Wrestling With God

Near the beginning of June, I started reading through the Psalms. One psalm every morning, along with the corresponding commentary from the New International Commentary on the psalms by Craig C. Broyles.

So:

Psalm 1: the Lord watches over the righteous. Good stuff, Lord!

Psalm 2: You are my child, today I have begotten you! Yes, Lord!

Psalm 3: You, O Lord are a shield around me. Thank you, God!

Psalm 4: The Lord hears when I call. Thanks again, God.

Psalm 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12: Thank you. Help me. Be gracious to me. I’m here, God, and I’m doing my best to follow in Your way. In you I take refuge. Protect me.

Psalm 13, my translation:

Where are you, God? Have you forgotten all about me?
You’re not answering my phone calls.
You’re ignoring my texts and emails.
I’ve even knocked on your door, and you’re not answering.
Are we through, God? Have you given up?
Everyone’s laughing at me, calling me a fool for believing in you!

Call me back RIGHT AWAY, God.
Show me you’re there, or my life won’t be worth living any more.
The scoffers will say, “Ha, ha! Your so dumb, believing in a God who isn’t there!”

Woah!

Did the psalmist really say that to God?

Broyles says, “Were we to hear someone praying in this fashion today, most of us would take offense at such irreverence against the holy and faultless God.”

And yet…

How many of us have prayed like that in the silence of our hearts? How many of us have wanted to pray like that, but we’re too nice? We’ve been taught not to rebel against authority, especially not against God’s authority! If we do, we’re sure to be struck by lightning!

I’d guess that we’ve all lived through times that have tested us and our faith to the utmost. We’ve all wanted to scream, “I’ve had enough, God!”

I’ve spent years building those churches, and now that horrible giant comes along and rips out all the church bells!

Those snakes and elves were my friends, and that wicked St. Patrick chased them all away!

God, I can’t take it anymore! All my friends have gone away, all my enemies are laughing at me. Make it stop!

What kind of a prayer is that?

We’re good people. Obedient to God. We’re not supposed to get angry at God.

Even when our son is diagnosed with a disability that is lifelong. Even when our sister kills herself. Even when our father lives out his last years unable to speak, the victim of dementia which has shut down a once highly intelligent mind. Even when our mother is told that the pain in her jaw is angina, and that even after losing seventy pounds and exercising and eating right, she’s going to have to undergo open heart surgery. Even when our friend, who never smoked a day in his life nor lived with anyone who did, is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that will kill him within a year.

We’re not supposed to get angry at God when forest fires consume our cities, or floods and earthquakes devastate whole countries, or when droughts or poverty cause parents to choose which of their children will eat today, and which ones don’t.

We’re not supposed to get angry at God.

But anger is an appropriate response to the scenarios above, and to many others in life.

But who are we supposed to get angry at?

Should we get angry at ourselves?

Anger directed at ourselves is extremely harmful. Alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, suicide, eating disorders, broken relationships—all of these are the result of internalized anger. All of these do nothing to solve the problem. They don’t even make us feel better.

Should we get angry at others?

We can blame others, or humanity in general, for a lot of the world’s ills, but again, it doesn’t solve any problems. Getting angry at my sister for killing herself won’t bring my sister back, and it won’t help me live my life in such a way that no one else in my family feels so cut off that they want to die.

Getting angry at the weather or natural events is even more useless. And getting angry at those who visit violence on others, while it may seem justified, only perpetuates the violence, which is maybe why Jesus told us not to do that.

So that leaves God.

And as we read through scripture, we discover a curious thing.

When people get angry with God, or question the fairness of God’s actions, or wrestle with God instead of other people or themselves, God answers.

We read only a part of Jacob’s story this morning. Here’s some of the rest of it:

With his mother’s help, Jacob has managed to trick his father into giving him the blessing and birthright meant for his elder brother.

Esau gets angry, and plots to kill Jacob. Jacob runs away. Jacob marries, and works for his father-in-law Laban for many years, and choses as his wages the black sheep and the spotted and speckled goats. He then selectively breeds the flocks so that that stronger animals produce coloured offspring, and the weaker ones produce white offspring. He grew rich, and his brothers-in-law got angry.

So Jacob gathers up what is his and runs away again.

Laban catches up to him, and after a heated discussion, Jacob makes peace with his father-in-law and makes a covenant with him.

He travels on, and desiring to make peace with Esau, he sends his servants ahead to speak with him. The servants return telling him that Esau is coming to meet him—with a force of four hundred men.

Jacob is terrified. His flocks, his wives, his children—all are at risk. He divides them into two groups, thinking that if they’re attacked, at least one group will get away. He picks out from among his flocks and herds a huge number of goats and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys, and sends them with his servants as a gift to Esau, and sends them ahead of him, hoping that Esau will accept the gift and become reconciled with him. He sends his wives and maids and all his children across the ford, and he’s left alone in the camp.

Where he wrestles all night with a man who won’t name himself.

Jacob won’t give in, won’t give up, even when he’s struck on the hip and it’s put out of joint.

The man says, “Let me go! It’s getting light now,” and Jacob says, “No, not until you bless me.”

I think at this point, Jacob understands that he’s not really wrestling with another human being, but with God.

