Working from the inside out – can these bones live?

A little girl was visiting her grandmother one beautiful spring morning. They walked out into grandmother’s flower garden.  As grandmother was inspecting the progress of her flowers the little girl decided to try to open a rosebud with her own two hands.  But no luck! As she would pull the petals open, they would tear or bruise or wilt or break off completely. Finally, in frustration, she said, “Gramma, I just don’t understand it at all. When God opens a flower, it looks so beautiful but when I try, it just comes apart.”  “Well, honey,” Grandmother answered, “There’s a good reason for that.  God is able to do it because God works from the inside out!”

God works from the inside out. In a valley of dry bones, God works from the inside out, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Imagine you are Ezekiel, look to the right and to the left, there are bones everywhere.

Bones ahead of you, bones behind you.

Bare white bones gleaming in the sun, the life baked out of them.  

Not one drop of moisture remains.  These desiccated bones are a grim reminder of life that was.

Ezekiel stands there in the middle of this valley of dry bones, waiting expectantly for the Lord.

The children of Israel in exile know all about dry bones. 

Israel is stripped to the bones, scattered in exile. The Babylonian Empire had taken over the land of Judah, the king of Babylon took the leaders of the nation away and replaced them with folks from a different place. The ones who were left were the poorest of the poor. They felt as if they are living in this valley – where life had been ripped away, where hope had vanished, where God felt absent. 

They cried out, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

They were these dry bones, waiting…

I don’t know about you, but I’ve stood at the edge of a number of valleys of dry bones. 

In Colombia, it’s not quite a valley of dry bones – they’ve not been dead that long – but it’s definitely a pit of bones, bones that were once part of the bodies of people who lived, loved and laughed, people who were killed for being on the wrong side of politics, or maybe for being in the way, or just because; but people who died by violence because of the powers that be.

In communities racked by grief due to a rash of suicides by their young people. Communities who questioned, raged, and prayed about what they could have done so that these young bones would not have lost hope in the first place. 

Amongst mainline churches and small towns alike as young people move away or become disinterested, farms get bigger, so there are just less people in the same amount of space, and the bare bones of our society has changed so much over the years.

Those times in our own lives, when it felt like the life had been sucked right out of us. Hopefully it’s not all the time – and if it is all the time, there is help that is accessible – but beyond that those times when grief settles on us like a dense fog, things aren’t turning out the way we’d imagined, or we simply can’t figure out the meaning of our lives. 

These valleys of dry bones are more common than maybe we’d like to admit to, and they appear in a number of ways, shapes and forms. 

As Ezekiel was standing there, looking at this mass grave, looking at this massive loss of life, and at the lost hopes of a people; something happens. God spoke to him and said:

“Human, can these bones live?”  

The obvious answer is no. Can dried bones live? Can bones without flesh or muscle, or blood, or oxygen, live? Can these bones that were killed by violence ever possibly find the will to live again? Of course the answer is no… right?

Ezekiel’s answer is something of a surprise. Maybe he knew God’s ways enough to know that no wasn’t an appropriate answer. Maybe this is why he was designated as a prophet. There should be no good reason for these bones to live again, but instead of despair, he answers with openness. Instead of saying “no” he says: “O Lord God, you know.” Oh Living One – you know.

God tells Ezekiel to prophesy – and he does. He prophesies that God will cause these bones to once again become human, living beings. As he was prophesying, there came a loud noise, and a rattling as the bones came together, broken bones knit together, and became bound by sinews and flesh and skin… but there was no breath. Now instead of bones, Ezekiel sees a valley of bodies. It must have been an awful experience, in both senses of the term full of awe, but terrifying.

So God asks Ezekiel to prophesy that breath will come into these bones from the four winds, and they will be alive. The winds blow, they come together to bring breath to those lifeless bodies, and all of a sudden, they are living again. 

Now let me introduce you to one of my favourite words in the Hebrew language: ruach. Simply translated it means breath – but it also means spirit. It’s God’s ruach that hovered over the waters at the beginning of Creation. It’s God’s ruach that was breathed into the first human being. It’s God’s breath and spirit that are given to these dried bones to bring them life. 

It’s God’s ruach that gives us life and spirit. It’s God’s ruach that breathes new life into situations of hopelessness. It’s God’s ruach that works from the inside out. 

As often as I’ve witnessed valleys of dry bones, I’ve also experienced God’s ruach that breathes new life. In communities that have seen violence and grief, I have seen brave and talented people working to bring these communities together to find some form of healing. I’ve witnessed children laugh and smile when these were once foreign emotions to them. I’ve seen folks from very different, often conflicting faith backgrounds, praying together for hope and new life. The ruach of God breathes into situations of hopelessness.

In small towns and churches, I’ve seen groups celebrating what is with whoever joins in. Whether it’s three, five, seven, 10, 20, 50, or 100 or more – I’ve seen folks gather. Sometimes it’s with a meal, other times not, but gathering to work together, to sing together, to build each other up and/or share the happenings in their own lives. The ruach of God breathes into all who are present and willing. 

In our own lives, experiencing those moments that we can only name as grace-filled and answers to prayers. A call out of the blue that lifts our spirits. Those times when things seem to mysteriously fall into place. The moments we have to glance back to times of hardship, and even if those places are still tender, we can see how the events placed us firmly on the path that we’re on, and yet, we’re glad we’re here. Release from bonds of addiction, abuse, or mental illness. Sometimes they’re the small things and sometimes they’re big, but the ruach of God inspires us to keep going. 

