Finding Your Mystic: Listening Behind the Voices
Romans 12: 1-12
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
April 7, 2019
Poet John Ciardi says that we are what we do with our attention. We have been reminding ourselves of that for weeks. We are what we do with our attention. What we look at, what we talk about, what we read, what we consume, what we pay attention to, gets inside of us and becomes a part of us.
There are powerful forces that run through our lives vying for our engagement, our dollars, our participation. These forces have power to influence our thoughts and behaviors. They take up residence inside us, and emerge in slogans like “God helps those who help themselves” or “winning is the only thing” or “you can’t help those people, they’re just like that” or “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”.
We are what we do with our attention. If we give our attention to those who trade in fear, we will likely become fearful. If we look for what is beautiful, what is hopeful, then beauty and hope will form us.
I was talking with another pastor recently. He told me about a time when he was attending a regional meeting of his denomination. Someone introduced a resolution asking that churches declare themselves weapons-free zones. It was easily defeated. Pretty quickly, my friend realized that he was surrounded by colleagues who were adamantly advocating for their congregations to be able to carry guns to church. He was astounded that so many Christian pastors were in favor of this. He was also astounded that no one seemed able to recognize any kind of higher value, like their shared faith or the teachings of Jesus, to which these church people might appeal to resolve this disagreement. In his estimation, they were thoroughly captive to the violence and fear of the individual rights culture around them, and they couldn’t even recognize it.
So, Paul pleads with the Romans, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
“Do not be conformed” This is harder than we might think. We talk about peer pressure as if it is something faced by teenagers, something that adults have learned to resist. We say that because we are oblivious to the ways conformity shapes us all the time.
One of the things I’m looking forward to on sabbatical is reading. I used to read all the time, all kinds of things. But all of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t reading any more. And then I realized that I had replaced the practice of reading books or journals with the practice of using social media. I’m not slamming social media. I actually learn a lot from it and I connect with people I would not otherwise connect with. Some of the movie clips and stories that you have most appreciated in worship came to me through social media. But I started using it because I was doing what the culture around me was doing. I try now to use it with more intention.
Being intentional, paying attention to the big and small ways that we invest our time and energy - that is part of what Paul meant when he said “present your bodies a living sacrifice.”
So what are some of those practices that help transform us?
Listening ranks high on the list. Listening in order to understand first and evaluate second. Listening to God, listening to our own bodies, listening to the groaning of creation, listening to those with whom we disagree.
We each do that listening in different ways. Some of us simply talk with God, because taking the time to find the words for prayer is a way of paying attention. Some of us journal because written words make order out of chaos. Some of you have told me that you are making a point to be in worship every Sunday during Lent -- that’s a formative practice. More of us show up for worship on the first Sunday of every month than the other Sundays. That suggests to me that you put importance on receiving communion. Taking a daily walk or a run is another way to set down your work for a while and listen. Some of you make a point to do that walk with your spouse, so that you can listen to each other. These are all spiritual practices.
Spiritual practices are not just things we do routinely. Transformation can happen when the routine is disrupted. Our minds can be renewed by exposure to things we don’t know yet, by saying yes when invited to something we’ve never done before, by intentionally going out of our comfort zones and trusting that God goes there with us.
It is the practice of paying careful attention that can help us discern when not to conform to the world around us. As one scholar says, “ Christians are called to be counter-cultural - not in all respects, as though every single aspect of human society and culture were automatically and completely bad, but at least in being prepared to think through each aspect of life. We must be ready to challenge those parts where the present age shouts, or perhaps whispers seductively, that it would be easier and better to do things that way, while the age to come, already begun in Jesus, insists that belonging to the new creation means that we must live this way instead.”
Dr. King called Christians to be transformed non-conformists. In a frequently repeated sermon, he said, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty. . . Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit. The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing. And this very transformation saves him [or her] from speaking irresponsible words that estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments that are blind to the necessity of social progress. . . . This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.”
The poet Mary Oliver, says
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is
/I do know how to pay attention.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is
/I do know how to pay attention
Sisters and brothers, may we be the kind of people who pay careful attention.
 N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part Two Chapters 9-16, (London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004) p. 69.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, Fortress Press,