Worship for Lent 2, Sunday Feb 28

We are working our way through a series of lessons and practices from the life of Jesus, that may be of help to us as we live in these strange, pandemic times. This week we look at stillness, and silent prayer.

Luke 6:12-16 (The Message)

At about that same time Jesus climbed a mountain to pray. He was there all night in prayer before God. The next day he summoned his disciples; from them he selected twelve he designated as apostles:

Simon, whom he named Peter,

Andrew, his brother,







James, son of Alphaeus,

Simon, called the Zealot,

Judas, son of James,

Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Learning Time: “Remember to Pray, and really pay attention”

According to Luke’s Gospel, before Jesus chose his inner circle, those who would become apostles, and work closely with him, he took a time out. The text says, “Jesus climbed a mountain to pray. He was there all night in prayer before God.”

We don’t know what Jesus prayed about all night, or how he prayed. I would make a guess that he spent at least part of that time calming down, settling in, and seeking what one of my favourite hymns calls the “quiet centre”- the place within that seems most in touch with God.

There are a few times in each day I am sure to pray. I pray before I eat, and at the end of the day, before I sleep. That was a tradition I wanted to start, when Lexie and I were first married, that every night, we would hold hands and pray. We pray in silence, and give a little squeeze of the hand to signal when we are done.

In my first year as the pastor here in Harrow, Lexie and Joel lived in Oakville, while he was finishing grade twelve. For most of that year, Lexie and I prayed our end of the day prayers on our own. The hand squeeze at the end was one of the things I missed the most that year.

Most nights, when I pray, I ask God to bless Lexie, our kids, and our life as a family. I pray for our extended family, and the people closest to us, and those in the lives of our kids. I pray for the congregation I serve, and those connected to it. If there are special concerns, like a grieving family, or someone very sick, I pray for them by name. If I have been especially asked to pray for someone, or something, even though I’ve likely done it during the day, I pray again at night.

These are what are often called intercessory prayers- asking God to be with, or help people, or situations. When I can’t think of a particular thing to ask for, for a person, these prayers can be more like asking for blessings upon them, or simply giving thanks for them.

If I have run through my list, and I’m still awake, and Lexie has yet to squeeze my hand, there are different things I may do. Sometimes I ask God what I should pray for, and then pay attention to the images, or words, or feelings, or ideas that emerge. Another thing I do is try to quiet my mind, and be still inside, and listen and wait on God. I try to intentionally situate myself in the silence.

Cultivating an inner stillness, and waiting on God, are practices that have become more common in church. Ten years ago I was part of a working group of ministers and spiritual directors brought together for a retreat to worship together, to pray, and strategize how to bring contemplative practices like intentional silence into congregational worship.

 It is still the case in many places that practically every moment of a worship service is filled in with sound. Announcements, words of welcome, calls to worship, passing the peace. Hymns, readings, prayers, the sermon. Anthems. Special music. Invitation to the offering. Dedication of the offering. All good things. But in some places there is a frantic energy at work- as if there was something wrong with calming down, and sitting in silence, and leaving space for God.

In some churches I have visited over the years, and a couple I have worked at, there was history of people in a tug of war over silence. Some folks would want a few minutes before the worship service begins, to sit or kneel in silence. Others used that time for welcoming, greeting, and checking in with people, or having little meetings.

Not in Harrow, but in other places, I’ve seen folks use a certain look, or a loud “Shhh!” to impose silence on others. Nasty, and perhaps the exact opposite of the spirit of prayer. Silence in worship is not helpful if it is oppressive. We may appreciate silence, but not being silenced.

In many churches, the time before worship is for prelude music. I remember being a guest minister at a shared Good Friday service, and watching, and listening in bewildered amazement as the director of music stood and told a roomful of congregants, and guests from five other churches to sit down and stop talking, so he could play. He got us all to be quiet, but I don’t think it resulted in peaceful hearts. I can’t imagine that happening here in Harrow.

Since my first week leading worship here, I have used my Tibetan prayer bowl to mark the beginning and end of a time of prayerful silence. That was one of the strategies we discussed at the conference on contemplative practice in worship, all those years ago.

The only comments I have received about this shared time of silence is that some people wish it lasted a little longer. I think that speaks to our basic human need for intentional, gathered silence. I have kept on using the prayer bowl since our return to the sanctuary for virtual worship. I hope it is helpful. I’d like to know what it’s like for you, to share in that time of silence at home.

Jesus on the mountaintop all night, in prayer, away from all the disciples, and friends, and crowds of followers, had a lot of time to sit in silence.

The hymn I mentioned earlier says:

“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 this pandemic time, you may have more quiet time than you know what to do with.

I studied and worked, and lived with Quakers for a couple of years. One thing they are known for is something called unprogrammed worship, which depending on which gathering you attend, can involve from 15 minutes to an hour of sitting in silence.

Quakers have a name for rich, worshipful silence. They call it “expectant waiting”, which carries the implication that while outwardly it may look, and sound like nothing is happening, the Spirit is at work. One of the most famous Quakers, William Penn said,

“True silence is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

Another writer, Robert Barclay described what it was like when he first experienced shared silence: “… when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.”

It sounds to me as if silence provided him a place to take an honest look at himself, which was an important step towards opening himself to the healing, transforming power of God’s love.

When I arrived at the Quaker college, and began attending worship services that consisted of a half hour of silence, I had some concerns. I worried I might fall asleep. (It happens.) I also worried I would be bored. Underneath those fairly trivial concerns, I had deeper worries.

I wasn’t sure I would like spending that much time quietly inside myself. I learned that many people have that worry, that if they sit quietly, they will have to face thoughts, fears, memories, feelings they don’t want to deal with. That may be why so many people always have a television, or radio, or computer, or cellphone going. They don’t really want undistracted time.

There is very little in our culture that encourages contemplative silence, and a lot that prevents it. I think that many of us who shy away from intentional silent prayer time, might be surprised at how healing, calming, and restorative it can be.

The other big fear I have both experienced, and heard others express, is what if I sit, and listen, and wait in silence for God to be with me, and God doesn’t show up? Some people would rather not test that one.

At the risk of sounding dismissive of that very real concern, one I have also felt, I want to offer the counsel that if sitting in silent prayer is something fairly new to us, or something we have not done a lot of, it may take quite a while before we can settle in, and our inner and outer senses become more attuned, and we learn to pay closer attention.

My Quaker friends would say every moment of every day is potentially a sacramental moment, in which the divine is present with us, but we are not always ready, willing, or quite able to see, to hear, to feel the gentle presence.

I also believe that even if we have a time in which we sit in silence, and don’t notice anything of God, the fact that we are trying to pay attention, that we have some thirst or hunger, or curiosity for what might happen, is a sign that God is already at work in us, waking us up to a new possibility, and stirring that desire within us. Amen

Keeping the Sabbath in Lockdown

“What does it mean to keep the Sabbath during a lockdown?”

Since Wednesday, which was Ash Wednesday, we have been in the season of Lent. For many followers of Jesus, Lent has historically been a period of about 40 days of prayerful remembrance of the time Jesus spent in the desert, just before he began his public ministry. Because those 40 days also lead up to Good Friday, they tend to be a sombre time, life in the shadow of the cross.

