Worship for March 29, 2020

Link to audio file for this at home worship

The audio file begins with Larry Anderson’s prelude, to help us prepare for worship.

(Once the audio begins to play, you can click back to this page, and read and listen at the same time, if you like.)

Let’s take a moment for quiet prayer. There is so much happening in the world, and we have so many questions, concerns, and anxieties. There is so much happening that still does not feel quiet real, and yet, here we are. And God is with us in the midst of it all.

I am continuing this week to look at the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. I think the desert could have felt to him, absolutely real, and at the same time, like a place outside of regular life and time.

Please listen as Sue Timpson-Mannell reads the story for us:

Matthew 4:1-11 from The Message

Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”

Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”

For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.”

Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.”

For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”

Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

 The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.

Sue is self-quarantined after visiting her friend in Indiana, but was able to record the scripture lessons for us on her phone, and send them in.

On Friday, I met with Larry Anderson and Jeff Csikasz, at a careful social distance, and we recorded some music. Here is Jeff singing and playing one of his favourites.

I asked for that song because of a line in the chorus that says, “In the desert you can remember your name”.

It seems to me that in his time in the desert, Jesus was called upon to remember who he was, and who he was meant to be. The tempter, or the tester offered him some shortcuts, some diversions from the path Jesus was meant to walk, and from the person he was meant to be- but Jesus resisted, and remembered his name, his identity.

The tempter knew their stuff, and the distractions offered to Jesus were pretty attractive. They are the classics, that people have always faced, and which we face today.

Jesus was offered food, a symbol for all material things. If he’d taken the devil up on the suggestion that he turn stones into bread, maybe he could have had at it, and turned the desert into a bakery warehouse. He could have turned rocks and stones, cliffs and boulders into baked goods.

Anything beyond what Jesus actually needed, to satisfy his physical hunger, would have gone to waste. There is a temptation to find comfort in having more than we need- as if we could make a strong castle out of the stuff in our lives, that would be a defense against the things that scare us.

The second distraction from his true life, from his true self, offered up to Jesus, was protection from pain and death. The devil brings him up to a high place, and says, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.”

The Devil also used scripture to suggest that if he did jump, God would send angels to catch him.

This is a tough one. We’d like to believe we are somehow protected from pain, from death. We might hope and pray the same thing for those we love- especially in these strange times. But Jesus resists the tempter on this one too. Jesus is as vulnerable, mortal, and subject to pain and grief as we are.

Jesus is a model for us, of how to live, and remember how we are meant to live, even in the face of hardship, terrible challenges, things that threaten to overwhelm.

The third challenge the tempter put to Jesus might also work on us, because it was about worldly power. What if the devil could have put Jesus in charge of all the countries of the world? The first problem, I think, is that his offer was a lie.  I don’t believe the devil could sign over all that power, because the devil is not in charge. God made all those people, in all those countries, as individuals with freedom to think, to feel, and make their own choices, for bad and for good.

We might, as we watch the news, and hear about the decisions leaders are having to make these days, wish we could have our say, or maybe take over, and do things better. If the devil appeared to me, and said, just worship me, and you can be in charge of the whole world, I might be sucked in. I might think, for a moment, that I could do better. But the reality is, I am not smart enough, creative enough, wise enough. Even if the devil had the power to put me in charge, which I think is a lie, it would be a terrible idea.

One human should not call all the shots. History is full of the stories of the miserable outcomes that occur when one person, one small group thinks they know what is best for everyone else.

All the minds, all the hearts, all the good will, of all people, are needed- not just the ego-driven desire of one person, who falls for the lie that the devil has put them in charge.

We need each other. We need to work together, in small things, and in big things, to make the world better safer, more habitable for our fellow humans, and all the other life with which the earth is teeming.

Jesus rejected the lies of the tester, and pushed back against the powerful distractions of the tempter. In the desert, Jesus remembered his name, and it gave him the strength and courage to carry on, to tell the devil to take off. And according to the story, the devil did leave, and angels came to take care of Jesus.