God’s ruach surrounds us totally and completely. The Spirit brings us the promise that we are not alone and that things can get better. The Spirit breathes new life and hope into us no matter how dry our bones are.

In the Christian tradition – we talk about breath prayers – something you say quickly and to yourself as you breath in and out. It could be as simple as “God, come” or “God, help” each word said as you inhale, or exhale. It’s a prayer, but more than that – we’re breathing in God’s spirit. We’re breathing in hope and the promise of new life. God works in us from the inside out.

 

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Seeing with understanding

We often call him the blind man, or the man born blind, because, well, what’s so remarkable about a name like “the man who can see,”? That could designate just about anyone, couldn’t it? And still, we persist in naming this man as “the blind man” or “the man born blind” even though we are talking about a man, who can now see. We don’t want to leave him alone because he can see now – there’s something special about him, we don’t want to forget about the miracle that Jesus worked in him, and so we give him a name to remind us of how he was once blind but now can see.

I struggle a little bit with the magnitude of this event. I learned more about sight in psychology class than I ever did in biology, because seeing has to do with the brain as much as it does the eyes. Babies can’t focus their eyes for a while after birth, because it takes that time for the brain to develop, and to process the information that the eyes are sending to it. We do have stories of adults who have been gifted with sight when they’ve been born blind, and who haven’t been able to cope with the process, and begging to be made blind again, so that they can live within a world that makes sense to them. Similarly, there’s been a video going around the Internet, and even if you don’t watch videos online, it’s also been on the news. There’s a woman who was given the gift of hearing through the work of doctors, and this video shows those first few moments when she hears. She bursts into tears. Like seeing, hearing has to do with a physical response from sensors: the inner ear, and connections in the brain to bring about meaning. So it’s always with wonder that I hear this story, knowing that this man’s brain, as well as his eyes needed to be made well so that this man could see with any sense of understanding rather than chaos.

Seeing with understanding doesn’t happen all at once, as this story tells us.

Jesus uses mud – the same creative stuff that the book of Genesis tells us God used to generate human beings, and spreads it over the man’s eyes. What was its purpose? Did it regenerate nerve endings? How it works is a mystery. Jesus disappears after telling the man to go to the pool of the Sent One, the pool of Siloam to go wash out the mud. He doesn’t wait around to see if the healing took place. He doesn’t escort the man to the pool. He just disappears. The man washes out the mud, and his eyes are opened, but then comes the daunting task of reconciling what he knew before, with the information he’s getting now. We don’t hear much about this process. In fact it seems like he takes it fairly well, but what a task it might have been. Imagine trying to reconcile what you know to be a bird – through sound and description, and maybe touch, to the actual sight of a bird. Or a leaf on a tree – I know when some folks get glasses for the first time as a child, they describe the wonder they experience at looking at trees and seeing leaves clearly, when what they saw before were blobs. For this man, just imagine how he’s supposed to get home, having never seen the world in front of him, although I’d put odds on the fact that if he closed his eyes, he’d be able to get there a whole lot easier. With this gift of sight, two worlds collide and we only get a hint of it in the story: when the crowd asks “where is he” this one who gave you sight? And he answers “I don’t know.” And then again later when Jesus hunts him down and talks again with him, and this man does not know him by sight, but then comes the understanding, as he realizes THIS is the one who gave him sight.

It must have taken him a while to see with understanding, to understand what it was he was seeing. Here’s where I wonder if we get ourselves into a little bit of trouble. So often we pray for healing, when I wonder if what we really want is restoration. We pray for healing and expect things to go back to normal, whatever normal might be. If this story illustrates anything for me, it’s that healing isn’t about normal or the ordinary. Healing is extraordinary. Healing generates something new, and it requires no little work in reconciling what was with what is. As our own blindnesses are healed, as we learn to see with understanding, the world how we once knew it, collides with the world that we now see before us. It’s no small feat to see with understanding. It’s even more work helping others to understand what has changed.

We see that too in this story. The Pharisees don’t see with understanding, as we hear them asking at the end, “are we also blind?” While they weren’t completely blind, their sight was limited. They were stuck in the boxes of tradition and power – understandably, as tradition and power exercise a strong hold over so many of us, and institutions do not change traditions, or give up power quickly. Tradition dictated that this man who was given sight, was born blind because someone sinned. We hear this from the mouths of both the disciples and the Pharisees. While we never hear the reaction of the disciples, we do hear the reaction of the Pharisees – they are not willing to let go of the tradition they have. Nor are they willing to let anyone outside of themselves wield any power. In this case tradition and power go hand in hand, and so anything that might imply that something from God can happen from outside of them, was difficult. They were so stuck in this that they asked the man given sight twice about what happened, and his parents once – three times they asked, and then, still being unwilling to acknowledge that such a thing could happen, they cast the man out, effectively cutting him off from his faith and family.

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression in saying that tradition is wrong or bad – because it can continue to be incredibly life giving. Power also, can be helpful – we talk about empowering people to do something. Power can work for the good. Tradition and power, like anything, is problematic when it holds us back from experiencing Creator, Christ and Spirit at work.

In a reflection on the TRC, Maggie McLoed, the United Church’s Executive Minister of the Aboriginal Ministries Circle said that we need to learn how to work on creating space for everyone to take part, we need to learn that to make room for others by being willing and able to step back. While she was talking about making room for folks to take part in the healing and reconciliation process particular to the legacy of residential schools, I think this can be applied to our story here.