And God does not strike Jacob down, punishing him for his insolence. Instead, God blesses him. Gives him a new name, and a new destiny. He has become Israel, the father of both a new nation and a new faith.

That’s some blessing!

Our Gospel reading is no less curious. A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus replies to her plea by calling her a dog!

Does she slink away in embarrassment? Does she try to correct Jesus?

No, she gets angry. “Even the dogs get scraps! Don’t I deserve at least a scrap?”

And Jesus blesses her, calls her faithful, and heals her daughter. Whenever I read this story, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus said what he said deliberately, trying to get a response from the woman beyond resignation at her fate.

Time after time in scripture, it’s not the quiet, obedient, “good” people who are blessed, but very often the angry, the questioning.

Even Jesus prays to God to have the cup of suffering taken away. Even he cries out, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Even Jesus feels the need to rail against God at his fate, even at a fate freely chosen. Life is hard, and sometimes, the only thing you can do is scream out to God in pain.

In my own life I’ve found this to be true. When I’ve reached my limit, when I can take no more, I find it helpful to yell at God.

“I can’t take any more, God! This is it! Make things better now!”

And oddly enough, without fail, I find that one of two things will happen. Either the situation will resolve itself, or I will find new strength, often in the form of angels disguised as friends.

I’ve found that it’s okay to scream out to God. To pound my fists against the divine. To say, “If you care about me, show it!” To challenge God. To wrestle with God.

And when I’m exhausted from the struggle, I am finally empty enough to hear the whisper that was there all along.

“I love you. I’m with you. I bless you.”

Our psalmist discovers this, too. Psalm 13 ends with this: “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

At the end of our struggle with God is not blame, but blessing.

Amen.

Reflecting on the Message

 Has there ever been a time in your life when you have hurt so badly that you wanted to lash out at everyone and everything?

What did you do? Did your actions and thoughts make the situation go away, or make it worse?

Have your trials helped you to understand how blessed you are? How?

Read Jacob’s story in full. (Genesis 25:19-32:32)

It’s obvious that Jacob’s problems were in a large part due to his own actions. Has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve done something of which you aren’t proud?

Did getting angry at yourself help the situation at all, or did it make things worse?

When Jacob wrestled with God, was he also perhaps wrestling with his own conscience? Have you ever done likewise?

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Finding the Unknown God

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, May 21, 2017)

The 17th chapter of Acts starts with Paul in the city of Thessalonica. For three sabbath days in a row, he goes to the synagogue to argue with the Jews and explain the scriptures in light of Jesus the Messiah.

Some of those who heard were receptive, and became believers.

Some of them became incensed. They went to the house where Paul and Silas were staying. When they didn’t find the two men, they dragged their host Jason and some other believers before the city officials, accusing them of “turning the world upside down” and of proclaiming a king other than the Emperor.

Paul went on to Beroea, where more Jews and devout Greeks listened and receive the Word, but the jealous Jews followed them and incited the crowds against them.

Paul fled again, this time to Athens. He was deeply disturbed to find a city full of idols, and spent his time arguing with anyone who would listen—in the synagogues, in the marketplace, wherever he happened to be.

Athens at that time was noted as a cosmopolitan city where the inhabitants were entranced by the new and improved, but Paul seemed to confuse them. Was he proclaiming a new religion or a new god? Was he drunk? What on earth was he trying to say?

So they grabbed him and brought him to the Areopagus, which could have been either the council of the Areopagus, or the hill itself. Either way, they asked him to explain himself.

He starts off by complimenting his audience. Those idols which so distressed him are evidence of a deeply religious people who are searching. But the altar with an inscription reading “To an unknown god” indicates to him that they’re not really certain what they’re searching for.

Paul then goes on to explain to the Athenians that the God they were searching for was God who created the universe. He explains that the Creator is separate from the creation, and does not need to be served by it. God is not made of gold or silver, God does not live in a temple. All human beings are from one ancestor, and are one people, created in God’s own image and that we are born searching for God.

And Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us that God, through the Spirit, is with us always, and simply waits to be recognized.

What a powerful pair of readings for today’s world!

It seems that the entire world has become one big Athens—everything has to be new and improved.

Line up at midnight to get the latest iPhone before everyone else does, because the one you bought six months ago is already obsolete!

Listen to the talk show doctors, who advocate a different weight loss strategy every week.

Throw out last year’s clothes and buy new ones—styles have changed since last Spring, don’t you know?

And of course we’re all waiting anxiously for the next season of America’s Got Talent, because who knows what crazy thing the contestants will do to get noticed?

And yet our society is more religious than ever.

We can pick and choose not only which God to worship, but how to worship that God. Sacrifice or incense? Meditation or dance? Traditional worship service or snake handling and speaking in tongues? Do we throw coloured pigments, or smear foreheads with ashes?

Even the atheists have a form of religious expression, sermonizing against the evils of religious expression.

And many of us are babblers, which my bible helpfully describes as someone who pick up scraps of learning here and there and welds them together into a less-than-coherent whole.

Everywhere, there are the lost, searching for the God they do not know.

I believe the desperate search for the novel, the addiction to the “new and improved” is a symptom of an illness that can have tragic results. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for well-thought-out and -researched change. I enjoy new products, new activities, learning new things.

But I do that all from a base of knowing who and what I am, and knowing in whose image I am made.

