Defense Against the Dark Arts

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church, July 30, 2017, and Bervie United Church, August 13, 2017)

A few years ago, there was a big stir about a series of books written for young readers about a wizard boy named Harry Potter. Everyone was reading them—children who couldn’t read asked for them to be read as bedtime stories, and parents fought to be the lucky one to do the reading, older children read them at school, probably during math class, and adults read them on the subway trains on the way to work. In the space of a few short years, J.K. Rowling went from an unknown former English teacher living in a run-down flat to one of the richest women in the world, and one of the best-known.

Predictably, some conservative Christians protested. They wanted the book banned—it talked about witches and wizards as if they could be good, and claimed the books promoted the work of the devil. Pope Benedict XVI himself weighed in and said that the books were “subtle seductions” capable of corrupting young Christians.

Now, this sermon’s not really about this, but I’m always a bit bemused by those who protest fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series, or games like Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the folks I know who read such novels and play such games are firmly grounded in reality, are better educated than most, and understand science well enough to know that magic isn’t real. In fact, two of the most famous fantasy writers of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were very devout Christians, and their work speaks to this.

Joanne Rowling also was writing from a Christian perspective. Although the religious themes are more subtle than those in Lewis’ Narnia series, which are actual allegories of Biblical stories, they are there. From the start, Harry, who is an ordinary 11-year-old boy, is protected from the bad wizard Lord Voldemort, not by his skill, nor by weapons of power, but by the love his mother showed in sacrificing her life for him.

Um…

Perhaps the Christian message in the Harry Potter series isn’t so subtle after all, is it?

In the books, as Harry grows and learns, he becomes more powerful as a wizard, but so does his enemy, who begins the books as a shadow of his former self and gradually, through use of the dark arts, gains in power.

In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is now 13 years old, and is beginning to learn those spells that will repel creatures of evil. He gets training to repel two in particular.

Bogarts are creatures that like to haunt enclosed dark places, such as closets and desk drawers and the space under the bed. They have no shape of their own, but take the form of whatever the viewer most fears.

The counter charm is riddikulus, which turns the bogart into something to laugh at.

Harry’s friend Neville fears Professor Snape, the potions master, more than anything else. But when the riddikulus  spell is cast, the Professor Snape-shaped bogart turns into a Professor Snape who is wearing the clothes of Neville’s grandmother—a long, lace-trimmed dress, a towering hat topped with a moth-eaten vulture, and carrying a big red handbag.

The bogart confronts Harry’s friend Ron, who is terrified of spiders. Riddikulus! The spider’s legs vanish, and it rolls over and over.

One by one, the students deal with their worst fears, changing the bogart that impersonates them into something that they can laugh at.

We all have bogarts in our lives—fear of things that we know are imaginary, but which paralyze us nevertheless. Like a young child who fears the monster under the bed, we worry about things that will probably never come to pass.

Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will wear or eat or sleep, but we worry anyhow. A few years back, my daughter was in her first year at Laurier University, living in residence. But residence places are only guaranteed for the first year—in second year and beyond, students are expected to find a place to live in the surrounding community.

Her form of the riddikulus spell went like this—I’ll be living in a box on the street corner. Her friend Audrey eventually joined her in that box. They knew the fear wasn’t real—their homes in Guelph weren’t so far from Laurier that they would ever have been in any danger of not being able to return to school because they didn’t have a place to live. But the box image helped them find the humour in the situation, which gave them courage to continue until they found a couple of other students and a five-bedroom apartment to share for the next three years.

Public speakers are often advised to picture their audience naked, which is another form of the riddikulus spell.

But there are creatures more powerful than bogarts, called dementors. A dementor is a skeleton-like creature wrapped in shadow that sucks the joy and energy out of a person. A dementor’s kiss can suck out a soul.

A dementor cannot be repelled by a riddikulus spell. They don’t have the more concrete form of a bogart, so they can’t be changed into a concrete ridiculous form. Instead, Harry is taught to cast a patronus spell, which creates a non-corporeal animal that protects the wizard from the worst of the dementor’s effects. The dementor is still there, but it can no longer paralyze the wizard with the fear it brings.

Like bogarts, dementors are not real. And yet, of course, they are. Many if not most of us have been through times when life doesn’t seem worth living. Our joy, our energy, our ability to think things through—all gone.

After my sister’s death, I felt very little for quite a while. Every day was a struggle. I wondered if I would be better off dead like her. Those days are thankfully gone, but I still have times when I feel doubt and dread for no reason.

The night before I wrote this sermon, I wrote, “I’m feeling unworthy today. Tired. Doubtful. At the beginning of the summer, I was rarin’ to go. Excited and full of new ideas.”

What happened?

I don’t know. I do know that I see the effects of dementors at work all the time. Folks caught up in addiction to alcohol or drugs or sex or violence or material possessions, who on some level realize that their attempts to scare off the dementors that torment them are actually making the dementors stronger. The alcohol and drugs fuel the depression, they don’t get rid of it. The sex and violence, far from making a person feel more powerful, make a person fear weakness so much that they can never admit that they’re not in charge. The material possessions form walls and barriers, but even the people who own them can see that they can disappear in an instant.

Fortunately, we have, in Christ and in the Bible, been given the most powerful patronus charms ever.

Memorizing comforting scripture verses reminds us of God’s love when times are dark.

In God’s house there are many swelling places… I am indeed going to prepare a place for you…

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

…nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, toady or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Take that, dementors!

Re-reading the stories of the adulterer and murderer who was King David, or the story of that collaborator of persecutors who was Paul, or the sexually promiscuous woman at the well or the cheating tax collector who was Zaccheus or the doubters Thomas and Sarah, or the trickster Jacob or the murderer Cain, we hear over and over and over again that God loves us no matter the sin, that God has a place in God’s New Creation even for us.

Singing songs of faith is also a powerful reminder of God’s love. Like Amazing Grace, written by the former slave trader John Newton, or It Is Well With My Soul, written by Horatio Spafford after his only son died, he lost everything in the great fire in Chicago, and his four daughters were lost when the ship they were on sank. He wrote the poem while sailing to be with his wife, near the spot where his daughters died.

My most recent patronus has taken the form of listening to Sirius XM radio channel 63, The Message, which plays contemporary Christian music. If you don’t have satellite radio, you can go on YouTube and listen to songs like Chainbreaker, EvenIf, Mended, Beloved, and Still.

None of these scriptures, stories or songs tell us that we will live a life of material abundance with no worries or setbacks. As long as we live, we will live a human life with human troubles and the bogarts and the dementors will do their best to suck the joy out of life.

But our patronus is up to all that. It reminds us that God is more powerful than any sin or evil that human hearts and minds can devise.

Our scriptures and our songs and our experience tell us over and over that we are not alone.

That we are loved.

That we are forgiven.

That we are free.

Amen!

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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.