Whether we’re speaking of systemic healing, like the residential school legacy, personal healing, or maybe not even healing at all, but an acknowledgement that from this moment forward things will never be the same, we need to learn when and how to let go of our own power, to let go of our want to control, and to get out of our own way, so that we can let God into the situation, and allow something new to happen.

We talk about this story as something that happened a long time ago – or maybe even might have happened, as it really does seem a bit incredulous. Still, I’m reminded that Creator, Christ and Spirit are still at work in the world. They continuing to open our eyes so that we can see more clearly, so that we can see with understanding. They continue to use the creative stuff of our world to create new pathways and help us to reconcile our former ways of knowing with a new reality. May we be open to these new ways of being. May we find healing and reconciliation. May God work in, among, and through us. May it be so.

Born anothen

We talk about being born again and it has some strong associations to it. It’s often code for one of two things: are you like us? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart and is he your personal Lord and Saviour? Or, are you crazy like them? – that last is perhaps not the kindest way of putting it, but it is often what’s meant. Because the divide between these two sides is so strong, I’m not sure if there is any way of reclaiming the language of being reborn, or born form above, but my hope is that we can create some space in between them, and explore another option.

 At the clergy lectionary study this week, we were talking about this very thing. The pastor for the 7th Day Adventist church mentioned how sometimes his activities with the lectionary group comes up amongst his colleagues, and one in particular, was worried about the state of our souls. This person asked him, ‘are they born again?’ and he considered it for a little bit before answering that he believed we were. He turned to us on Tuesday then, and said how he knew that we wouldn’t necessarily use this term, because it is so loaded, so he asked us what we would say.

 We had a variety of responses: believers, followers of Christ, redeemed by grace, baptized. More importantly though, it opened up the conversation: some of us could remember quite clearly a date when we asked Christ to be a part of our lives. Others of us replied that Christ had always been there, a part of our lives, but we had discovered new ways of relating to Christ through the years. Others still replied that while there was no exact date remembered, there was a period of time over which a knowledge of, and relationship with Christ developed. This last comment was likened to a sunrise: you can’t pinpoint the exact time, but it got me thinking that it’s not unlike the birth Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel lesson.

 You see, being pregnant has completely reframed the idea of being born again, or a spiritual rebirth, for me. It has helped me to realize that these things don’t just happen overnight. Rather, there are quite a lot of things that need to happen in order for a birth to actually take place.

 Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Some scholars say he was being sneaky; others maintain he needed enlightenment; and others yet point out that this was the accepted time of day for deep philosophical discussions. Whatever the case may be, that night, through their conversation, Jesus offers some of the mysteries of faith to Nicodemus; reminding him that for a person to be in touch with Godly activities, for them to be able to name where God is at work in the world, they need to be born anothen, a word that means both again and from above, a word that has both earthly and spiritual significance.

 Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it, and asks the crazy question: you mean I need to find a way of crawling back into my mother’s womb? He’s stuck on the things that happen in the physical world.

 Jesus reconnects him with that word anothen: It’s about earthly and spiritual birth. In other words, Jesus is saying that for someone to be able to experience God at work in the world, they need to have a spiritual awakening or rebirth. Something needs to happen to connect us with the Spirit/wind/breath of life. Something needs to open us up to the surprising and sometimes sneaky currents of the Spirit, helping us to realize that these can’t be controlled, and helping us to be open to their prodding. THIS is part of the spiritual rebirth.

 There is irony in these two men talking about birth: through their discussion Jesus planted some ideas in Nicodemus’ mind, which, given the right conditions would change and grow, and be born by Nicodemus in time. 

 There is no given gestation period for these things. Even though we humans take about 9 months to form our young, while mice take about 19 days to form their young, and elephants up to two years. Add to that, the time it takes us to grow and develop the skills we need to be able to live on our own. When it comes to spiritual matters, there is no set time for development: ideas and matters of the heart and soul can generate quickly or it can take years for something to develop fully. Even then, not unlike human pregnancies, things can inexplicably happen that cut that burgeoning new life short, and we experience that sense of loss. Or maybe that new life doesn’t come into the world exactly as we’d hoped. Our plans and expectations for this new thing happening in our lives might lead us into unexpected places – not unlike the other story we heard this morning of Abram and Sarai, feeling the call of God and leaving their homeland. Spiritual rebirth can completely change our way of being in the world. What is normal for one of us, isn’t for another.

 More than that, sometimes that burgeoning new life can take a toll on us body, mind and soul. Spiritual rebirth is often exciting and full of hope, but it requires a certain amount of energy, and a willingness to let the Spirit quicken in unexpected ways. Plus, joy and excitement are not always the emotions that everyone feels. It can also be sad, frightening, unwanted, unexpected, and even dangerous in certain conditions. There are all kinds of emotions that go along with the development of something new, and none of these emotions are bad.

 One thing is certain though: when the birthing time comes: being born from above is a messy, and often painful business. It’s something that very few of us can do on our own, we need the grace of God and the help of those who bear us. Spiritual rebirth is a major transition that doesn’t affect just the one person, but everyone who is in community with that person. Whether that new life thrive can depend on the response of the community: just ask anyone who has tried to break an addiction, who has come out, or who has changed their lifestyle in a big way. It can be difficult to understand the changes that have come about in the person, but it is the community’s role to offer support.