When the base isn’t there, that deep down knowledge that we are loved, that we are created in the image of God, that we are only a part of a whole that is much larger than our own selves, the pain and suffering can be deadly.

Today’s world is not the world in which our ancestors lived. In times past, children grew up knowing to which class they belonged, what their employment and income would likely be, what kind of person they would marry. Most people lived and died within a very short radius of where they were born. They followed the religion and traditions of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mobility did happen, but not quickly, and not to many people.

Athens in Paul’s time was more like a modern city than like a village of its own time. People came from everywhere, and they didn’t necessarily follow the paths laid out at their birth. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton, “In Athens you can be a new man,” or woman. Choice was possible, but with choice comes a severing from the roots.

And with the severing from the roots comes a time of fear and dislocation. You wonder how you’re going to survive. You wonder if maybe you should go back to what you were, and when you find that isn’t possible, fear takes hold.

Sometimes the fear wins.

Suicide rates are high amongst those who face changes that they can’t navigate. Seniors faced with the end of their productive years, and unsure of what is to follow, but sure they won’t like it. Queer young people who come out to friends and family, only to find themselves abandoned to a world that views difference with loathing. College students, away from home for the first time in their young lives, caught between the pressure not to waste all that money partying, and the need to kick up their heels and let loose. Aboriginal peoples, longing for a way of life that was stolen from them, and unable to find a place for themselves in a country that still views them as alcoholic, uncouth savages.

There are people everywhere searching for they don’t know what.

So they worship idols. They give thanks to “whoever might be up there,” for the things that go well, and cry for deliverance to whoever is handy when trouble arises.

We live in interesting times.

On the one hand, when the whole order of creation seems to be in flux, some people, like the Jews in Thessalonica and the terrorists and hate-mongers of today, react with jealousy and anger.

But when everything is shifting, then too, we have a chance. Into the cracks of certainty, we can insert the message: There is a God, who is bigger than any evil that can happen. We are all one family, haters and lovers alike, and we are all made in the image of that God. As God loves us, so we are called to love one another. We are not alone.

Like Paul, we will find, if we take that message to the streets, that many will not listen. Some will hate us and persecute us. And some…

Some will listen. Some will find Jesus. Some will come home.

So go, and tell the Good News that God is out there, waiting to be found.

Do not be afraid, for two thousand years have shown us that the message is true and will endure.

You are not alone. You are never alone.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Nuts on the Family Tree

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, Christian Family Sunday, May 14, 2017)

I was born in 1960 into what was then a very typical family: I had a mother and a father who were married to each other, and within a couple more years, I would have, in addition to my parents, a brother and a sister. We lived in a nice suburban semi-detached house, amidst lots of other families who were, at least on the outside, just like us.

Everybody went to church on Sunday. The fathers worked and the mothers stayed home, and there were no couples without children, or gay couples, or single parents, except maybe in the subsidized housing down the street and around the corner. Everybody was white, until the woman down the street married a black man.

Even as a child I knew that this 20th century ideal wasn’t universal, though. I knew it because for a few years, my parents were foster parents to babies who weren’t so lucky—infants who had been born to single mothers, or to parents otherwise unable to care for them. In 1969, we adopted one of those children—my brother Bill had been featured in the “Today’s Child” section of the Toronto Star. He’d been difficult to place because of his mixed Asian and Caucasian heritage.

My father had been an only child but I had, on my mother’s side, numerous aunts and uncles and first cousins. On Sunday afternoons, we, along with many of those aunts and uncles and cousins would converge on my grandparents’ house to talk and play and have roast chicken for dinner. All of my cousins’ families were just like us, except for my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Ronnie and their kids, who were Catholic. I thought that was a little odd—exotic even!

This was the family I grew up in.

Actually, this was the family I thought I grew up in.

It was only later on in life that I learned that there were many secrets. There are, in my immediate and extended family, adopted family members, divorced and remarried family members, family members who have become pregnant before marriage, adult family members who have never married, gay and lesbian family members.

In 2015, I had the joy of attending my brother’s wedding in St. Lucia. His wife Lisa is a lovely person. We met her family before the wedding. Her mother, and her sister, and her mother’s current husband. We also met Lisa’s biological father, and the biological father of her sister, who had adopted Lisa when she was an infant. At the wedding, all three men—Lisa’s biological father, her adoptive father, and her stepfather, stood side-by-side wearing identical outfits, and when the officiant asked, “Who gives this woman to be married?” they answered in unison, “We do!” Who walked Lisa down the aisle? My brother’s son Patrick, now her stepson.

My family tree is like some kind of exotic hybrid that bears apples and pears and peaches and walnuts and beechnuts all on branches that come from the same trunk!

And the truth is, I think this exotic, beautiful, exciting tree is more “normal” than the “Leave it to Beaver” family with two parents, one male, one female, and the two-point-one children that television would have us believe is the ideal to strive for.

I was taught as a child that that “ideal” family was not only a cultural ideal, but one ordained by God. God created them male and female, and children should grow up to fall in love with and marry one and only one person of the opposite sex, who is not closely related to them by blood, and have children. This nuclear family should live in their own suburban castle, and be self-supporting, but they should definitely visit the grandparents on a regular basis.

