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 email@example.com and I will do my best to help.
“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:
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.
(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
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!
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!
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
“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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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,
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
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
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