each other, I believe we must turn those chairs towards God. In silence we are making a very deliberate turn of the chair towards God.
How do we get there? How do we find silence amidst noise and chaos? Find a place in your home, or in your office, or at the park, or here at the church where you will meet with God on a regular basis. Make it holy ground. If you have to start with 5 minutes a day, that’s where you start. Have your Bible, light a candle, use an icon. Anything to get yourself out of the chaos for a time. Holy gound, holy time.
You might start small with one verse of a psalm like Psalm 62
For God alone my soul in silence waits; *
from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, *
my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken.
Or Psalm 130
I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
Find time this week to be with God in silence.
Another way to ‘face the chair’ towards God is to practice an oft ignored discipline which Chittister calls ‘statio.’ Statio is a Roman military term which was adapted by the Benedictines. It means ‘stations.’ What happens when you take your station? It means you line up in rank and wait for what comes next.
Basically it evolved in monastic (and Christian) terms, it became an opportunity to be aware of time within time.
That’s a fancy way of saying to be aware of what is going on around you in the ‘in between times.’ Waiting in line, driving, preparing for meals, waiting for an appointment. It is these ‘down times’ that we simply take inventory of our own soul. While I’m driving to I really need to hear about the latest Bronco injury at training camp? Do I really need the tube on before bed?
When we are making changes in life we often keep track of little things we are buying or extra calories that we eat or how much sleep we’re getting. Our spiritual lives are similar.
In the ‘in between times’ of our day we can bring what Chittister calls, the ‘virtue of presence.’ She says, “Statio is the monastic practice that sets out to get our attention before life goes by in one great blur and God becomes an idea out there somewhere rather than an ever present reality here.” It is turning our chair towards God in every moment in acknowledgment that he is always with us. Practicing the presence of God as Brother Lawrence called it. It also gives us a chance to do inventory. ‘Why do I want to blow up the guy that honked at me?’ ‘Why did I say that to my wife?’ ‘Why did I show off in that meeting?’ ‘Why does there always have to be noise in my day?’
For your homework, look at those times, be silent before God, and find those places that need conversion.
None of us want to end up living for Miami Beach and no relationship with God or others.