But a close study of the Biblical witness refutes this interpretation of what a family should be. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah, and had a child by his wife’s slave girl. Sarah didn’t have a child until she was well into old age. Isaac grew up, got married, and had twins who were rivals from the moment they were conceived. Jacob grew up and had two wives and many children, some of whom sold their brother into slavery.

David married Saul’s daughter Michel, and Abigail, and Ahinoam, and Maacah, and Haggith, and Eglah. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, then sent her husband to his death in battle and married her.

As one of my classmates said in a seminar on marriage, the biblical standard for marriage is polygamy!

By the time of the New Testament, this practice is dying out. By the time 1 Timothy was written, it was obviously becoming viewed with disfavour, as according to this letter, a bishop was to be above reproach, the husband of only one wife.

The Biblical witness and a study of different cultures and times serve to show us that what I grew up thinking was a “normal” family structure isn’t universal, or normal, or ordained by God. It is simply one of the many ways human beings can covenant with one another to support each other and nurture the young.

And that’s essentially what a family is—a group of human beings brought together by covenant to support and nurture one another.

The two readings this morning were chosen to highlight not the form the family takes, but the function.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They were going to kill him, but decided that selling him was the better option. Maybe they felt bad about committing murder, or perhaps the chance to make a little profit appealed to them. However it came to be, Joseph endured years of servitude, and unjust accusations leading to time in prison, and finally found himself as a top advisor to Pharaoh.

You’d think that after such a life, he would cut his brothers off, forget that he even had a family. But when his family is threatened with starvation, he’s there. He plays a few games with them, it’s true, but he acknowledges the kinship and steps up to the plate to do his part when it’s needed.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is dying on the cross, and his mother, presumably widowed by this time, is weeping below. Jesus turns to one of his disciples and says, “This woman is now your mother. Take care of her as you would your own.” And that disciple stepped up to the plate and did his part, taking her into his own house.

That’s what families are for—mutual support and caring that is given freely, and not bought or bartered for. Faithfulness, not to the form of the covenant—to the marriage or to who lives with you or to who is related to you by birth—but to the function, to loving and nurturing and caring for one another.

The church, at it’s best, is a family.

The last time I was here, I went after the service at St. Andrew’s with my friend Heather, who is as much my sister as anyone born to my mother could be, to have lunch at Boston Pizza. By now, some of you know that her husband is from Kincardine, and that she knows some folks who live around here, so I expected that if anyone knew either one of us, it would be her.

But as we were going out to my car, someone said my name. “Ruth!” she called, and I turned around.

I didn’t recognize her or her husband, but I thought maybe someone from here or [the other church] had come to lunch.

“It’s Shirley Marie and Ron ******,” she said.

My jaw dropped.

Shirley Marie and Ron were members of Rexdale United Church when I was growing up. Rexdale is the first church family which truly nurtured and loved me. I was confirmed there, married there, and my first child was baptized there.

Ron and Shirley Marie hadn’t seen me in almost thirty years when they hailed me in that parking lot, yet they knew me and were delighted to see me.

Because they’re part of the family.

I went back to Rexdale once, to celebrate the 80th birthday of a long-time friend. Since I left 30 years ago, it’s amalgamated with another church and become Martingrove United, yet as long as there are folks there who were part of Rexdale when I was growing up, I know I will have a welcome.

Since I’ve moved to Guelph, Trinity United has been my home. I’m not always there on a Sunday, but I manage to attend regularly enough to check in with my church family, and they can check in with me.

We support, care for and nurture one another in Christ.

When I have gone through difficult times, they’ve been there with the prayer shawls and prayers, casseroles and food, and even money.

When others in the church are facing difficult times, I join with the congregation in providing the same care and support that I’ve received.

We sometimes get to choose who is part of our family—we choose our spouses, we choose to have children, we choose those dear friends who are as close as kin to us. We can choose which church we attend. Other family members we get stuck with—our parents, our grandparents, our siblings.

But whether we choose them or are simply gifted them by God, we are called as Christians to love them and care for them to the best of our ability. Even if sometimes they are a little nuts.

Amen.

Holy Humour

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on April 23, 2017)

Call to Worship:

A pastor was speaking to a group of second-graders about the resurrection of Jesus. One student asked,

“What did Jesus say right after He came out of the grave?”

The pastor said,

“The Gospels do not tell us what Jesus said.”

The hand of one little girl shot up. “I know what Jesus said: He said,

‘Tah-dah!'”

Meditation:

A preacher’s young daughter asked, “Mommy, every Sunday when you first come out to preach, you sit up on the platform and bow your head. What are you doing?”

The mother replied, “I’m asking God to give me a good sermon?”

The little girl replied, “Then why doesn’t he?”

Would you pray with me and for me please…

The Sunday after Easter in the ancient Greek Orthodox church was traditionally called “Bright Sunday,” or “Holy Humour Sunday.” Recent online efforts have resurrected that tradition, and it’s easy to understand why.

Christianity from time to time has tended towards severity and humourlessness. We’ve undecorated our sanctuaries—taken away the stained glass windows and the carvings and the statues and the icons and the painted ceilings that were once used to instruct the illiterate faithful and direct our consciousness to the glory of God, but which eventually became more about the glory of the church.