Jesus was still in the desert. The high places and tall towers, the piles of stones that could have been bread- all those lies, those illusions were gone. But the angels came to help him.

We are kind of in a desert. There are temptations. There are worries, anxieties, and the overwhelming sense at times, that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, whatever that is.

But we are not alone, and the desert, as strange as it seems, is not all terrible. There is beauty here. There is life. Please click on the audio file for the hymn for today. Larry and Jeff played the instrumental part. The words are below, if you want to sing along.

jeff and larry making music

VU 222 Come, Let Us Sing

1            Come, let us sing to the Lord our song,

we have stood silently too long;

surely the Lord deserves our praise,

so joyfully thank God for our days.

 

2            O thirsty soul, come drink at the well;

God’s living waters will never fail.

Surely the Lord will help you to stand,

strengthened and comforted by God’s hand.

 

3            You dwell among us and cause us to pray,

and walk with each other following your way;

our precious brothers and sisters will grow

in the fulfilling love they know.

 

4            Deserts shall bloom and mountains shall sing

to the desire of all living things.

Come, all you creatures, high and low,

let your praises endlessly flow.

I especially like the line in that hymn that reminds us that deserts shall bloom and mountains shall sing. God is still at work. In that same spirit, Sue Timpson-Mannell has a second reading for us.

Isaiah 35:1-7  from The Message 

Wilderness and desert will sing joyously,
the badlands will celebrate and flower—
Like the crocus in spring, bursting into blossom,
a symphony of song and color.
Mountain glories of Lebanon—a gift.
Awesome Carmel, stunning Sharon—gifts.
God’s resplendent glory, fully on display.
God awesome, God majestic.

Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”

Blind eyes will be opened,
deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer,
the voiceless break into song.
Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness,
streams flow in the desert.
Hot sands will become a cool oasis,
thirsty ground a splashing fountain.
Even lowly jackals will have water to drink,
and barren grasslands flourish richly.

One of my favourite spiritual writers, Howard Thurman was a preacher and teacher, and college professor, who inspired many people, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. Howard Thurman was an African American, born in rural Florida in 1899. His maternal grandmother had been a slave on Florida plantation. He was born into poverty, and his father died when Howard was 7 years old. He was raised by his grandmother, and his mother, who were women of deep faith.

Thurman wrote:

“There must be always remaining in every life, some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful.”

I have been hearing all week about ways people are being like angels for each other, with words and acts of kindness and generosity. People are baking good things, and dropping them on the porches of neighbours and friends. Others are taking out the garbage, and bringing the cans back in, for those who are housebound, or just need help.

People are phoning, texting, writing letters to each other. Sending love, and showing concern as they can.

People are making extra donations to places like the Downtown Mission, who are on the front line, helping folks who have it much tougher than most of us.

We can each exercise our free will, our creativity, our compassion, to make the world a little more humane, more beautiful, and life that much more possible for others.

When we do what we can, it helps others, and that is good, but I think it also helps us to remember our name, who we are, and who we are meant to be, in these strange times, in this weird desert place where we all now live.

Let’s pray:

God of deserts and blooming flowers, of night skies and bright stars, help us, in these strange times, to remember you, and your presence with us. Help us to slow down, and breathe, and remember again who you have created us to be. May we, with our unspoken prayers, with our acts of compassion and kindness, with our careful, loving words, bring beauty and hope into the lives of others. We pray for those we know who are sick, those who are grieving. We pray for those who feel alone. We pray especially for those who are now behind the locked doors of nursing homes, hospitals, and hospice. We pray for front line workers who are tending to the needs of the sick, and who are leading the fight against COVID-19. We pray for our government leaders and their advisors. We pray for those who continue to work, so that we have what we need to live. We make all our prayers as followers of Jesus, and we ask for your blessing in his name. Amen

Before I finish this recorded worship resource, I want to thank Jeff Csikasz and Larry Anderson for their music, and Sue Timpson Mannell for the scripture readings.

I also want to announce that this coming Friday morning, April 3, from 10 am until noon, Harrow United Church will have a drive-up food and necessities collection for Windsor’s Downtown Mission.

