Practice, Practice, Practice


Responsive Reading: Whose Are We by Victoria Safford

Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not?

Whose are you?

Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch?

Whose are you?

Who is within your circle of concern?

Whose are you?

To whom are you responsible, accountable? Whose care is yours to provide?

Whose are you?

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from?

Whose are you?

When you walk out of your room, out of your house, into the sunlight of the day, to whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?

Whose are you?

At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death
and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping?
Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?

Whose are you?

Anthem: Walk in Jerusalem

Sermon: Practice, Practice, Practice

Thank you, choir, for that great gospel song.

I want to be ready
I want to be ready
I want to be ready
To walk in Jerusalem…just like John.

The John here is the John of the Book of Revelations, which is not a text that gets a lot of attention in liberal religious circles.

And the Jerusalem of this Gospel song is not that divided city in that divided country that we know.

John 21 “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven…”

The lyrics of the song are about the end times and the final coming of righteousness into the world. The Book of Revelations is filled with Angels and Demons, numerology and its magic…7 seals, 666…It is pretty tough going for rationalists.

But what we heard was a gospel song, a song of Good News, and the repetition:

“I want to be ready
I want to be ready
I want to be ready”

Is a devotional rhythm.

Did you feel it calling your breath to synchronize as that phrase repeated?

I want to be ready…

Did you find your shoulders moving? With your neighbors? Did you almost sense the molecules of your being aligning to express that prayerful collective yearning for freedom and for the fullness of life…

The original slave lyric was most probably “walking to Jerusalem,” btw, not “walk in Jerusalem.” Like “Steal Away” and several other songs that grew out of slave traditions, this was a song about escape, originally, and about freedom to be found at the end of the dangerous journey north.

The devotion called for in the song was a matter of life and death.

I want to be ready…to walk to Jerusalem.

That anthem points not only to the process of devotion…those simple phrases and that repetition and rhythm of breath…

But also to the object of devotion…in this case freedom.

Devotion, our spiritual theme this month, is a challenge for most religious liberals. We are a collection of heretics…that word that means simply that we question and we chose.

Unquestioning devotion…especially to religious creeds of belief…

Well, that is just not who we are.

That has placed us outside traditions that demand acceptance of and devotion to particular beliefs.

In that image of Muslim prayer on the front of our OOS, we imagine ourselves as that young man who is sitting up, with his head erect, while all the other heads are touching the floor.

We celebrate Michael Servetus who refused to find the Trinity in the New Testament…because it is not there… even though it meant he would burn at the stake.

He refused to pretend devotion to a truth that was not true for him.

What are the things that you are devoted to? Are there any? I’ll bet there are. Are there many? Family? A love? A profession? A cause? A process? A practice?

I am trying to work with that term devotion…to open a little space for us to find a meaning that can deepen and enrich our own heretical, liberal religious life together.

As your minister, many of you probably expect me to be an expert in devotional practices…a master of prayer and an expert at meditation.

I do have a regular practice of prayer, but it is less disciplined and more free form than some of you might expect.

My practice, my devotional practice, is to sit, in the early morning, and, after a time, to ask the very best questions I can. And then wait for answers. Without being overly concerned about where the answers come from. I do this every day, or virtually every day.

But it is not just the repetition, the fact that I take time each morning.

I am not at all sure that simple repetition gets you very far.

There has been a recent controversy in the popular press prompted by Malcom Gladwell’s claim, in his book Outliers, that 10,000 hours of practice is required to become an expert in any discipline.

Well, the controversy was not so much that real dedication, real devotion is required to develop expertise, but rather that all those hours of practice might guarantee expertise, regardless of natural talent or instruction.

In my early adolescence, I discovered tennis. My family was not wealthy and tennis clubs and tennis lessons had not been part of my experience. But I did get a tennis racket when I went off to a YMCA camp one summer and fell in love with the game.

But where to practice? And with whom? I didn’t have access to a court and none of my friends played anyway.

But at my school, there was a parking lot that had the wall of the auditorium at one end. After school and on the weekends, there were no cars in the lot. So I would take my racket and can of tennis balls every chance I could find and hit the ball against the wall…over and over…forehand and backhand…forehand and backhand…

I don’t know how many hours I spent…far short of 10,000 I’m sure…but a lot.

And I thought I was getting pretty good.

That is, until I found someone who knew how to play and asked him to play with me. He was an older man, a family friend.

We began volleying the ball back and forth across the net. And I kept hitting my backhand hard and flat…but wild and often into the net.

“Show me that backhand again,” my partner said. He was in teaching mode. “You are hitting it too flat. Try coming over the ball like this. Top spin it is called. It lifts the ball over the net but the spin of the ball pulls it back down into the court. Top spin is how good players control where their shots land.

And…suddenly…I realized how badly I needed help. All my practice against that wall had just reinforced bad habits. Because I had been forced to make it up myself…rather than learning the disciplines of the game.

I had been devoted…but badly informed.

Those of you who have been through the Wellspring Program here or have taken one of the classes we offer on prayer or Tai Chi or yoga…any of those experiences are ways to get some guidance for practices that may work for you, devotions that you may find supportive and helpful as you move through this world, which is so stressful and troubling right now.

