2021 Good Friday Service

Call to Worship:

We gather here in the shadow of the cross.

This can be a grey and chilling place.

We do not like to be this close to the mystery of death.

May we have the courage to dwell long enough to see

that God is alive, and at work, even here.

Let us open ourselves to God’s warmth and light.

1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Good Friday Zoom Theatre: A dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’ Passion

Video: “Take me instead” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

Learning Time: The Good Friday story

In the early part of Lent I was stopping in every day at a Long Term Care facility, to visit with a woman in palliative care. That meant being screened, signing in, donning a gown, and gloves, a mask, and a PPE visor. It gave me a real insight into how it has been for our front line workers. I only did it for maybe an hour each day- I know that some folks spend their whole day like that.

I went in each day to offer the woman who was actively dying a blessing, because the family let me know that the church had been an important part of her life. I was there for her, but also wanted to check in with this woman’s family, who were doing the very difficult, and important work of sitting with her, as she moved towards the transition from earthly life, through physical death, and on to life in the spirit with God.

The woman’s medical and physical needs were being met, and everything possible was done to make sure she was comfortable, and not in pain, as she lay there dying.

It was only a few months ago that my father-in-law Keith lay dying, in a similar bed, in a similar room, in another long term care facility. He also received excellent care, and his family stepped up, and we took turns sitting with him.

When we love someone, and they are ill, or in terrible pain, or their life is at risk, there is that part of us, that voice within that would like to negotiate with God, the universe, the illness, whoever or whatever holds the power of life and death, and trade our life, our pain and suffering, our health, for that of our loved one.

It’s a bargain we’d be willing to make, if things worked that way. We would trade places, to save them the pain and suffering. It’s a powerful wish, and a clear statement of love. In most cases, in real life, and in real death, it is not something we can actually do. It’s a powerful desire, and a fantasy.

We just saw that scene from the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s also a standard in many action movies, the “no, let those hostages go, you don’t need all of them, you’ve got me…” moment, in which the hero, or heroine is prepared to trade their life, to save the life of the innocent.

It is powerful when the hero makes the offer, in order to save their partner, their spouse, their child, someone that matters to them.

It is even more powerful, when the hero is prepared to take on the pain, the suffering, the death of someone they don’t even know, simply because it’s the right thing, the noble thing, the loving thing to do.

I can understand why people hang on, and find such meaning in the notion that Jesus was doing something positive, by submitting to death on the cross.

We have called it paying the price for our sins, washing us clean with his blood. I understand, on a gut level, that this makes some kind of sense, that Jesus would give up his life as a loving sacrifice, for the good of others. It’s admirable.

Of course, we want to believe that Jesus would do that for us. What more powerful way to demonstrate, once and for all, that God loves us.

And that idea has been the focus, the theme of so much blood-soaked poetry, in scripture, and hymns, and sermons. There has been, for centuries, a deep thirst and appetite for this poetry. We so deeply want, need, deserve the assurance that we are loved. Followers of Jesus have also struggled, for centuries to make some sense of his death on the cross.

Some, not all, settled on the “no, take me” scenario, in which the hero offers their life, to pay a price for the lives of the hostages. Some of the story-tellers started putting that spin on things, even before the Gospel stories were written down, in the first 75-100 years after the first Good Friday.

I believe this interpretation has some built-in problems. Think about the action movies, and police television shows in which you have seen this drama acted out.

There is a hostage situation, and law enforcement, the good guys in the story  are called in to help. Who are the characters in this drama?

In the movie set up, there are the innocent hostages- maybe we identify with them. We may feel stuck, trapped, afraid, and in need of rescue. We do have moments when we are keenly aware of being caught up somewhere between life and death, and in need of rescue.

There is the heroic figure, who puts down their gun, takes off their Kevlar body armour, and presents themselves as the substitute hostage. We can easily see Jesus in the hero role- especially since in most of the movies, this is the moment when the hero raises their arms to show they have no weapon, and they often look like they are about to be crucified.

The dramatic scene we are imagine, or remember, requires just one more character- the evil villain that up until now has been holding the hostages at gunpoint, or threatening to blow them up, or whatever dastardly means of death they have in mind.

The villain in the story has the option to accept the hero’s life in trade for the hostages. Who is the villain? Why does the villain need the hostages to die? What is to be gained, in the story, by anyone dying?

In the movies, the hero often says that, “Nobody needs to die here, today.” We can all go home safely, if you just put down the gun, or the trigger device for the nuclear warhead, or the spray can for the poision gas, or whatever the deadly weapon might be.

In the movies, and tv shows, of which I have obviously watched too, too many, there are just 2 possible reasons the villain has captured hostages, for which the hero is willing to trade their life.

The first reason is that villain is cornered, about to be captured themselves, and is using the hostages to bargain for safe passage. They want to trade the lives of the hostages for a city bus to take them to the airport, where they can catch a plane to someplace beyond the legal reach of the good guys.

The second typical reason is the villain is insane, and wants to kill people. They don’t expect to get away. The hero appeals to the last vestige of human decency in them, to let the innocents go, and accept the hero as a substitute. If the hero has been an annoyance to the villain up to this point in the story, a thorn in their side, they might say, “Let these folks go, I’m the one you really want.” And sometimes, in the movies, it works. The villain goes for it, releases the captives, but keeps the hero captive.