In some churches I’ve served, we would have a service in which we did the imposition of ashes, the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead, as a sign of penitence, with the quiet whisper of the haunting words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The phrase cannot help but remind us of what we hear at the graveside. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Many of us grew up with, or at least have heard of the custom of giving something up for Lent. Some of my Catholic friends talk about being told that since Jesus gave up his life, the least they can do is give up chocolate, or tobacco, or alcohol for the duration.

The day before Ash Wednesday is Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. We also call it Pancake Tuesday, from the old custom of using up the richer food ingredients in the kitchen, like butter, adn eggs, and syrup, before moving to simpler, less celebratory food for the 6 weeks of Lent.

It may seem strange this year to talk about a time of voluntary deprivation, since many of us may feel like we are already giving up a lot for Covid. Those of us who are sticking with the protocols, have given up eating out, travelling, having friends and family over, going to the gym. We keep our distance from people, and can’t even see faces because of the masks, except on screens.

So what sense does it make to talk about giving up even more, for Lent? Maybe none, if we think of it only in terms of making a sacrifice, to prove we are worthy of something. That kind of giving up maybe isn’t really the point because we might be doing it mostly to make it seem like we are doing the proper religious things.

When I read the gospel stories about Jesus, I see someone who did not interest himself all that much in the outward appearance of being faithful. He was far more concerned about what was in people’s hearts. Jesus had little patience for those who would enforce religious rules for their own sake, without showing any care for the actual people involved.

One story we heard today is a good example- Jesus and his friends were on the road, travelling from one village to another. They were hungry, and they were poor, and even if they had the funds, there were no roadside restaurants where they could buy food.

Jesus’ friends knew there was a religious rule and custom that said that when a crop had been harvested, anything not bundled and put up for storage, anything remaining in the field, was to be left for the poor, the widows and orphans, and strangers who had no land of their own. Jesus’ friends took grain and worked it in their palms to get the kernels, to get some meagre sustenance.

It happened there were Pharisees, kind of religious by-law enforcement officers, who saw what they were up to, and called them on it. Technically, they were harvesting, doing work on the Sabbath, which was against their religious laws.

The Pharisees were educated, which was a sign of privilege. They were employed, which tells us about their wealth and status. They held positions of respect and authority. They watched poor, itinerant peasants scrounging a rough, unappetizing meal, and rather than saying, “Come home with us and we will fix you something decent to eat.”, they said, “Why are you doing that, breaking a Sabbath rule?”

The answer is obvious, to anyone who has ever been hungry, or felt responsible to feed a hungry loved one.

Jesus taught, with his words and his actions, that what God hopes and longs for is that our words, and our actions, will be rooted in, and governed by love and compassion.

I don’t know if the Pharisees in the story meant to be mean. Maybe they’d just fallen into unhealthy, unhelpful habits. Maybe they were kind of operating on automatic pilot, acting without thinking, or feeling. Maybe they forgot to take a prayerful pause, and imagine what it would be like for them, if they were far from home, and were hungry, and had no other option, but to eat raw grain.

Maybe, at the end of the day, at least one of the Pharisees went home, and when they were laying down to sleep, reviewing the events of their day, a little voice broke through the restlessness in their heart, and said, “You know the Rabbi Jesus had a point. An empty belly trumps some rule about Sabbath observance.”

We may recognize that quiet moment at the end of the day, when we have to live within our own skin, and lay down, and try to rest. When we wonder, “Have I loved well today? Have I helped anyone? If I died tonight, and was called to account for my life, what would the events of this day, say about the state of my soul?”

Lent has traditionally been a time to take an honest look at ourselves, in light of the teachings of Jesus, and look for ways to do better. To let go of what no longer serves. To develop new, better habits of thinking, and doing, if the old ones do more harm than good.

Lent is a time to consider who we are meant to be, and what we are here for, in this life. That’s still worth doing, maybe even more important to do, in this strange year we have been having.

Lately our learning times have been about spiritual practices from the life of Jesus, that can be of help to us during the Pandemic. Today I am thinking about what it means to keep the Sabbath.

For a lot of us, the word Sabbath brings to mind going to the church building. We gather, greet our friends and neighbours, shake hands, or embrace, or at least smile across the room. We find our place in a pew, and prepare ourselves to pray, and sing, and open our hearts and minds to God’s presence with us in our faith community. Do you remember that? Do you miss that?

Our county has moved from grey to red, but we are going to hold off for a while, and see how things go, before we make plans to return to Sunday mornings in the building. Our worship team will continue, for the time being, meeting in the sanctuary on Thursday afternoons to record our worship videos. If you’d like to attend a recording session, let us know, and we can save you a seat. Under the current rules we have room for at least 25 people to attend. Call the church, or send us an email if you’d like to have the in person worship experience. We know that won’t work for everyone.

If you are not attending church in the way we are used to, by coming to the building, how do you celebrate the Sabbath? I hear from some folks that they “go to church” in their living room, or at the breakfast table, with a warm morning beverage. They may still be in pyjamas when they turn on the laptop, or tablet, and watch the Youtube video. Some have told me they like to get out their hymn book, and sing along when Larry plays the unsung hymns.

I’ve also heard some folks like to play our Youtube video on their phone, and listen to it like a podcast, as they do their morning walk. I like that idea.

I hope the worship videos we produce are a helpful part of your Sabbath observance. There are other things you can do, to mark some time as special. You could light a candle, and sit quietly, and read scripture. Psalms are great for this. Some people like to sing their favourite hymns, which become a channel through which their prayers, feelings, and deeper thoughts can flow.

You can open a blank notebook, and write a letter to God. Tell God about your day, your week. Write down your words of thanks, your questions, your worries. Write down the names of people, and the concerns that are the focus of your prayers.

Some people like to draw, or weave, or knit their prayers. Some carve them in wood, or mold them in clay. Some mix them into the food they prepare for others to enjoy. It won’t be long before some will be planting their prayers with the seeds in starter pots.

However you do it, do it. Set aside time to be with God, to remember who you are, and who you are meant to be. Amen

Steps on the Contemplative Journey

I have been interested in the contemplative life for many years. While a student at the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Indiana, I relished all available opportunities for both the academic study, and practical experience of different forms of the ministry of Spiritual Direction.

In a nutshell, Spiritual Direction works from the premise that something larger than ourselves is interested in us, and seeks to guide our living. We often need help in paying attention to the hints, promptings, and nudges that come our way.

In 2008, a personal crisis led me to seek the help of both a psychotherapist, and a spiritual director. I also enrolled in the Ontario Jubilee Program, a two year exploration of personal spirituality, and faith, and ancient and modern approaches to Spiritual Direction.

I became “certified” as a Spiritual Director, and established a practice, which was encouraged and supported by the congregation I served at the time. I met with “directees” in regular one-on-one sessions, and also developed a program of group spiritual direction and mutual support for clergy colleagues, which was approved and underwritten by the local United Church presbytery.

For a few years I served on the core staff of Ontario Jubilee, and was involved in the nurture and encouragement of other spiritual pilgrims, many of whom have gone on to be caring and insightful Spiritual Directors. I also enjoyed many other opportunities to teach, and lead retreats, for congregations, and at the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre, near Brantford.