Artists and athletes speak of something called “flow,” of how when they are deeply involved in what they are doing, time ceases to exist. Somehow their sense of self as separate from what they are doing becomes less sharp. They are what they are doing. Artists become one with the paint, the chalk, the clay. Awareness expands…the self somehow becomes part of something larger than self.

Have you experienced anything like this? Those of you who regularly practice some form of meditation…does this sound familiar?

Those who follow the practice of prayer sometimes call this ‘divine union.’

In our faith tradition we do not have good language for this. In fact, I am not sure at all that most of us trust it.

Call it transcendence, perhaps. Or call it the interdependent web made real. But the outcome of devotion, of the many kinds of devotion, all take us outside the concerns of the narrow self…and connect us to that which is larger…or at least let us remember our connection and our dependence.

It all traditions, this requires devotion to a practice. But this is not a 10,000 hour kind of thing. It is not a ‘check off the requirements’ kind of thing. Because that transcendence, that connection is not achieved so much…as it is given.

If what I am talking about makes any sense at all to you, there are some questions we need to talk about.

Knowing that that sense of connection is possible but also accepting that we cannot live in it all the time…how do we move in the world?

I want to be ready…to walk in Jerusalem.

Walking on the earth is a practice. Walking on the earth can be a practice of devotion.

The metaphor of walking and of standing is problematic for folks with mobility limitations. I am getting more familiar with these issues as you all know. A cane has become my friend this year.

I spend more time being grateful for the mobility I have than for the mobility I have lost. But it is still a test. (When I look in the mirror, I still see that trim, strong 15 year old ready to take his tennis rack out to that wall.)

Thich Naht Hanh, at Plum Village, his community in France, teaches walking mediation. Some of you know this form of devotion. The labyrinth that we have available once a month is a form of walking mediation.

But when someone comes to Plum village in a wheelchair, an instructor finds a comfortable place for that person to sit and watch the walkers.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes this process in her book, An Altar in the World:

“[The instructor] asks her to pick one of the walkers, focusing intently on what that person is doing as she deepens her own breathing. Watch the movement, he tells her. Notice the exact moment each foot leaves the ground. See the shape of the arc that foot makes as it finds its way back down. When your mind wanders, ride your breath back to the present moment.

After about 20 minutes of this, most people discover at least two things:

first, they can do walking meditation without leaving their [wheel]chairs; and second, that their bodies are not as localized as they had thought. Watching the walkers, they sometimes lose track of whose foot is in the air.”

How do we move on the earth, in the world, in this community?

Whose foot is in the air? Whose feet are on holy ground?

Remember Moses…yes, Moses. His life was changed when he was out walking, tending his father-in-law’s sheep. You remember the story. He had taken the sheep to Horeb, the mountain of God. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a bush burning, but not being consumed by the flame.

It was, as the scripture lets the readers know, the presence of God in the bush. But Moses only saw that flash of flame.

“I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

He could have just walked on. Those sheep were still moving ahead. He could have decided to come back later when it was more convenient, after the flock had found a pasture.

But if he had just walked on, or come back later…well, we wouldn’t be telling his story today.

Because when Moses noticed, when he paid attention, when he turned aside, so the story goes, God noticed and called to him out of the bush: “Moses, Moses.”

“Here I am,” Moses replied and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Take off your sandals,” God said, “because you are standing on holy ground.”

Moses paid attention. And that perhaps is the most important thing I can tell you about devotion…that it is about paying attention.

Now, I have never see a burning bush like Moses saw.

But I have seen a hillside light up with a shaft of sunlight on a cloudy day, the grays turning to green as the clouds parted. The hill toward which I was walking seemed reborn.

I was with a lawyer and a potential buyer for our family farm property in North Carolina. Inspecting the land, the potential buyer had climbed a wooded hill above the old cabin in which my grandmother had been born.

On top of that hill, was a stand of trees. And a small pile of stones. A cairn it is called. It has been a way to mark a holy site at least since Biblical times.

Two headstones were nearby, set into the ground. No writing carved into them but clearly this was a gravesite.

Some of “my people” were buried there…with that shaft of sun pointing to their resting place.

The buyer said, “I wanted to make sure you saw this. And to assure you that we will keep it safe, with a fence around these graves. And you can always visit.”

Pay attention, Bill.

Here I am.

This is Holy Ground.

Pay attention.

Standing on that hill I felt as connected to myself and to the universe as at any time in my life.

On that piece of higher ground, I thanked that potential buyer. But the gratitude I felt was for all those who had gone before, all those on whose shoulders I stand, all those who made possible my life.

Whose am I?

One true answer is that I am theirs.

And if my devotions help me reclaim that sense of connection perhaps the strength of their lives can find expression in my life.

Our devotions need to point toward hope and help us find the peace and the strength to help love live.

Whose are you?

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Where do you come from?

Whose are you?

At the end of the day, through the longest night, … Who, what holds you in the hollow of its hand?

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?

Devotion asks us to go there and pay attention to what we find.

Whose are you? Whose are we all?


Will you pray with me now?

Spirit of Life and of Love, Great Mystery at the heart of things.

In these troubled days when we have to hold
Not only our own struggles, but the sorrow and the fear
of the world as well,
In these days when so much may be lost and
So many call out for help,
Help us point to higher ground
And the vision of the Beloved Community
Which must remain our persistent dream
Help us walk to that New Jerusalem
Which we, together, devoted,
can build on higher ground.



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