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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Zero To One: A New Wineskin

(Preached at Melville United Church, August 28, 2016)

I was born in August of 1960.

The world was changing. The United States elected its first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Smoking was linked to heart disease in middle-aged men. Xerox introduced the first commercial document reproduction machine. And despite their astronomical price of $219.95 for a 23-inch black and white television, there were over one hundred million sets in use world wide. The FDA approved “The Pill.”

In other ways, the year 1960 was much like the years and decades before it.

65 out of 100 children lived in a family with their biological, married parents, where mom stayed home and dad worked. Only one child in 350 lived with a single, never-married mother.

80 percent of Americans thought that people who wanted to be single were “sick” or “neurotic” or even “immoral.” Only 28 percent of the adult population was single—divorced, widowed or never-married. Gay men and lesbians were not only sick and neurotic and definitely immoral, but criminals as well, according to the laws of the time.

Almost everyone went to church on Sunday, and stores and entertainment venues were closed.

The FDA may have approved the pill, but it wasn’t legal or available to single women.

The average cost of a new house in 1960 was $12,700. A man in manufacturing in Canada could expect to earn $1.98 per hour. A salaried worker on average earned $116.41 per week. Given a forty-hour work week for that manufacturing worker, the average house cost just over three years’ worth of wages. A worker would earn the equivalent of about ten loaves of bread per hour, and it would take him over one hundred hours to earn the cost of that television set.

Back then, a moderately-priced computer cost about one million dollars and took up several rooms. Those are 1960 dollars, unadjusted for inflation by the way. Only government agencies, universities, and large corporations could afford a computer, and they rented out time on it to smaller entities by the hour, charging thousands of dollars a day.

It’s now 2016, of course, and the world has changed.

The average wage of someone working in manufacturing is now $21.06 per hour, according to Statistics Canada. Interestingly enough, if that worker buys the store brand of bread, he or she is still earning approximately ten loaves of bread per hour. Despite moaning and groaning to the contrary, food and wages seem to have kept pace with one another.

As for technology: that 23” black and white television has become a quite modest Insignia 32” 720 pixel High Definition LED Smart TV, only two hundred and nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, on sale this week, only at Best Buy! Instead of over one hundred hours, it now takes the worker a little shy of ten hours to earn wages equivalent to the price of a decent television. And my Moto G cell phone, which I got for free when I signed up with Wind Mobile, has more computing power than that one million dollar gigantosaurus from 1960.

It’s not all good news, though. This week I looked up the average price of a house in Guelph. A modest house is now selling for about four hundred thousand dollars.

In wage terms, that’s about ten times a full-time manufacturing salary. But it’s obvious from the Stats Can data that a lot of workers are not working at full time permanent jobs, even in manufacturing. The average yearly salary is just over 30 thousand dollars, which is about 75% of a full time salary. Which makes a house worth more than thirteen times the yearly salary of a manufacturing worker.

In 2016, only 22 percent of children are living in homes with a mom and a dad where mom stays home and dad works. Another 22 percent live with single moms, and half of those moms have never been married.

Single adults are no longer seen as sick or immoral, and comprise about 44 percent of the adult population. It’s no longer illegal to be homosexual, and transgendered people are slowly making headway with respect to human rights.

Most people don’t go to church on Sunday. Stores and entertainment venues are open not only on Sunday, but sometimes 24/7. Even most banks are now open Saturdays.

Not that anyone uses a teller anymore. A worker is often paid electronically, pays the bills electronically, and pays for purchases electronically. In today’s world, you can be broke and get rich and go broke again, all without ever handling a single piece of cash money!

The world has changed. The reality that my children inhabit is vastly different from the one that I encountered as a young adult, and even more different from the one that many of you encountered when you were their age.

They meet their mates online, even if they’re old high-school friends. They play games online, get their news and weather and sports information online, they shop online and very often work online (and from home).

Most of our young women now attend college or university, and over 50 percent of university graduates are now women. A high school diploma is a necessity if you want to work at Linamar, or even get promoted to a junior management position at McDonald’s.

With student debt skyrocketing, and house prices soaring, fewer young people are able even to dream of owning their own home. Not that it’s always practical anyway—our society is much more mobile that it was, with the average person moving about every five years.

Everything seems to have changed…

Or has it?

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in the United Church, I remember a little bit about the services. There was an opening call to worship, and some prayers, and three or four hymns, and two or three scripture readings, and a sermon, and the offering, and an anthem, and a prelude and a postlude. Sunday morning, ten-thirty to eleven-thirty, in the same building. Everyone sat in the same pew they sat in the Sunday before. Kids went off to Sunday School.

The hymns have changed, and we’ve changed the words to the prayers, and our theology has evolved. Most churches now don’t have the children go off to Sunday School right at the start of the service, but have them stay for a short while. We’ve added a children’s time.

But we still gather every Sunday morning, often in the same buildings we were meeting in then. We still have prayers, sing hymns, listen to the sermon, put money on the plate. And in most mainline churches, the people in the pews are the ones who were there ten and twenty and thirty and even forty or more years ago. We’re just older.

And we wonder why, with “all these changes,” our children and grandchildren aren’t coming to church. Where are all the young adults? We need them—to fill our pews and help us feel less alone, to bring their kids to our Sunday Schools, to put their money in the offering plate, to learn and perpetuate the values and traditions we hold so dear.