Five Oaks | Education and Retreat Centre

One of my persistent “wonderings” has been how to incorporate what I learn and experience about spirituality and the contemplative life into the life of congregations I serve as a pastor. This question was a primary focus of a 3 month sabbatical in 2016, during which I studied at Queens University in Kingston, and at Westminster College, affiliated with Cambridge University in England. I continue to experiment with this, and to sample how it is done by others.

Over the years, this journey of exploration has taken me to many places, including: Huron College in London, Ontario, the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Mt. Carmel Retreat House in Niagara Falls, the Naramata Centre in British Columbia, the Sisters of Bon Secours convent outside Washington, D.C., the denominational headquarters of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, to Mepkin Abbey, a Cistercian monastery at Monckville, South Carolina, to Pendle Hill, outside of Philadelphia, to gatherings of Spiritual Directors International in Boston, and Toronto, and more recently to the School for Contemplative Living, based in New Orleans.

The School for Contemplative Living Listening in Stillness, Serving in Joy! (thescl.net)

I have met, and studied and worked with some amazing people over the years, including wonderful mentors and guides such as Daniel Wolpert, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, William Thiele, and Rodger Kamenetz.

This “reflection” was prompted by a request from the web-master of the Jubilee website, to update my profile, and provide a recent photo. (Jubilee maintains a list of “certified” spiritual directors.)

Canadian Jubilee Programs

Here’s the photo! I think it looks like the kind of head shot authors have on the back of their books. I like it, but wonder where all the grey hair came from. I asked the photographer, my wife, who offered no explanation.

In the last few years I have moved away from more traditional modes of spiritual direction, and prefer intentional conversations with fellow spiritual seekers over being the designated “director” in the room.

Here is a link to my listing on the Jubilee site:

Darrow Woods — Canadian Jubilee Programs

Feb 7, 2021 Worship Video

Worship Service for Sunday, February 7, 2021



I am happy to offer a Lenten study based on Jesus, Friend of My Soul, which offers short readings for each day of Lent. Sr. Joyce Rupp is a popular author, and speaker, whose work has nurtured the spiritual lives of thousands. 

Her writing conveys ideas about faith that are easy for ordinary people to understand and work toward in our own lives. 

The book is available through Kobo, Indigo/Chapters, as well as Amazon/Kindle, for about $15.00

We will meet for online discussion each Wednesday, starting with Ash Wednesday, February 17. 

If we get enough folks registered, we will meet at from 10-11:30 am, and/or 7-8:30 pm. 

The dates are: Feb 17, 24, Mar 3,10,17,24,31

Let me know if a day time or evening session is best for you. 

Our team is working on our next set of Sunday School videos, based on some Dr. Seuss stories: Horton Hears a Who; Yertle the Turtle, and possibly The Lorax.

Lari Sabbe and her crew are hard at work getting the videos made.

We also want to make up “book bags” that will contain the craft materials your kids would need, to take part.

Like last time, we will post the lessons on YouTube, so that your kids can watch them at a time that works for you. We know that some kids watched them again and again, which is great!

Please let me know if you want your kids to be part of this new set of lessons. We need to know how many bags to deliver, and the first lesson will be posted for February 14.

Our worship video today takes the place of our Annual Meeting. We will hear reports about the work of our congregation, all the ways we live out or mission. We will also celebrate a virtual communion, so you may want to stop the video for a moment, and get your own bread and juice ready for later.

Here is the link to the worship video:

Mission Statement:

The mission of Harrow United Church is to offer nurturing experiences of God’s live through worship, learning and sharing. In thankful response, we will reach out as disciples and stewards of Jesus Christ in God’s world.

Sharing Virtual Communion

I have been reflecting on the idea of virtual communion. On one level, it’s the best we can do right now. On another level, it goes against our United Church sense of community- it is something we are meant to do together. That is generally true, but ministers have also been known to offer private communion, in hospital rooms and in homes, when there is a pastoral necessity. 

Watching communion on a worship video may be a bit like watching a cooking show, and trying to make the dish yourself at home. That can be very rewarding, but it can also be a little underwhelming. For most of us, what we cook at home does not look as good as what the chefs on the Food Channel can do, with their team of assistants.

It seems to me that watching other people cook, and other people eat is always something less than doing it ourselves, and in the case of what is meant to be a shared experience, less than being part of a community. 

It may be that virtual communion will ultimately be less than satisfying- and leave us hungry for the real thing. I’d like to think that hunger is a sign that we still long for community, and for God’s presence with us.

Jesus spent a lot of his time at tables, at gatherings at which sharing food was a focus. 

Last week I made a quick reference to his desert retreat. One of the temptations he faced was a moment when the tempter challenged him to turn stones into bread. Jesus responded that humans do not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God. I don’t know whether Jesus could actually have turned stones into bread- the idea that he could may have been part of the tempters’s lie. The fact remains that he didn’t do it.

Actually, in all the stories when Jesus is involved in sharing food, he never actually makes it appear magically. The meal always begins with sharing. People are asked to make their contribution. In the stories where crowds are fed, before food was blessed, divided, and shared, it was first gathered. In the very last feeding story, when the Risen Christ appears to some of the disciples who were fishing, they are asked to contribute some of what they caught, to the food that was already cooking on the fire.

I think that’s important to notice, that Jesus’ follwers are not just passive receivers of gifts, they are active contributors- they, and what they can offer, are absolutely necessary.

So maybe it’s okay, as we do this virtual communion thing, that you have to provide your own bread, and your own cup of juice. I think its also okay that you have to hold up your own hands, and say your own prayers, and ask God, in your own way, for a blessing.

Let us give thanks to God!  Let us pray!  

We thank you for sending us Jesus,

Who came as a baby, and grew to show 

Your love with all kinds of people.

We thank you that his light shines in our world.

Jesus came to live with us,

                    to bring hope in times of fear,

          to bring peace in times of danger,

          to bring joy in times of darkness,

          to bring love – your love – in every time.

 Though poor, Jesus was rich in you, 

          and taught us to share our wealth.

          Though often without a home,

          Jesus always lived in you, and taught us

          to welcome everyone to every table.

          Though living in a time when many people 

          felt lost and confused, 

          Jesus showed us all the way to your realm.

Even when people did not understand 

          Jesus words of life and light,

          Jesus loved us.

          When people in ignorance put Jesus to death

          on the cross, you in your love

          broke open the tomb

          and gave new life to everyone.

  On the night before he died, 

          Jesus had supper with friends,

          and took bread, saying,

          “Blessed are you, Holy God,

          Maker of all, 

          for you bring forth bread from the earth.”

          Jesus broke the bread and gave it to all saying,

 “This is my body which I give for you.”

Jesus took the cup, saying,

          “Blessed are you, Holy God, Maker of all,

          for you give us wine to gladden our hearts.” 

          Jesus gave it to them saying,

          “This is my blood, which I give for you.

          Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup,

          do it in memory of me.”

          With this bread and this cup,

          we remember the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus,

          and we offer ourselves to you in him.

Send your Holy Spirit on us and on these gifts,

          and make them holy, so that we, your people,

          being fed by holy things,

          may share hope and peace, joy and love with the world;  

May the light of the world live in and through us.

 We pray together, with the words of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those 

who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, 

the power and the glory,

for ever and ever. Amen

Commissioning and Blessing:

Jesus responded to God’s call, to live a life of witness and service.