Our goal is to fill the back of a pick-up truck with items that can help folks who face the same challenges as we do, but who may have it much worse than most of us in the county.

Imagine facing the need to self-isolate, and keep clean, and eat healthy, if you were homeless!

If you are currently sick, or under self-quarantine, don’t worry about donating to this food drive. Take care of yourselves.

We will likely do this again, if it is needed, to re-stock the Harrow Food Bank, which our church normally collects for every week.

If your household is running out of food, and you can’t get out to get to a store, please let us know, and we will do our best to help you.

This worship resource comes to you from Harrow United Church. Our building may be closed for now, but our ministry in this community continues. God bless you all.

 

Just 3 good things

graphic-collection-number-3-neon-delightfull

I woke up with an idea, and a song in my head.

The idea is that I want to do three good things today. Not the usual, routine things that are part of most days, but new things. I intend to spend some time thinking about what I can do, planning how to do it, and then doing it.

I figure this 3 step process that leads to doing 3 things, actually adds up to 9 new things for me.

Since we are spending most of our time at home, seeing the same people, in the same space- this might be a bit of challenge. Are you up for it?

I would love to hear what 3 good things you come up with.

Oh, the song in my head is Seventh Wave by Sting.

Colour your Prayers March 26, 2020

 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And the One who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NIV adapted)

I don’t know how it is for you, but there are times when I have the need, the urge to pray, and really don’t have words. I don’t know how to say what I am feeling, and the thoughts have not coalesced, solidified enough that I can attach actual words to them.

These days, there is so much. I am carrying in my heart voices of people I talk with on the phone, pictures of folks in the church directory that I look at, while I ponder who to call next. There are the memories of things I have been told.  I think about people I am used to seeing almost every day. I think about people I have not seen for years.

I wonder about our world, and what will happen this afternoon, next week, and on and on….

That’s how I am today. Full of… prayers, questions, worries, dark thoughts, hopeful glimmers, deep love, compassion. So much. Maybe you have times like this too.

Back when I was studying and teaching contemplative practices, and offering the ministry of spiritual direction (I did that for about a decade before I came to Harrow), I developed a way to pray, when I don’t have all, or any of the words.

It starts with my art box, and a blank page.

I write down names, places, concerns. I paint over them with a colour that feels like God’s love, God’s attention. I used watercolour today, but I’ve done coloured pencils, even crayons in the past. More words, names, places come to mind, so I add them. God’s love is not limited by the size of my heart, so I add more colour. It’s a bit of bright mess- and that’s about right, for today.

 

Look for Beauty, for Grace, for Love

look for beautyIf you look closely at this photo I just took of the garden plot outside our kitchen window, you will see that I have work to do! You may also see the rhubarb poking up, and the chives. Bordering the unkempt plot is green grass, and there is a lovely shaft of sunlight warming the rich black soil. There is beauty there, and the grace of new life. There are living signs of God’s presence, of God’s great big love.

I have been phoning people I have never actually met, as part of the Harrow United Church “Angels” calling effort. Since I have only served this congregation for about 18 months, there are still a lot of folks I have yet to meet.

(If you have not been called yet, we are still working our way through the list. If you would like to help with calls, reach out to me. You can use the same contact form if you just feel like you would like me to call you.  I am happy to call the folks connected with Harrow United Church.

Everyone I have called has been happy to talk. One woman I spoke with yesterday described looking out her window, watching for bursts of spring growth, and new birds. She has the right idea, I think. Look for beauty, for grace, for love.

This wise woman also mentioned that she limits her diet of “news”. As she put it, every time she turns on the tv or radio, all they talk about are scary things.

The scary things are real. We need to take them seriously, and follow the best advice about self-isolation, keeping social distance, being careful.

We also need to look for signs that life is good, love is real, and there is beauty in the world.

This poem by Mary Oliver is a good reminder.

