October 28, 2018: What to do when idols replace vision? by Rev. Beth Hayward (Exodus 32: 1-14)

That golden calf really got the people in trouble out there in the wilderness. They should have known better, but I feel for them. Who knows what all led to them stripping their coffers of every last trace of costume jewelry to have it molded into a golden calf? The fact is, Moses headed off into the mountains weeks before, not a text, not a call, utter silence. For all they knew, he’d bought a plot of land up there and was settling down for retirement. No wonder they took things into their own hands! Is there anything more powerful in sowing the seeds of anxiety and fear than that sinking feeling that you are all alone, forgotten, ignored? So when the people asked Aaron for some reassurance, he did his best to make it happen. I’ll give them something big and shiny, a god bigger and better than that one hiding out on the mountain!

There’s been a fair bit of controversy lately about some modern day golden cows. In August the city of Victoria removed a life sized statue of Sir John A. MacDonald from the quiet corner it had occupied outside city hall for over three decades. In a similar move last January the city of Halifax removed the statue of its founding father Lord Cornwallis from a downtown park. In 1749 Cornwallis signed a scalping bounty declaring a reward of ten Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken or killed.[1] His statue was removed, in part, as an act of reconciliation. These men were once seen as formative figures in the shaping of our nation, but now have new light shone on them. People are beginning to view them through lenses that simply weren’t valued or used at all, in times past.

Some who want these statues torn down and mothballed insist that there’s no place in the public square to glorify historic figures who we now know to have been, not just less than perfect but in fact racist and worse. On the other side are those who claim removal of these statues is commensurate with denying or whitewashing history. Between these extremes is a whole lot of gray.

The artist of the Victoria statue defends his piece. He says that he intentionally didn’t put John A. on a pedestal. He admits the man was complex, like many of us, and that his intent wasn’t to create an idol but more of a portrait. He hoped to reflect, in the statue, our shared humanity, strengths and weaknesses, confidence and insecurities. He calls the piece “both turbulent and calm,… strident and vulnerable.” He says he’s all for tearing it down if it’s the best way to move forward. But he’s not sure that “removing about 150 kilos of bronze from view is going to change our history, or help us understand it better.”[2] Others would say we can’t risk glorifying leaders who, by today’s standards, would not be worthy of leading.

Stay with me as I draw a thread between the golden calf, Sir John A. and this building. Turn for a moment to look at the windows and the particular articulation of Canadian history memorialized in the windows surrounding us. Look to the bottom portion of the windows near you. You’ll see glorious, rich shades of colour and a spectrum of images. You’ll see soldiers and settlers. You’ll notice that, if indigenous peoples are portrayed, they’re standing below those of European descent, background figures in someone else’s story. These are settler stories, male stories, oblivious to the indigenous and other voices that shaped this country, or at least oblivious to the fact that some voices of this land may tell the story in a different light.

We’re a people who create monuments to capture a moment in time, build museums to help unpack our history. We tend to surround ourselves with the most stunning beauty our resources will allow, in golden calves and stained glass windows. Beauty is important to us, it touches us, inspires us, even helps sustain us. But we can’t stand staring without also engaging. Stunning statues and windows serve us best if in searching them our hearts are open to the shadows as well as the light; if they provide a window into our souls.

The problem back in the wilderness was not that the people turned their gold into a statue. The problem was the fact that they thought the calf could save them. They thought an inanimate object could take the place of a living, dynamic, relational God. They were hoping beyond hope that the shiny brightness of it could subsume their fear and save them from all that threatened to trample their faith.

It’s a story as old as time, we begin thinking our things and our ideas are the whole picture. Our god become “we’ve always done it that way,” or “that can’t be done.” Our god becomes money or security or some other thing that we think will make all the difference in sustaining our very life. It tends to be in those times when we feel the most disconnected from the divine source of Love that we start reaching for shiny things to hold onto; the shinier the better.

The statues of politicians and the windows surrounding us, are not seen as God by those of us who witness them. No our gods tend to be much less tangible; security, money, food, drink, putting on imaginary armour to protect ourselves from vulnerability. But there is a thread woven through all of this, through the anxious gold sculptors in the wilderness, the church window makers, the statue defenders and those who would shove the statues into storage until all of their jagged edges can be appropriately smoothed. What connects us all is a longing, a deep aching for connection to one another and to our source. That connection is not tapped into or realized in any other way than relationship.

Look at how God is portrayed in this story. This is no statue God, no theoretical deity. This is the real deal; a down in the muck of life God willing to wrestle it out with us, no matter what – God. When God gets wind of what’s gone down with the golden calf – yikes. It’s like a parenting moment gone awry. God flies off the handle, says to Moses, “those are your people, you deal with them, I’m done.” God and Moses hash it out there on the mountain until Moses puts his foot down and says “hey, wait a minute, you made a promise, you told them you’d never give up on them.” It’s like an ancient family intervention and in the end God comes round and the threat of vengeance is replaced with mercy and all is well for the wandering Israelites, at least until next time. This isn’t some theoretical God, this is the real deal, one who is with us for the long haul, a keeper of promises.

