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.

 

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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.