Sometimes, in the movies, the hero has one more trick up their sleeve.  They know a  clever way to de-fuse the nuclear warhead, or they’ve secretly swallowed an antidote to the poison gas. Maybe they wrestle free before the bad guy can carve them up with the meat cleaver, or they duck, and only suffer a flesh wound, when the villain shoots at them.

If it’s a movie with a satisfying end, the villain is captured, or dies while trying to escape, and the hero survives, and then the last scene in the story has the hero being yelled at by their spouse, or partner, or boss, “What were you thinking? You could have died in there!”

But in the Good Friday story… if we are the innocent hostages, and Jesus is Bruce Willis, ready to trade his life for ours, who is the villain? Who is one who needs the hostages, or Jesus to die? And why?

The way it has usually been explained is the universe is a moral place, with rules and laws that have to be upheld. If a crime is done, a price has to be paid. If our sins are crimes, offenses against the universe, God the Judge needs for the price to be paid. There aren’t actually any innocent hostages, because we are all guilty. Jesus takes our place, and pays the price.

This has been a powerful, manipulative tool, used in the worst kind of evangelism. It’s kind of like when someone says, “After all I have done for you, the least you can do is…”

I struggle with the idea of a God who would operate this way. It just doesn’t connect for me, with the picture of God that I get from Jesus- the source of all the love in the universe.

This story about a God, who acts like Judge and Executioner rolled into one scary figure, and who would accept the hero as the substitute hostage, does not seem like the God Jesus wanted us to call Abba, the loving parent.

What parent in their right mind, and with a loving heart, would set things up this way? Did the Supreme Lover set up a whole universe in which we are all found guilty without trial, and sentenced to death, and the only escape is to kill the hero?

Why? Why set it up that way? What the actual hell is this all about?

Unless God is not the villain. Maybe the villain in this story is plain ordinary human evil, and Jesus faces it, sacrifices himself to it, and God is not the writer, the director, the creator of this scene at all. Maybe God did not want it to happen this way at all.

When I watch Bruce Willis or some other action hero ready to die to save the innocents, I also get to see the villain as insane, or evil, and I don’t shed any tears when they are defeated, even if they are killed. I can applaud the hero’s willingness to die for the sake of others, and still hope it doesn’t have to happen that way.

So, if Jesus is the hero, I can applaud his willingness to play his part in the drama. I just don’t think it’s the only way the story could have gone. I think that God loves us, and can forgive our sins, if our sins need forgiving, and accept us, without killing the hero. Which means I don’t think God killed the hero.

I don’t think God is the crazy, bloodthirsty villain this story seems to need God to be.

God is actually more like the hero’s best friend, or spouse, or partner, or boss, at the end of the story, who says, “Are you okay? I was so scared. You’re okay? Good!” Then they punch the hero in the arm and say, “What the hell were you thinking? You could have been killed!”

But that’s not the scene we end with today. Good Friday ends with Jesus dying on the cross, with nothing to take away the pain, for him, or for us watching. It’s kind of a terrible movie. I don’t think God wrote, directed, or produced that movie. Amen

Video: The United Church Creed

Pastoral Prayers

Loving God;  We pray for all those who suffer in our world. We pray for those who are sick, for those who are dying, and for those who are burdened with grief. We pray especially for those who are living in war zones. We pray for those who are victims of racism, or religious hatred.

We pray also for those individuals, and groups that are easily scapegoated: those who are weak, or who bring a challenging message, or seem different or strange to us.

Help us to listen carefully when people in power are offering us quick and easy solutions to complex problems.

Help us to place our lives, and our hopes in your hands God, and to practice patience and perseverance, so the solutions we discover will grow out of love, and not vengeance.

Help us to recognize the parts of our own hearts, our own character, that are still in some way satisfied by violence. Let us not mistake our own darker aspects for God’s will, or God’s plan.

God, help us to remember to look to you, not for justification for our hurtful desires, but for the love and forgiveness, and grace we need to rise above, and move beyond them.

Help us to look at life, and faith in new ways. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

Video of “We are not alone” from Eastminster United in Toronto

Blessing

May the God of creation, the God of generous provision, the God of new life be with us.

May the Christ of grace, the Christ of forgiveness, the Christ of reconciliation be our example.

May the Spirit love, the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of hope, go with us. Amen

Worship Service for Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021 “King Me?”

Matthew 21:1-17 (The Message)

When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples with these instructions: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”

This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:

Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
    poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
    foal of a pack animal.”

The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”

As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”

The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text:

My house was designated a house of prayer;
You have made it a hangout for thieves.

Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them.

When the religious leaders saw the outrageous things he was doing, and heard all the children running and shouting through the Temple, “Hosanna to David’s Son!” they were up in arms and took him to task. “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

Jesus said, “Yes, I hear them. And haven’t you read in God’s Word, ‘From the mouths of children and babies I’ll furnish a place of praise’?”

Fed up, Jesus spun around and left the city for Bethany, where he spent the night.

From the Song of Faith:

We find God made known in Jesus of Nazareth,

and so we sing of God the Christ, the Holy One embodied.

