Harrowing Of Hell
February 12, 2023

Spiritual Non-Negotiables

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning, Epiphany. There was a moment at the end of the Christmas holidays when irritation started to overtake me. My son Desmond asked me to drive him to the airport on a Tuesday at 4:30 in the morning.

Now, I don’t mind getting up early, that wasn’t the issue. The issue was when I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is pray (after drinking water, of course), I pray. Everybody in my family knows that. Everyone in the church knows that. 

And so, to get up that early to drive him, requires I get up even earlier to say my prayers. Because my early morning daily prayer is a non-negotiable in my life. And everybody in my family knows that. Everyone in the church knows that. Yet, one person in my family was asking me to drive him to the airport at 4:30 in the morning.

I was arching toward irritation… Why? Because my prayer life matters a lot to me. It may be the most beautiful thing I do, and not just because of what I experience during prayer, but because of why I do it… to honor God, and I do it religiously.

Now I did take Desmond to the airport, because he asked, because I can, and because I believe that sometimes when non-negotiables are interrupted God may be offering a new insight, or different perspective. I got neither, but as always, I enjoyed my time with my son. And I knew I could pray when I got home. I knew prayer would h appen because it is a non-negotiable in my life.

When using a term like non-negotiable, our minds can jump to rigidity; our minds can jump to works righteousness. Words like non-negotiable can flare thoughts of judgmentalism and even divisiveness. And if those thoughts jump to your mind, then you and I are very much alike. Because I can tell you from first-hand experience that my spiritual non-negotiables can provoke judgment, and pride, by elevating them above what God is doing at a particular moment in time… like getting my son back to college.

A non-negotiable should be a religious icon, but it can sometimes be a personal idol. Which is what Jesus was talking about when he accuses the Pharisees of shirking their responsibility to care for their parents and instead spend their money on a Temple tithe. That happens.

What also can happen around non-negotiables is they become rote and pedantic. They become “just going to church,” or “just saying your prayers.” I know what that is like in my own prayer life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about money when I pray. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about a project I’m working on when I pray. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve perseverated on a conversation that had taken place when I pray. In my prayers, I would say the majority of the time I’m not actively thinking about God. Sometimes, I confess, I even forget to say my intercessory prayers. Sorry.

But I keep going back, every day. Non-negotiable.  I keep showing up, because in truth, just showing up says something about my desire to be in relationship with God. Just showing up say something about my belief that God has done extraordinary things for me, like God has for you. I cannot repay God through my spiritual non-negotiables, but I can honor God by showing up.

And then sometimes there are moments, holy moments, in prayer;  sometimes they’re so sacred I can’t even believe it. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but I do know it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t show up. And in those moments, I’m reminded how much God loves me, and it’s because of that love that I desire to be a better person.

Which is what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel today. It is a passage that can make us squirm. Rules about murder (which is good… don’t do it), but also adultery, divorce, and swearing as communal non-negotiables that were established by the ancient Israelites.

They were laws set to regulate individual behavior for the sake of order and justice and harmony. Nothing wrong with that, per se. And yet, Jesus pushes on them, he probes them,to reveal their true purpose, which is to align our inside, our heart, with our outside, our actions, so we become the kind of person no longer inclined to call somebody a fool; but instead, to naturally seek reconciliation with someone who is mad at us. 

When we are changed from the inside-out, not only do actions that hurt the community disappear, but the compulsion to do them falls away as well. When we live the law from the inside-out there grows within us an internal consistency where what our heart desires, our mouth speaks. No longer does our heart say “no” and our mouth say “yes.” No longer does our heart say “yes” and our mouth say “no.” Now we are people for whom our “yes” is “yes” and our “no” is “no.” We are people of internal consistency and this brings us joy, because it puts us in alignment with God’s will for our lives, and it creates safety and consistency for those around us.

That’s what Jesus is talking about today, and that’s what I’m talking about as well when I’m talking about spiritual non-negotiables. Spiritual non-negotiables train us to be the kind of person whose inside is the same as our outside. Whose “yes” is “yes” and “no” is “no.”

The spiritual non-negotiables are the path we’ve chosen to orient our hearts to God. And that is beautiful, and that is wonderful, and that it is a life worth living. Even if it’s late in your life, and time on this earth seems shorter and shorter. It  is never too late! Because it’s never too late to do something beautiful. It’s never too late to reach up, and reach out, to honor God. It is never too late to practice your religion.It is like tending a garden, over time something emerges that is sublime and compelling.

Tending to our spiritual life with the same necessity and care and consistency and compassion as a garden creates something beautiful that people perceive whether they believe in the thing we’re doing or not doing.

I find it good, and yet a little discordant, when I see people around me afford respect and admiration for other religious traditions and yet mock Christianity, or fail to practice it with the same boldness and transparency they admire in other religions. We respect the Sabbath tradition of Orthodox Jews, don’t we? And none of us would ever think of insisting an Orthodox friend to skip the Sabbath to come to our birthday party.

I remember traveling in the Sudan, in wartime circumstances, and yet my driver, five times a day, would pull over to the side of the road, irrespective of where we were, and kneel down, and pray. There was something honorable about that, and what it said about his relationship with God.

Do we carry our religion the same way? Do we have non-negotiables about how we honor God? Do we tell people about our spiritual practices and why they are so fundamentally important to us;and how they train us to be people who’s “yes” is “yes” and “no” is “no?”

Do we share with others how it is by our religion we train, in community, to be people who seek internal consistency where what our heart desires, our actions uphold? I wonder if we have a religious non-negotiable that is equivalent to an alcoholic’s non-negotiable about never drinking again; or a surgeon’s non-negotiable about the cleanliness of their surgical theatre; or a pilot’s non-negotiable routine of going through the preflight checklist. Is there something like that in your life? Is there some way in which you care for your soul with the same kind of rigor? For the alcoholic and the surgeon and the pilot it is about life. For the Christian it is about life as well: our spiritual life, our relational life, our communal life, our eternal life, our with-God life.

Do not be embarrassed. Do not be ashamed. I know Jesus says: don’t pray standing on the street corner, but that doesn’t mean don’t tell people that you are a person of prayer; that you have a spiritual non-negotiable. Practice your religion, in an open way that honors God, and you may be surprised to find it inspires people around you, whether they believe in what you’re doing or not.

Lent is a time to be intentional about our spiritual non-negotiables. It’s an opportunity to adopt a practice for 40 days that gives a foretaste of the garden that can blossom in our souls by practicing our religion.

This year I am encouraging everyone to practice their religion by participating in an Intentional Lent. I am inviting you to choose a spiritual non-negotiable for the next 40 days. It may look like a silent, no phone, no ear-bud walk every day. It may mean coming to church every Thursday and every Sunday. It may means fasting on Fridays, or taking on a new service activity, like Frank preached about last Sunday. Maybe it means reading a spiritual book. I would recommend Analog Church by Jay Kim. Maybe it means daily prayer.

Decide what it will be. Tell people about it.  Tell the people you are closest too about it. Ask them to honor it. And then on Ash Wednesday, February 22, come to church at 7:30 pm. After the service I’ll invite you to sign your name on the Intentional Lent board in the back of the church. You don’t have to say what you’re taking on this Lent, just that you have made the intentional commitment to spiritual non-negotiable this Lent.

And here is the good news, we are going to do this together. Religion happens in community, which is why we gather here with others, training, to be people who seek internal consistency: where what our heart desires, our actions uphold, as people whose “yes” is “yes” and “no” is “no.”