We are invited to follow his path.

We are called to offer love, and hope, caring and light.

We know there are many who need God’s love.

God blesses us, and desires we be a blessing to others.

Jesus shows us the Way.

The Spirit guides us and inspires us to move forward.

We are blessed, and we bless. Amen


Worship for the weekend of Jan 31, 2021

This weekend we consider the significance and power of friendship in the life and work of Jesus, and in our own lives.

Words from the Song of Faith, about the Church:

We sing of a church

   seeking to continue the story of Jesus

   by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.

We are called together by Christ

   as a community of broken but hopeful believers,

   loving what he loved,

   living what he taught,

   striving to be faithful servants of God

   in our time and place.

Our ancestors in faith

   bequeath to us experiences of their faithful living;

   upon their lives our lives are built.

Our living of the gospel makes us a part of this communion of saints,

   experiencing the fulfillment of God’s reign

   even as we actively anticipate a new heaven and a new earth.

The church has not always lived up to its vision.

It requires the Spirit to reorient it,

   helping it to live an emerging faith while honouring tradition,

   challenging it to live by grace rather than entitlement,

for we are called to be a blessing to the earth.

We sing of God’s good news lived out,

a church with purpose:

   faith nurtured and hearts comforted,

   gifts shared for the good of all,

   resistance to the forces that exploit and marginalize,

   fierce love in the face of violence,

   human dignity defended,

   members of a community held and inspired by God,

     corrected and comforted,

   instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ,

   creation’s mending.

We sing of God’s mission.

We are each given particular gifts of the Spirit.

For the sake of the world,

   God calls all followers of Jesus to Christian ministry.

In the church,

   some are called to specific ministries of leadership,

   both lay and ordered;

   some witness to the good news;

   some uphold the art of worship;

   some comfort the grieving and guide the wandering;

   some build up the community of wisdom;

   some stand with the oppressed and work for justice.

To embody God’s love in the world,

   the work of the church requires the ministry and discipleship

   of all believers.

1 Thessalonians 5:5-18 (New International Version)

You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Learning Time: We need to know we are part of something beyond ourselves

I listened to a podcast this week from the series called “The Next Big Idea”, about friendship. There was a story about a woman named Paula, who’d retired from her career as a flight attendant, and found herself living a solitary existence. No close family, no close friends, because her work always had her in the air, flying from place to place.

One evening, after yet another day with no actual human contact, a lot of television, and supper alone, again, she’d just finished the dishes, and as she headed back to the living room for more television, she felt her chest tighten, and she could barely breathe. She became dizzy, and close to passing out. She feared she was having a cardiac event, and managed to call 911. When the paramedics arrived, she was relieved to learn that she was not having a heart attack, but a panic attack.

The panic attack was a jolt. She joined a church, and started to meet people. One of the people at the church told her about Generation Exchange, a non-profit that pairs seniors with under-served schools. During her training, she met a lot of people like her, retired, sedentary, lonely and anxious.  She heard how for these people, volunteering to go into schools and work with kids has helped them be happier, and improved their health.

Paula became a classroom volunteer, found that she loves helping the kids. She began having lunch in the staff room with other volunteers. One day she sat with a woman named Linda who lives just blocks from her. They made plans to get together, and a friendship was born. Paula said that she is no longer quite so lonely, or afraid. I love that she found her way by reaching out to help others.

Our Gospel reading for today tell a story of the adult Jesus, on a visit back to his home village of Nazareth. If you follow the story in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has just concluded a soul-searching retreat in the desert. He faced temptations, and emerged with a clear sense of his mission in life.

He joined the folks from his home village for worship, and took his turn to read scripture. The reading was from the Book of Isaiah. Jesus stood, and read from the scroll,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The hometown crowd enjoyed his reading. I can imagine them smiling with encouragement, like we would, when someone we’ve watched grow up does good.  Jesus finished the assigned passage, and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” which was not the traditional way to finish, but what what the heck, that’s our Jesus up there!

Then things took a turn. It was as if Jesus recognized they weren’t hearing him, when he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.” I think he was telling them, “We are doing this now. God is using me, to tell you, it’s time to bring good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, and sight to the blind.”

The hometown crowd not only doesn’t get it, they become restless. And it got worse.

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

Jesus retrieved stories from their tradition, of prophets from the past. In both stories, the prophets are very selective about who they can help, and who faces hard times on their own. Jesus may as well have come out and said, “If you can’t understand what I’m telling you, how can I help you?”

Luke’s story tells us, “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”

Jesus proclaimed a year of Jubilee, a kind of social and economic re-boot, in which all debts are forgiven, slaves freed, prisoners released, and lands returned to their original owners. This is good news for those who are in debt, or enslaved, or in jail, or who had lost their land. It’s bad news for those of us who would have to give up our riches, position, and power, to make it all happen.

It’s not surprising the hometown crowd didn’t want to understand what their formerly favourite son was going on about. Even so, I wonder how it felt, to be Jesus that day.

“All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”

If we were to read further in Luke’s Gospel we could follow Jesus as he kept walking, all the way to a new town, called Capernaum. In Capernaum Jesus does not go to the synagogue, where all the respectable people congregated. He spent his time amongst the poor, the sick, the homeless, those who were considered possessed by evil spirits. Pretty much the crowd he’d been talking about in Nazareth, who were due for some Good News. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and made new friends.

It wasn’t long before a fisherman named Simon invited him to his home, because his mother-in-law was in need of healing.  Simon became Jesus’ disciple, and as Luke’s Gospel continues, is one of the first to leave behind his boat and his nets, to follow Jesus, and become a fisher of people.

The people in Jesus’ hometown, and home synagogue weren’t ready to help with his work. Jesus could not do what God had in mind for him, all alone. His mission was all about bringing people together, and showing them their connection to God, and to each other, a connection that transcended typical concerns about wealth, position, status, power. Jesus brought that message of God’s unconditional acceptance and love, to people who were ready to hear it, and his mission took off. This was the beginning of something new.

God gave Jesus a job, and a way to live, that he could not do on his own. He needed friends.

In the last few years, and even moreso during the pandemic, psychologists have been taking a close look at the meaning and power of relationships and community in our lives. One study reported, after surveying people who were standing, looking at a hill they were about to climb, that for those who stood before the hill with a friend, the hill did not look as steep.

I love that image. We feel stronger, more able to face challenges, less afraid, when we know that we are not alone. That is true about hills, and likely, a lot of other aspects of our lives.

We need each other. It’s harder to climb the hills, even to imagine climbing the hills, on our own. When we work from that awareness, of this basic human trait, we may find that our vulnerability becomes kind of a superpower.

If we are lonely, or afraid, or bored, disappointed, feeling lost, having a friend equips for living better. If we feel kind of okay, but wish there was more to life than our four walls and what’s on tv, reaching out to offer friendship can help us find meaning. That’s just the way we are built, and it’s very much related to Jesus’ mission, of bringing people together, and helping them understand how their hearts and lives are connected to each other, and to God.

Maybe you aren’t lonely, or finding this pandemic time difficult. If that’s the case, I need your help. The congregation needs your help, because we do know some folks who are lonely, and who could use some friendly attention. If you are feeling like you are ready to climb hills, or help others to not feel quite so alone, as they face their own tough climbs, call me or email me, and we can set you up with a new church buddy, that you can call, or write, and let them know they are not alone.