Dancing and music were sometimes seen as detractions from worship that led to licentiousness, and were eliminated from worship.

Living was serious business, especially in former times when the work was back-breaking and constant even for the more well-to-do, and premature death from disease or accident was a fact of life.

Especially in Protestant theology, the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus was in the forefront. When faced with that sacrifice, laughter seems somehow inappropriate.

Mark’s gospel was the first gospel written. Both Matthew and Luke based significant portions of their gospels on the gospel of Mark. They also had significant input from other sources, most likely including a collection of sayings that scholars call “Q,” with quite probably some word-of-mouth stories added in.

One or more of those circulating stories must have included the accounts of what happened after the resurrection, because the most ancient manuscripts of Mark’s gospel ends here, with the women running away from the empty tomb, terrified and saying nothing to anyone. Perhaps he died before he wrote the rest of the story, or perhaps that first manuscript was torn and that last bit got lost, that part that tells us about the women spreading the good news to the disciples and about Jesus appearing among them. Or perhaps for Mark, in those early, harsh days after the resurrection and near death of the entire fledgling church, that was the end.

It reminds me of those churches where laughter and music and joy are not invited into worship.

We seem to be stuck on the cross, mindful of and perhaps grateful for the sacrifice of Christ, without really comprehending the entire truth.

We’re afraid of the resurrection.

Because in our world view, when people die, they stay dead, unless they become ghosts or zombies.

In our world view, when the leader of our small group is arrested and publicly executed for bucking the system, our new way of being, our new life, is over, and it’s back to the same old, same old.

In our world view, might makes right. Evil endures. Satan always wins.

Sometimes we forget that we meet as a church on Sunday, and why.

Not Friday, when Jesus was crucified.

Not Saturday, the traditional Sabbath for the Jewish tradition which gave us birth.

Sunday.

The day God played a great big cosmic joke.

“Ta-dah!

Look at me, Satan. Look at me, world! You can’t kill me, for death has no power in my world.”

We know that there was more to the story than Mark recorded. Not because someone later added not one but two endings to Mark’s gospel, and not because Matthew and Luke recorded the women going to the disciples.

We know because two thousand years later, we are here.

That tiny, frightened band of followers grew to over three thousand on the day of Pentecost.

Those three thousand have grown, so that today about 2.2 billion people are Christian. That’s one out of every three human beings alive today.

Sometimes we get stuck in Good Friday. When we look around our shrinking congregations, we are afraid.

I say to you, open up the door to this tomb, go outside, and rejoice in what God has done.

Christ is alive, and at work in the world.

Amen and hallelujah!

Time Alone With God

(Preached at Alma United Church, September 24, 2017)

So I read a news story on Tuesday that was a classic kind of “good news, bad news” story.

The good news was that I didn’t have to worry about making up a bulletin for today or writing a sermon or practicing my viola for orchestra rehearsal tonight.

The bad news was that someone had read the Book of Revelations, done some calculations, and had predicted that another planet would strike earth yesterday, wiping us all out.

So I guess we can all go home, because apparently, we don’t exist any more…

Would you pray with me and for me please…

Most of  you, maybe even all of you, have heard my daughter Allison play the cello. Hopefully, you’ll be hearing her play again on Thanksgiving Sunday.

She’s good, but it wasn’t always that way. A lot of people have the idea that musical talent is somehow innate, and you either have it or you don’t. I’ve heard reports of people who have said they’ve been told, some as early as kindergarten, that they would be better off in the audience.

It’s a good thing that Allison didn’t have any of those misguided folks in her life, because as a child, she was tone deaf. It took her two years to learn  how to play the first variation of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

But by age eight, she knew she wanted to be a cello teacher. By the time she was in middle school, she knew she was going to go to Wilfrid Laurier University, and that she would be in an orchestra as well as teach.

And now that tone-deaf, slow-starting child teaches cello and is the Assistant Principle Cellist of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra.

And then there’s me. I don’t think anyone here has ever heard me play my viola. In fact, I’m wondering just how many of you knew that I play viola?

But I do. I started when I was eleven. I’m actually one of three original players in the Cambridge Symphony, seeing as how it was started by Anne Green, who was at that time the music director of Zion/St. Andrew’s Pastoral Charge, where I was the Student Minister.

Yet for all my experience, I sit in the back desk, miss almost as many notes as I play, and hope that the audience doesn’t really hear the notes I do play, as they’re not always the right ones.

I love what I do, but I’m not really all that good at it.

The difference between me and my daughter isn’t inborn talent, it’s discipline.

She practices regularly, and I don’t.

I think sometimes we have that idea about being Christian—that it’s a character trait, rather than a skill, and that some people are just more saintly than others. We see our own sins in sharp relief, our frustration, our anger, our less-than-charitable desires, and we see others who always seem serene and calm and trusting of God, and we think, “That’s just who I am and I can’t change it. I don’t want to change it! I can never be like that, and it’s okay, because God loves me just as I am.”

And we fail to see that being a better Christian, being a better person, isn’t about our personality, it’s about skill, and if it’s a skill, that means it can be improved by deliberate practice.

But how do you “deliberately practice” to be a better Christian?

In their book bullseye, Jamie Holton and Debbie Johnson say that the first marker of a Christian life is using spiritual practices. Some call them “disciplines” a word I like even though some mistake “discipline” with “punishment.”