We sing of Jesus,

           a Jew,

           born to a woman in poverty

           in a time of social upheaval

           and political oppression.

He knew human joy and sorrow.

So filled with the Holy Spirit was he

that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.

We sing praise to God incarnate.

Jesus announced the coming of God’s reign—

           a commonwealth not of domination

           but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

He healed the sick and fed the hungry.

He forgave sins and freed those held captive

           by all manner of demonic powers.

He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.

He preached and practised unconditional love—

           love of God, love of neighbour,

           love of friend, love of enemy—

and he commanded his followers to love one another

           as he had loved them.

Because his witness to love was threatening,

           those exercising power sought to silence Jesus.

He suffered abandonment and betrayal,

           state-sanctioned torture and execution.

He was crucified.

But death was not the last word.

God raised Jesus from death,

           turning sorrow into joy,

           despair into hope.

We sing of Jesus raised from the dead.

We sing hallelujah.

By becoming flesh in Jesus,

           God makes all things new.

InJesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering,

           God empowers us to live in love.

In Jesus’ crucifixion,

           God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.

In Jesus’ resurrection,

           God overcomes death.

Nothing separates us from the love of God.

Learning Time: “King Me?” 

Over 30 years ago I lived in Southern Georgia, in a Christian community called Koinonia Farm. I had amazing experiences there, including meeting Jimmy and Rosalind Carter, and their Secret Service detail, the men and women with the ear buds, and the coiled wire running down under their collars. I can’t imagine what it would be like to need 24/7 protection.

The former U.S. President lives about 10 miles away from Koinonia, in Plains, Georgia. I have mentioned before what a kind, humble, and thoughtful man I found him to be. I have thought about Mr. Carter a lot over the past four years.

The president is the closest thing the Americans have to royalty. They fought a revolution to be free of the tyranny of a king, but still have a love affair with the idea of a powerful elite. Their president, more than just a person doing a big job, is a symbol of the power of the nation.

To a lesser extent, I think, we in Canada do this to our politicians. When things are going well, we praise them. When things are not as we would like them to be, or if they fail to satisfy our wishes on our pet issues, we vilify them. Either way, we kind of forget our elected leaders are actually just humans.

While living at Koinonia I played a lot of checkers with the father and two adult sons of the Renderos family. They were undocumented migrant workers from El Salvador, who lived at Koinonia while we worked with the Canadian government on their applications for refugee status. Mr. Renderos had been mayor of his town in El Salvador, and fled for his life, and the lives of his wife and two sons, when guerillas took over his town, and forcibly drafted all the teenage boys to be part of their army. They left behind their home, their business, family and friends, and survived picking vegetables in the American south, moving from place to place with the harvest.

I was their volunteer English tutor. We’d drive into town and walk around in the Piggly Wiggly and look at the groceries, and I taught them English words for the fruit and vegetables they used to pick.

Mr. Renderos, who had even less English than I did Spanish, loved to play checkers, which he called “damas”. Whether you play in English or Spanish, the rules are the same. You have to advance your pieces towards your opponent. If you have an opportunity to jump, or take an opponent’s piece, and you don’t do it, you lose yours. Before long, there are fewer and fewer pieces on the board. 

If you get a piece all the way to the other side of the board, you say “king me”, and your opponent crowns it with one of your lost checkers. Now you have a king, that can move in all directions, which you use to chase your opponent’s pieces. The little pieces get eaten, to make kings.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover Festival, he came in riding on a humble donkey. There were some in his country, in that time, who hoped God would send a Holy King, a Messiah, to lead an uprising against the Roman-sponsored King of Israel, take over the throne, force out the Romans, and begin a new kind of rule.

Jesus had developed a following, and was loved by the poorest of the poor, the dispossessed, those with nothing left to lose. The Romans, and their puppet government in Judea had reason to pay attention to him.

A love/hate relationship with kings was part of the history of Jesus’ people. Kings were typically warrior chiefs, who commanded armies, and took control of territory and people by force. They took what they wanted, when they wanted it. The story of King David claiming the wife of one of his generals, and then sending him off to war, to be killed, is a cautionary tale of the danger of kings.

Most people, especially the poor, those who did not own their own land, and who depended upon others for work, and places to live, had no say about who their king would be. No more say than the people of India, or Africa, or North or South America had, when white men with armies landed on their shore, and claimed their countries in the name of kings, or queens they’d never heard of before.

For the peasants of Israel, and for the local populations of all the lands claimed by kings with big armies, the most they could hope for is the new king would have some human decency.

One powerful theme in the Hebrew Scriptures from well before the time of Jesus, was that if Israel could only have a righteous king, then the land would flourish, the people prosper, and the country would be the envy of its neighbours, and strong enough to fend off attack from other nations.

People would pray “God bless the King,” partly because even if the current king was greedy, and self-serving, and abused their power, it was still thought to be better to have a bad king, than have no one in charge, and allow chaos to reign.

One function of religion in European feudal societies was to bless the monarch. The head of the church would crown them, to make their rule official, and to remind them to behave more like a holy servant than an armed bully.

