August newsletter piece

Show me your ways, O LORD, teach me your paths. ~Psalm 25:4 (New International Version)

Sometimes it’s easy to follow God’s path.
Sometimes the way is clear …
before our eyes,
before our hearts,
before our feet.

Yeah.

But sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes it’s takes a lot of twists and turns.
Sometimes it takes some backtracking.
Sometimes we find ourselves off the path entirely and have to wind our way back again.

Is anyone else hearing the Beatles?

“The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear.
I’ve seen that road before.
It always leads me her,.
Lead me to your door.”
~ The Long and Winding Road, 1970

Now, we all have different ways of working out how best to follow God’s path in our lives.

Do you journal?
Do you have a devotional book that you read?
Do you talk to someone?
Do you meditate?
Do you turn to music?

Or maybe you’re still searching for the best way to seek out and connect to God’s guidance in your life. Maybe you’re the kind of person that works things out best in movement.

One way that people have been connecting to God and working out their faith throughout the centuries is by utilizing a labyrinth.

labyrinth

The use of labyrinths is first documented in the early 4th century C.E. in northern Africa, though it’s assumed that they were being used even earlier. They were being incorporated into church structures themselves by the 12th and 13th centuries, the most famous being the cathedral in Chartres, France (the image in the previous column). Though labyrinths have also been used in Egyptian and Greek culture, in the Christian tradition, they signify a pilgrimage: “When Christian pilgrims could not travel to Jerusalem due to health or lack of money, they walked the labyrinth instead.  Thus, it began to represent the soul’s journey to Christ.”[1]

Just as everyone’s path with God is different, there are a number of different labyrinth patterns that can be found – simple and complex, circle-shaped and other shapes. There are also lots of ways you can “walk the labyrinth” nowadays. Many spiritual places (churches, camps, retreat centers, etc.) now have a labyrinth on their grounds so you can literally walk it. You can also find printed versions in books or online and “walk the labyrinth” with a pen. You can also buy desktop labyrinths that come with a “walking stick” of sorts – a wood pointer designed to fit into the path.

Now you’ve got my feet on the life path, all radiant from the shining of your face. Ever since you took my hand, I’m on the right way.
~ Psalm 16:11 (The Message)

Part of my calling as a pastor is to help people find new and different ways to experience and interact with their faith – new and different ways to glimpse that radiant and shining face of God. In that vein, I am happy and hopeful to introduce you to the labyrinth.

[1] “History of Labyrinths.” http://www.creativeprayer.com/labyrinths/history-of-labyrinths/