But discipline isn’t about punishment, it’s about learning self-control, an aim that is actually incompatible with punishment. Which is why, if you choose to try one or more of the disciplines I talk about, I’m going to suggest that you allow yourself to be less than perfect, and less than regular, without beating yourself up about it. And to not be wedded to the idea of doing spiritual practices in the same way as me or anyone else, just because it works for them.

An extrovert isn’t going to get much out of a week of total silence. Trust me on this—I had an extremely extroverted friend who tried it once. They kicked him out of the retreat on the second day, I think. Some of you may prefer to journal, some may prefer to read scripture, some may prefer to pray.

And I find that the time spent is an issue, as well. A personal story in the book by Sue Woollard tells of a daily discipline that involves twenty minutes of meditation on the name of Jesus twice a day, followed by scripture and personal prayer.

Um, not quite the cup of tea for me, but if that’s you, then go for it.

I think what’s important here is not how long you do it for, at least at first, but to develop a regular habit of spending time alone with God.

I like to read scripture in the morning—just a single psalm, maybe two if they’re short ones, and write in my journal a verse or two that grabs me. Maybe look the psalm up in my commentary if there’s something I don’t understand or that seems particularly intriguing.

Some people read daily meditations online or in booklets like My Daily Bread. Some go for walks in nature, some going so far as to hike the 800 kilometer Camino de Santiago in Spain.

What’s important here is not so much the method, though some have proven, over time, to be more fruitful than others, but that we set time aside each day to be with God and with God alone, to allow God to whisper to us in silence.

Because through the ages, from the prophet Elijah onwards, humans have found that God rarely yells. God whispers, and we need quiet, both in our physical surroundings and in our hearts, to hear the still, small voice of God.

The book bullseye lists the four main spiritual practices as prayer, reading of scripture, silence, and meditation. The authors do mention that other activities such as going for a walk, with or without a dog, listening to music, and serving others can absolutely draw us closer to God, but my own feeling is that unless we discipline ourselves to open our hearts and mind to God as we’re doing these activities, they’ll act more like my weekly orchestra rehearsals. While those absolutely make me a better player, they won’t have nearly the effect that regular daily practice on my own would have.

So my own take on the four disciplines that they’ve singled out:

Silence and freedom from distraction is something I’ve found necessary in order for any of the other three to work well. I don’t really consider it a separate discipline.

Meditation, I have understood from reading studies, has all sorts of beneficial health effects, and it’s a great practice, but one must be careful, if one is going to take this up as a specifically Christian discipline, that God and Jesus are incorporated in there somehow. Susan Woollard has as her “sacred word” the name of Jesus, and incorporates that into her daily 20 minute sessions.

However, by far the two most usual, and to my mind the most fruitful, spiritual practices are scripture reading and prayer. In fact, they’re so important, that they’re a universal part of pretty much every Christian worship service. They are THAT important.

I’ll start with scripture reading.

I think that reading scripture, getting to know not just the few verses read in worship every Sunday, or the single verses used in meditation booklets. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to worship or reading those booklets, but they’re not enough.

I’ve found through my own reading that taking in an entire book of the Bible in a chapter-by-chapter sequential reading has opened my eyes to what we don’t hear in church. Some of the psalms I’ve read in the last few months aren’t in Voices United, and some of them have parts cut out. There are parts of the Bible we often don’t want to deal with in corporate worship, but that need examining nevertheless.

If you’re fairly new to reading the Bible, or you haven’t read through it in a while, I’d suggest starting with Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke. A good Old Testament start would be Genesis and Exodus, the stories of the beginning of the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If your attention span is short, try reading Jonah, Ruth, or Paul’s letter to the Philippians. If you have a reluctant teenager in the house, try tempting them with the Song of Solomon, which was the first book of the Bible I ever read straight through…

The Bible contains the stories of humanity’s search for God. There’s a lot in there that’s contradictory, and a lot that we modern folks find difficult to understand. There are verses in there that most civilized folks would agree are just plain wrong. If you don’t trust me on this, read Psalm 137, the whole thing, and not just the well-known first few verses.

It’s a very human book, perhaps the most human of all books ever written, because it’s really a library that contains a huge collection of human experiences of God. And because it contains a huge collection of human experiences of God, parts of it will almost certainly speak to each one of us, drawing us closer to the divine.

The second important spiritual practice is prayer.

Our scripture reading from Matthew today, Jesus talks about prayer. He gives us specific instructions on how and what to pray. The Message translation says this:

“Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.”

Jesus tells us that it’s important to open our hearts, our minds, our souls to God. God doesn’t want perfect, God wants us. Our repentant, broken, selves.

Prayer isn’t a “wish list,” where we name what’s broken in the world or our lives and ask God to fix it according to our plans. Prayer is a letting-go, where we name what’s broken in the world or in our lives and give up the need to dictate the terms. “YOUR will be done,” NOT “MY will be done”…

Prayer is important, too to linking what we do to what God does. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…´

I don’t know about you, but praying that particular line always makes me just a teeny bit uncomfortable. I think that’s the way it should be.

Even in a corporate setting like worship, prayer is a private thing. A conversation, if you like, between one person and God. And if you have trouble with prayer, that’s a good way to frame it—as a conversation.

