The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Catepillar1In response to a photo I posted which captured a moment of connection with Linda, a friend, Betty Cloyd, replied with the title of a book by the eighteenth century priest Jean-Pierre Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The phrase captures the profound and transcendent nature of each moment.

Sacrament is often defined in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The English word comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. The term is also derived from the Greek New Testament word “mysterion,” or mystery.

So, how does the present moment rate as a sacrament? Each moment becomes a mysterious gift within which the holy and transcendent is present as grace, the loving power of God to create, renew, reconcile, and transform.

Pastoral theologian John Swinton contends that people with dementia do not lose their “sense” of time; they lose their “tense” of time. The real time is the present moment. Those who care for them must learn to be present in the moment.

Regrettably, I have never been as contemplative in my spiritual quest as I have wanted to be. But people with dementia, including my wife, are teaching me to be truly present in the moment. It’s hard work! I have to slow down, concentrate, pay attention to little movements and subtle expressions.

Celebrating the present moment is an art and craft. It is learned and honed with practice, requires disciplined attentiveness, mindfulness.  It is one of the gifts Linda is giving me now! She is teaching me the sacredness of the present moment.

We often speak of the ministry of presence. I frequently hear pastors, laity, and family members express hesitate about visiting people with dementia. “I don’t know what to say! They don’t know me when I arrive or remember when I leave. So, why visit?”

It is a devilish temptation which robs people with dementia, their pastors and family members of the sacrament of the present moment. From my experience as a caregiver and pastor, I am convinced that the feeling/experience of a momentary connection lasts far beyond the cognitive awareness.

People with dementia are hypersensitive to emotions. Linda senses moods of which I am unaware. I cannot hide my frustration or stress from her! It may be that as people with visual impairment become more sensitive to sounds, people with cognitive impairment develop added sensitivity to feelings/emotions/attitudes.

With very few exceptions, the one reality to which people with dementia respond is LOVE, even those in the severe stages. And you can’t fake it! They know if you care! They sense if you are afraid of them or uncomfortable with them. They sense if a caregiver really values them as persons or only relishes the paycheck or if a pastor or family member is only visiting out of a sense of duty.

What is the sacred within the present moment? It is LOVE! Love transforms the present moment into a sacrament!

A gentle touch, a clasp of the hand, a warm embrace, a silent presence, a  spontaneous smile, a compassionate act—these become sacraments, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.

As we fill a moment with compassion we experience the sacrament of the present moment. After all, we experience God, the source of all love!

(Photo by Norma Smith Sessions)

A Convert from Christianity to Judaism Teaches Us about Jesus

“As a former Christian who has converted to Judaism, how do you now see Jesus?” I asked a speaker in our Sunday school class.

The speaker grew up as Southern Baptist.  After studying comparative religions in college, she converted to Judaism. She openly and humbly shared her journey from a faithful and devout Christian to an equally devout Reformed Jew.  It was a long process of discernment through study, conversations, and involvement in both Jewish and Christian practices.

She grew up affirming Jesus as the Son of God, her personal Savior and Lord. She was baptized and received into church membership.  Now, she no longer affirmed the creedal affirmations of her childhood and youth.

“I see Jesus as a reformer,” she replied to my question. She elaborated that much of Judaism of Jesus time had become rigid, focused on rules, and controlled by religious elites.  Jesus, however, sought reform based on the vision of the prophets and God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses.  His focus was on the spirit of the law rather than the letter.

There followed a discussion of the relationship between what Jews celebrate in the Exodus and Christians celebrate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a rich and informative discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation.

I wonder if we Christians have jumped too quickly to lofty creedal affirmations about Jesus and missed the radical nature of his reformation. Is it possible that the contemporary church in North America resembles the leadership elitism, rigidity, and legalistic focus of the speaker’s assessment of first century Judaism?

Without diminishing the importance of our creedal declarations about Jesus, viewing Jesus as Reformer has merit, especially in this era of institutional preoccupation and reliance on legislation and judicial processes.

Danger exists in the emphasis on Jesus as personal savior and relegating him to a theological or doctrinal category.  The invitation to “accept Jesus as your personal savior” can be an appeal to selfishness! The focus is on what Jesus does for me! He can become my personal possession and the champion of my individual needs or desires that masquerade as needs.  Salvation becomes my personal ticket to heaven when I die.

Or, Jesus Christ can easily become an abstract theological/doctrinal affirmation, locked in a creed and rationally defended against “heresy.” We can praise him with our lips while he is far from our hearts and actions.

The first disciples began their journey with Jesus in response to the simple invitation, “Follow me.” They accepted him first as Lord, master, teacher, and reformer! In following him, believing what he said, going where he went, welcoming those whom he welcomed Jesus became their Savior.