 Here is where the metaphor falls apart. Unlike the birth of a child, spiritual rebirth doesn’t bring about a new person outside of ourselves. We are the ones being reborn, being transformed, and it is no small thing. The transformation leaves us forever changed

 For some of us, these changes are such a major turning point in our lives that we can put a date to them. For others of us, the changes are no less important, but the entire journey – the gestation time, the birthing time, and the growing time – is what we name.

 Nicodemus disappears from the scene in today’s reading, but he appears twice more: sticking up for Jesus several chapters later when the authorities are trying to decide whether or not to arrest him and kill him, ultimately buying him more time; and then again at the crucifixion, helping to prepare the body. We don’t really know what happens to those ideas that Jesus planted in his mind, whether they ultimately came to birth or not, but obviously he continued to feel some connection to Jesus, even a few years later; but he was sainted by both the Eastern and Roman Catholic churches. At some point he transformed from being a respected Pharisee and leader in the Jewish community, to someone who was a follower of Christ. His life was transformed.

 However spiritual rebirth has occurred in our lives, I think we can say that a faithful reading of this gospel lesson opens us up to the possibility of transformation and the movement of the Spirit who moves in sneaky and surprising ways. Being born from above is the Spirit bringing us new life and opening us up to a new way of being in and relating to the world. It is the Spirit nurturing that new life and sustaining us through our journey of faith.

 May God’s Spirit blow through our lives, bringing us transformation and rebirth.

A reflection from Zacchaeus’ wife

Change had been coming for a long time for my husband Zacchaeus. He’d been talking about the teachings of Moses, and wrestling with how to live justly, and in accordance with Jewish law while he still making a living for us. You see – my husband was the chief tax collector in Jericho. Jericho’s a big city – King Herod even has one of his palaces here. It’s a good place to be a tax collector, especially the chief tax collector, because a LOT of the taxes go through there on their way to Rome. So we collect taxes from the tax collectors all over this region… and there are a LOT of taxes that these Romans have. Zacchaeus is a good businessman too – I might be biased in saying that – but even if he was born into the business, you can’t get far if you don’t know how to work with people, or if you can’t tell good quality coins from the lesser quality forged coins. His wealth testified to his success. I can’t complain; he’s always provided well for his family. He gets along well with his associates and underlings.

[sigh] It can be a lonely life though, being the chief tax collector’s wife. You see, the people ‘round Jericho didn’t like us much. They thought we were corrupt, and that we stole from them. We know what the other tax collectors do, how they rob their customers blind. We never could do much about them, but we tried to live in a good way. We gave alms and didn’t steal. But it doesn’t matter, they hated us anyway, since we worked for the Romans. They saw our family as having turned away from the faith. For them, we were no better than prostitutes. They kept us out of their circles – there were no friendly smiles, or nods, or handshakes. No one invited us over. Granted, there were some of THOSE PEOPLE I wouldn’t want to be associated with anyway. How I wished they’d stop gossiping about us though! I thought I knew how THEY were; they wouldn’t ever change. I just did what I could and tried to live in a good way – as best as I could anyway, since even going to the synagogue was difficult with all their hostile stares and shouts of “sinner”.

Anyway, I’m getting away with my feelings, and you wanted to hear about my husband’s meeting with Jesus. I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a big crowd lining the roadway – everyone wanted to see this famous teacher. Zacchaeus included. He wanted to see Jesus; he wanted to get to know this man. He felt that Jesus could change something in his life… but he was a little nervous. Jesus doesn’t always play nicely with the rich ones… what was it he said? It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get to heaven? Oh well, Zacchaeus knew that Jesus has been known to spend time with tax collectors too. So what do you think happened? The crowd wouldn’t let my Zacchaeus in! He’s a short man, my husband is, and the crowd wouldn’t make room for him to see this man of God.

Well Zacchaeus wasn’t about to leave it at that. His interest was so much that he ran on ahead; just to be sure he wouldn’t miss him, and climbed a tree so that he’d be able to see. Can’t you just see it?! MY husband, a wealthy businessman in a tree, JUST so he could get a glimpse of this Jesus person.

Didn’t Jesus see him though – even stopped right there in front of him. Can you believe it? Jesus even knew his name! “Zacchaeus!” he called, “hurry up and come down from that tree. I must stay with you today.”

OHO! Didn’t the crowd start grumbling about that! JESUS?! Who could have stayed with ANYONE, decided to stay with ZACCHAEUS?! The tax collector? The sinner?

It was too much for Zacchaeus – he felt the need to defend himself, so he told Jesus, “Look, I AM a wealthy man, but I give half of my wealth to the poor – I give alms, and I’m an honest businessman, if I cheat anyone of money, then I pay it back fourfold – according to the teachings of Moses.

And you know what? Jesus heard him. Jesus said to my husband… and to those standing around jeering at him, that salvation came to our house that day, because Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. Because the son of man came to seek out and save the lost.

I can’t begin to tell you how those words, how that recognition has changed our lives. So often we felt like nobodies, it didn’t matter that we were rich, but you know, when Zacchaeus came home, it was like a load had been lifted from his shoulders. What Jesus did – he made the community recognize that we too are descendants of Abraham, and that, we too live in a covenant relationship with God. He was asking them to recognize us as fellow members of the community, saying that we try to live just lives and in God’s way.