God, I’ve been really worried about…

God, thank you so much for…

God, help me, please! I’m in over my head on this one!

God, I’m so very sorry! Please forgive me for what I’ve done wrong.

I’ve found it more difficult in my own life to say regular bedtime prayers than to do daily morning scripture reading, but that doesn’t mean I don’t pray. At times when emotions overwhelm me, whether sad or glad, I’ll often take just a few seconds to say, “Thank you!”, “Sorry!”, or “Please…

There are, of course, more ways to incorporate deliberate Christian practice into our daily lives, practice that will help us to be more able to sense God at work in our lives and in the world, practice that will help us to be more fit to do the healing work that God sends our way. I enjoy listening to contemporary Christian music, which I do every day when driving. Others enjoy weeks of guided prayer, or silent retreats, or prayer vigils. Reverend John Benham at Trinity United in Guelph came back from a trip out west enthused about a 7 o’clock in the morning service held at a Calgary church every Wednesday, that has about forty regular attendees.

What’s important is that you choose something and try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

Holton and Johnson compare living the Christian life to going to a gym. They ask, what if you went to the gym and the following happened:

  • You sat around and watched the instructor work out.
  • You were given a handout on how to exercise.
  • Someone came and talked with you about what it is like to work out.
  • You watched a video about a whole group of people working out.
  • The leader or the instructor then said thanks for coming and welcomed you back to do the same thing next week.

Would you call that a workout?

Yet that’s what many Christians do about their faith. They see their sole responsibility discharged in weekly (or less than weekly) attendance at worship services and from Monday to Saturday they forget they have to practice their faith.

Even those who come to worship and fully participate don’t get the full benefit. Again, comparing Christian living to exercise, if you do go to the gym and work out, then spend the next six days sitting on the couch watching television, it’s not going to do much good. If you spend the next six days just going about regular activities, like gardening and housework and walking, you might get a bit more benefit, but you’ll only get into your best shape if you work out daily or almost daily with the specific aim of getting more fit.

Holton and Johnson tell us that the Christian life was never meant to be a spectator sport. Jesus’ invitation to follow him leads to a way of life that involves us participating.

So this week, you have an assignment. Pick one daily practice that you think you can do for seven days in a row. Pick a time of day you think you can do it. Then give it a try!

If it doesn’t work, all monies paid will be cheerfully refunded!

Amen.

 

Can These Bones Live?

(Preached at Alma United Church, September 17, 2017) 

Sabbaticals are important for ministers, or for any creative person for that matter. The different pace of life, the exposure to different ideas, the freedom from the pressure to produce daily or weekly material all allow the brain to recharge and become ready for another burst of genius ideas.

Ministerial sabbaticals are important for congregations, too. No matter how good the minister or how faithful the congregation, after a time, minister and church will fall into a routine way of working together. Routines are great—they allow maximum efficiency with minimum thought and effort, but over time, routines can become ruts, and when those ruts are deep enough, they can become very comfortable final resting places.

So…

Marion’s gone for four months, and you have me. <evil grin>

When Marion first approached me about covering for her, I asked myself, what can I do at Alma that will help us grow together.

I could, of course, have chosen to preach from the lectionary. It’s not a bad option, but I’ve been there, done that, for a couple of years, and so have you. So I thought about doing a series.

Then a friend loaned me the book bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus, by Jamie Holtom and Debbie Johnson, both ordained United Church ministers. I read it cover to cover in two or three days, and what I read excited me. I wanted to start right away working through it with a congregation.

I wanted to explore with a congregation the wonders of spiritual practices, authentic community, powerful worship, joyful service and giving, and sharing Christ with those in need of hope.

Then I had the brilliant thought that perhaps, just maybe, before I tried it with my helpless guinea pigs at Alma, that I should try it myself.

So I started off reading my bible every day. Well, almost every day. Well, at least two or three times a week, which is, unfortunately, a lot more than I’d been reading it before. And I started listening to Christian music on the radio. And I started allocating the first fruits of my pay to God, instead of the leftovers.

And…

I can honestly say it’s made a difference. I started my reading at the psalms, and quickly had enough really good sermon material for the entire summer. My drives were calmer and more pleasant, and every day I’m reminded of God’s love through beautiful music, some of which I hope to share with you as the months go on.

It’s been good, but has it been worth the extra effort? Why bother, when we’re all happy Christians together? And if we learn about the bullseye over the next four months, will it make a difference at Alma?

I honestly can’t answer that last question, but I can tell you that it has made a difference in my life, and also in the lives of a few of the congregations I have visited over this past summer.

This is how Jamie and Debbie start off the book:

Can you imagine a church that is alive with people who pray every day?

Can you imagine all kinds of people coming to church on a Sunday morning so excited to worship God that you can just feel the energy rise as they enter?

Can you imagine a church where people love one another and share t heir lives together in real and authentic ways?

Can you imagine a church filled with people who so love to give generously that the offering plates overflow each week?

Can you imagine a church where people are so in awe of God and what God is doing in their own lives that they can’t help but share their faith and invite their friends?

Can you imagine a church like this?

Can you imagine?

There was a time in my life, not so very long ago, when I couldn’t imagine a church like this.

Instead, I knew a church that had just begun to admit to the part it had played in the horrors of the residential school system.