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross
Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

–Mary Oliver

white swan

Worship for Sunday, March 22, 2020

julian of norwich

new link for audio file

This week’s learning time is the last in a series of 3 based on the story of Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness. This story from early in Matthew’s Gospel is traditionally read in church on the first Sunday of Lent. It  is so rich in content that we could easily spend a few months on it.

The link above (the red or pink words) will open an audio file that begins with the Gospel text, continues with the Learning Time, and ends with a following prayer, written by Carol Penner, a professor at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario.

If you would rather read than listen, the text is printed below. (In the second half of the learning time I talk about Julian of Norwich,  whose image is seen in the picture of the stained glass window.) Following the text of the learning time and prayer there is a link to a hymn suggestion.

Take a moment to get comfortable, to breathe, to unclench your hands and heart, and place yourself in God’s hands. Know that you are held by God, loved by God.

My plan for the Sundays in Lent was to look closely each week at the story of Jesus alone, out in the wilderness. It seems now like a totally appropriate text to sit with in Lent, and in this strange season, as we grapple with isolation, social distancing, and things over which we have no power, and about which we know so little. These days we may be even more aware of what has always been true: Our lives have always been in God’s hands.

Matthew 4:1-11 from the New International Version

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness, when he took that 40 day and night retreat, before he began his public ministry. God was with him.

Last week I spent some time exploring what we mean when we talk about evil, and about the personifications of evil that are well known in our culture- Satan, or the Devil. In the gospel story, this character is also called the Tester, or the Tempter, depending on the translation. I mentioned that we actually get most of our ideas and information about the devil from places other than the Bible.

This is also true when it comes to angels, the holy messengers that are mentioned in this story. Our mental images of what angels look like, and what they do come as much from cartoons and movies as they do the Bible.

Angels are mentioned twice in the story of Jesus in the wilderness, but they are never described.

The first happened when the Devil challenged Jesus to jump from a high tower, with the assurance that, because God would not allow him to be harmed, the angels would catch him before he hit the ground. Jesus rejected that challenge.

The other mention of angels comes at the end of the wilderness story, after Jesus faced the last of the Devil’s three tests, and had successfully told the Devil to leave him alone, the Gospel account says that Jesus was attended to by angels.

It’s a nice ending to a scary story- which is something we may appreciate even more these days, when we are hearing one pretty big scary story every time the news is on, and most times we look at our phone, or computer. There is a big scary thing happening in our world. Where is God in all of this? Where are the angels?

When I read that part of the story in which the devil challenged Jesus, to jump off the tower and just trust that God would save him- the most scared parts of me kind of wish we could call upon God to simply save us, rescue us, or send an angel squad to catch us before we fall too far. But Jesus says no to that, and our experience in life also says no to that.

God does not seem to work that way, for the most part. Our faith, our loyalty, our good works in God’s name, do not seem to earn us protection from pain, or sickness, or tragedy, or even pandemics.

Is there some consolation in knowing that according to this story, Jesus was subject to the same trials and issues as we are?

There was pain, and illness, and tragedy in his world. He was human, like us, and suffered. People he knew and loved, suffered. He healed some, and helped many, and offered words of hope, and taught people to find meaning in their lives- but he did not sell them holy umbrellas under which they could hunker down, safe from all that comes with being human, with being finite, mortal beings.

So if we cannot expect God to send angels down to wave magic angel wands and eliminate the things that currently place us in peril, what can we expect?

Most of the time, when angels appear in scripture, they bring a singular message- be not afraid. God is here.

I have been thinking a lot this week about a woman named Julian of Norwich. She was a woman of prayer, who experienced spiritual visions of God. Her most famous quote is:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

She was often ill in her own life, and even when she was physically well, experienced a life of isolation, and great privation. She lived from around 1342 to 1416. Five times in her lifetime, Europe was ravaged by the Bubonic plague. They called it the Great Pestilence, or the Black Death. Historians think that about a third of the people in England succumbed to the plague, and that in Julian’s area, Norwich, the death toll may have been closer to half the population.