After Jesus left, Zacchaeus and I talked about how we would live our lives in response to that salvation that Jesus offered. Salvation can be a tricky word, but I tell you for us, it came from the act of including us as part of the community; it came from no longer being an outcast. Our lives changed forever because Jesus came to seek out and save the outcasts – the ones with diseases, the blind beggars, and the rich tax collectors. We decided we had to try to get to know our neighbours as a result.

I tell you – it’s not been easy. Prejudice and distrust runs deep on both sides. It’s not an easy path to learn how to forgive and trust those who have spoken ill about you, and excluded you in the past. To be honest, it’s darned near impossible. Change comes though, even if it is gradual. Just as an infant doesn’t start by walking, neither can we be fully accepted by the community, or fully accept the community instantaneously. We start small – baby steps. Offering a tentative smile here, a handshake there, a chat with someone else. We’ve given up listening to gossip, or passing it on. It’s just plain hurtful. Like I said, it’s not easy. Old habits die hard, but Jesus’ words have marked our lives forever. We will always know that it is God’s will for us to live with respect for those around us, and we will always know that God wants to be in relationship with us, and that God recognizes us as God’s own. That knowledge keeps us going. It helps us in those tough times when we feel like giving up.

What’s more, my Zacchaeus decided actually to follow along with Jesus. They called him Matthias for a while, and he was appointed an apostle, becoming one of the twelve in Judas’ place. Now that the church is growing, they’re putting his talents to good use and have appointed him as bishop of Caesarea. Did Jesus have any idea what he started that day when he called Zacchaeus down from the tree? We sure didn’t.

That day, Jesus truly did seek out and bring back the lost one.

Teach us to pray

Lord, teach us to pray…

It almost seems incredulous to me that the disciples have been with Jesus for such a long time, and they still don’t know how to pray? But then, I wonder if sometimes the idea of prayer, especially in prayer in public, or at least in a group setting intimidates us. For some folks this kind of thing is easy, and they have a gift of being able to pray off the cuff. I know it took me some 10 years of conscious work to really become comfortable with praying aloud in a group, and more on top of that to be comfortable leading a prayer in a group. In one youth group I attended, we used to open our meetings with a circle prayer – we would sit around in a circle and say something we wanted to pray for, and then squeeze the person’s hand next to us to pass it on. I was terrified. I would sit there shaking until it was my turn, when I would turn bright red and stutter something. Then it came time to learn to listen to what others needed, and then pray for them, while they prayed for me. Gradually, I learned how to pray aloud without a text in front of me. I honestly can’t fault the disciples for requesting:

Lord, teach us to pray.

I wonder if it didn’t go something a little more like this though: Lord, teach us to pray… like you do. We want our prayers to have power, emphasis. We want our prayers to mean something. You pray and things happen. People find healing, folks are restored to communities, their lives are given meaning again. We get discouraged when we pray and it seems like nothing happens. We get scared because sometimes the words don’t come, our tongues get tied, or our hearts are too heavy. When we don’t know what to say, when our minds are spinning so fast that we can’t even concentrate on one subject, when we feel like what we’re doing is coming up with a shopping list of wants and needs, when we don’t know whether we can trust you, when we don’t know how to listen to you.

O Lord, teach us to pray. 

Anne Lamott writes that our two best prayers are “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you” and adds a third prayer: Wow! If you look at it like that, our prayers don’t need to be complex flowery bits of poetry. They are so much easier to phrase if they are simple and honest. Prayers filled with allegories, analogies, and metaphors are wonderful, they can help us discover a different image of God, they can reframe our way of seeing the world, but unless we are particularly gifted with language, that kind of thing can get in the way of our prayers, especially if we’re trying to live up to someone else’s contribution.  

Lord teach us to pray. 

 Jesus responds: this is how to pray

 Father, hallowed be your name. 

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. 

And do not bring us to the time of trial. 

 This prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples is deceptively simple. It really doesn’t sound like much, but there is a lot packed into the several sentences he utters.

 It’s shorter than the version found in the gospel of Matthew, or the version we tend to pray these days, but it is essentially the same prayer. It’s a prayer that has been passed down through our ancestors in the faith so much that it transcends Christian denominations of all sorts. It doesn’t matter if we are Christians who tend to pray using a prayer book, or if we are Christians who pray extemporaneously, off the cuff; or if we are Christians who pray silently, this is a prayer that unites us. It is a prayer that, I suspect we’re all taught early on in our faith journeys. It’s a prayer that we say so often, I wonder sometimes if don’t just rush through it, hoping that we don’t mix up the words too much, but not necessarily paying attention to that for which we are praying.

 Through scripture, Jesus calls us back to this prayer, saying: this is how to pray

 Father, holy is your name. Your kingdom come.

 He reminds us to focus. He reminds us we’re praying to God, and for God’s dream to come true in this world. We all have lists of prayers that need God’s attention, but first remember God’s vision. Remember how God has been present in history. Remember the stories from our scriptures of God leading people out of a land of injustice, of God calling for people to take a leadership role in their part of the world. Remember Jesus healing, and restoring people to their communities. Remember the Spirit that blew in on that day of Pentecost and brought people together. Remember the ways and places God has worked in your life. Take the time now to listen for a moment, I won’t ask you to share today, so you don’t need to worry about that. But listen, think, pray: what does God’s dream look like to you?