I knew of churches whose members seemed to have only one concern—how do we get bums in the pews (and yes, those exact words were used) so that we can pay for the upkeep of our beautiful building?

I’ve been in churches where the worship was worse than mediocre—the music was so painful that I felt like plugging my ears. And this was at a church all of the singers in the choir were trained soloists!

I’ve visited churches whose members have threatened to walk, taking all their money with them, or whose members have actually left in a huff, because the governing body had approved a candidate or intern who was gay or lesbian.

I’ve been in churches where the sale of a surplus building to fund new and vibrant ministry initiatives could only take place over the cold, dead bodies of a couple of key members who were still very much alive.

I’ve known churches where the current members didn’t really care about the future of their faltering congregation—just so long as it lasted long enough to bury them.

I’ve been in churches that were so focused on the “problem” of how to get young families into the building that they ignored the large population of seniors living right in their neighbourhood. Or who went ahead and hired yet another middle-aged white male minister, despite being situated amongst a growing population of Asians who are hungry for the gospel.

I’ve been part of churches that pointed fingers. You’re socially awkward. You dress like a slob. She’s divorced! And from the choir loft, at the back and above the general congregation—oh, look! So-and-so needs to dye her hair again. Her roots are showing.

I kid you not. All of this has really happened, and is  happening, in churches across Canada.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

“O Lord God, you know…

…but if this is all there is to church, I hope not!”

But you and I all know that this isn’t all there is to church. I took a rather long sabbatical myself, well over two years, where I did not attend worship regularly. I worked in a secular setting, in factories, fast food restaurants, and movie theatres.

Out in the world, I saw people who were hurting. It’s not just that they needed food cupboards and other services that churches sometimes provide, but that they needed the gospel. They needed to know that they were loved, that their lives had meaning, that they had gifts.

And nobody invited them to come in and sit down.

When I returned to the church, I began to see changes. I talked about some of these in my sermon at the end of May, if  you can remember back that far. How we’re in the middle of a “Holy Shift,” and there are United Churches across Canada that are growing, becoming more vibrant with the Spirit every day, many of them inspired by the book bullseye that I’d like to walk and talk you through this Fall.

About five years ago, I started an irregular practice of visiting other churches to see what they were doing. Not all of those churches were United Churches. Very few of them were big churches. But all of them, including Alma, had at least one area where they were performing at peak, with new ideas and things to share with the rest of the church.

I saw the sinews and the flesh and the skin reforming around the bones. I saw the church coming to life again with the breath of the Spirit of God.

Yes, God! Yes!

I talked with the children earlier about Transformers, about how we, as Christians, can become transformed by our religion, and about how that transformation can be good or it can be evil.

Too often, as in the case of the residential schools, the inquisitions, the crusades, and so on, we have used our religion for evil. It’s no wonder that there are atheists who very strongly believe that all religion is evil, and should be banned!

They fail to notice that some of the most vicious abuses of human rights occur in countries that have done just that, of course. But even worse, they overlook what belief in God can do for good.

To finish with a story from CBC Radio:

Glen Flett had his first contact with police when he was just seven years old, and was in trouble throughout his youth. In 1978, during an attempted robbery, Flett shot and killed Ten Van Sluytman, a Hudson’s Bay store manager.

Flett was given a life sentence for second degree murder.

In prison, his attitude continued to harden. He says, “Life meant very little to me, anybody’s life, including my own.”

Four decades later, Flett is out of prison.

And…

He’s friends with Margot Van Sluytman, the daughter of the man he murdered. He’s an advocate of restorative justice, sometimes speaking in prisons alongside Margo. He founded LINC, and organization that works to support victims and perpetrators of crime. He speaks at schools and universities. He runs Emma’s Acres, a farm in Mission, BC, where victims and perpetrators of crime work side-by-side, growing vegetables. Flett hopes the profit from the vegetables will one day be sufficient to hire an outreach worker to help victims of crime who aren’t getting enough support elsewhere.

What a change from a guy who didn’t give a damn about anything or anyone!

It started when he was put into an experimental program where guards wore civilian clothes, called him by his name and treated him like a person.

He admits that at first, he didn’t like it much. He was content in Milhaven, where the guards were the guards and he was the prisoner and the prisoners and the guards hated each other and that was that.

Slowly, he began to soften.

But the real change, the change that led to his work in restorative justice, only came after he became a Christian.

That is what the power of God can do, that human beings alone cannot. That is why it is so very important that we keep doing what we’re doing, and doing more of it.

I think sometimes we think, “God, we’ve worshiped you all our days. We’ve always been faithful. Isn’t that enough?”

Well, yes, actually. Jesus tells us that whoever believes in him shall have life, and we do believe.

But…

There’s so much more. More work, more change, yes. But so much more joy too.

Think of how wonderful it would be if this gem called Alma United Church could blossom and bear fruit that revitalizes a whole community! A whole county! A whole province, or country, or world!

Or maybe you won’t change all that much, except to have a slightly deeper appreciation of what God has done with you and for you.

That’s okay too.

I only have four months with you, barely time to travel through the six markers of faith outlined in the book. What you do with it after that is up to you and Reverend Marion.

Whatever you choose, and however you do it, God will journey with you.

Amen.