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

Special Memorial Service

Here is the link to our November 22, 2020 worship service. On the Christian calendar, the Sunday before Advent is the last Sunday of the year, and is often called “Reign of Christ”. It is a day to remember that even when life seems messy, and chaotic, that ultimately, God is in charge. We took our theme for the service from the last line of the Lord’s Prayer as we say it in many Protestant churches, the “doxology”: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOSYmDyM_14

This was also the Sunday we at Harrow United Church chose to remember the members of our congregation and community, and those close to us, who have died since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which we have not been able to do funerals, and offer support to grieving families, in the way we wish we could.

We believe

that neither death, nor life,

nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God

in Christ Jesus our Lord.     

(Romans 8:38, 39)

We lit candles in memory of those in our lives, our community, who have died since the beginning of the pandemic.

Wanda Delight Cracknell

Sarah Roberta Jane McLean

Mary Fay Defour

Annegret “Annie” Metcalfe

Nelda Virginia Vollans

William Arthur Gorick

Nancy Jean Whyte

Ronald William Reese

Edna Elizabeth “Betty” Reese

William Richard Herniman

Keith Chamberlain

David Bailey

Our service included readings by Nancy Colenutt, and very appropriate music from Barry Mannell, and Larry Anderson.

Here is the text for my learning time, as well as a teaching about the spiritual practice of Silence.

Learning Time: “for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever…”

Ever wonder why some Christians say the longer version of the Lord’s Prayer? The version we repeat most often in church, that many of us learned as children, includes a sentence that is not in the prayer as Jesus taught it to his disciples.

The extra line, which is sometimes called a “doxology”, was added sometime in the first 100 years or so after the earthly life of Jesus.

“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen”

Scholars think that wording is based on words found in the Bible, either in the Book of Psalms, or from the part of Second Chronicles we heard read today.

A doxology is a formal word of praise to God, often part of a worship service.

The Lord’s Prayer begins with Jesus encouraging his followers to think of God as loving father, and to ask God for very personal things, like food to live for the day, and forgiveness, and the strength to forgive others. 

The doxology traditionally added to the Lord’s Prayer conveys ideas about who God is. It’s God’s Kingdom, God is the one with power, and we give glory, or praise to God. 

Unlike an earthly parent, who has human limits, and gets distracted by small human concerns, and is subject to illness, and pain, and death, God is God. God is the one who creates the universe, and gives us life, and who gives us the love we need for this life.

The early Christians, who lived in the first 100 years or so after the earthly life of Jesus, were mostly poor folks, on the fringes of society. If they were Jewish Christians, they experienced persecution from the Jewish authorities, for following their new faith outside the temple and synagogues. If they were Gentiles, non-Jewish citizens of the Roman Empire, they faced persecution for not worshipping the official gods of the Empire.

Many of the early followers were day labourers who did not own their land. They depended on finding work each morning, to earn their daily bread. Many others were slaves, who lived at the mercy of their masters.

Many of the early followers faced life and death issues on a daily basis. Life was hard.

Some of the early followers also remembered that even before Jesus was killed on the cross, he had promised his first followers that he would return to them, to save them from evil, and pain, and their daily struggles.

In the first centuries after Jesus’ earthly life, it was widely expected that Jesus would be coming back any day, and that life as his followers knew it would end, and history would be interrupted. A cosmic do-over, or re-set would happen, and an earthly kingdom of God would be established. In this new Kingdom of God, there would be no more pain, no more oppression, no more suffering, no more death, and no more grief.

Everything would be turned upside down. It’s the vision of the world we will hear about in the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, in a couple of weeks, as we move closer to Christmas.

For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant,

and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.

For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,

and holy is your Name. 

Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you.

You have shown strength with your arm;

you have scattered the proud in their conceit;

you have deposed the mighty from their thrones

and raised the lowly to high places.

You have filled the hungry with good things,

while you have sent the rich away empty.

If life is good, and you and your family are healthy and thriving, and have all you need, and all you desire, then the cosmic re-set is not all that appealing. But if life is hard, and your and your family have endured illness, and death, and grief, an interruption to history that restores all the good, and takes away all the causes of suffering may sound pretty good.

The hoped for cosmic do-over has not happened, so illness, and pain, and death and grief continue as part of our daily existence. Those of us who have have experienced grief and loss carry on, but we also may have questions.

Is my loved one who has died safe with God?

When will my sorrow, the pain of my grief be over?

When and how will things get better for our pandemic burdened world, where there continues to be oppression, and poverty, and war, and racism, and all the other ways people are cruel to each other?

We have questions, and the answers are beyond us, and we lean into God for hope, for comfort, and for compassion.

The answer, the reassurance we crave, is pointed to in our doxology, the words we add to the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen”

God is in charge. God who loved us before we were born, who is with us, and loves each of us, each of our earthly days, who holds us close, and is with us as we die, and who welcomes us home. God is in charge of the past, the present, and the future. God loves us now, and always, forever and ever.  Amen Thanks be to God

Spiritual Practice: Silence

Each Sunday morning since September, when we returned to in-person worship, along with the learning time we’ve had a teaching about a spiritual practice. This morning, during a service in which we are remembering family members and friends who have died, it seems appropriate to consider the spiritual practice of silence.

Silence is under-rated.

Anyone who has suffered a loss can tell you sometimes, rather than a lot of words, the best way to offer comfort is to just be there, even in silence.

When words fail us, it’s okay to be silent. We needn’t fill every moment with the sound of our voice.

One of my all time favourite hymns expresses it very well:

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.

We are deliberate about taking a moment of silent reflection near the beginning of each Sunday morning worship service, to help us grow in our comfort with silence, and to train ourselves to listen, into the silence, for the presence of God.