 [silence]

 Give us each day our daily bread

 We need nourishment as we look forward for tomorrow, as we yearn for God’s dream to play out. We need something to sustain us and keep us going. We need food for the body, food for thought and soul food to keep up the work we do, bringing God’s dream into reality. We need strength, courage and hope to keep going. Note the pronoun: give US each day our daily bread. We’re not just praying for ourselves, we’re praying for our communities, and for people around the world. Take the time now to listen for a moment, and pray for the sustenance you need personally, as well as what we might need as a faith community, and what folks around the world might need to keep going on into tomorrow.

 [silence]

 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us

 Forgiveness is about relationships, so we’re called to think of everyone and everything with whom we are in relationship: God, other human beings, animals, the earth, the water, ourselves. Intentionally or unintentionally we cross the lines, upset and cause harm, and live beyond our means. Still, we seek to live in right relationship, and so we pray for forgiveness and mercy for ourselves, so that we can continually try to live in a good way, but also extending that mercy and forgiveness to others. Once again, it’s not just a personal thing, but a communal prayer as well. It might just be the most difficult part of this prayer. So take a moment, to sit in the wonder and freedom of God’s forgiveness and grace. Then take a moment to invite God’s forgiveness and grace into a situation where we as a whole need forgiveness, and need to offer forgiveness. 

 [silence]

 and do not bring us to the time of trial

 At this point in the prayer we usually ask God not to lead us into temptation, but here Jesus is praying more for our preservation from persecution and situations that might test our faith. There are times and places in our lives where we feel particularly vulnerable, and people around whom our courage falters. We also remember that for the most part, we are privileged and coercion isn’t a daily reality for us, where it is for folks in other places, and so we remember them too. It isn’t always easy to do what is right and faithful when we’re being threatened violence and death. So take a moment to pray for courage; for yourself if you need it, but also for those around the world, those in positions of leadership and respect, as well as those who face coercion and manipulation on a daily basis. 

 [silence] 

 Jesus continues: This is how to pray

 Be persistent, or a better translation: be shameless just like a person waking up his neighbour and friend in the middle of the night because of a dire need, don’t stop praying. If you watch The Big Bang Theory, we are being asked to be something like Sheldon, the genius who is woefully inadequate when it comes to social skills, and keep knocking at the door, trusting that the person on the person on other side will open the door. Jesus tells his disciples: keep asking, keep searching, keep thanking, keep praising. We are in a relationship with God, and like all relationships, if it is going to be healthy, we need to keep working on it. Prayer does just that. Prayer opens up the lines of communication, it gives us a chance to speak our piece, and it gives us a chance to listen. In the words of another preacher by the name of Martha Spong, “prayer works on us, it works on others and it works on God.”

 As followers of Christ we are called to pray: for ourselves, for each other, for our world. We are called to continually deepen our relationship with God, to trust, to communicate, to listen, to be present, to keep working at it, and not to give up. No matter how beautiful or how plain, no matter if we express our prayers in words, laughter, tears, gestures or silence, our prayers matter. They have the power to bring about change in us, in others and yes, I truly do believe, even in God. So may we continue to seek God’s dream for this world, for this community, and for our roles in it. May we continue to hold each other in prayer, asking God’s grace, love and goodness to be present in and through our lives. May we continue to bring our needs, our hopes and our fears to the One who loves us deeply, and who listens to our prayers, and listen for a response. May it be so. 

 Sources:

Lammott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead Books) 2012.

http://marthaspong.com/2013/07/27/when-you-pray/ 

Making space for silence to speak

Elijah is one of the most important and most powerful prophets of the Hebrew Bible, second only to Moses. But here we have him running away, depressed, and even suicidal. It is seemingly strange behaviour for someone who has just come from defeating the priests of Ba’al, and showing the people of Israel the power of God. You’d think that he’d be celebrating; at the very least, you’d think he’d have faith and trust that God would see him through this next part of his life. After all, God has done so much for Elijah already, providing food for him on various occasions, taking care of him. It would seem sort of obvious wouldn’t it?

 Then again, I think it was Plato who said be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. We often don’t know what can be going on in someone’s life. 

 It’s common for people who have reached a lifelong dream, or a major goal or stepping stone in life to subsequently sink into depression. It happens regularly to olympians who have worked so hard, focused only on themselves and their performances, to reach a certain goal, only to find afterwards, that there’s something lacking. It doesn’t only happen to prophets and olympians though, it can happen to any of us, especially as we come up to major life changes. When we pour a large part of ourselves into achieving a goal, or into doing a certain thing, and all of a sudden we’ve reached it, and that activity or way of being no longer puts a demand on our lives, we need to figure out what to do and where to go next. It means redefining and re-orienting ourselves, and finding what NOW brings meaning to our lives. 

 Elijah didn’t have the chance to do this before Jezebel started in with the death threats. Those threats must have hit home, because his first instinct was to run away. I can’t blame him though, I wouldn’t be inclined to test the will of an angry person with a lot of power and an army to back her up. He ran first to the land of Judah, out of Jezebel and Ahab’s reach. There he sat down under a tree, started questioning his life before God, asking God to end it now, since it didn’t seem to hold any meaning for him anymore, and, as people with depression are wont to do, quickly fell asleep. 