Who wants a golden calf, a statue, static God, anyway? Wouldn’t you rather be up there on the mountain wrestling with the source of life and love than sitting around blinded by the shiny reflection of the latest thing you use to keep you at a safe distance from your source? All of us are groping in the dark to touch and see just a glimmer of God’s beauty. The warning of this text is to never see this stuff as a replacement for the real work of a relational God. God here in this story is ready to give up on the people and it is Moses who says no, another chance, who pleads and persuades. The hunger to know, touch, taste, live and breathe connection with the one God, can only be satisfied through relationship, not stuff, not ready made answers from a our former lives. This is why Jesus is such a powerful image in the Christian tradition, we know flesh and blood, we know the visceral reality of being human, God in human form is as tangible as it gets.

In our anxiety driven society we don’t need a statue God, we need something much more real than that. Like theologian and pastor Eugene Patterson, who died this week, once said: “we don’t become more spiritual by becoming less human.”[3] Maybe the call of God is to stop fighting our humanity, to fully hold one another in the terrible vulnerability of it all. Because after all golden calves don’t breathe and grieve, they don’t know sleepless nights or minds wrought with worry. Windows don’t know the sheer delight of a first kiss or the way if feels to have your heart yanked from your chest when you’ve been betrayed, of sunk to your gut when someone layers shame onto your already tender guilt.

Do we speak to the windows or do they speak to us? Does the light reflecting though them offer beauty?  Can one sit in this place and be touched in some small way, achieve a bit of inner peace though the light that comes through these very windows? Is there a layer of honesty about the complexity of our lives that is revealed in the complicated story of these windows? Maybe it’s good to be literally surrounded by stories that linger and challenge; yet stories that are ever illuminated by the tangible beauty of the physical light that shines through. Do we see only one dimension? Or do we engage this space as a living testimony?

Why do we even come here, if not to grasp for a little peace in a trying world? Whether you’re feeling off balance because you’ve forgotten to say your prayers for the past 20 years or because you see a river of migrants coming ever closer to the US border and you wonder at what will become of them and why 44,000 people a day are displaced from their homes? Maybe the thought of another mass shooting south of the border leaves you feeling deflated in the worst possible way or maybe you’re wondering how you’ll make your next move in a relationship that just isn’t life giving at this moment. We all want to do better than knee jerk reactions or relying on the same old, dusty truths we landed on once and never dared to go deeper. We all want to remember that we’re not alone in this beautiful, difficult, gut wrenching, awe-inspiring thing of life.

A friend told me this week about a toddler in her life, they were kicking and throwing and crunching in fall leaves. Picture it; picture the wide-eyed wonder on that child’s face to be fully immersed in fall leaves for the first time in her life. That’s the simple, profound, God given connection we are so longing to tap back into. We all need to remember what it feels like to feel the crunch of fall leaves under foot for the very first time. We need to remember that feeling like our lives depends on it, because life gets complicated after our first fall.

Light can reflect off that calf and light can shine through these windows but it points to the light it is not the light. The light is not in the beautiful statues we erect or the windows we look through. God is on the mountaintops when we’ve been waiting for forty days for some clarity, and in the shadows when we’re trying to grope our way forward, and in the fall leaves too as their sweet crunch reminds us of spring buds and summer shade.

No statue or window will come close to telling a complete story. Nothing we fashion to remind about the past, inform the present or inspire the future will ever come close to the whole story. But if we dare to engage the difficult conversations that our beautiful creations call forth they can help point us back to God. These windows alone hold the paradox of stunning beauty and devastating betrayal of trust. You’ve got to think that reveals a bit about the truth of life. Amen

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Cornwallis

[2] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-removing-my-statue-of-john-a-macdonald-from-view-is-not-going-to/

[3] Inspired, Rachel Held Evens, Nelson Books, Nashville, 2018. 69

October 14, 2018: Vision for Peace Danced in their Heads: Armour of God by Rev. Beth Hayward (Ephesians 6: 10-20)

War begins in incoherence and chaos, and they end in incoherence and chaos.

Prayers are one of the necessary expressions of our response to these dirty, ugly truths,

our hope to redeem them.[1]

On a dark November night of 1915, on the battlefields in Ypres Belgium the dream of this building was born. That night Rev. Col. George Fallis buried six soldiers, their broken bodies wrapped in blankets. A soldier turned to him and said: “Padre, after the war is over some chaplain should build a memorial in Canada in memory of fellows like these who have given their all.”[2] From that day, for the duration of the war, with every burial Rev. Fallis’ conviction grew deeper. On a similar night three years later, this time on the battlefields of France and with fifty-four bodies placed in a long trench grave, a nurse turned to him and said “Padre, when the war is over, you ought to build a memorial chapel, …for Canada.”