Over time, this idea of blessing, and praying for the ruler, and hoping they behave, turned into an official church doctrine called the “Divine Right of Kings”. Like the changing of the seasons, the life cycle of plants, and the endless progress of day into night and back again, God placed Kings and Queens in charge- as part of the order of the universe.

This very civilized, Christianized idea is like a new coat of wallpaper in a beat up old shack. It’s an effort to clean up a mess, patch some holes, make things look better. It sets aside, or covers over the atrocities that happened when the army of one warrior chief attacked another army, to become the ruler in the first place.

When armed representatives of European kings landed on the shores of what they saw as undiscovered countries all over the world, they did not just claim the land. They claimed the people, as subjects, the property of their kings. They were not above using violence to back up their claims.

How many millions of people were captured, put in chains, thrown into the cargo holds of ships, and transported from Africa, to white owned plantations, farms, factories, mines, households in the Americas, in the Caribbean? How many castles, palaces, cathedrals, morning suits, fancy gowns, and crown jewels were bought and paid for with the sweat and blood of enslaved people?

One by one, nations are leaving the Commonwealth, and repudiating the very idea of the monarchy. In some Caribbean countries, there is talk about seeking reparations for the horrible treatment of their ancestors, by trading companies run by Sir Somebody, and Lord Whosits, in the name of their kings and queens, who gave them royal charters.

Built into the notion that one family is better, because of its bloodline, is the idea that other families, other whole populations are not as good, and are worthy only of being the property, or servants of the people descended from conquerors.

Kings. War Lords. Powerful figures on big horses, or mighty chariots. Pomp and circumstance. They roll into town with a big entourage- a show of force that is impressive but also meant to intimidate. My army is bigger, stronger, more fierce than yours. Show the peasants, this is the strong man who will keep you safe from the other strong man.

Don’t worry, our ruler won’t be like the others. Ours will be holy, be good, and take care of us.

We can trust our ruler. They’re on our side, and God is on their side, so we should pay our taxes, and support them, and their kids, and grand-kids, for every generation.  They are special people. Chosen by God to rule.

Even today, in countries where folks try to distance themselves from actual royal families, we like dynasties. We follow the antics of celebrities as if they have been anointed to rule, and entertain us. Sports heros. Movie stars. Internet influencers. Successful business people. Families of politicians. We buy into the idea that certain people are destined to be famous, rich, powerful. So many people are famous, well, for being famous.

They are different. Somehow above and beyond the rabble. They are people to look up to, and their lives are the stuff of dreams and fantasy.

Fantasy is the operative word. Because in reality, no person is actually better than others. We are all humans. We all have nobility, and pride, and goodness in us. We all have greed, and ego, and depravity in us. We are all saints and sinners, and none is actually better than anyone else. God loves us all, equally, and does not recognize the assumed privilege we try to claim over others.

Jesus did not come to Jerusalem to say “King me”. He did not come to reform, or to prop up the corrupt, broken system that caused so much pain and distress for the poor, the sick, the landless, the widows, orphans, the enslaved of his time.

Jesus was, I think, performing a bit of street theatre. He entered the capital city on the back of a donkey, on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor was coming into Jerusalem, with his entourage of troops and chariots and weapons of war.

Pilate came into town as a representative of the might and power, and threat of the Roman Empire. Mess with him, and you are in trouble.

Jesus came into town as the humble, vulnerable servant of God. Join with him, and place your faith, not in a figurehead, or a system, or an army- but in God, the source of love, and real meaning, and real hope. Amen

Worship for Sunday, March 21, 2021

Learning Time: Giving Thanks for Food, and for Life, even, especially now

Video:  The Carrie Newcomer song “Room at the Table”, with some poignant pictures.

We’ve used this song other times as we’ve prepared to celebrate the sacrament of communion. I really like the basic message, because here at Harrow United Church we keep an open table, at which we make room for everyone. The song is by a folk singer and song-writer name Carrie Newcomer. 

The official music video her record company issued was filled with joyful images of people of many different backgrounds, ages, shapes and sizes, dancing, eating, enjoying their time together. 

I’ve since discovered a few variations, including one by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which shows images of hungry people around the world being fed. I think Carrie Newcomer would approve.

I found this version we just viewed a few days ago. It struck me as powerful in different ways. Some of the images make me feel incredibly sad, because the people look like they are suffering, and others leave feeling a bit envious, because the people are enjoying themselves in large, joyous gatherings.

Can you remember when we could get together in a big room full of people, and eat, and drink, and visit, and listen to several conversations all at once?  The simple fun of hearing and seeing a room full of people happy to be together without masks, and without the need to keep the length of a hockey stick apart.

We have been living with the pandemic, officially, for just over a year. It was on Saint Patrick’s Day last year that my wife and daughter drove to Waterloo to pick up our son, because his university residence was being locked down. 

It’s been a tough year, for many. The virus has taken millions of lives, and disrupted the lives, and the livelihood of billions of people. I am hard pressed to think of a place in the world, or an aspect of life that has not been touched. 

When I watched this “room at the table” video, I thought about those who are struggling with food security these days.  It was touching to see the images in which hungry people were being offered love and care, and food.

I am grateful, that my family has what we need, and we have the means to help others. I remember times when the family I grew up in did not have what we needed. I also remember what it is like to be on the receiving end. I remember times when what was given came freely, and other times, when I could see the strings of expectation and obligation, and judgment.

