Great Expectations of a Journey to God
In 1993, a small Sabbath School group at La Sierra University Church discussed the possibility of creating a different type of intentional Sabbath worship experience. In particular, they sought a deeper sense of the intimate presence of God. They desired a higher return from the investment of time in communal Sabbath worship, and they wished to see manifestations of transformation in their daily lives as a result of connecting their hearts more closely with God’s.
On January 22, 1994, this fellowship of pilgrims began a new experimental liturgical journey on Sabbath mornings at their church prior to the regular schedule of Sabbath School classes. Gary Chartier was the inaugural service leader or liturgist, and Fritz Guy presented the first homily.
The book Heart Speaks to Heart: Spiritual Reflections by Robert P. Dunn, first published in 2019 and recently reissued, is a collection of homilies curated by Chartier of reflections presented by Dunn over a span of 25 years to follow the reading of appointed Biblical texts organized for a canonical year. Dunn is a professor emeritus at La Sierra University whose area of expertise was in Renaissance English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare. In addition to his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin, he earned an RelM at the School of Theology at Claremont.
This assortment of 39 homilies clearly etches the expansive contours of Dunn’s unending search for pathways which groups or individuals can follow in order to encounter the divine presence in all aspects of their lives and thus become transformed. His voice is humble, passionate, and optimistic.
In the chapter 4 homily titled “Wise Men from the East,” Dunn compares the earnest inquiry of the magi with the quest of the early Sabbath morning worshipers. “…We simply stopped and listened in deep, reverential silence. That silence, that willingness to listen, is the heart of this worship service. For it is by turning away from all the noise of our culture—from the television, radio, newspapers, magazines, movies, indeed even from the often noisy worship style of other Adventists and other Christians—by turning away from all these things, some of which are very good, we have begun to hear the still small voice of God and to realize in shock that God dwells in us.” (20)
This theme of the necessity and power of silence is a recurring one in Dunn’s homilies. He refers to silence as God’s first language, “But to know that language well is the work of a lifetime.”
As one would expect from an English professor, Dunn buttresses his ideas with a feast of prayers, hymns, poems, and prose from a global community of seekers and believers through the ages, ranging from William Blake and Thomas Merton to Samuel Beckett, Fanny Crosby and Chaucer. He references Mother Teresa who supports the essential value of silence in her book No Greater Love:
We cannot find God in noise and agitation.
Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence.
What is essential is not what we say but what God tells us and what He tells others through us.
In silence He listens to us; in silence He speaks to our souls.
In silence we are granted the privilege of listening to His voice.
Silence of our eyes.
Silence of our ears.
Silence of our mouths.
Silence of our minds.
…in the silence of the heart
God will speak.
In addition to probing the layers of edification in the scriptural readings from the annual liturgical cycle, Dunn’s homilies also provide glimpses into his own spiritual voyage as he explores the divine mystery of faith. We learn about his attendance at multi-day retreats and tours with other spiritual traditions, his worship with multiple communities of faith, and his various private devotional exercises and habits of contemplative prayer.
Dunn repeatedly encourages people to discover the ways God’s presence can best be nurtured for them: music, reading, nature, places of worship, relationships, personal devotions—and always, silence and stillness as the psalmist said in Ps. 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Two of Dunn’s examples of simple ways believers have enhanced the sense of God’s presence via daily activities were especially compelling as one could easily imagine hearing and seeing them. First, he repeated what Celtic women pronounced in the morning with three palmfuls of water as they invoked the Trinity:
The palmful of the God of life
The palmful of the Christ of Love
The palmful of the Spirit of Peace
Triune of Grace.
(Esther de Waal, “The Extraordinary in the Ordinary,” Weavings, May/June 1987)
Secondly, Dunn shines a light on the Irish practice of recognizing “the presence of the holy by marking a cross in the dough they bake. How, I wonder, do I mark the presence of the divine in my life?” (41) In other homilies, Dunn continues to wave the flag for the harmonizing and enlightening power of intimacy with God: “The heart of the Christian religion, in whatever form, is a sense of the working presence of God in us and in all his creation, a presence that seeks to unify the entire world in peace, love and joy.” (162) Dunn seeks total immersion in the love of God which, like the pillar of fire which led the Israelites, “illuminates the path on which we ought to go.”
Learning to wait—to appreciate and respect the divine mysteries—is also a fundamental act of discipleship Dunn emphasizes. He finds the gospel and the apostles direct us “not to live in fantasy, not to live in possessions, but to live in faith that someday God will make sense of our world. They tell me to wait on God. ‘Stand firm,’ ‘hold fast’ the apostle advises…. Near the center of the gospel is eager, loving waiting…Jesus simply reminds us that we stand in that long line of the faithful that goes back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Dunn refers to the liturgical services at La Sierra as an experiment in waiting: “We had hoped that in a simple and harmonious blending of scripture readings, homilies, liturgies, music and silence we should experience a greater closeness to God…we would quietly, prayerfully wait, trusting that God would show us in silence the way to his heart.”
Included in this book are homilies that dive into the essential meanings of the sacraments of Sabbath, communion and baptism. Other selections provide compelling views of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, the role and power of the law of God, and how the kingdom of God grows like a seed within us without our even being aware of it. These are familiar topics for Adventists, but Dunn approaches them with the overarching desire to abide in the heart of God and offers encouraging insights on God’s creative and redemptive interactions with mankind. Dunn’s reflections on the final moments for the thief on the cross, the different perspectives of the sister saints Mary and Martha, and the wisdom of Balaam’s donkey underscore God’s command to live to bless others, to do justice, love kindness, speak the truth from the heart.
Dunn and most of the other attendees at the Sabbath liturgical services have been faculty or administrators at La Sierra University. It is uplifting to know that the students there are in the midst of professionals who see, like the disciples after the resurrection of the Messiah, “that at the heart of the world there is a power that rejoins them to God and to neighbor, and that heart and that power both dwell in divine love.” The students can prepare for walking with God on this earth as well as in that other place He is preparing for us.
The chapter titled “Dwelling in the Light” was a presentation Dunn made at an English Department meeting. He frames their work as an act of devotion: “All our work is prayer…We pray silently through our actions that others may find their place in a hurting world and develop the knowledge and skills to make a difference in the lives of others.” Dunn closes his remarks by stating the shared commitment to “helping students find light in all their studies, light that will illuminate both how the world appears now and how they may help improve it.”
One cannot help but absorb through this collection of homilies the depth and integrity of Dunn’s lifelong commitments to an ever-increasing intimacy with God as well as hope-filled and loving service to family, campus and community. Yet he also is aware of the danger that always lurks. “I find that religion itself—much as I like to practice it—can become the most insidious vice of all. Then, instead of giving me a clearer, dearer vision of God, religious things and practices hid his face from me. They make me blind, blind in the most wretched way of all, blind to my need of grace.”
Two small things would have improved this book for me. Including the scriptural reading that occurred immediately before the homily and to which it was a response could have enriched my understanding of Dunn’s remarks. Likewise, providing a date, or at least the year, of each homily’s original presentation could provide some useful historical context for political, historical or cultural circumstances mentioned by Dunn in some of the chapters.
Heart Speaks to Heart reveals a very dynamic engagement with the Divine both as an individual and also as a member of a specific community of worshipers over a considerable period of time. Obviously, this book can serve as inspiring devotional reading based on particular scriptural passages. But it also serves as a clear call to action: demand better outcomes from one’s personal and communal worship practices or traditions; prepare to encounter God anywhere and anytime and thus to be transformed. Joining Dunn in these great expectations seems like a proven way to journey to God.
Photos by Spectrum
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