I had a chance to visit my Alma mater – Vanderbilt University Divinity School (www.vanderbilt.edu/divinity) – this morning. It is delightful to visit this campus any time, but especially in the summer, when the flowers are in bloom and there are very few people around. I wandered into the library and saw a single student hunched over an old book. As I passed the table, he didn’t even look up at me. He was clearly engrossed in the book, furiously writing out notes; his entire body alive with discovery. I have no idea what he was studying, but I would be willing to wager at that moment he was being formed by his encounter with that old text. I suspect he will leave the library a different person from when he arrived. I remember with joy my own time in that school and the hours of discovery and transformation I experienced there.
We are formed by study. Classically understood, to study is to pay close attention, to sit with a text or a person or an idea until we are formed by the encounter. Richard Foster says that study is a “specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.” The operative words here are “careful attention,” which is why true study – as opposed to rote memorization or test preparation – is a rare thing in our time.
Foster asserts that the mind “will always take on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates.” This is another way of saying what I remember many thoughtful teachers communicating to me in my childhood and adolescence: “garbage in, garbage out.” Those things that I carefully paid attention to would form my mind, they said, and so I should take care to place my attention – my study – on things of beauty and worth.
In the book of Proverbs – which we are currently studying at First Presbyterian – the sages are constantly urging the hearer to “hear,” “accept,” meditate,” “be attentive” to the words spoken. The sage knows that there are other voices out there vying with the voice of wisdom. The one who wants to be wise must always be carefully attentive to discern between them.
I have learned in my own ministry that I must set aside time each day for careful study. If I do not, I will find myself responding to a thousand pressing needs but neglecting the one thing needful. If I do not allow myself to be formed by study, my ability to present in a helpful and wise way with these other concerns is diminished. I know many ministers – and I am often one of these ministers – who are what one pastor calls “a quivering mass of availability.” Never disciplining themselves to study, they become burned out, unhappy, and, worst of all, less than effective preachers, teachers, and caregivers.
This is not only a problem in the ministry, however. All of us, no matter our vocation, are diminished if we do not take time to devote careful attention to those things which form us into committed followers of Jesus Christ. This is especially true for the primary audience of Proverbs – the young. A recent New York Times included an alarming article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/26/health/26teen.html?em) on texting and the ways that this technology is inhibiting teenager’s ability to give the focused attention necessary to study. It seems that more and more of our days, and the days of our children, are filled with distraction. We are so connected in largely superficial ways with one another that we are becoming disconnected from the source of true life.
I was reminded during my visit to Vanderbilt this morning of the importance of setting aside time and space for serious, formative study. It is nothing short of a spiritual discipline, and one we neglect at our peril. Let us set aside each week a time when we can become lost in learning, minds and bodies alive with discovery, formed by our encounter, and transformed in our walk of faith.
Last week our presbytery debated and voted on a controversial issue. I thought our conversations were helpful and informative, and we once again demonstrated that Presbyterians can talk about things on which we disagree without dividing.
In the midst of this positive day, however, it came to my attention that there was a minister in our presbytery, along with the elder commissioner from his congregation, who refused to take Communion. According to those who are in the know, he refuses to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at the common Table because he perceives many of us who do not agree with him to be outside the faith. He does not share Communion with us because he believes we are not in Communion with Christ.
I say “us” because I am quite sure I fall in the camp of those with whom he disagrees. In fact, it is possible that if we apply the standards he seems to set across the board, his time of Communion might be lonely indeed. For who among us comes to the Table of the Lord in perfect unity of agreement with the sisters and brothers who approach the Table alongside us? Who among us comes to the Table of the Lord free from sin? It seems to me that this minister has taken the very sign of God’s grace in our midst and put a fence around it, turning it into a test of righteousness.
I will often say these words to invite persons to the Table, taken from the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church:
“Friends, this is the joyful feast of the people of God!
They will come from east and west,
and from north and south,
to sit at table in the kingdom of God.
According to Luke,
when our risen Lord was at table with his disciples,
he took the bread, and blessed and broke it,
and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened
and they recognized him.
This is the Lord’s table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared.”
Notice what this invitation does not say. It does not say, “Our Savior invites those who are righteous,” or “holy” or “theologically correct” or “politically correct” or “liberal” or “conservative” or any of the other ways we divide ourselves both in the culture and in the church. All that is required is that we trust in Christ. I make a point of saying that this is not a Presbyterian table, or this congregation’s table, but it is the Lord’s Table, open to all who trust in Christ, all who are baptized in his name, whether young or old, no matter your denomination.
The Table of the Lord is a place of grace where we are met by the risen Lord, and where, if we see clearly at all, it is only because he, in grace, has opened our eyes. It seems to me that the only prerequisite for coming to the Table is an acknowledgment of our own blindness. Jesus, when the Pharisees said, “Surely we are not blind are we?” responded, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:40-41).
The minister sat on his hands during Communion because he thought he saw so much more clearly than the rest of us, and he led his elder commissioner to do the same. Their sin remains. But the good news for them is that grace abounds, and one of the places it can be found is at the Table of the Lord, where they can be joined by fellow sinners, feeding on mercy broken like bread, drinking from the cup of our common salvation, sharing the peace which only Christ can give. It is an invitation to all sinners, and one I hope they will accept.
I am back after an extended time away from blogging. I do want to thank everyone for all your words of support and encouragement as I attempted a personal best in the Country Music Half Marathon. Alas, it was not to be. The temperature on race day was really warm, and about half way through the race I realized I was not going to get anywhere near the time for which I had hoped. I ended up missing the mark by thirty minutes, which is really bad. The day was brutal for a number of folks, with over forty people being taken to the hospital for heat-related issues.
Soooo, I’ve recommitted to breaking two hours at the St. Jude Half Marathon in December. The weather should be much more cooperative, and hopefully all my weight goals will be in place. So far I have kept off most of what I lost, so I’m looking at around 5-10 more pounds. In the end, the most important thing for me is staying fit and healthy, but I would love, love, love to break two.
So it’s back to the pavement, a little strength training, and lay off the fries…