I was introduced a couple of weeks ago to the concept of “zero to one.” It’s a way of talking about innovation. Ordinary innovations are most often of the form “one to n,” which in commercial terms means it’s “new and improved.” We add features, or tweak existing features slightly in order to improve a current product.

Think of your basic kitchen stove. When I was a kid, our stove had four burners on top, and an oven on the bottom with two elements. If we wanted to broil, only the top element came on, and if we wanted to bake, they both came on.

Today’s kitchen stoves are substantially the same, with a few tweaks. They’ve got digital clocks and timers so that dinner will start cooking when you want it to start cooking. You no longer have to guess whether or not the oven is up to temperature—the sensor beeps when it’s finished preheating. Some stoves have flat glass cooktops instead of those spiral electric burners most of us are used to.

That’s the “one to n” concept—adding to and improving a current product.

Zero to one happened for cooking with the advent of the microwave oven. The only thing my microwave has in common with my stove is a clock, a timer, and an electric plug. It uses the electricity to heat the food directly, instead of heating up the whole oven beforehand and cooking indirectly. As a result, it’s much faster.

It’s not a replacement for my stove. There are things my stove does well that my microwave doesn’t (like produce a luscious roast of beef or a wonderful peach pie), but there are things that my microwave does much better than my stove. For example, I can cook oatmeal, NOT the quick kind but the large flake, yummy kind in large batches in ten or more minutes on my stove, or I can put 1/3 of a cup of oats and 2/3 of a cup of water in a bowl and microwave it for three minutes, and it never burns.

In the church, we’ve been concentrating for nearly forty years on changing our services to hopefully bring in more young people. We’ve changed the music, we’ve changed the theology, we’ve experimented with different Sunday School curricula. What we haven’t done is changed the basic structure. We’re trying to appeal to millennials with a wineskin that appeals to their grandparents. And they’re mostly not buying it. The new wine, the spirit that is contained in our young people, is pouring out of and away from our old wineskins.

We need to ask ourselves why, in an era where the average working family is in debt up to their eyeballs and may never be able to afford a house, why are we asking those folks to contribute to the upkeep of buildings that are locked up most of the week? Why are we asking them to commit an hour or two of their precious spare time every single Sunday morning when many of them are working two or more jobs, often with irregular and unpredictable schedules?

Don’t get me wrong. We do need the church as it is. We need it because the fastest growing age group in Canada is the over-80 age group, and those who have tasted old wine prefer it to new, and are better fed by it. We need it because some of our young people have tasted the old wine and find they prefer it.

But I believe we need a new expression of church as well, one that can hold the new wine that is the spirit bubbling through our 20- and 30-year olds.

How will it look, this new wineskin?

I don’t know, but I have some ideas. With real estate currently priced at record high levels, and with it trending steeply upwards rather than down (I just read that in the first six months of 2016, the house prices in Guelph are up ten percent over last year), more church congregations will be landless. Many may not even meet physically more than three or four times a year. An active internet presence, with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and whatever comes next will be a big part of their ministry.

And I believe they will teach that personal spiritual practices, personal scripture reading, and personal reflection are more important than weekly bible studies and participation in church-run programs.

This last was brought home to me when I was reading an article about Willow Creek Church yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the mega-church to end all mega-churches, with eight different locations. It’s basically a denomination in its own right. The mega-church model is one that requires intense participation—in addition to the “celebration services” every Sunday, each member belongs to one or more small groups that meets weekly.

The leadership team of Willow Creek conducted a qualitative study, which means they were asking not about how many people were participating, but about whether the activities in which they were participating were helping them grow spiritually.

And they found, to their surprise and dismay, that participating in lots of church-run programs did not predict whether someone was progressing spiritually, or whether they were becoming more of a disciple of Christ, or whether they loved God or people more.

Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s founding pastor, summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Hybels confesses:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

That’s actually really good news. I know a fair number of young people, and one thing that stands out to me about that generation is their passion for self-development, and having seen how computer technology has been used to transform education and gaming and shopping and banking and just about every other aspect of life, I can see how it might be used to help our young people develop as Christians.

When Jesus talked about new wine and new wineskins two thousand years ago, the Jewish culture was transitioning from temple to synagogue. Jesus preached on hillsides and plains, and asked no-one to sacrifice any animals. He did not follow all of the strict Jewish traditions around what one ate and when and where and with whom. He reached out to outcasts who would be turned away from even the most progressive synagogue. He was pouring new wine, one that was for everyone and not just a chosen people, and it needed a new wineskin. And so the Christian church was born.

A few hundred years later, Constantine wanted to unite an empire of disparate peoples, and he did that by embracing a faith that was for everyone, and not just a chosen few. The church transitioned once again, from being on the fringes of society to being the glue that held society together. The Roman Catholic church was born.

When the printing press was invented, and literacy rates in Europe soared, the church changed yet again to accommodate those who could and did read scripture for themselves. The Protestant Reformation was born.

And now, we find ourselves in the digital age, with a world that is beyond the imagination of the dreamers of the past. The church as we know it will transform yet again, but the faith of our ancestors, transmitted to us through the ages, is as alive and vibrant and new as ever. Amen.