Or maybe you are a little lonely, like many of us, and wonder if it might add some joy, purpose, meaning to your days, if you could connect with someone who also needs a little boost. Same deal. Call, text, or email me, and we will give you the name of someone to call. I can even suggest some topics for your first phone conversation, to make it a little less weird. Amen

Worship for January 24, 2021

Below is the link to the YouTube video of this week’s worship service.

We are continuing a series about things we can learn from the life of Jesus, that may help us during the lockdown. This week the focus is on the change of perspective that is available when we engage with scripture, and our faith tradition. I talked about in terms of the “big stories” that inform our culture, and our own view of the world.

Learning Time: We need a better story

Before the learning time, we watched a video clip about the time Jesus lost track of time, and stayed in the Temple in Jerusalem, while his parents and the group from their village had already started home. The clip showed us Jesus, safe and happy in the Temple, while his parents were out frantically looking for him.

It was good that the people in the movie did not have blue eyes and blonde hair. They looked like they might actually be from the Middle East, where Jesus was born, and lived. I also appreciated seeing hints about the conditions of daily life. The producers showed us crowds of people travelling and living together, and they were clearly not the rich or powerful elite.

The glimpses the video offered, into what life may actually have been like for people in Jesus’ time, helped me grasp, on a deeper level, why a young boy like Jesus might have wanted to hang out in the Temple, with the preachers and teachers.

I think that Jesus might have enjoyed being away from the busy crowds, and have the chance to ask questions, and talk about the mysteries of life, with people who spent their time thinking about such things. How great it would have been for this young boy, to have his deep thoughts and concerns taken seriously.

Maybe Jesus wanted to know, where did this world come from? Why do people die? Why is it that terrible things sometimes happen to people that you love? What should I do when I get older?

Every culture, every society, probably every family, has a big story people use to make sense of their lives, and their place in the universe. Most cultures have a creation story, like the one we have in the Bible, about how the world came to be. They have other stories, that are used to explain how we are supposed to live, and to point us toward what is important.

An example of this kind of narrative is that before the Europeans came to North America, it was a mostly empty wilderness, and that the only people here were uncivilized savages, who desperately need white people to come and teach them how to live. That was one of the big stories I learned growing up in Thunder Bay. Built into it were all kinds of biases, and half-truths, and out-right lies.

Clearly, not all the big stories are good for us. Adolf Hitler and his cronies used a big story, about a mostly mythical race they called Aryans, who were apparently the best people ever, to inspire national pride in young German men, and hatred of anyone who did not fit their ideal picture of what a strong man be. A loudly told lie can do a lot of harm, especially when it is aimed at confused and desperate people.

Almost three weeks ago, many of us watched in horror as an organized group of armed insurrectionists invaded the US Capitol complex, in a conflict that led to many injuries, and at least 5 deaths. There is a direct link between their behaviour, and the big story they had absorbed, about a conspiracy to steal an election away from their preferred leader. The stories we are told, and the stories we use to justify our behaviour, have a lot of power.

When I went to seminary in the 1980’s, to study to become a United Church minister, we heard a lot about something called Liberation Theology. It was a way of thinking about the message of Jesus, that grew out of the experience of Roman Catholic priests and nuns who at that time were working, and living, and often dying, with the poorest of the poor peasants in Central and South America.

A lot of them had been taught in their religious training that their Christian faith required them to never question the authority of the government. They were told that religion was always to be separate from politics. Following this rule meant that government would leave them alone, as long as they left government alone.

Many of these missionaries had started out believing their job was to save souls- to win converts to the Christian faith, so that when these suffering peasants died, even though their lives in this world had been tragically difficult, they would be rewarded with eternal life in heaven.

I remember our ethics professor, the Rev. Dr. Ben Smillie, a cantankerous old Scot, who served in World War Two, not as a chaplain, but as a regular soldier, called this approach to Christian mission work, “Pie in the sky, when you die.”

Dr. Smillie taught us the importance, when we were doing theology, of keeping the Bible at one hand, and the newspaper at the other. Like I said, this was the 1980’s, before most of us had computers, and well before there was anything like the internet. Now, it’s hard to sit down to write anything without first spending some time looking at social media, and sometimes even actual news.

Versions of Liberation Theology also emerged in the Philippines, and in the rural south of the United States, and in South Africa, where the majority of the population still lived under the oppressive rule of apartheid. In many places around the world, where folks tried to connect what they read in their Bibles with their daily experiences, important questions were being asked.

Is “pie in the sky when you die” all that Christianity was about? Was there anything in the Bible that might bring a word of hope, to people who were still in this world, living and dying under cruel systems that seemed to value certain people more than others?

At least one other time I have quoted the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, who said that “when the missionaries came to Africa the whites had the bible and the blacks had the land.”

Tutu went on to say “The missionaries told the blacks to shut their eyes and they would teach them to pray. But when they opened their eyes, the whites had the land and the blacks had the Bible.”

With a mischievous smile Desmond Tutu ended his story by saying, “Actually, it was us blacks who got the better deal!”

What Desmond Tutu, and other people living under oppression in South Africa discovered when they began to read the Bible through the lens of their own experience, was that it gave them a view of the world, and a view of God, that was very different than what they had been taught by the white European missionaries and pastors.

These South African Christians noticed that much of the Old Testament, the scriptures we inherited from the Jewish faith, tells the story of Moses leading the Hebrew people from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, and towards a new land of freedom, promised by God. In the parts that are not about the Moses story, there are a lot of words about the fair treatment of widows, and orphans, and refugees.

They read the New Testament, and noticed that in most of the stories about Jesus, he spent his time with the poor and the outcasts, and that Jesus had scathing things to say about the rich and powerful who took advantage of them. They noticed that Jesus did not pay much attention to distinctions his culture thought important, about race, or class, or status.

The Bible, when read with eyes that had poured out tears, and with hearts that were broken open with compassion, provided a vision of the world the way God would like it to be. A word of fairness, equality, justice, and compassion. Rather than supporting the status quo, an honest reading of scripture almost always reminds faithful people that there is more work to be done.

When the prevailing story in our world seem to be about them and us, winners and losers, heroes and villains, the bad people and the good people- those who are worthy, and those are not, we need a better story.

As a popular facebook post says, if your religion teaches you that its okay to hate your neighbour, you need a new religion.  If our big story only seems to polarize us further into opposing camps, we need a better story.

It takes courage, and faith, to question the big stories that seem to be true, and which hold so much power in our daily lives.

I was working on this learning time on Wednesday, inauguration day in the United States. I confess I ended up doing a lot of my writing in the evening, because like a lot of folks, I took time during the day to watch what was going on in Washington. I so wanted things to go well. Our American friends and neighbours need good news right now.

There was plenty of good news, and glimpses of a better big story- expressed by Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet.

I am no scholar of oratory, but I heard in her words, echoes of the Bible, echoes of Abraham Lincoln, echoes of Martin Luther King, echoes of some very good stories.

I loved it when the 22 year old woman, who described herself as a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother who dreamed of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one,” said:

Scripture tells us to envision

that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid

If we’re to live up to our own time

Then victory won’t lie in the blade

But in all the bridges we’ve made.