Rev. Fallis, along with the congregation of 6th Ave Methodist Church, did just that and for the ninety years since, the faithful and the doubters, the dreamers and the seekers have gathered in this place week in and week out to be fed and sent forth, to baptize their babies and bury their dead.

In his memoir Rev. Fallis said that, “it became perfectly clear that this chapel must speak a great message of peace rather than of war.” People cautioned, even ninety years ago, that to construct this place in memory of soldiers would tend to idealize war, to which Fallis argued vehemently. He said that: “one will search in vain to find any symbol idealizing war, [in this building]. On the contrary the whole chapel preaches a great sermon on beating ‘swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”[3]

Turn your gaze toward the windows surrounding us, take a good look at the stunning beauty, the subtle variance in colour from panel to panel, the way the light coming through making the windows come to life. If you look closely you’ll notice too that nearly every window contains an image of soldiers, either soldiers from the sacred text of the bible or soldiers from the history of colonial Canada.

I don’t think for a minute that Fallis’ vision was to idealize war in the honouring of fallen soldiers. But it’s complicated.  Over the coming weeks we’ll look closely at his assertion that we will search in vain to find a symbol in this place idealizing war. We’ll respectfully inquire as to the truth of that claim as we delve into the history of this place, its legacy, questions of how its architecture continues to shape those who gather here. We’ll ask difficult questions about peace and war, about the stories we tell, we’ll lay it all bear. A milestone like an anniversary is a most appropriate time to take stock, to honour our past, examine or present and to consider with great thoughtfulness and wisdom how we will lean into the future with grace and conviction. The task before us is not primarily a history lesson but a question of living faith. How does this place shape our faith, does our unique history inform the way we gather here and what we bring from here into our lives? Does it matter that we are surrounded by images of war and peace?

We are surrounded by a story of peace, but a peace made possible by war. The myth of war is a powerful one. I use the word myth here not as fairy tale or falsehood but thinking of it as something that conceals a deeper truth. According to journalist Chris Hedges the myth of war in modern times conceals, or removes us from the sensory realities of war. The myth of war is about how violence secures peace, how the soldier is the agent of ultimate sacrifice, how sometimes good must resort to killing for evil to be put to rest once and for all.  The myth of war is George W. Bush insisting with unwavering confidence “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

The sensory reality of war, that’s about what’s happening on the ground, the lives torn apart, the mass migration, the stories like the one a friend shared with me about his experience, as a teen, living through the Rwanda genocide, driving down his upper middle class street and the car couldn’t avoid bumping over body parts. The sensory reality of war is about civilians killed and soldiers returning home with broken bodies and spirits. The myth of war protects us from the sensory reality of war and this is difficult to capture in stained glass, no matter how hard one tries. Stain glass windows are not so much living stories as stories beautifully preserved in time.

The soldier is the hero of the myth of war and a fitting place for us to begin today, given Fallis’ intent to honour the soldier in this place. We can look all over scripture and see soldiers lifted up as an ideal. I’ve chosen Ephesians today and this idea of putting on the whole armor of God because it takes the image of the soldier and implores us to be like him. You should be like a soldier.

In the First Century, when the Christian Church was just being born the myth of war was alive and well. Images of war abounded in the Roman Empire, from coins to statues to memorials; people were surrounded with pictures of the mighty emperor and his loyal soldiers. The Roman Empire’s promise to the people, the reason folks paid their taxes and submitted to, often brutal, force was because the empire promised peace. It was a peace understood not in some UN round table sort of way but a peace where the mightiest kept all the bad guys in order, so the rest of us could live without threat of death.

They understood the importance of armour. It was a perfect metaphor for them. It’s just that the idea of putting on the armour of God was meant to be rather subversive. “Jesus turned the war story on its head. Instead of being born to nobility, he was born in a manger, to an oppressed people in occupied territory. Instead of charging into Jerusalem on a warhorse, he arrived on a lumbering donkey. Instead of rallying troops for battle, he washed his disciples’ feet.”[4]

I don’t know about you but when I read about putting on the whole armour of God I’m thinking to myself – seriously? You may as well sing that old hymn Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war. Christians are meek and mild, don’t rock the boat kind of people, turn the other cheek and all that. And so it takes a bit of deep breathing for me to even read words like this without reacting and completely dismissing it as at best misguided military propaganda and at worst permission for Christians to behave badly.

I don’t like the metaphor but practically speaking, I’m good at armour, we all are. We’re so good at it we don’t even notice the weight of it. It accumulates bit by bit in small ways until if we’re lucky one day we wake up and know there is a choice to be made, we either sink to the floor from the weight of it or we begin the difficult work of un-layering.