 God didn’t grant his request to die. Rather God sent an angel, a messenger who woke Elijah, provided him with food and told him to get up and eat. A second time an angel came, woke him and told him to eat, but this time the messenger added that he needed strength on his journey, for it wasn’t over yet. It’s funny sometimes, how when we’re at the lowest points of our lives, we need people to remind us to do the most basic of things, to remind us that life goes on, and we have  a part to play in it, to tell us to keep up our strength.

 Elijah’s journey took him to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai – the same place where Moses communed with God, and received the 10 commandments, a high, holy place. Just like with Moses, God promises Elijah that God will pass by. When Elijah gets there though, we hear a bit more about why he ran. 

 What are you doing here Elijah? God asks. He replies: “I have worked hard for you God, but I’m the only one left. I don’t know what to do.” He says it twice – and we’re reminded of the one-track mind that tends to accompany depression – the same thoughts that circle round and round the mind, pulling the depressed person further down, so that it’s incredibly difficult to escape. The long climb up out of those thoughts started when God passed by, but God was not seen in God’s usual ways. Elijah was already broken and bent, so of course he wouldn’t feel God’s power in the wind. He was already shaken, so God’s presence in an earthquake couldn’t shake him up any more. He was already burnt, Jezebel’s threats seared into his mind, so no, God wouldn’t be found in the fire either. But it was in the sheer silence that God could be found, offering him the stillness that he didn’t have. In the silence came the knowledge that there were others like him, who worshipped God, but whose voices had silenced. In the silence he was reminded of the work that he needed to do for those who had been rendered silent. 

 Carrie Mitchell says: “Simon and Garfunkel had it right – we need to listen to those sounds of silence (e.g., the plight of the oppressed, the vacant faces of the homeless, the inarticulate cries of undernourished children), because in them God is encouraging us to persevere.” 

 I have a poster in my office that talks about building a global community. At the very bottom it says: Know that no one is silent, though many are not heard. The sounds of our society are sometimes so loud and so deafening that we can’t even think of where to begin listening for those voices that have been silenced. So I ask… Whose voices are part of the community, but aren’t part of the church? For that matter, whose voices are not even part of the community, even if the owners of such voices are physically present in it? Whose voices have been silenced? Whose voices are we missing?

 One thing that is currently going on in our country is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s creating a space for Residential School survivors to tell their story. Just this week, space was made at the U of M to keep the photo history of residential schools, so that we don’t forget what  happened. It’s not always easy to listen to those stories. Like anything there was the good and there was the bad. Some people will say that they have become more than they ever dreamed of becoming because of the skills they learned there. Others, or maybe even the same ones have horrendous stories of abuse, and how that has affected their relationships with others, including their own families and their own children. We don’t like to hear these stories, they don’t paint us in a good light, and we don’t know what to do with the feelings they produce. It’s something so much larger than ourselves that we don’t know how to make it better. Yet, it is good to listen to these stories, to make space to hear them, and not to forget them, so that we can heal, and work to heal the relationships with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. 

 In his depression, Elijah forgot there were others like him. We too need to know that we exist as part of something that is larger than ourselves. God reminds us that we are a part of something larger than ourselves. God reminds us that there are those who need a voice. 

  Listening to the silence is not just about hearing the difficult stories, so I will leave you with an uplifting one. There’s a highschool graduate from London, Ontario who made the news this week. His name is Josh Yandt. His family had only just moved to London a year ago, and for this young man, it was a chance to make a new start. In his former highschool he had been bullied and rendered invisible. He doesn’t speak much about it, except to say it was a very difficult time in his life. In this new place he decided that he didn’t want to be invisible anymore. He wanted to be someone. So he tried something new: he held the door open for other students. People noticed. No one knew his name, so they started calling him the Doorman. They got to know him better. In the interview at his school, all kinds of students were saying hello, giving him a pat on the back as they walked by. Other students mentioned it was the start of something new at their highschool. No one had been this nice before; students started paying it forward, doing nice things for other individuals. Oh ya, and Doorman was voted prom king. 

 When we come out from hiding, good things can happen. When we give people a chance to become visible and give them a space to speak, we see and hear all kinds of things that we never knew existed. 

 We as a church exist to help bring meaning to people’s lives, our own lives included. We exist to help folks sift through the cacophony of sound that surrounds us to find the still small voice/the sound of sheer silence that speaks life to us. We exist to hear those who have been silenced, and to help these ones to have a voice and find their voice (although we need to be careful here, that we do not overpower their voices with our own in an attempt to have them be heard). We are called to make a space so that others can speak. We exist so that future generations can continue to find God’s voice and God’s dream for the world. 

 God will meet us in the silence, and we never quite know what it is going to be like

 Sources:

Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor (eds) Feasting on the Word Year C Season after Pentecost Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/06/17/video-doorman-graduates.html

Sharing the story

Eric Whitacre composes beautiful classical music, mostly for choirs, but also for orchestras. It was in playing a couple of his pieces in an orchestra that I first encountered his work – and fell in love with it. It was the kind of music that would cause the hairs at the very back of my neck to stand up, and shivers to run up and down my spine. Apparently, I’m not the only one who enjoys his music. A few years ago, a young woman named Britlin Losee decided she wanted to express just how much she enjoyed Whitacre’s work that she posted a video of herself online singing the soprano part to his song entitled “Sleep”. The result is an incredibly moving, incredibly vulnerable video, that must have required an amazing amount of courage and passion to be able to create.

