Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

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Up Against the Holy

February 3rd, 2017 · No Comments · Faith and the City

This week I have been thinking about the word “sacred.” What does it mean for something or someone to be “holy”?

To some people the word “sacred” distinguishes between the mundane parts of the world (buses and spreadsheets and really good chicken parm) and the holy things that reside in church cabinets (beeswax candles, water for the baptismal font, communion wafers).

Others scoff at this distinction. “Holy,” they say, is an empty word, a made-up adjective ascribing religious significance to entirely ordinary items and people.

Still other people argue that holiness isn’t about things, but behavior. When individuals and communities follow a moral code (the Torah, the household codes of the New Testament, Sharia Law), then they are leading sacred lives.

Somewhere behind (or before!) all of these definitions, there is another, more basic, more primal way in which we use the word “sacred.”

When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, the prophet is instructed to remove his sandals: “You are standing on holy ground.” “Holy” and “sacred” describe encounters between people and the divine, moments when God is intensely present.

Down through the centuries, there have been a number of Christians who have felt God’s direct and transformative presence in their lives. We call these people “mystics.”

Mystics worry us. To the modern mind, they seem a little too hyped up on God juice.

Mystics are a little too ready to talk about the dream they had, the voice calling them to prayer and service, the closeness they feel to Jesus.

To orthodox believers, mystics seem subversive. In Ron Hansen’s beautiful book, Mariette in Ecstasy, a young nun in a rural New York convent tells the Mother Superior that she has had an extraordinary experience. Mariette has been visited by Christ. Her testimony throws the community of nuns into turmoil.

It is a funny thing. We say we believe in God, but when we bump into someone who claims to have encountered God, we run the other way.

This Sunday, we are going to talk about loosening up a bit — getting mystical. We are going to talk about that afternoon, at the small table, when you were talking with a good friend, taking bites of really good chicken parm, and you felt like your conversation reached new depths. It was suddenly infused with something otherworldly. It got holy.

See you in worship,


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