Not many of us will ever be asked to serve in war but every one us knows what it is to walk around with the armour we’ve collected to protect ourselves from being wounded by the thousand little things that can wear us down in a day. It’s so easy to put on the armour of I’m right and you’re wrong while telling ourselves it’s really the armour of righteousness. Too easy to put on the armour of I am the holder of the true Truth rather than the armour that does the difficult work of uncovering the truth for this moment. It’s easy to put on the armour of you will not get close enough to me to harm me.

When the armour gets thick enough then it becomes easy to turn into the warrior who hurls insults, or hides from the difficult encounters or the soldier who gets smug, sarcastic, defensive or dismissive. And it doesn’t matter what side you find yourself on any spectrum, all of us turn into soldiers when we think we’re protected by the armour of our ideologies or the armour of our egos.

Maybe the myth of the soldier can work if it becomes a more true story, one that speaks to the unusually high suicide rates of those who have served in war, the brokenness of body and spirit that so often accompanies soldiers home. Maybe if soldiers of God are the wounded and the broken then it can work. Maybe if the armour we put on for God makes us humble, leaves room for our vulnerabilities, then maybe it can work?

I’m not convinced that the armour metaphor is all that helpful, though maybe it is for you. Maybe it offers a sense of resiliency that’s required in a time when open hearted, open minded Christian values are counter-cultural. Maybe you need a bit of a hard shell to help keep you standing in a world that seems to be falling apart.

Even so, we need to think long and hard about whether the weight of the armour is actually worth it. I wonder if we might be better served by putting on the sheer shawl of God, or the handmade lightweight sweater. I wonder if armour is only helpful if it’s an armour of vulnerability? Vulnerability is not winning or losing it’s about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.[5] And that sort of thing can scare us enough to go looking for some armour on Amazon as fast as our fingers can click.

Maybe if we could all just drop the armour for a while, we’d discover a whole new metaphor to ground our faith. Maybe it’s about taking off the armour, not knowing the outcome and trying out a radical vulnerability for a while? Of course if we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmoured hearts, we need to be “vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard and respected.”[6]

I’m not sure if the whole armour of God is helpful to us unless and until we get our heads around the truth that God’s armour is like being naked, like fully exposed, like nothing to hide behind, like full on vulnerability. Fallis’ desire to honour the soldiers was born from relationship, from his boots on the ground experience of knowing those who died and those who were left to pick up the pieces. Maybe if we can show up in relationship, even with the people we are thrown together with, not of our own choosing,

Maybe we can live into becoming a community worthy of calling ourselves followers of Christ, we can bit by bit recommit to becoming a place where we can dare to turn what we know for sure on its head and replace the armour with something a little more sheer. And maybe like Rev. Fallis we can become a people who dream impossible dreams, who hear the voices of it can’t be done and do it anyway. Maybe.  Amen

[1] Elisabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of peace and War, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003. 291

[2] George O. Fallis, A Padre’s Pilgrimge, Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1953. viii

[3] ibid ix

[4] Inspired, Rachel Held Evens, Nelson Books, Nashville, 2018. 78

[5] Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, Random House, New York, 2018. 20

[6] ibid. 12

October 7, 2018: The Way of Gratitude by Rev. Beth Hayward (Joe;l 2: 21-27)

For the past month or so I’ve been practicing yoga every day; more like Monday to Friday. Honestly, I practice yoga four days a week, with my daughter. We meet in the living room at 6:15 in the morning with our mats and usually a cat; he really needs his own mat. We do 20 to 30 minutes of practice, ending on our backs in the savasana position, where we take five deep breaths and in our minds name a gratitude for self, other and world.

I don’t like yoga. I really don’t like it. I hate how much the moves hurt and how perfect our virtual teacher seems as she twists and bends in ways I honestly did not think were possible. But mostly I hate the breathing, the return to your breath, the pay attention to your breathing. I resist the idea that the spin in my head can actually be silenced. I am not a natural yogi.

One day this week I was disrupting the yoga practice so much with my negative back talk to Adrienne, our virtual yoga teacher, that my daughter turned to me, mid downward dog, looked me in the eye and said:  “Mommy, we’re going to stop and go right to the gratitudes.” I felt badly about my poor yoga attitude but it also struck me, just how wise my kid is. Let’s go right to gratitude, let’s just stop trying so hard, stop resisting as the case may be, and start with gratitude.

It’s been scientifically shown that practicing gratitude leads to a more joyful life. I think maybe it leads to a more calm life too. We tend to think that the response to something good in life is gratitude but in fact it works the other way. Start with gratitude and then you’ll feel joy. It makes sense, really, if you’re waiting for something good to happen, something worthy of your gratitude, you’re likely to spend a whole lot of time just waiting.

You know how Dr. Seuss describes the waiting place when he writes that:

Everyone is just waiting…

Waiting for a pot to boil, or a Better Break

Or a string of pearls. O a pair of pants

Or a wig with curls, or Another Chance

Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for you!