How could she live through such terrible times, and still say, and believe that,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian was a mystic. The gift of such people is the reminder they offer the rest of us, that our true peace, our true solace, our true sense that all can be well, is found, not in what we can do, or even in what is happening in the world around us, but with God.

Mystics invite us to quiet ourselves, to find the slow, unhurried part within us, that connects with the eternal, unchanging presence of God. With love. With our true hope.

It’s a bit like a line from the United Church creed, that says:

In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

These words from our creed remind me:

There is more to us than our fear.

There is more to God than solving the problems of the moment.

There is more to our existence than the present.

God is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death, or as Julian said,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian’s confidence is one that I can trust, because she came to it in prayer, while she lived through immense pain and suffering, but she saw through, and beyond those things to gaze on the compassionate face of God. And she knew that God gazed back, and that the trials of her present time were not the end of the story. Amen

Pandemic Prayer, by Carol Penner of Conrad Grebel College

Great God,
you are an ever-present help in times of trouble,
and that’s why we’re praying now.
We are troubled and we’re worried things
are going to get more troubling.
This virus is spreading around the world:
so many are seriously ill
or will be seriously ill,
so many health care systems are stretched
or will be stretched.
Be with front line medical workers,
give them courage to do their work
and keep them safe.
Be with public health officials
as they make decisions for the common good,
and politicians as they roll those decisions out.
Help us to be kind to one another,
because anxiety can make us snappy.
Help our communities to be resilient
and expansive as we reach out to help
all who are isolated and afraid.
In these times of shutdowns and slowdowns,
when travel is restricted or banned,
as routines are disrupted and we spend
less time together or more time together,
help us zero in on what is essential.
Thank you that love is also contagious
and stronger than any virus.
You will be with us,
and we will be with each other
in sickness and in health.
Amen.

Link to Prof. Penner’s page

A good hymn for today might be “Come and find the quiet centre” which is Voices United 374. Here are the lyrics:

If you click on  this link it will take you to a youtube video that plays the accompaniment, and also shows you the lyrics, so you can sing along. Come and find the quiet centre

Come and find the quiet centre
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace,
God it is who speaks and names us,
knows our being, face to face,
making space within our thinking,
lifting shades to show the sun,
raising courage when we’re shrinking,
finding scope for faith begun.

In the Spirit let us travel,
open to each other’s pain,
let our loves and fears unravel,
celebrate the space we gain:
there’s a place for deepest dreaming,
there’s a time for heart to care,
in the Spirit’s lively scheming
there is always room to spare!

 

A is for Advent

CreativeMarket-ABCProject-Letter-A1December 1, 2019 First Week of Advent – Day One of the Advent Alphabet- Rev. Darrow Woods

A is for Advent. Advent is an old word. Not so old that you will find it anywhere in the Bible- but that is true of a surprising number of words and ideas that have become part of our Christian tradition.

Our English word Advent is derived from the latin word “Adventus”, which means coming, or arrival- so this is the season in which we await the arrival of Jesus. There is a connection between this word and the word “Adventure”, which is often defined as an enterprise that involves danger and risk. Can we think of this time of waiting for Christmas as an adventure?

How can it be an adventure without some element of danger?

The earliest known manuscripts of the “books” that make up the New Testament were written in Greek- which was the common language of much of the Roman Empire. When the Greek manuscripts were translated into Latin, “Adventus” was the word chosen to translate the Greek word “Parousia”. Parousia is a more nuanced word than arrival or coming. It was used to talk about official visits of royalty.

Parousia is the word the early Christian writers used when they were talking not about the birth of Jesus, but about the return of the Risen Christ, an event often called the Second Coming, or the Second Advent. From earliest times, the Christian tradition has included the expectation of Christ’s return, in an event that would mark the end of an age, and possibly the end of the world as we know it. On the Sunday before Advent began, many congregations celebrated “Reign of Christ”, or “Christ the King” Sunday, and listened to a reading from Matthew’s Gospel that described “the day of the Lord”:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-32)

As 21st Century followers of Jesus, what do we make of the expectation of a Second Coming? If we do not take it literally- what other meaning does it have for us?

