I’m reading and preaching through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World right now. This book is full of rich imagery and beautiful writing – profound and earthy. Last Sunday we considered the chapter on reverence.
I had not previously considered how far out of the mainstream reverence is. Reverence isn’t hip anymore, irreverence is. Irreverence is everywhere. With a single click you can buy the irreverent guide to parenting, grand-parenting, leadership, politics, culture, theology, church, youth ministry, and spirituality, but if you are looking for reverence? Not so much. Nearly all humor in our culture is based in irreverence – see John Stewart, The Family Guy, all stand up comedians, or nearly any sitcom. It wasn’t always this way.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a prude. Irreverence can be a powerful part of countering the powers and principalities. Irreverence is essential for things like satire which help to unmask the rival gods of the culture. Yet I do wonder if we’re reaching a sort of cultural tipping point – where we are so irreverent about so many things that we risk losing the ability to be reverent about anything.
Taylor never went there, but I think we typically show irreverence toward something when we think it has lost or should lose its power, mystique, or importance. There is a ton of irreverence aimed toward God, the church, and especially evangelicals… like these folks need to be taken down a notch or two. I get that. Lots of terrible things have been done by Christians in God’s name. We have science to explain things now, why do we need God? Those are all good questions and I think we need to listen to the critiques… they are teaching us the truth about ourselves.
Still I think Reverence is one of the essential moves a human being must learn to make if they want to live a life of wisdom. Reverence belongs on the list of important spiritual practices right beside prayer, rest, worship, generosity, friendship, service, or bible reading for that matter. We all need a little reverence in our lives.
Taylor says reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods. She says “Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self- something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends human understanding.” God fits that bill for sure, but so do other things: birth, death, sex, nature, truth, justice, wisdom, sobriety, love…
“Reverence stands in awe of something – something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits – so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.” If you can’t see things that are up the food chain from you w/reverence then there’s no way we’ll be able to treat things down the food chain from us with reverence. If you don’t view God with reverence, chances are you won’t view your neighbor w/reverence either.
Here are the three things I learned about reverence last week:
First, Reverence always starts with the small stuff. When Moses saw the burning bush the text says that he “turned aside.” He left whatever he was doing at the time and took a little detour. It was a small thing, but the whole story of Israel turned on that small decision. Reverence requires a willingness to pay attention to the small, the ordinary, the seemingly insignificant things. Reverence means a willingness to take detours & side trips.
Second, Reverence is always human, humane, and humanizing. Irreverence is inhuman, inhumane, and dehumanizing. In his new book Rob Bell tells a story about a woman in a small Midwest town who started teaching a weeknight yoga class. It was the first yoga class ever taught in her town and bunch of women began attending. The teacher said a very strange thing began to happen: Several women, a different woman each time, would begin weeping partway through the class, & they wouldn’t stop. She tells a pretty compelling story about why.
The word yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “unite, integrate.” As the teacher got to know the women & know their story, she learned that for many of these women, this was the first time they had ever been told their body was good; it is a sacred gift and should be cared for. They’d never had someone guide them in the integration of their body with their mind, soul, and spirit. It was a deeply reverent thing for them – it was human, humane, and humanizing.
Third, Reverence keeps us from consuming without limits. Taylor says, “Human beings have a hard time regarding anything beautiful without wanting to devour it… the same instinct drives compulsive shoppers, promiscuous lovers, and petty thieves.” What a brilliant line. We have a hard time just looking at something, appreciating it without having to posses it or devour it.
Psychologists do these tests with little kids. “I’ll give you 3 pieces of this candy to eat now, or 5 pieces to eat but you have to wait an hour.” They always pick door number one. This isn’t a big deal when it comes to candy. But it can be a pretty big deal when it comes to the planet, relationships, sexuality, food, booze, and so on. This issue is deep within us.
All of us live into and according to our perceptions of ourselves… these deep convictions about who we are. If you believe you are the center of planet, you’ll live as though you are. If you believe you are a consumer, you’ll consume anything and everything you can. If you believe you are worthless and have nothing to contribute, this will dictate how you engage with the world.
Reverence counters all of those toxic convictions.
What if when Moses came across the burning bush, he didn’t take his sandals off because the ground suddenly became holy; he took his sandals off because he realized the ground has been holy the whole time. Where’s the holy ground in your life? Find a way to be reverent toward someone or something today.