If the wisdom of Dr. Seusss prevails we’d all stop waiting for something good to happen and start saying thank you for what already is.

I’m going to bring Joel into this now, this obscure little book of prophesy. We don’t really know where or when this took place but here it is tucked away in the scriptures offering this absurd word of hope to a people who had long forgotten how to say thank you. Things have been so bad for these folks, locusts destroying the crops and the seeds for next year’s planting. It’s been bad for a very long time and into that reality Joel comes and says hey, things are about to change, time to rejoice. The “entire nation teeters on the edge of utter annihilation,” they haven’t heard God’s voice for a generation and here comes a prophet saying over and over again rejoice, be joyful.

I wonder if Joel knew what we know now maybe he could have started more realistically telling them to say thank you instead of rejoice. Maybe had they practiced saying thanks while the locusts were ravaging their crops things might have felt differently? Gratitude is so very hard because life isn’t easy. How do you maintain a posture of thanks when there is something every single day that makes you want to throw up your hands in resignation or fall to your knees in defeat? Late priest and theologian Henri Nouwen talked about how easy it is

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives… but to be grateful for all our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work.[1]

He insisted that, “we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment.” I can imagine the Israelites were not feeling inclined to say thanks for the locusts by the time we catch up with them. It’s certainly no help if our gratitude becomes a form of denial, a silencing of the aching, broken bits, of our lives. Maybe we fear that gratitude can become hollow, can run the risk of looking like denial.

Maybe gratitude seems a little bit absurd or even completely counter cultural in a world where fear and a sense of scarcity are rampant, in lives where we bear real wounds. Where do we find gratitude in the painful drama that has played out over this Supreme Court judge appointment south of the border? How do we find gratitude when a boys-will-be-boys mentality continues to win the day? Where is the gratitude to be found when temperatures continue to rise as our sense of helplessness to do something about it plummets?

There is so much in this world that challenges an orientation to gratitude. But on this Thanksgiving Day, I wonder if maybe you need to hear a word for your soul? I wonder if you need to start a bit closer to the heart of things? I wonder if gratitude in a hurting world pales in comparison to finding it in your life? Maybe the weight of the burdens in your life, are enough of a starting place this day, let alone the world’s tragic story? Every one of us has a story of tragedy that we just can’t shake. Maybe this Thanksgiving you need to give voice to the thousand reasons you can’t dare to be grateful.

Maybe, before you can get to gratitude you need to have a great big cry, like when Jesus arrived at the home of his dear ailing friend Lazarus three days too late and everyone turned to him and said where were you when we needed you? Faced with an impossible situation Jesus’ first reaction was to stand there and weep. Maybe gratitude, if it’s going to be anything more than a Hallmark card, needs to be big enough to hold our tears; so that it’s not denial at all, but a posture of holding the full scope of life and seeing it as gift. It’s opening your eyes to the glimmers of light through the cracks, attuning your ears to the a sweet melody that rises up from the ruins, opening your senses to the smell of fallen leaves and their promise to nurture the earth for spring flowers. Gratitude isn’t denial of the bad; it’s daring to see the good.

The love of your life dies and a neighbour brings you a casserole – thanks.

Your health fails and a friend sits with you as you await the results – thanks.

You come through a surgery that has left you maimed but alive – thanks.

You lose your job and the morning breaks with sunshine pouring through your window – thanks.

Truth is, you’ve felt the silence that Joel’s people knew all those years when the locusts ate their hope and their dreams. Faith is only as good to you as its capacity to not deny the tragedy and the heartbreak, to not silence the shame and the guilt. The story of this place will let your tears land and your wailing find its voice AND will keep bringing you back to gratitude in spite of your best efforts to shut such foolishness down. It’s easy for us to pick up the story at the moment when Joel declares that it’s finally time to rejoice but they’ve just spent a generation with flying grasshoppers picking the goodness of their life away, one nibble at a time. If we’re honest we’ll admit that we show up here because our experience of the absence of God has led us here in search of God’s presence.

Look at the primary symbol of our faith, look behind me at that cross, with Jesus body on it, the utter tragedy of it. “The cross is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory.”[2] These walls and the community that gathers here are meant to create a container large enough to hold both the Good Friday cross and the Easter cross. Here we practice saying thank you no matter the state of the cross at this moment. We need thanksgiving, not to lift up some sort of unattainable ideal of what a perfect family holiday should look like but to point us to the way of gratitude even when our hearts break. If we want to be a people who rejoice then we’ve got to begin by tapping deep into gratitude, whether we’re feeling it or not.