A good big story has the power to give us reason for hope. Amen

Pastoral Prayer

Dear God of love and author of the best big story. We give thanks for our lives, and for your presence. Help us to be more aware of the ways you are amongst us, offering healing and the possibility of new life, in spite of difficult and challenging circumstances.

We give thanks that our neighbours to the south have made a peaceful transition in their leadership. We pray that the people of the United States can set aside their differences,  and work together to address the life and death issues they face as a nation.

We give thanks for the country in which we live. Be with our leaders, and their advisors. Be with those who sit at the tables where hard decisions are made.

We pray for all who are on the frontlines in the pandemic efforts. We pray for all whose daily work exposes them to risks that many of us would rather avoid.

We pray for those who are struggling with depression, and hopelessness in this hard time. Those who are isolated, those who are lonely, those who feel afraid, and alone.

We pray for families who are looking for ways to meet the needs of all those in their households. We pray for those who miss having time to themselves, and for those who feel overwhelmed.

We give thanks for signs of hope. People working together. Positive changes happening. Stories of those who recover from the virus. Communities that rally to protect and support local businesses. Those who reach out to help others with food security and other basic needs.

We pray for those who are in hospital, and those who care for them. We pray for nurses, and hospital staff, and doctors, and administrators.

We pray for poets, and artists, and musicians, through whom bigger stories are shared.

We pray for our church, and its leaders and volunteers, and for all faith communities, service clubs, and organizations who work to help others. We ask you to bless them, and guide them in their efforts.

We make all of our prayers in Jesus name, who taught his followers to pray.

The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, 

hallowed be thy name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done, 

on earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory 

forever and ever. Amen

The Golden Rule: Column for the Kingsville Observer January 20, 2021

Defying COVID rules puts church needs above community safety (kingsvilleobserver.com)

The above link takes you to my latest column for the Kingsville Observer.

Below is an image of a great poster expressing the Golden Rule as found in many cultural and faith traditions. As I mention in the column, you can learn more about the poster at Golden Rule (scarboromissions.ca)

Covid Dreams

The worship service for this weekend is the second in our series about things we can learn from the life of Jesus, that may help us in these grey lock-down times.

Learning Time: Attending to your dreams

A writer named Lance Weller dreamed he was on a street, and a sleek black town car pulled up to the curb. A tinted window powered down, and the person in the car called him over. It was Ronald Reagan, former Hollywood actor who was the President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, and who died in 2004. In the dream,  Reagan escorted Lance to a comic book shop stocked with every title he had ever wanted. Before he could buy anything, Reagan stole his wallet and skipped out the door.

That story is from a National Geographic piece about Covid dreams. There have been serious studies done, and articles written about the strange dreams people are having during the pandemic.

Last spring I recorded an interview with my old friend Justin Webber, who is the pastor of a Quaker congregation in Iowa. Justin was the first person in his county diagnosed with Covid-19, and spent almost two months in the hospital, including some time in a coma, time on a ventilator, and a long recovery in the ICU. He is still working hard to return to his former levels of fitness and health.

He came through the first part of his ordeal with a deeper faith, and a wider appreciation for the ways God is at work in people- especially in folks who don’t think much about religion, or God, as we talk about God in church.

Justin told me that during his time in the hospital, and since then, he’s had wild dreams.

Psychologists, mystics, and poets agree that almost everybody dreams. How about you? Do you have dreams? Do you remember them? Have your dreams changed since the pandemic began?

Today we heard excerpts from the Book of Genesis, about Joseph, one of the most famous dreamers in the Bible. His dreams caused trouble with his brothers, who were already jealous of him. When they heard he dreamed of being someone they would all kneel before, they got rid of him.

It’s quite a story. No wonder it made a good musical.

My wife and I lived in Windsor, from 1995 to 2000. We both pastored churches. I was involved in a number of out-of-the-box experiments, in the ongoing effort to connect the church to the world, and people to the church and its mission. One of the most fun things I instigated was to charter a City of Windsor bus, and fill it with people who all went to the Masonic in Detroit, to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, starring Donny Osmond. It was a great show. Did any of you see it?

Joseph’s brothers faked his death, and sold him to slave-traders, who hauled him off to Egypt. That might have been the end of Joseph, except that he helped people with their dreams. He became a trusted confidante of the Pharoah, who put him in charge of running the country. 

Joseph’s dreams helped him through his times of personal crisis, and he helped the Pharaoh steer his country through a disaster. He saved his own family from starvation, when his brothers came to Egypt in search of food, and they did end up bowing down to him, just like in his dream.

One of Joseph’s brothers was Judah, who’s listed in the Bible as an ancestor of another Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. We might wonder why the Gospels would include Joseph’s family tree, if he was not actually related to Jesus by flesh and blood- but we’re not sorting out that one today.

We heard the part of Matthew’s Gospel in which Mary’s Joseph, distant descendant of the Donny Osmond Joseph, had a dream. God told him not to worry about the flesh and blood business, and go ahead and marry the pregnant Mary, and raise the child as his own. Joseph followed this  dreamy advice, and another crisis was averted.

We also heard about 2 more warning dreams. The Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus were guided in a dream not to travel back to Herod and tell him where to find the child.

Joseph had another dream, that warned him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, to avoid the murderous plans of Herod.

In the Bible, God doesn’t just send angels, to tell people to not be afraid. Sometimes, people meet God in their dreams, and discover things that help them through hard times.

Not all dreams are about the future. Most dreams call the person to be who God wants them to be.

This makes sense to me. God is always with us, and always giving us clues, offering guidance, about how we are to live, and letting us know we are not alone. For most of us, it’s a question of learning how to pay attention. If this is true while we are awake, could it also apply when we are sleeping?

I’ve long been fascinated with dreams, other peoples, and my own. I’ve had some training on how to work, and play with dreams. One of my teachers is a man named Rodger Kamenetz. In his book, The History of Last Night’s Dream, he wrote:

“A whole world inside us is asleep. We wake to it but rarely. We glimpse and barely remember. Or we don’t understand what we’ve seen.

A third of our time on earth we’ve spent sleeping, with little to show: an image, a face. Only rarely does a dream come that wakes us to ourselves.”

Rodger is a critically renowned author and poet, best known for a book he wrote about his time with the Dalai Lama.

I met Rodger at a writer’s conference 6 years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch. In 2017 I went to New Orleans for a workshop he lead in what he calls Natural Dreamwork. I like his approach, which is different from all the books and websites where you go to a big index, and look it up, and some expert tells you what it means, that you had a dream about a big blue cat that plays the drums.

Rodger wrote, “Instead of puzzling over what your dreams mean, we ask you to dwell on how your dreams feel.”

In my own work I have learned that for many people, if they keep paper and pen on their bedtable, and tell themselves that they want to remember, pretty soon they can get up in the morning, and make simple notes about their dreams. How did the dream feel? What were the colours, images, sounds? Who was in it? Was there a story?

When I prepared for the dream worskshop, I kept a daily dream journal. Over the course of a month, I got pretty good at remembering my dreams, and noticed I often had variations of the same dream, again and again.

Through the prayer journal, I noticed an image in my dreams, and discovered something I still think about, that I needed to know, that has made a big difference in my life.

Practitioners of Natural Dreamwork teach that contemplating the images in your dreams, and paying attention to how they make you feel, can help heal the broken imagination.