Sunday’s sermon: A God-Listening Heart

Listen Heart

Texts used: 1 Kings 3:3-14 and Psalm 111

  • I want to start this morning by taking a brief moment just to listen.
    • What’s going on around you
    • What’s going on inside you
  • Have you ever thought about how many sounds we hear in a day?
    • Loud sounds … quiet sounds
    • Pleasant sounds … harsh sounds
    • Sounds we notice … sounds we don’t
    • Now let me ask you this: When was the last time you deliberately sat in silence? … And how long did that silence last?
      • A minute
      • 2 minutes
      • 5 minutes
      • Way we usually begin the service: “Letting God In” time – time of silence → Even as I sit there centering myself in God’s presence, I have to force myself not jump up and end that time. I have to force myself to wait – to take another breath … and another … and another … to stretch out that silence.
        • Silence = our time to push away/block out/ stifle all the distractions that fill up our days and just listen
          • Listen to the world around us
          • Listen to our own bodies
          • Listen to God
        • But what might happen when we actually stop to listen?
  • Our first Scripture reading this morning is about King Solomon.
    • Man deeply familiar with distractions
      • King = distractions of royal duties (commanding armies, settling disputes, entertaining other royal dignitaries, etc.)
      • Also had hundreds of wives and thousands of concubines → Distractions galore!
      • And Solomon was also known for dabbling in many different religions. – text: Solomon loved God and continued to live in the God-honoring ways of David his father … except that he also worshiped at the local shrines, offering sacrifices and burning incense.[1] → So Solomon’s mind was distracted. His heart was distracted. And his faith was distracted.
        • Plenty of things that cause distractions for us nowadays – add noise to our lives and our souls
          • Media distractions – TV, internet, smartphones/tablets
          • Political distractions – increasingly polarizing rhetorical being hurled from both sides of the aisle
          • Social distractions – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, etc. → these social media “tools” meant to help us connect that are actually causing us to be more and more disconnected
          • And the list could go on and on and on.
            • Orfield Laboratories in south Mpls – “the anechoic chamber” → room that is 99.9% soundproof
              • Walls: insulated steel and concrete lined with 3’ thick fiberglass acoustic wedges
              • Observation from founder: The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly. In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound.[2] → Even in a chamber meticulously designed to block out noise, we cannot escape it. The noises come from within our own selves.
      • Sit and think for a minute about all those things – intentional and unintentional, noticeable and discreet – that pull your attention away from your life. [PAUSE]
    • We, like Solomon, can find ourselves mightily distracted. And yet, even in the midst of that distraction, Solomon encounters God.
      • Text: God appeared to Solomon in a dream: God said, “What can I give you? Ask.”[3] → What a question! As if simply encountering God wasn’t overwhelming enough, God asks Solomon the most simple and yet most complex question ever: “What can I give you?”
        • Solomon’s first response = one of insecurity: I’m too young for this, a mere child! I don’t know the ropes, hardly know the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of this job. And here I am, set down in the middle of the people you’ve chosen, a great people – far too many to even count.[4] → There is it. Solomon is faced with this colossal task of ruling this great nation – great in numbers, great in history, great in faith – and he doesn’t feel up to the task.
          • Question: How often do we fill the silence with noise/distractions just so we won’t have to think about our worries/fears/insecurities?
    • Solomon’s ultimate request: Give me a God-listening heart so I can lead your people well[5] → “Give me a God-listening heart so I can lead your people well.” Solomon knew the places in which he struggled. He knew his own weaknesses as well as his strengths. And he knew that there was no way he could tackle the immense task of ruling the nation of Israel on his own. So he asked for God’s help. “Help me to listen, God. Help me to hear and obey. Give me a God-listening heart.”
      • Asks for understanding, compassion, discernment, wisdom – Heb. “give your servant a heart to hear”
        • Hear love as God hears it
        • Hear need as God hears it
        • Hear justice as God hears it
        • Scholar: Wisdom has to do with who we entrust ourselves to; who we know can fill our empty buckets; whom we most believe, trust, and confide in.[6] → Solomon makes his choice passionately and definitively: Give me a God-listening heart.
  • In our psalm this morning, we hear an outpouring of just such a “God-listening heart.”
    • Begins with wide-open praise: Hallelujah! I give thanks to God with everything I’ve got![7] → This is a no-holds-barred sort of exclamation.
      • “give thanks” can also mean “give voice” and “confess” = deliberately and graciously laying everything out before God
        • The happy things
        • The not happy things
        • Everything in between
      • Follows with praise for who God is and what God does
        • God’s works are so great, worth a lifetime of study[8]
        • [God’s] miracles are his memorial – this God of Grace, this God of Love.[9]
      • Closes with reverence: [God is] so personal and holy, worthy of our respect. The good life begins in the fear of God – do that and you’ll know the blessing of God. [God’s] Hallelujah lasts forever![10]
        • “Fear of God” sounds medieval BUT Heb. “fear” = respect, honor, revere
          • Requires humility
          • Requires attentiveness
          • Requires a God-listening heart
          • Scholar: The psalmist’s closing affirmation is a radical challenge to our ways of knowing and our definitions of knowledge. … True knowledge – wisdom – is hot grounded in ourselves but in God, and it involves the embrace of God’s commitments and values.[11]
    • By exercising his/her God-listening heart, the psalmist is able to experience God in the world around him/her – in all things, in all people, in all circumstances.
  • More modern-day e.g. of a God-listening heart – passage from The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
    • Listening to books on disc when I’m in the car (how I fill my silence) – passage that struck me as I was driving home on Thurs.: That day the silence felt unusually dull and heavy, like the weight of water. It clogged my ears and throbbed against my drums. Fidgety thoughts darted through my mind, reminding me of squirrels loose in trees. … Just a few more minutes, I told myself, and when my lids sank closed again, I had no expectations, no hope, no endeavoring – I’d given up on the Voice – and it was then my mind stopped racing and I began to float on some quiet stream. … The voice broke into my small oblivion, dropping like a dark, beautiful stone. I caught my breath. It was not like a common thought – it was distinctive, shimmering, and dense with God. [12] → When we are able to quiet ourselves … when we are able to come to God like Solomon did – in full awareness of our strengths as well as our limitations and in full awareness of our need … when we approach God with all the joy and all the reverence of the psalmist and ask for God to speak – speak to our lives, speak to the places of need in the world around us … when we practice that God-listening heart, we can find our lives distinctive, shimmering, and dense with God. Amen.

[1] 1 Kgs 3:3 (emphasis added).

[2] Liz Kilmas. “How Long Could You Last in the World’s Quietest Room? The Record Is Only 45 Minutes” in The Blaze, posted 5 April 2012, http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/04/05/how-long-could-you-last-in-the-worlds-quietest-room-the-record-is-only-45-minutes/. Accessed 16 August 2015.