There is a powerful spiritual connection between gratitude and generosity. Being thankful makes me more inclined to give, which in turn leaves me feeling even more grateful, because I am able to give. It’s a good cycle to be caught up in!

I am also very grateful to be part of a faith community that places a high value on helping make sure that people do not go hungry, especially in these tough times. 

If you want to help others with donations of food, or money, let us know, and we will make sure your generous gifts are put to good use. If you or your family are in need, let us know, and we will do what we can to help you directly, or to connect you with others who can help. Harrow United Church supports the Harrow Food Bank, the Windsor Downtown Mission, and we have a good relationship with the Harrow Community Pantry, which also helps make sure families do not fall through the cracks.

Food is such a basic part of our human experience. Our bodies need fuel to function, and we literally are what we eat- our bodies are built from the nutrients we take in. More than that, we use food to show hospitality and welcome, to celebrate, to commiserate, to console, to reward. 

Most of us have been so used to gathering around a table, and sharing a meal. It has been a strange year, in which opportunities for such gatherings are limited, and have changed. Have you had a Zoom or Facetime meal yet? Opening a lap-top or a propping up a phone so that the person on the other end can see through your camera lens, who is with you at your table, and what you are having?

Our son Joel, who has returned to university in Waterloo, lives in the residence run by the historically Mennonite college, Conrad Grebel. One of many things we like about Grebel is an ongoing practice they have in their cafeteria, called “fill the table”. The understanding when you come down for a meal, is that when you have your food, and you go to sit down, you do not go to a new, empty table, if there is a spot open at another table. If it works out that everyone has been seated, and one person is going to be on their own, diners will pick up their tray, to form a new group. No one is left out. 

They have had to adapt their practices for COVID, with plastic shields in place, and less diners at each table, but the community building rule is still in place.

I think Jesus would like that. Jesus lived his earthly life that way. He sought out the company of people that no-one else wanted to be with. I use the word company on purpose. It is made of two words. “Com”, which is also one of the roots of the word community means “with”, and the “panion” part is from the word for “bread”, which is panis. A companion is literally someone with whom you share bread.

It’s hard to think of a more tangible way to show basic concern, acceptance, support, hospitality and love for a person, than to be willing to break bread with them- even if it is not bread. One of my favourite books from seminary was a book of theology from Asia called “God is Rice”.

As we are reminded in today’s Gospel story, Jesus broke bread and shared it, with crowds of people, many of whom were hungry, lonely, frightened, discouraged, weighed down with sadness, or guilt, or shame. The physical hunger they felt at meal time may only have been a part of the need they felt. To be welcomed to a meal, with a host who was genuinely happy to see them! How wonderful!

In this year of changes, and losses, I have talked with many people about grief. I have been reminded that so often grief is the flip-side of love. We miss who, and what we have loved.

We can’t really grieve losing a person that we didn’t know and love, and every time we risk knowing and loving someone, we take the risk that at some point later on, we will grieve losing them. Grief, and gratitude are intimately connected. 

Often, I think, when our hearts are hungry, for the way things once were, for time with our loved ones, our hunger is also flavoured with gratitude, for what we have once tasted. So I have this idea that to some degree, we can be grateful, even for our hunger, because it reminds us of what we have had.

When we share from the blessed bread and cup today, whether in person, or virtually, it gives us just a taste, perhaps enough to help us remember, to long for, to be grateful for, all the ways we are fed by God. Amen

Link to my March 20, 2021 piece for the Kingsville Observer

https://www.kingsvilleobserver.com/post/physical-mental-and-spiritual-self-care-needed-to-weather-the-covid-19-pandemic

As we are now a whole year into the pandemic, it seemed like a good time to encourage a people to check in with themselves.

How are you doing? Most people I ask answer with some variation of “OK, under the circumstances.”

Many of us are mostly OK. We have some resilience.

It’s harder to be OK if you test positive for COVID-19, are ill, or have had someone in your circle become sick, or succumb to the virus. It’s harder to be OK if the pandemic has hurt your business or cost you your job. It’s harder to be OK if the lockdown has meant you couldn’t visit a loved one in long-term care, is ill, or who was dying. It’s harder to be OK if you depend upon in-person recovery groups, counselling, or therapy to continue the work of being your best self. It’s harder to be OK if the rules mean you couldn’t have the family gathering, wedding or funeral that you would have arranged if things were different.

I recently attended an online meeting for pastors with a community mental health worker who used statistics to show what we can all guess has been happening. More people are depressed than a year ago. Suicidal thoughts and behaviour, self-harm, self-medication, violence in the home, abuse and neglect of loved ones are on the increase. Hopelessness, despair and anxiety affect our neighbours, friends and loved ones, especially young people. Pre-existing issues and tendencies can become worse under lockdown and harder to address.

The mental health worker reminded us that clergy are as prone to these hardships as anyone, and as likely to shrug and say, “I’m OK.”

Have you heard the old story about the frog? If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it does all it can to get out. If on the other hand the frog’s already in the pot and you heat the water slowly, it will adjust as the temperature rises and not try to escape until it’s too late. It’s a terrible story.