Upon watching and listening Britlin’s video, Eric Whitacre had an idea: what would happen if he put out a call for a virtual choir, where folks around the world could record themselves singing along to one of his compositions, he would then render all the videos together, and create a virtual choir. The responses came in: there were 2051 entries from 58 countries, and sounded something like this: [see: http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_whitacre_a_virtual_choir_2_000_voices_strong.html]

The people who took part in this virtual choir had an amazing sense of connection. They were alone when they recorded, but overwhelmingly spoke of being able to sing together, and being part of a community.

The Holy Spirit works in a similar fashion. Whether we experience her as wind, flame, a deep sense of knowing, wonder, awe, or any other way: the Holy Spirit brings people together, and gives us a common sense of identity in the midst of diversity.

The disciples and apostles were all gathered together in one place, waiting for this Spirit to come. Jesus didn’t say when, he just said “soon.” They didn’t know exactly what they would experience, but they knew the Spirit was on its way to help them continue to live out what Jesus had instilled in them.

On that day of Pentecost, she came. We know Pentecost as a Christian tradition, but it’s also Jewish. Shavuot, or the feast of weeks is where Jewish folks remember the Torah, the law that was given to them through Moses on Mount Sinai, and where they offer up the first fruits of the harvest. So Jewish folks were gathered in Jerusalem from around the Roman Empire to celebrate this high holy time when the Spirit came and gave the followers and teachers of Christ the languages they needed to share the stories of their experiences of Jesus.

There were a variety of reactions from the listeners. “You’re drunk!” some cried. To which Peter responded, “it’s only 9am, we’re respectable people, we can’t be drunk yet!” Others asked, “what does this mean?” they wanted to dig a little deeper into these stories they’d heard.

We don’t hear exactly what stories apostles and disciples told, but from the other stories they tell throughout the book of Acts, we can imagine they are stories of miracles, of healing, of hope, of death and resurrection, stories of community. They probably were not all telling exactly the same story, but perhaps the stories that most affected each one of them. Still, the stories had a similar quality.

What does this mean? As with what we sang in our response this morning – deep in their hearts they had a common story and a common vision. The apostles and followers of Christ were intimately connected through their experience of the Risen Christ. It was more than just an experience though, now it was a part of their identity. They might have stayed in the room forever, just waiting and wondering what to do next, had the hot breath of the Spirit not arrived, and given them the language to connect with others. The Spirit worked through those who were willing to break down unhelpful barriers, to bring people together.

The disciples could have been stopped in their tracks when folks jeered at them, calling them drunk. It’s easy to fold under peer pressure, but the strength and courage offered by the Spirit was stronger. It brings us to mind of what we heard in both Romans and John’s gospel that the Spirit brings peace rather than fear or angst. It’s a good thing too, because the Spirit sometimes blows us into places that seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable, where we feel very much like Dorothy walking out of her house after the tornado saying “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” To open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit is a bit of a risky proposition, not unlike Mr. Beaver when he’s speaking to Lucy about Aslan, the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia and answers “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” The paradox of the Spirit is that even when we find ourselves challenged by her, we are comforted too. She reminds us that we are not alone, we are connected to something beyond ourselves in a way that is truly beyond our reckoning.

We need to remember that the arrival of the Holy Spirit did not happen once and for all with those who were in Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost. As we read through Acts, we continue to hear how the Holy Spirit worked through the apostles. What’s more, we have each been baptized by the Holy Spirit on the same day we were baptized with water. The Holy Spirit moves in and around each one of us just as much as it did those first apostles. We too have been given a gift of language to share our faith stories. Some of us have the ability to share our faith stories in a spoken language – whether it is English, Ukrainian, German, French, Cree, or anything else. Others of us share our faith stories in the language of compassion and care, or in living out what we believe.

The Holy Spirit calls us to come together, but at the same time reminds us to reach out to each other and those around us. Faith kept to itself atrophies and dies, but lived out and expressed it thrives.

I believe we are being called to continue to pay attention to the hot breath of the Spirit in our midst; to carefully discern how we can share our stories of faith, through both word and action in our communities. So far I have seen this happen through our contributions to the Camp, and Fields of Jubilee. We support the youth connected with this congregation who are graduating, and the children who are seeking through Vacation Bible School, Messy Church and Sunday School. We nourish each other through potlucks. We contribute to the work of the church as we worship together, and as we work together on committees to ensure this work continues. We take pride in, and care for our buildings. The Holy Spirit works in and through us in any number of ways, and it requires a whole host of people to do this work, as even with the Spirit working in us, one person cannot do it all. The Holy Spirit reminds us that we all have gifts to share, to build each other up. She gives us the courage to speak of, and live out the holy times of building community, of healing and of resurrection. She gives us the confidence to break down unhelpful barriers so that we, as brothers and sisters around the world, can thrive as the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit reminds us that in spite of our differences, we have a common vision, and a common story. She brings the songs that are deep in our hearts to the surface so that we can recognize them in one another. Like that virtual choir, our individual contributions come together to form something truly amazing. I believe this is true whether we’re speaking of this pastoral charge, of Presbytery, of Conference, the wider church, the ministry done within the valley or our brothers and sisters in the faith on the other side of the world.

May we continue to be open to the hot breath of the Spirit that inspires and encourages us as much as she challenges us. May we be willing to risk sharing our faith with others through word and deed. May our faith expressed continue to thrive, and my the Holy Spirit continue to create something amazing from the gifts we offer. Amen.