Personally, I take the stories about “the end of the age” as a reminder that we are not ultimately in charge of life on earth, or even of our own lives. I find the idea a cataclysmic age-ending event on a global scale hard to accept, but have come to recognize that we each face our own mortality, and the end of particular phases or stages of our lives, all the time.

What changes are you facing? What losses have you already endured? Christmas is often a time when we are more deeply aware of the absence of people, and the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams.

In the midst of these smaller scale “end of the age” events, do you have the sense that God is with you? In yesterday’s “letter” I suggested taking two minutes each day this week for silent prayer. If you allow yourself to silently wait on God, you may get a glimpse or a feeling of something new that God has for you- something that is waiting to be born.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

 

Blessing the Fleet

On Saturday, at the request of a past commodore of Kingsville’s Cedar Island Yacht Club, I took part in their annual Sail Past and Blessing of the Fleet.

The last time I went sailing, it was to watch the Canada Day fireworks at Bronte Harbour in Oakville. The captain who hosted us had to have his boat towed back to the dock at the end of the night, because his motor failed. That event was more humorous than dangerous (although Captain John wasn’t laughing!) but it did give us a taste of the vulnerability inherent any time we venture out on open water.

There is a famous vbreton fisherman's prayer plaqueerse, known as the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer:

Oh God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.

This little prayer was engraved on a brass plaque presented to President John F. Kennedy by US Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover. The admiral made it a practice to give the same gift to all new commanders of Polaris submarines.

Even the largest vessel can feel not quite enough, in a storm, or when any of the many things that can go wrong, do.

When we go out on the water there are opportunities to glory in creation, to witness sights and sounds, and smells, and sensations in real life, in real time. This is iedit of Darrow blessing the fleetncredibly important, in our age of electronic screens that provide, and mediate so much of our daily experience of the world.

The tradition of blessing the fleet is traced back to European fishing villages, in which the local priest would lead ritual prayers in a communal effort to ensure a bountiful season, safety for those who braved the waters, and peace of mind for those waiting at home. These prayers would have notes of gratitude and awe for the power of God and the beauty of the created world, as well as a chilling acknowledgment of the precariousness of life.

Awareness of both the sweetness, and possible shortness of our lives is at the heart of most prayers, I think. We stand in awe, and we stand with trepidation. Look what there is! Look what could happen!

The sailors I met on Saturday do not depend on their boats, or their time on the water to make a living. They do not brave dangerous wind and waves to catch fish, or transport cargo. They do not pilot ferry boats or operate patrol or rescue vessels. Even so, I have the sense their sailing adds much to their lives, and helps them stay in touch with the beauty, and the precious fragility of life itself.

After the formal ceremony, I was asked by members of the club to bless their boats individually. This is the prayer I used:

God of Creation, God of Love, God of Wind and Waters, bless this boat. Guide the captain at her helm. Watch over all passengers and crew and bring them to a safe return. We pray with gratitude and trust. Amen

At more than one of these moments of blessing, I could see this simple action of asking God to be with them, was important and meaningful to those with whom I stood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Whispers

Thirty years ago, I was a student minister, in rural Manitoba. One cold January night, around 9 pm, I was home alone in the manse, the minister’s house beside the church. I had been out earlier for a supper visit, that turned into staying for cards, and a second dessert. As a young, single minister in farm country, I rarely ate at home. The good part about that was I ate well. The challenging part was it meant I spent a lot of time with people. For an introvert like me, it could leave me weary at the end of the day, and ready to just be in my own space.

And that was my plan for the rest of that chilly winter evening, except that I got this odd urge to go out again into the cold without actually knowing where. I started up my little silver-grey Chevy Chevette, backed it out of the garage, to let it warm up (It was about 25 below that night, and then I headed out.

The village I lived in was very small, more like a place where two country roads crossed near a grain elevator. There were maybe 60 houses, one church, and a post office. It was only a short drive up the main street before it met the provincial highway.