One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that many who believe the right things about Jesus fail to be reformed by him. For example, Frederick Douglas reports that his slave master became even more cruel once he was converted!  Affirming Jesus as personal savior and treating others as less that children of God falls woefully short of Christian discipleship.

Focus on getting to heaven while ignoring the hell in which people currently live misses the mark of what it means to accept Jesus. A more faithful response is that of Moses, so concerned about the people that he prayed, “But now, please forgive their sin–but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32).

What would it mean if the contemporary church in North America looked to Jesus as Reformer, as well as Savior and Lord? I offer a few modest suggestions and invite your own reflection.

  • Focus on the present and coming reign of God’s justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality and joy rather than institutional survival and triumphalism. God’s preoccupation is the healing and transformation of the world, not the statistical growth of the institutional church.
  • Shift the margins so that the poor, imprisoned, the weak, the outcasts, the sick and vulnerable are at the center of the church’s fellowship, ministry, and worship rather than being mere objects of charity at best and despised at worst.
  • Turn away from legislation and judicial processes as primary means of dealing with conflicts and differences and practice reconciliation, forgiveness, and hospitality.
  • Give priority to the formational role of doctrine whereby the test of orthodoxy is orthopraxis; that is, let’s focus on doctrine’s role in shaping persons and communities who reflect God’s reign as brought near in Jesus the Christ rather than using doctrine to determine who is in and who is out.

Yes, I affirm Jesus as my Lord and Savior! But he’s also the radical Reformer of the status quo in church and society!


Speaking the Languages of Love

“How do we tell someone who has lost language comprehension that we love her?” I asked the worshippers at Bethany, the memory care facility where Linda was a resident for eighteen months.  Beside me stood a resident whose speech has been reduced to incoherent babbling. She looked into my eyes as though longing to speak.

“Hug her,” came a response from a resident who struggles with hallucinations as well as lost and distorted memories.  I  put my arm around her and she embraced me in return.

Looking into her sad eyes and calling her by name, I said, “I love you!”

Suddenly, the sadness in her eyes turned to a sparkle. With a faint smile, she said plainly for all to hear, “I love you!” Babbling turned to the language of love.

It was Pentecost Sunday!  We had been singing such hymns as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Kum bah Yah”, “Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in this Place,” and “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.”

We heard the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 where people with different languages and cultures and traditions understood one another. “Tongues of fire” descended on diverse and multi-lingual people and  God’s Spirit created a new community.

Bethany became a new community as the barriers once again crumbled!

Present among the residents were various religious traditions: American Baptist, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Holiness, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Jewish. A few claim no religious affiliation. Some present in the service have forgotten God and no longer remember who Jesus is. Perhaps a few have never consciously known God.

All share a common characteristic: Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.  They are at various stages in their disease but all are unable to live alone and care for themselves.

What made it possible for the people present at that Jewish festival to understand one another even though they spoke different languages?’ I asked the worshipers.

They loved one another,” a resident called out.  A conversation about how love enables us to understand and accept one another followed.

Other languages are present at Bethany. One couple speaks Portuguese. Another’s native tongue is Spanish and another is Italian. A staff member speaks Swahili. A volunteer present for the service knows French and German.

“Let’s learn to say “I love you” in different languages,” I suggested. So, we tried to speak words of love in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Swahili.  With varying degrees of success, we tried to speak love in multiple languages.

It was during those exchanges that the resident whose language skills have been destroyed by her disease came and stood beside me.  How do we say “I love you” to someone who can’t speak or understand words?

There followed a time of practicing love without words—hugs, handshakes, an open hand, a smile, a pat on the back, a warm smile. Other love languages were mentioned—helping, protecting, encouraging, feeding, bathing, just being with. . .!

They got it! Beneath all our hyper cognitive theological talk and creedal statements is the simple reality that God is LOVE. To love is to know God! Pentecost happens when people express the multiple languages of love!

The worshipers at Bethany are a microcosm of our world! They are black and white and brown. They are Christian, Jewish, and none of the above. Their behaviors are sometimes offensive and difficult. Intellectual abilities vary broadly. For some the filters are gone and they cross boundaries of affection and relationships.  Some have been highly skilled professional people. Others have a background of common labor.

They are just like the rest of us! As I listen to the rancor in our society and churches and the talk about dividing as a denomination, I pray that we learn and practice the languages of love.  One thing that binds us all together: We are God’s beloved children!

Within the embrace and “I love you” from the worshiper at Bethany on Pentecost Sunday was another voice! It was God’s Holy Spirit speaking the language of Greater Love, declaring to us all “I know you by name. I have redeemed you! You are mine!”

We are surrounded by God’s ever-present language of love, and “speaking” that language with one another is our highest calling.