We’ve been in the pot for a while. It may be time to check in with ourselves. A useful image is that of a tripod.

Body. Mind. Spirit. If I don’t attend to each of these, I won’t have a leg to stand on. It is harder to be resilient and to help others if I don’t care for these aspects of myself.

Care of my body includes attending to what I put in it — food, water, other liquids, supplements, medications (actual and self-prescribed!) I have to keep my body moving with daily exercise. (Use it or lose it!) What am I doing more of, or less of, since this all started? What habits and practices need adjustment?

Caring for my mind also means being proactive about what I put in it and how I use it. A steady diet of bad news and conspiracy theories can leave me in a dark place. Too much time on the computer or phone, consuming without thinking, can leave me in a zombie-like state.

You might shy away from the word spirit for its religious or otherworldly connotations but it can also point you toward your emotional well-being and sense of connection to others and the world beyond ourselves.

I need to actually use my brain — play a board game, or solve a problem, do something that does not involve an electronic device. If I am going to spend time online, I try to seek out positive stories to balance my mental diet. My new favourite website, other than the Kingsville Observer, is Reasons to be Cheerful. It’s a project of David Byrne, former frontman for the Talking Heads.

You might shy away from the word spirit for its religious or otherworldly connotations but it can also point you toward your emotional well-being and sense of connection to others and the world beyond ourselves.

We can feed and exercise our spiritual selves. Schedule time for prayer, meditation, devotional reading, yoga, or tai chi. Read or watch videos online about mindfulness. Find a source of spiritual nurture that speaks to you and which helps you be hopeful.

A good measure of how my spirit is doing is to take an honest look at my capacity to help others. If I’m so caught up in my own condition that I have nothing left for others, I may need to do something about it. Happily, the diagnosis tool can often also contribute to the “cure.” There are times when the best thing I can do for myself to revive my own spirit and reawaken my appetite for connection to a reality beyond my own, is to help someone else.

If you are struggling spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise, please reach out. If you don’t know where to turn, email me at revdww@gmail.com and I will do my best to help.

Worship for Sunday, March 14, 2021

Here is the link to this week’s worship video:

Scripture Readings

Luke 6:37-38, 48-49 (The Message)

“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”

“If you work the words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who dug deep and laid the foundation of his house on bedrock. When the river burst its banks and crashed against the house, nothing could shake it; it was built to last. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a dumb carpenter who built a house but skipped the foundation. When the swollen river came crashing in, it collapsed like a house of cards. It was a total loss.”

Romans 12:1-2, 9-21 (The Message)

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

(Darrow) Learning Time: “Be Generous and Serve Others”

As research for today, I texted a good friend, who is a paramedic in York Region, and had time between calls, and asked him to remember back to when we first met. I asked him, “What did you think when you found out I was a minister?”  

He said he was terrified he’d say something to offend me. He reminded me that I’d already met his wife, while we waited outside the school for our kids, so he actually knew before he met me, and was already on guard.

I asked my friend how he got over being worried about offending me. At first he joked that he hadn’t, and then said he just got to know me and realized I wasn’t as uptight as he expected. 

Has that ever happened to you, when people find out you are a Jesus follower? Are people cautious, or expect you to judge them, or to be uptight? There are powerful ideas floating around, about what to expect from people of faith.

If you pay attention to movies, or tv shows, you may have noticed there are two typical ways Christians are often presented.

One typical portrayal of Christians is they are child-like about the world, and need protection from those who would take advantage of their kindness.  This picture of Christians, as naive, and  gullible, often kind of dumb, makes it easy to sideline us, when we ask questions, or raise concerns.

Back when the first permanent casino was being established, I was part of a group of faith leaders in Windsor, who met with government officials. We asked questions about the effects of a 24/7 casino on those who struggle with gambling addiction. We were basically told we were naive if we thought that concern for a few vulnerable people would stand in the way of this powerful economic engine, that would generate jobs and bring millions of dollars to the local economy.

 The other way Christians, and especially pastors are typically portrayed, is that we are harshly judgmental, and that we frown, or scowl a lot, especially when folks are having a good time. We are seen as heavily moralistic, and hung up on rules. This was also part of the way the pastor’s group was dismissed when we asked about the social effects of a permanent casino- we were told we should relax, and stop trying to impose our morality on other people.

 There is irony in this image of Christians as judgmental. We follow Jesus, who as we see him in the gospels, accepted everybody. Jesus made no distinction between holy person and sinner, respectable and despicable, popular or outcast. He would walk, talk, sit, eat, drink, visit with literally anyone, and had the same basic message for each- that we are all beloved children of God, and we should love each other. When the rules of religion got in the way of demonstrating that love, Jesus pushed back against the rules.

So how is it that those who identify as Christians and are part of a church, are so often seen as cranky, and judgy, and uptight?  If we make allowance for movie and tv and novel writers exaggerating for dramatic effect, we still have to grapple with the hard truth, that for much of the history of the organized church- it’s been true. We have made rules, and established codes of behaviour, and drawn lines about who is one of us, and who is not. These behaviours have done a lot of harm over the centuries, and not just to our reputation.