[3] 1 Kgs 3:5.

[4] 1 Kgs 3:7b-8.

[5] 1 Kgs 3:9.

[6] Thomas W. Blair. “Proper 12 (Sunday between July 24 and July 30 inclusive) – 1 Kings 3:5-12, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 270.

[7] Ps 111:1.

[8] Ps 111:2.

[9] Ps 111:4.

[10] Ps 111:9b-10.

[11] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 4. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 1134.

[12] Sue Monk Kidd. The Invention of Wings. (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014), 209-210.

Sunday’s sermon: Livin’ on a Prayer

praying woman

Texts used – Psalm 130 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

  • The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States. The Chicago Bears were the Super Bowl champs, the Mets were the World Series champs, and the Celtics were the NBA champs. Halley’s Comet was passing by Earth’s orbit again, and the world was still reeling from historical events that had been splashed across the headlines: the major nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant in what was then the Soviet Union as well as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. In 1986, hair was big, jeans were acid washed, and rock and roll music was good and loud. Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” was the top of the Billboard Music Chart, and a recently-popular band called Bon Jovi released a new song on Halloween Day: [play part of “Livin’ on a Prayer”]
    • Story of “Livin’ on a Prayer”: working-class couple, Tommy and Gina, who struggle to make ends meet → According to the song, they were living on a prayer, constantly without security, stability, or financial well-being. They were endlessly striving just to keep their heads above water, fighting against those forces – social, financial, internal – that threatened to drag them down. And what got them through? A prayer. Livin’ on a prayer.
      • Timeless and universal message – need for something/someone stronger than ourselves in those times when our own strength fails
        • E.g. – 15 yrs later: acoustic version performed at “The Concert for New York City” and during the televised benefit concert “America: A Tribute to Heroes” shortly following the attacks on 9/11[1] → Again, a time in which our own strength, our own fortitude, our own patience and human stick-to-it-iveness couldn’t measure up to the overwhelming nature of what we were facing. Livin’ on a prayer.
      • Our Scriptures this morning speak to times like that – times of lostness and uncertainty, times of personal struggle and mistakes, times when we realize that we need God, times when we find ourselves livin’ on a prayer.
  • Benefits of prayer
    • Scientifically-supported[2]Despite the fact that the fastest growing “religious affiliation” group in the United States is the “nones” (those who don’t associate with any particular religion), a 2013 Pew Research poll found that more than half of Americans pray in some way every day with more than 75% of the population professing a belief that prayer is an important part of daily life. → in study after study, scientifically found to …
      • Improves self-control
      • Reduce anger and aggression (article: “make you nicer”)
      • Make you more forgiving
      • Increase trust – help build close relationships
      • Offsets negative health effects of stress (when focus is praying for others) → This last one is especially relevant to our passages this morning because it is in those moments of stress – those moments of fear, of struggle, of anxiety, of pain – that we often feel we can’t pray or shouldn’t pray. We’re afraid of what we might say to God. We’re reluctant to express our deepest, most raw feelings to God because we have this strange idea in our heads that Christians don’t act that way. Christians don’t …
        • Get angry
        • Get frustrated
        • Get disappointed
        • Get depressed
        • We’re all supposed to love each other, so that means that when we get upset or irritated – by someone else or even by God – we’re just supposed to swallow that in the face of love, right? Wrong.
          • Ps acknowledges those “down” places – text: Help, God – the bottom has fallen out of my life! [God], hear my cry for help! Listen hard! Open your ears! Listen to my cries for mercy. If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance?[3] → How many times have we been there? How many times have we woken up to the bottom falling out of our careers, our relationships, our lives? How many times have we felt ourselves dropping and all we can grab onto is the anger, the hurt, the heartache. All we can grab onto are the things that make us want to lash out. So that’s what we want to do – lash out. We want to take out all that hurt and aggravation on someone or something.
            • Sometimes person/people at the heart of our struggle
            • Sometimes ourselves
            • Sometimes first unfortunate person we happen to cross – new checkout person at store (going to slow!), driver in the car in front of you, girl/guy making your coffee
            • “Look out, world! I am upset. I am wounded. I am loaded for bear, and I am ready to burst! You better not cross me, because you’re going to regret it.”
    • Paul speaks to this in Ephesians – text: Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. … Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk.[4] → I don’t know about you, but when I’m backed into a corner – when I feel the bottom falling out – the colorful tends to come out, you know? And it happens. We’re human.