In this strange time, many of us are living with a kind of baseline of worry, anxiety, distrust of the world. It is not surprising, then, that those who are studying covid dreams are hearing about scary dreams, and frightening images in dreams.

Some people believe our dreams are a place where we kind of go over the material of our daily lives, and almost like an artist making a painting, or a movie director, we move the images around, play with them, until they tell a story that says something, or asks a question, or maybe somehow answers a question or concern we have.

I love the idea that God’s spirit is in there with us, helping design the set, and giving the character costumes and lines, so that we can watch the movie, or actually be in the movie, that is from us, without necessarily being directly about us.

I am not a big fan of scary movies, but I have heard some people like them because they allow them to confront things they are afraid of, in a way that is safe, and survivable.

I generally don’t have scary dreams, but I do have dreams in which sad, or confusing things happen. One I have been having lately is I am traveling, usually walking through a town, and I don’t recognize the streets, and can’t figure out where I am going, and sometimes even forget that I was trying to go anywhere at all.

The feeling of that dream is not hard for me to recognize. I wake up everyday, to life in this covid world, and wonder when the virus will run its course, or be eradicted, or we will all get vaccinated so it has nowhere left to thrive. Because I am not in charge, or privy to the facts about when that will happen, I can have this feeling, of being lost, in a world that I don’t understand, or control.

Having the dream, and thinking that in some way, God is dreaming it with me, I feel like that deep feeling inside me has been noticed, and understood. I may not be able to fully explain the dream in words, but God is with me, God knows what I am going through, and God understands. Thanks be to God. Amen

Jesus Baptism and Ours

Dennis Graham, the producer, director and post-production guru said that the worship video for this weekend is one of the best we have ever done.

We looked at the story of Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River, and also reflected on what it means to be beloved child of God.

Here is the link to the Youtube video:

Here is the text of the Learning Time:

Learning Time: “Jesus’ Baptism, and Ours”

Jesus joined a crowd of people who went to the bank of the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach his fiery sermons, and to be baptized. They were not baptized into the Christian church, because that did not yet exist. They were Jews called to a life of faithfulness, and offered a way to have a fresh start.

Jesus was about thirty at the time of his baptism. He had lived a lot of years since being a newborn in a manger, and from that time when he was twelve, and hung out in the Jerusalem temple, talking about God with the teachers of religion.

What did he do for those 18 years, from that time in the temple, to this moment in the Jordan River? There has been a lot of speculation about that over the centuries, and books written about the possibilities. John Prine wrote a song called “Jesus, the hidden years”, which is worth checking out on YouTube. It’s a lot of fun.

Is it possible that like the escaped convict in the little clip from “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Jesus felt like he needed a fresh start? That would make him seem a lot more human than he is usually described. 

Where were you at age thirty? What were you doing? Were you ready for a washing clean, a fresh start? Did you have a clear sense of who you were, and what God wanted you to be? Do you have that now?

A few years ago I heard a story about a young man who had led a kind of wild life. He had a lot of money, and many grown up toys. He didn’t have to work, and had more free time than many people. He was also very lonely, and at times, drank too much.

He was also had a deep spiritual hunger and curiosity. His search for more in life, and led him to walk into a church one Sunday. It was a non-denominational congregation led by a husband and wife team of co-pastors.

This very small congregation, made up mostly of seniors, met in a building that used to be a United Church. When the co-pastors saw a man in his late twenties walk in, they were thrilled. One of them actually said out loud, “Thank God, someone to help.’

The young man stuck around. Before long he was teaching Bible study, and helping with the sound system at the church, and going to Haiti on mission trips. Something in him responded to being needed to help, and he blossomed. He found himself.

That is an important and powerful thing, to discover who you are meant to be, who you are in God’s eyes, and to find your purpose in life.

This congregation practiced baptism by full immersion, and the old church building they were renting did not have running water, never mind a baptismal tank. The young man invited the congregation to use the pool at his condo for a baptismal service.

Have you ever seen that kind of baptism? It’s like what we saw in the video clip. The person walks in, or is standing in water that may be above their waist. The candidate for baptism is literally dunked under. In some traditions they are pushed in backwards, and totally submerged in the water. They are not held down, but they go all the way in, so that they are completely under water.

As a person who does not even like to put my head in the water when I swim, I would find this terrifying. If you are able, and willing, try an experiment with me. I am going to use my watch to time us for 20 seconds as we hold our breath.

That’s not very long. But it is about long enough to remind us how it feels to not breathe. I prefer to breathe. My body resists holding my breath. It instinctively knows what it needs.

You would have to hold your breath if you were being baptized by John in the Jordan River. You might also close your eyes, in case the water wasn’t clean. A lot of other people may have been dipped in that part of the river.

The experience, and the symbolism would be powerful. A total rinsing off of the dust and dirt, and messiness of life up to that point, and a rising up out of the water, with a commitment to live a new kind of life. Terror, and then relief, and perhaps joy, as you rose up out of the water.

The story says that after Jesus was baptized, and rose up out of the water, the heavens opened, the dove of the Holy Spirit came down, and a voice said to him , “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

One of the ways the church has understood baptism is as a way to participate in the mysteries of Jesus life, his death, and his resurrection.  The person totally submerged for baptism is for a moment, cut off from life around them.  They are like an unborn child, in those few seconds, except without the umbilical cord to provide all they need for life.

There is at once a hint of death, or the risk of it, and the reminder of what it is like for each of us, before we leave the safety of the womb, and enter the world. The water is at the same time, a womb, and a reminder of the tomb in which Jesus was laid, after he was killed on the cross.

Then the person rises up out of the water breathless, and is able again to breathe, and it suggests coming back to life, or being born. There is a lot of powerful symbolism there, that we may only catch a glimpse of in the way we tend to do baptisms.

But back to the story of the young man in the pool at his condo. I heard about it from his father, who is not a regular church goer, but who came to the condo pool that day. When his son had been baptized, and was getting out of the pool, he slipped on the wet deck, and almost broke his leg.

The father said his son was sore for a few days, but not seriously hurt. It could have been a lot worse. That little story, of falling on the wet deck is a reminder that this business of baptism, of life, and death, and new life, is risky.  You never know what’s going to happen. Did Jesus know what would happen in his life, after he submitted to John’s baptism?

The father told me this story of his son’s baptism, 4 years ago, while we stood together at the reception after his son’s funeral.  There was a great deal of sadness over this young man’s death. But in the midst of this, I also heard that the happiest, most fulfilling part of his short life began when he joined that little church, was baptized, and grew into a new understanding of his purpose. He found his identity as a beloved child of God, when he began to live a life that was about serving God, by helping others. It is so good that he found that little church, and found out who he was meant to be.

In the 1700’s there was an Anglican minister named John Wesley, who found the church he grew up in, and in which he had been ordained, to be a fairly dry, lifeless, and ineffectual institution, that was failed to reach the people who most needed it. The industrial revolution in England had made some people very wealthy, but it had also displaced many people from traditional rural lives, and pushed them into the cities in search of factory work. The cities were filled with the casualties of poverty, and poor education, and alcoholism, and child labour. Some evangelical ministers had begun preaching on street corners and holding open-air meetings to try to reach people who had no connection to a church.