 We can trace this back to when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire, and basically took it over. He re-organized it along the lines of an army. Instead of generals, he appointed cardinals, who commanded bishops, who in turn controlled the platoons of priests. Constantine told his commanders to get together and make rules and standards for all believers anywhere in the Empire. He also gave them a taste of money, and power.

 The followers of Jesus were tamed, domesticated, and brought into line. Instead of being an underground movement that accepted anyone, and stood up for the poor and powerless, the church became an arm of government, and helped keep order.

 It became a mark of respectability to be part of a church. Historians call this Christendom, the rapid spread of the Christian churches into most of what was the Roman Empire and beyond. The good part was the church grew, in numbers, and in influence. 

The bad part is that the organized church, in most places, replaced the original Jesus movement, which was simpler, and if we are being honest, more true to what Jesus was actually about. The early Jesus movement did not have a lot of rules and codes of behaviour- it just had the revolutionary idea that God loves everybody, and that everybody matters.

 The early Jesus followers spread the Good News by taking care of their neighbours, sharing their food, offering clothing and shelter, visiting the sick and those in prison, and even helping to bury the dead, when families could not do it on their own. This kind of generous living was seen as the way for all believers, not just a paid, uniformed staff under the control of the empire.

 Things shifted, when the officially sanctioned church took over. When the Emperor paid to have church buildings put up for congregations, the local leaders found themselves busy maintaining the buildings, and trying to attract wealthier parishioners, to help cover costs. It became harder to speak out the way Jesus spoke out, against rules and systems that hurt people.

 The organized church began to teach, and promote values virtually identical with the biases and ideas of the Emperor, and his powerful allies. Which is how we wound up with Christian preachers who bought into the idea that it was okay to own slaves, to beat wives who disobeyed their husbands, and to treat all women and children as property. These were not Christian values- they were cultural norms, that the church absorbed, and promoted, and for which they scoured the Bible to find verses to confirm their biased views.

Tommy Douglas, considered by many in his time to be a crazy radical Christian, but now remembered as the father of publicly funded universal health care in Canada, once said, “The Bible is like a bull fiddle- you cna play almost any tune you want on it. ”

Instead of asking, “What does the Bible say?” I think we need to ask, “Does that sound like Jesus?”.

Comfortable, well paid, Christian preachers went along with the idea that white men could claim whole continents in the name of their white kings. This was thought acceptable because the local people these white men found in India, Africa, North and South and Central America, the Caribbean, Australia, Polynesia, well, actually, basically everywhere, weren’t like good church people. 

They were believed to be not exactly human, because they were uneducated, were not Christian, and their skin was darker in shade than their conquerors. Colonialism, and the exploitation of millions of people, and the theft of their resources, their land, their freedom, was supported by teaching of the Church. We are still trying to detox our theology of all that poison.

 We also have had a lot of Christian preachers who put far too much emotional and mental energy into enforcing rules about sex, and gender, and sexual identity, despite the fact that the references in the Bible to these things are few, and are far outnumbered by the references to love, compassion, and acceptance of all of God’s people.  

The church has done a lot of harm, to a lot of people, with rules that or the most part reflect more about the prejudices in society than they do authentic biblical values.

 So the reason we as Christians have a reputation with many people as being judgmental, is that historically, we have been. What can we do about that? I love the words we heard from Luke’s Gospel:

 “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.”

There is a lot we can do to help people, to be generous, and kind, that does not involve putting folks down because they may not look, speak, think, believe, or act exactly like us.

The friend I mentioned at the beginning, who worried when he met me, about saying things that would offend, describes himself as an atheist, and has no use for organized religion. He was also one of the largest donors when I was collecting money for this year’s Coldest Night of the Year walk for the Downtown Mission, and he gave without my asking him.

Our reading from the Letter to the Romans, offers a warning against confusing the biases of our local culture with God’s view of things:

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”   Amen

A prayer we used, remembering that this week included International Women’s Day:

Worship for Sunday, March 7, 2021

This Sunday morning we had our first in-person worship since coming out of the “grey” zone. It was lovely to see people in the pews. We have learned how to follow the protocols for safety, and things went very well!

I have heard from several people recently that they appreciate having the text of the learning time, as well as the video to watch.

I am also going to include a link to a short video from David Byrne, in which he speaks about his project: Reasons to be Cheerful

It would work well to watch his video before reading/watching my learning time.

https://youtu.be/qvVhxbaT_OE

(Darrow) Learning Time: “Resist the Ways of the World”

How many of you have heard of David Byrne? He’s a singer, and songwriter, and probably most famous for being the front man for Talking Heads, a band that started in the mid 1970’s. He could probably have retired on the proceeds of their record sales- some of their albums are still big sellers, but he’s doing this interesting thing, in which he’s hired a team of journalists to seek out and report on Good News stories. I applaud that effort. The world can use all the good news we can hear and see.

I found it interesting that Byrne said the stories they report on are not about how we wish things were, but how they actually are, right now. With this kind of reporting, he and his team are swimming upstream against the big media empires, that are a lot more likely to try to attract our attention with stories that scare, worry, disgust us.

A crass way of saying it from the old days when print newspapers were the dominant news source, was “If it bleeds, it leads” A story about a scary, violent, bloody crime would be the lead story, above the fold, on the front page, to get people to buy the newspaper.