A wise thinker says the way of gratitude is through silence. Not hollow silence, not silence used to cut off the conversation but deep abiding silence. “Before the gospel is word,” says Fred Buechner, “it is silence.”  It’s the silence of your life and of mine. “It is life with the sound turned off so that for a moment or two you can experiences it not in terms of the words you make it bearable by but for the unutterable mystery that it is.”[3] And I know we’re not so good at silence, it says far too much. What if we turned off our heads off for a moment? Turn off the stories of not enough, not good enough, never going to happen, boys will be boys, just turn it all off long enough because you’re going to find that when you stop filling in the blanks, when you stop covering up the silence with your usual answers, a voice will stir a memory or a longing or an intuition that you have been starving for without even knowing it. And when that happens the only thing you can say is thanks! And that’s a good enough place to begin.  Amen

[1] https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2012/07/05/silence-on-words-and-silence-by-henri-nouwen/

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.  Harper One, New York, 1977.

[3] Ibid p 23

September 30, 2018: Prayer – a portal to Grace by Rev. Beth Hayward (Psalms 88, 121, 100)

“More than a wish, I’ll pray for you.” What a gift it is to be remembered in prayer. I ask people sometimes if they’d like me to pray with them. Sometimes it’s during a hospital visit or after an hour spent talking about a life’s passage, a dream squashed. I’ll just throw the question out there: would you like me to pray with you? I used to shy away from it, I thought it was presumptuous or imposing my need onto someone, but over time, somewhere along the way I began to realize what a gift it is to have someone pray with you. I mean, who ever asks that? Surely it’s the least I can do. Who knows where a prayer might lead, how it might contribute to mending the tattered threads between us, how it may just plant the seeds for a fearless life.

I’m not convinced that you need to believe in it for it for prayer to work. I don’t even think you need to be clear on the details or know precisely what you’re praying for or who you’re praying to. You don’t need to get the words or the silence just right. Prayer taps into something deeper, even when it’s just you in the silence, it’s bigger than you.

Novelist Anne Lamott wrote a book about prayer a number of years ago and she called it simply: Help, Thanks, Wow. Those according to Lamott are the three prayers that matter most. She says that prayer is about stepping outside of yourself, getting outside of “the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. …” Prayer is a deep sigh, a full bodied surrender, a letting go and letting God, as the old saying goes. It can be motion and stillness and energy all at the same time.

Help – is the hardest prayer according to Lamott. To even utter that word you have to admit defeat, you have to release your grip on your functional atheism, your confidence that you can take care of it all. You have to drop the disguises and stand vulnerable. Help is a prayer of surrender and none of us surrender easily. It’s a timeless prayer, like the one the Psalmist cries:

3 For my soul is full of troubles.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help, 

When you’re in that place all you can do is cry out for help. Help is the starting place of the prayer that has supported countless people for generations through AA: the Serenity Prayer. Some of you will know it by heart. Less familiar is the prayer in its original form, as it was first prayed in a summer worship service in a country church in rural Massachusetts in 1943, by its author Reinhold Niebuhr.

God give us the grace

to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

courage to change the things

that should be changed,

and the wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

God give us grace. Give us grace. That word holds the full scope of the three prayers: help, thanks and wow. It’s help all the way – give us grace because we’re running on empty, give us grace, because we’re filled with the most corrupt false truths. Give me grace; the lies I’m telling myself have run out of usefulness, all I can call on is grace. Help!

Sometimes there’s a really long pause before the thanks can be uttered. Because sometimes prayers take a long time to be answered and often prayers are not answered in the way we would have hoped. But grace somehow can hold us in the waiting. Hold us in those long months when we wonder if the treatment will, work, hold us in the long years when we wonder if the diagnosis will recur, hold us in the endless nights as we wait not knowing how we will ever make our way forward through the brokenness. Grace is the prayer of wow, the prayer that holds the others.

I’ve heard grace described as “that sudden—and often, surprising—awareness that goodness is still alive and kicking in the world, that the stars haven’t fallen out of the sky, that homemade ice cream on a hot July day still tastes like heaven.”[1] God give me a kick in the butt so that I can remember that goodness is still alive and well in the world, point me toward the truth that the stars haven’t fallen from the sky and that ice cream in July tastes like heaven. That’s grace for you, that gift that bridges the help to the thanks.

Think of the old hymn:

Amazing Grace

How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost

But now am found…

Prayer in whatever form it takes is that effort to tap us back into grace, to touch and taste and feel the wow, and more than that to remember to trust that interconnection between it all, between me and my soul and the holy connection between each of us and the oneness that is reality with every star in the sky and grain of sand in the sea.

There’s a theologian Catherine Keller who writes about the interconnection of all life. She believes that if we can learn to trust in our inherent worth and goodness, it’s from this place, because all is connected in an energy sort of way, this is the place from which we can begin to see the grace and trust it as enough. “From this plane of self acceptance we can look out beyond the horizon of our own ego and see how everything is good.”[2]

Prayer is all about that interconnection. We cry out help when we recognize that things are broken, thanks where the web of life is restored and wow is the prayer that holds it all.  If we can keep returning to the wow we may get more honest about the help and the thanks. It places those prayers in a much larger context of interdependence.