Wesley became one of those people who brought the church to people where they were. He organized people into small groups, or classes, of 12 or so people, who would meet regularly to learn and pray together, and hold each other accountable for how they were living. The members would minister to each other, in between the visits from travelling preachers who would each watch over a number of these local classes. This system came to be called Methodism, and the Methodist Church in Canada was one of the denominations that joined together as the United Church in 1925.

John Wesley believed it was helpful to offer people them the opportunity to re-new their covenant relationship with God, and with their fellow believers. He called them “Covenant Services”, and I have borrowed some parts of a service he wrote, for our service today. Near the end of his life, Wesley tended to have these services around New Year’s- it seemed like a good time to offer people a fresh start.

So at the end of this service we have the opportunity to renew our faith commitments.  You can dip your fingers in warm water, and make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

This is not a baptism- but a symbol of your faith in Jesus, or at the very least, your desire to believe. This is a chance to say to ourselves, and to God, that we are choosing to live as beloved children of God.  Amen

Celebrating Epiphany and Home Communion Jan 3, 2021

Our first worship service for the New Year is an opportunity to ponder the story of God offering the Magi “another way” to get home after their visit to Jesus, which allows them to avoid having to report back to King Herod.

“Another Way” is a theme of this worship service. In the grip of a pandemic, and under lockdown rules, we are all finding ways to adapt to circumstances. We can celebrate communion in a new way.

Back during the first lockdown, in March and April, I adhered carefully to the guidance offered by the General Council Executive of the United Church of Canada, that “virtual communion” could happen, if the video of the worship service was livestreamed to those watching on their own devices. We were discouraged from having a recorded service. The idea was to retain the sense that we are all “together”, while still being safely apart.

I still agree with that idea, and also think that it is impossible to limit God. God existed before time started, and some theologians say that God is present in all moments of time, simultaneously. So who is to say that God can’t be with each person, at each moment, while they watch the communion video, and ask God to bless their bread and cup?

We do the best we can, and find “another way”.

Our service includes some beautiful music, old and newly recorded, as well as a lyric video of the James Taylor song “Home by Another Way”, and a clip of Naomi Woods reading “Refuge” by Anne Booth and Sam Usher.

Here is the text of the Learning Time: “Going by another way”

I remember going to a hardware store in Windsor with our landlord, a wise, practical, chain-smoking, hard-working, big-hearted wiry little old Ukrainian man.

John and I were looking for a kit to install an air conditioner in an attic window. The store clerk had trouble understanding what John wanted, and maybe couldn’t get it all through his accent. It was a frustrating conversation, and we ended up leaving the store, to look elsewhere. As we walked away, we heard the clerk mutter “stupid bohunk”.

John was such a good man. He must have read my face, because I really wanted to go back and have words with the clerk. John shook his head, and gave a look that seemed to express both gratitude for my indignation, and resignation to the cruelty and ignorance of some people.

John said, “Whaddaya gonna do?”

We went on with our mission, picked up what we needed at another store, and installed the air conditioner. It was one of those times when an elder’s wisdom won out.

John was right, I think, to have us walk away from the guy in the hardware store. Who knows why the clerk spat out his racial hatred in that moment.  As the Scottish theologian Ian McLaren wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

People are facing all kinds of hard battles these days. We have all the usual things like racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. We have poverty and its related diseases and issues. People struggle with mental health, and addictions. People live with the cruel legacies of childhood neglect and abuse.

People get sick from things in the air, the water, the soil. Sometimes there is help for them.

People live with grief, and regret, and loneliness, and fear. Some people are so weighed down by debt and obligation they never want to answer the phone. Some people have made big mistakes, or little ones, in relationships, and feel like life is spinning apart, leaving them in pieces.

Parents worry about children. Children worry about their parents, while at the same time trying to find a way to be themselves.

Hospitals and care facilities are filled with folks who struggle with illness, and aging. Families face tough decisions about the care of loved ones. Ailments, accidents, diseases, and illnesses come upon people, and cause devastation with little warning.

We get old. We get sick. We think about death, or try not to think about death.  All of this just comes with being human, being alive, making our way in the world.

Then a pandemic comes along, and adds whole new layers of complication, crisis, limitation and sometimes desperation. Businesses, and jobs, and our basic patterns of life are all threatened. Things we have taken for granted have been taken away, or drastically limited, changed, under lockdown.

There is so much that seems beyond our control, that just happens to us.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

One of the problems we face is that even though we may feel like we are fighting a hard battle, there may not actually be anyone to fight.

Who should we get mad at, because the pandemic has led to a lockdown? Does it help to call our leaders names, or pass on weird conspiracy stories that claim to explain the secret reasons we are all wearing masks, and waiting for vaccine shots?

When the guy in the hardware store was so stupidly rude and cruel to my friend John, a part of me wanted pick up something sharp or heavy- it was a hardware store after all, and explain things to him. As if that would change anything, make anything better. John’s “Whaddya gonnna do?” reminded me that there has to be another way.

The wise men, or magi, or as James Taylor calls them, those guys, had an encounter with King Herod, who personifies evil in this story. He wants the magi to pay him a call on the way back from meeting the newborn, to tell him how to find the baby. Herod does not want this little one to grow up to be a rival to his power. His invitation to the magi to come back and see him was an offer they were not supposed to refuse.

After having successfully followed the Bethlehem Star, the wisemen are warned in a dream to go home by another way- to avoid a confrontation with Herod. I love this story about God using stars and dreams to guide them, and offer them another way.

Jesus was born into a world in which rich and powerful people make decisions that cause poor people to leave their homes, and seek shelter against the cold night. It is a world in which an evil ruler can hatch plots against real or imagined enemies. It is a world in which violence is perpetrated against innocent and defenseless children. It is a world in which it is possible to feel insignificant, helpless to make things better. In other words, it is our world.

The gospels bring the Good News about God’s love for all people, and were written for people like us, living in a world in which there are many hard battles, often against faceless, nameless enemies.

Epiphany is the English word that comes from ancient Greek words “Epi-phanos”, which translate roughly as “manifestation” or “appearance” or “making known”. It means that something previously hidden has been revealed. A sunrise is a kind of epiphany, a moment when darkness is sliced open by light, and everything changes.

The word epiphany gets used in non-religious ways to point to the moment in which something suddenly becomes clear.  A good example is when the apple fell on Isaac Newton, and he had a sudden insight into the existence of gravity. There is a similar story about Albert Einstein struck as a young child by being given a compass, and realizing some unseen force was making it move.

In the Gospel according to Thomas, an interesting, and strange, and mystical text that did not make it into the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I’m the light that’s over everything. I am everything; it’s come from me and unfolds toward me. “Split a log; I’m there. Lift the stone, and you’ll find me there.”

That is a way of expressing the startling news of the Incarnation, the claim the Christian church has made almost from the beginning, that one of the things we learn from Jesus is that God is not distant, and uninvolved, looking down on us from some lofty height. God is with us in the midst of this reality.

We don’t wait until we die and depart this existence to meet God. God is in the apples, and compass needles, and in the light, and in the split logs, and in the vulnerable child of Bethlehem, and in you and I. This is not to say that you are God, or that I am. The poetry of the Incarnation says to us that God is here, with us. God is with us, and there is hope of another way. Amen