A more modern tactic is that the first version of a story, the “this just in” story that is still developing, often contains the most sensational, outrageous speculation, that can be toned down later when the actual facts are discovered- but by then, they’ve moved on to a new piece of bait, to hook us, and reel us in.

When you watch the news, or listen to it, or read it online, pay attention to what they offer up as the bait to get you to keep watching, listening, clicking.

On the harsh facts about the news, is that the real product, is not the stories that get reported on, but the ratings- the number of readers, viewers, that a story attracts. That’s how the value of advertising is determined, by how many of us stay tuned.

But the Reasons to be Cheerful staff are flipping that way of doing things on it head. They are looking for the stories about goodness, and selflessness, and creative, workable solutions to problems, that make the world a better, safer, kinder place. I have no idea how they are making money. Maybe they aren’t.

I found it interesting that Byrne said the stories they report on are not about how we wish things were, but how they actually are, right now. In his own way, I think David Byrne is working from the same kind of apparently backwards logic that Jesus offered, in the Beatitudes, which we just heard from Luke’s Gospel. 

Jesus’ message was the exact opposite of what the world might tell us, that we should be concerned first, foremost, and possibly exclusively with our own individual well-being.

In Luke, we hear Jesus tell a crowd of people who lived on the edge of society, who struggled everyday to earn enough, or scrounge enough to meet the needs of their families:

But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.

What you have is all you’ll ever get.

And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.

Your self will not satisfy you for long.

And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.

There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.

“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.

“To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. “

The messages of “me first”, and “watch out, it’s a terrible world” can have the effect of making, and keeping us fearful.

Keeping us afraid, and focused only on what benefits us immediately, in the short term, keep most people controllable, and easily manipulated.

If we buy into the message that the world is a terrible place, full of threats and dangers, it is not hard to slip a little further into despair, and tell ourselves, and others, there’s nothing we can do.

That’s a terrible message, and it’s usually a lie. We may not be able to fix everything, but we can do what we can do. We can help as we are able, and we can be kind.

If I were to judge every choice, every action I might take, with the question, will it solve all the problems in the world, I might never do anything.

But what if I make my choices on whether they are kind things to do, loving things to do, things I would want others to do, to help me, if I was in need?

If do that, then I can see that even small things, that might be mocked or ridiculed by people more cynical than me, really are worth doing.

I was with Liz and Gary Chittle two Sundays ago, when they were here at the church, accepting donations of food and money for Windsor’s Downtown Mission.

The collection was organized in connection with the Coldest nIght of the Year Walk, in which more than $94,000.00 was raised for the Mission, more than ever before. Our little team from Harrow United, the HUCsters raised 16% of that, over $15,000.00. 

Our top fundraiser was Leslie Balsillie, whose personal total was over $3000.00. Leslie said she did by simply putting a message out that she was doing the walk, and people responded. She asked, and people wanted to help.

Which is what happened on the Sunday of the food collection. Vehicle after vehicle drove in, and people opened their trunks or back doors, and allowed us to unload food. Over 500 pounds of food were donated in just a few hours.

Why do people dig into their pantries, or make a special trip to the grocery store, to spend money on food to give away? It goes against the ways of the world- unless you actually want the world to be a place in which we look out for each other.

No one who drove in, and opened their trunk gave enough to solve the problem of poverty, or hunger, or homelessness on the streets of Windsor. But what they gave will help those who are hungry, on the day they come in for food. 

We do what we can.

It’s good for us, to claim a bit of our identity, as people who follow the Jesus way, who resist the ways of this broken world, and look for ways to help mend it, a little at a time.

It’s good for us to know, not only that we can make a difference, but that we can be different.  We can be Good News, we can be someone else’s reason to be cheerful. Amen

The Spring Has Come- Photo Scavenger Hunt

I am hoping we can work together to create something special for the celebration of Easter. Below is the a link to a Youtube video of an Easter hymn called “The Spring Has Come”. The words are full of hope, and images of new life- things we are all waiting for!

What I would like to do is make a Slide Show to go with this hymn, to show as part of Easter worship- both in-person and online.

I am sending this to all the families involved with our online Sunday School.

Let me know if you’d like to help, and I will send you a line or two from the song. Your job will be to take pictures that bring the words to life. They can be pictures of your kids acting something out, or ones they draw, or of things you find, inside or outside, that go with the “story” of the song.

If there is a line you already know you would like- let me know, and I won’t assign it to anyone else!

Email me at revdww@gmail.com

1 The spring has come, let all the church be part of it!
The world has changed, and God is at the heart of it!
New light, new day, new colour after winter grey.
New light, new day,
the spring has come, let all the church be part of it!

2 The sun is warm, let all God’s children play in it!
The world expands, let’s spread the Gospel way in it!
New leaf, new thrust, new greening for the love of Christ.
New leaf, new thrust,
the sun is warm, let all God’s children play in it!

3 The spring has come, new people are the flowers of it.
Through wind and rain, new life is in the showers of it.
New bud, new shoot, new hope will bear the Spirit’s fruit.
New bud, new shoot,
the spring has come, new people are the flowers of it!

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,

John,

Philip,

Bartholomew,

Matthew,

Thomas,

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