I’ve told you before that I get push back sometimes for being too political up here and also for being not nearly political enough. I do try to disappoint equally across the spectrum. It’s just that what’s happening in the world matters and if we are all connected one to another, to God or whatever you name that Oneness, connected to every star and grain of sand, well then when threads are severed and broken it becomes the work of faith to scream out help! Things that may seem political are actually about faith, about grace. Orange shirt day, in that light touches, us because we can feel the tearing apart of the fabric of our connection. That a child would be stripped of her shirt, of the shirt that grandma made sacrifices to purchase, in taking that shirt away she was stripped of her dignity and a bit of our common dignity. How can we help but prayer help for the brokenness of our commons?

We’re going to sing that old hymn Amazing Grace next. It’s never been my favourite. In a self-help world, calling yourself a wretch just seems like an expression of your low self-esteem. It seems like a throw back to a day long passed, to a world where we actually believed that God could swoop in and pick up the broken pieces of our lives and world and mend them back together if only God would choose.

And what could he mean when he says the hour I first believed, as if we come to belief in an hour, full understanding and faith in an hour. But for John Newton who wrote this song back in 1779, he may have written instead: the day I first let go. His come to Jesus moment was a plea for help as he faced certain death in a storm at sea.  What he believed that day had far more to do with finally seeing that his life was off track and that he couldn’t do it alone any longer than it did with falling in line with what the church says is true.

If we’re honest we know that prayer is never an escape, it’s never a refuge from the world but a way into the reality of the world, a dropping of the lies, a vulnerable plea, a tentative thank you, and a deep steeping in the wow. As Niebuhr’s daughter says: “…living in full, always offers as much despair as hope, as much danger as possibility.”[3] Prayer doesn’t protect us from the despair it just roots us in the hope. It never takes away the danger it just points us to the possibility. It taps us back into grace, opens us up to grace. What better way to be found?

Amen

[1] http://www.openhorizons.org/g-is-for-grace.html

[2] http://talkerofthetown.com/2016/05/25/rethreading-the-web-catherine-keller-and-the-theology-of-entangled-difference-a-report-from-the-hickey-centers-annual-sacred-texts-and-human-contexts-conference-at-nazareth-college-by-georg/ Also read more in Keller’s book Cloud of the Impossible.

[3] Elisabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of peace and War, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003. P. 14

September 23, 2018: Persistent Prayer by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 11: 5-13)

There was an Eighth Century monk, John of Damascene, who said that: “ Prayer is raising of the mind and heart to God.” In my experience prayer most often begins in the depths. The raising up, that takes time. The most raw persuasive prayers, they rise from the depths of life’s tragedies and challenges.

I am in awe of those who’ve had near death experiences, those who have had to face a life threatening diagnosis. There’s something about coming face to face with your own mortality in tangible, visceral ways that seems to change people. Often those folks seem to know a little bit better how to live. There’s nothing like the threat of death to help you get real about life.

If you’ve never been so blessed to survive a near death experience, not to fear, technology is now available to help you get a little closer to the way those folks so often approach life. For only a buck thirty-nine you can get an app for your smartphone called We Croak. Five times each day, usually when you least expect it, your phone will buzz with a pop up message that reads: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” And if you’re inclined to add insult to injury you can click the message and a helpful, humbling quote will pop up like: “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.” There’s something about death that brings us closer to life.

This past week Jews around the world celebrated their most significant religious holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A writer in the New York Times describes the daylong fasting ritual as “a 25 hour caffeine headache capped off by a lox and bagels binge.” [1]  On a more serious note, she says that it’s also, at its deepest level, a dry run. It’s the one day of the year when Jews are asked to look their mortality in the face. She wonders out loud in her opinion piece whether at sundown, as the day long fast comes to an end, “will we have the courage to direct our appetite not just to good food, but to good life?”[2]  Do you have the courage to direct your appetite to good life?

Awareness of our own mortality brings us face to face with life, with good and worthwhile living, but we get there by being brought to our knees. It leaves us so exposed, so bereft, so unsure of our own footing, we fall to our knees and pray. There’s nothing like death, or the fear of it, to inspire us to pray. When we’ve exhausted all other avenues, when hope is all but lost we turn to some higher power to help pull us out of the bottomless pit of our lives. When the ‘I can do it myself’ façade crumbles and we look down at the rubble at our feet, that’s the moment many of us turn to prayer. It might take the form of a good cry or a deep aching moan, a sigh too deep for words. Sometimes prayers even pour from our lips with demands and surrender, please help, please heal, make it go away, make it better.

I remember Confirmation class as a teen when the student minister taught us how to pray properly. He said that you had to begin with gratitude, then offer prayers for the people in your life, your church and finally the world. I felt so suffocated by the form I pretty much gave prayer up for the remainder of high school. The church hasn’t always done a good job of teaching us how to pray, sometimes form has trumped function and besides that our post Modern minds can’t help but dismiss prayer as an outdated conversation with a supernatural power.