By the time I reached the stop sign, I knew I should turn left. That took me south on highway 59, but I did not stay on the highway long. I turned right on the road towards the ski hill, which led up into rolling hills along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. You could stand at the top of the highest of those hills and be in two provinces at once.

fal2007_barnyard_at_nightMy little Chevy Chevette seemed to know where it was supposed to go. I slowed and turned right, and up the long driveway to Eric’s house. He was a man in his forties who was very involved in the church. His lights were on, so I was hopeful it wasn’t too late to drop in.

At harvest time a late night visit would have made more sense, because the odds would be good that Eric would have just been getting in from driving combine. But in the middle of the winter this was all very unusual.

Eric saw me coming up his drive, and light spilled out as he opened his mudroom door. I’d learned while living in Manitoba farm country that the mudroom is the way you enter if you’re not company. Company would use the front porch door. The mudroom is where you knock the mud or snow off your boots, hang up your outer wear, and come in the back of the house to the kitchen.

Eric welcomed me, and had me sit at the table while he put on the kettle for tea. Seriously, two guys sitting down in a farmhouse kitchen to chat over tea! He ran water into the kettle, but before he could plug it in, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. This was when people still had those phones on the wall, with the long receiver cord that allowed you to walk around the whole kitchen. But Eric did not move. He recognized the voice on the other end, said hello, and then just held the receiver against his head, and stood, mouth open.

When I saw his face, I knew why I was at there, at his house, why I had left my house so late at night, in the January cold, to show up unannounced at Eric’s door. There had been a tragic, unexpected death in his family, just around the time I climbed into my car. His brother-in-law was making the calls to let all the family know.

I sat with Eric for a few minutes, and went with him to the next farm over, where his mom and dad had also had their phone call. Eric’s older sister had died. The family, from different parts of the province, would all be coming home.

Have you ever been surprised by the urge to do something out of the ordinary? Some might call it a whisper from God. If you have had such a moment, did you follow the urge, and do the strange thing?

If we are open to being led by God’s spirit, then God’s spirit will lead us. I told you my dramatic example, because I will never forget that night. But little nudges, and good ideas, intuitions, and inspirations happen all the time.

 

 

Mindfulness, and the secret lovely toad

During this week of study leave, my “serious” reading has been Richard Rohr’s “The Universal Christ”. Each day I employed the discipline of taking notes from the chapter I read, and distilling them into a blog post, with the hope of integrating Rohr’s ideas into my conscious thinking, and way of seeing the world.

natalie goldbergMy more personal “reading” has actually been listening to Natalie Goldberg read a commemorative edition of her book “Writing Down the Bones”, which is about a Zen approach to writing. I love that at the end of each chapter, she sets down the script, and talks about how it felt to read that section.

One of the themes running through Goldberg’s work seems to be “noticing” the small details of moments, and writing them down, to bring exactness, precision, and life to your writing. I think this gentle encouragement to notice grows organically out of her Zen practice. Be mindful. Pay attention. Be where you are, and see what there is to see, right where you happen to be.

Goldberg’s theme is not a great departure from what Rohr writes of in The Universal Christ. He sees, and loves, the presence of the divine imbued in all things, in every aspect of Creation.writing down the bones other

I like to listen to audio books while I do chores. This may be something like the opposite of living in the moment. Even so, it fed my soul to have Natalie Goldberg’s voice in my ears this afternoon while I did yardwork.

One of my tasks was repairing the downspout fed by the eavestrough on the back of our house.  It is the only one that does not feed into the town sewer, and when it rains, water pools next to our foundation, and finds its way into our basement laundry room.

When I lifted the vinyl splash block that guides the flow of water out of the downspout, I noticed a little brown toad. The toad’s colouring provided such camouflage, I wonder if this species has t20190520_171117he chameleon-like capacity to shift its appearance. Because I was using my phone to listen to Natalie Goldberg’s book, I was able to take a photo before the toad scampered away, and disappeared under some brush.

 

 

 

Creation is essentially Good!