What if prayer is not supernatural, not beyond the laws of nature but an extension of them?  What if prayer creates a positive force for healing, opening doors for God to be more present? What if it is about that desire to be in alignment with and embody God’s vision for our lives and the world? What if prayer awakens us to God’s deep presence? If it’s the portal that enables us to live out God’s vision in our lives?[3]

When he’s asked Jesus says the key to prayer is persistence. He’s asked earnestly how should we pray? He offers words, words that have stuck in the form of the Lord’s Prayer. But then, as if to ensure we don’t start idolizing words, he offers a parable. A man arrives at his neighbour’s house; he needs a loaf of bread. It’s the middle of the night. What in the world is he thinking? How dare he wake up the household for a mere loaf of bread? Where is the 24-hour convenience when you need it? No matter the inconvenience, the rules of hospitality in those days would insist that you’ve got no choice but to oblige, that’s just how it works. This is where Jesus goes off script. No, he says, the bread won’t be given because it’s what’s expected, not even because it’s a friend at the door. The bread will be given because the one asking is persistent. Be persistent in prayer Jesus says and you too will get what you need.

It’s just that persistence doesn’t fully capture it. The word translated persistent would better read shameless. Be shameless in prayer, don’t apologize for the ask, don’t second-guess your motive, don’t pay any attention to the voice that says I’m not worthy and the giver isn’t generous. Be shameless, without shame. In a world so filled with shamed people it’s a curious choice of words. Think of the layers of shame that quietly begin to shroud our lives: shame when you look in the mirror and see that the free tickets of youth and beauty are beginning to fade. Shame, for all the daily little ways you keep making the same dumb mistakes, for looking at your phone when there is someone standing before you who needs you to look in their eyes, shame for the email that should have been put in the virtual trash before you ever pressed send. Shame for all the not good enough, not successful enough, not as good as some other people or standards, shame for the accumulated baggage of a lifetime that is weighing you down with each step even when you thought it was all nicely packed away in the attic of your soul. Shame. Why does he need to bring shame into it? Be shameless? But we are so good at shame, we can sling it as well as the best of them and we can absorb it with an unquenchable thirst. I wonder if it’s easier to shed the shame when we catch a glimpse of the world from the posture of our knees?

German theologian, pastor, anti Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed in a concentration camp near the dying days of World War II, wrote about shame. He understood it as grief, the feeling that comes from being estranged from our oneness with God. I often speak about sin being estrangement from God, self, neighbour, creation. Shame is how sin feels. Be shameless in prayer. Be without that insidious feeling of guilt when you pray.  Except the paradox is that the praying itself is where we learn to disrobe of the shame.

We are ashamed, Bonhoeffer said, at the loss of our unity with God and people. Shame is the moment we see, even dimly, even below consciousness, that we are no longer one with our source. To be shameless is to be one again. Think about it, think about how we absorb the stories we are told either personally or systemically, about all the ways we are not enough. The accompanying shame is what keeps us believing the lies of the subconscious mind and keeps our oneness with the source of all Love elusive. Shameless in prayer, why? Because it is perhaps the one place where our shame actually is most likely to slip away like sand through clenched fingers. When we let go, who knows what might happen?

I’m not going to tell you how to pray. I don’t want to turn you off of the whole thing like my student minister did so many years ago. Besides, the most important thing is not how you do it but that you do it. I could talk all day, too, about the letting go, the persistence, the slow erosion of shame, the need to feel a bit of urgency when it comes to prayer, as if it is a life and death matter. But I can’t avoid the question that many of us have and that is does it really work? Religion has not served us well in suggesting somehow that God will choose when and if and how your prayer might be answered.

To be sure Jesus doesn’t say that your shameless prayers will bring you good fortune, dreams come true or a cure. No your shameless prayer will tap you back into the grace of God and frankly what more do we need on a daily basis? That sort of divine embrace, grounding, connection, has proven again and again to be enough not just to hold you in the reality of your life but to lead you into a life well lived. We are so busy filling up with stuff that numbs us and maybe we thought we were denying death but in so doing we deny life, the full beautiful mess of it.

An anonymous 19th century author wrote a book called The Way of the Pilgrim. In it he says “by love God may be grasped and held. By thought never.”  Maybe he knew that our thoughts can’t extract themselves from the shame. Maybe he knew that we can’t think ourselves into the life we are called to lead. Maybe he knew that we need to begin with a little breath, a bit of quiet, a persistence in letting go.

Amen

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/17/opinion/yom-kippur-death-rehearsal-morality.html

[2] ibid

[3] Read more about a Process Theological perspective on prayer here: http://www.bobcornwall.com/2010/05/what-difference-does-prayer-make.html