20190427_121917This the Sleeping Giant, part of the Sibley Peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior. I snapped this shot a week after Easter, while I was back in Thunder Bay for a family gathering. It was a beautiful morning, a celebration of sun and sky, water and ice, and the slow arrival of spring.

Growing up in Thunder Bay, I knew the Ojibway story that the sleeping figure guarding the bay is that of Nanabijou. He is  descended from a human mother and a spirit father, and could appear in animal or human form. He was a powerful trickster, who laid down in the lake and was turned to stone during a violent thunderstorm, to block access to a secret tunnel that led to a rich lode of silver. Most cultures have stories about the direct involvement of the Divine with this world, and with us.

The themes of today’s chapter from Richard Rohr’s latest book “The Universal Christ” reminded me of the beauty of this world, and it’s essential goodness. Here are the lines I chose to share:

…once we become aware of the generous, creative Presence that exists in all things natural, we can receive it as the inner Source of all dignity and worthiness.

Don’t start by trying to love God, or even people; love rocks and elements first, move to trees, then animals, and then humans. Angels will soon seem like a real possibility, and God is then just a short leap away.

God did not just start talking to us with the Bible or the church or the prophets. Do we really think that God had nothing at all to say for 13.7 billion years, and started speaking only in the latest nanosecond of geological time?

…in the mid-nineteenth century, grasping for the certitude and authority the church was quickly losing in the face of rationalism and scientism, Catholics declared the Pope to be “infallible,” and Evangelicals decided the Bible was “inerrant,” despite the fact that we had gotten along for most of eighteen hundred years without either belief. In fact, these claims would have seemed idolatrous to most early Christians.

Creation—be it planets, plants, or pandas—was not just a warm-up act for the human story or the Bible. The natural world is its own good and sufficient story, if we can only learn to see it with humility and love.

The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in everything.

…this picture was complicated when the concept of original sin entered the Christian mind. In this idea—first put forth by Augustine in the fifth century, but never mentioned in the Bible—we emphasized that human beings were born into “sin” because Adam and Eve “offended God” by eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

…after Augustine, most Christian theologies shifted from the positive vision of Genesis 1 to the darker vision of Genesis 3—the so-called fall, or what I am calling the “problem.” Instead of embracing God’s master plan for humanity and creation—what we Franciscans still call the “Primacy of Christ”—Christians shrunk our image of both Jesus and Christ, and our “Savior” became a mere Johnny-come-lately “answer” to the problem of sin, a problem that we had largely created ourselves.

The shift in what we valued often allowed us to avoid Jesus’s actual life and teaching because all we needed was the sacrificial event of his death.

…the teaching of original sin started us off on the wrong foot—with a no instead of a yes, with a mistrust instead of a trust.

We end up with a Jesus who was merciful while on earth, but who punishes in the next world. Who forgives here but not later. God in this picture seems whimsical and untrustworthy even to the casual observer. It may be scary for Christians to admit these outcomes to ourselves, but we must. I believe this is a key reason why people do not so much react against the Christian story line, like they used to; instead, they simply refuse to take it seriously.

The Christian story line must start with a positive and overarching vision for humanity and for history, or it will never get beyond the primitive, exclusionary, and fear-based stages of most early human development. We are ready for a major course correction.

Most of us know that we can’t afford to walk around fearing, hating, dismissing, and denying all possible threats and all otherness. But few of us were given practical teaching in how to avoid this. It is interesting that Jesus emphasized the absolute centrality of inner motivation and intention more than outer behavior, spending almost half of the Sermon on the Mount on this subject…

From the very beginning, faith, hope, and love are planted deep within our nature—indeed they are our very nature…

In every age and culture, we have seen regressions toward racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, lookism, and classism. This pattern tells me that unless we see dignity as being given universally, objectively, and from the beginning by God, humans will constantly think it is up to us to decide.

We must reclaim the Christian project, building from the true starting point of Original Goodness. We must reclaim Jesus as an inclusive Savior instead of an exclusionary Judge, as a Christ who holds history together as the cosmic Alpha and Omega.