      • But as one of the scholars that I read this week said: The text does not say, “Do not be angry; anger is not Christian.” Rather, it warns against the dangers that tend to accompany anger.[5] → Remember what a few of those scientifically-supported benefits of prayer are? Improving self-control … reducing anger and aggression. Friends, sometimes life gets messy. Sometimes life gets ugly. And we’re going to react to those situations because one of the blessings and curses of being human is our emotions. And Paul isn’t saying that we shouldn’t get worked up about things. He is suggesting, however, that we need to be careful about releasing that anger on the people around us.
    • But as our psalm shows this morning, and as many other psalms show, we can always release those emotions with God. → whole psalm = outpouring of all that fear, grief, frustration
      • Cry out to God
      • Shake our fist at God
      • Voice our frustrations, misunderstandings
      • Time and time again throughout Scripture, God shows us just how much God can take. We see God’s strength in the face of our own weakness. We see God’s wisdom in the face of our own misunderstanding. We see God’s patience in the face of our own anxiety. We see God’s love in the face of our own hindrances. And this capacity that God has to absorb all of our worst moments should instill in us not a reservation about bringing those moments to God but a confidence and a level of trust.
        • Scholar: [Paul] insists that we need to speak truth because we actually are all part of one another. … Without truth, authentic community fails.[6]
          • “Speaking truth and seeking authentic relationships” – applies to our relationship with God just as readily as it applies to our relationships with other people
          • Being truthful with God = sharing our whole selves – the good, the bad, and the ugly → Through the grace of God, we have the forgiveness and freedom to express our whole selves to God in prayer. That’s the beauty. That’s the blessing. That’s the power of prayer.
  • Which brings us to the pivotal verse in our psalm this morning: I pray to God – my life a prayer – and wait for what [God will] say and do.[7] → Easier said than done, right? I mean, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul talks about praying without ceasing. Without ceasing. Day in. Day out. With the psalmist, we say, “May my life be a prayer, O God.” But man, that’s tough. That’s really tough. We’re busy. We’re scattered. We’re increasingly overstimulated and under-connected. Some days, we’re lucky to get a couple of quick minute prayers in between breakfast and bedtime. Pray without ceasing?? Seriously??
    • Important note: Paul doesn’t say “be perfect in prayer” → always something to be working at
      • Bon Jovi said it to!: “We’re halfway there … livin’ on a prayer”
    • In an attempt → expanding what we think of as prayer
      • Verbal forms of prayer – what we’re familiar with
        • Praying out loud (alone or with others)
        • Praying silently but speaking to God
      • Similar – praying in the written word
        • Journaling as prayer
        • Praying through Scripture – using the Word of God as your prayer (can be done with any Scripture but Psalms especially suited to this)
      • Less familiar forms
        • Physical prayer – prayer walk, walking a labyrinth, yoga or other body-movement spiritual practice
        • Listening prayer – sitting in silence (another tough one – not one we’re great at)
        • Visual prayer – coloring prayer, visio divina
          • Share about class at Synod School
        • The point is that there are so many ways that we can turn different aspects of our lives into prayer – things that we already do and already love to do can take on incredible meaning and depth when we approach them with an attitude of communicating with God through them.
          • Do you like to sing? Let your song be your prayer.
          • Do you like to run? Let your breathing as you run be your prayer.
          • Do you like to paint? Let your brush strokes be your prayer.
          • Do you like to garden? Let the time you spent pruning and harvesting and weeding on your knees be your prayer.
          • Do you like to fish? Let the sound of your hook sinking into the water be your prayer.
          • Any aspect of our lives can become our prayers to God because there is no part of our lives that is out of God’s reach. God hears all kinds of prayers – even the ones that we speak with our hearts instead of our voices.
            • Reassurance from the ps: As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped.[8]
            • Paul’s description in today’s text: [God’s] Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life … Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with [God] and learn a life of love.[9]
  • Friends, our prayers before God can take all forms. They can cover every conceivable facet of emotion from joy to sorrow to uncertainty to silliness. There is nothing – not a single thing in our lives, in our hearts, in our souls – that we cannot bring to God in prayer. Know this: God loves you. God hears you. And most importantly, God yearns to hear you. Amen.

[1] “Livin’ on a Prayer” from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livin%27_on_a_Prayer, last edited 5 Aug. 2015, accessed 6 Aug. 2015.

[2] Clay Routledge, Ph.D. “5 Scientifically-Supported Benefits of Prayer” on Psychology Today website, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-mortal/201406/5-scientifically-supported-benefits-prayer. Written 23 June 2014, accessed 6 Aug. 2015.

[3] Ps 130:1-3.

[4] Eph 4:29, 31.

[5] Jaime Clark-Soles. “Proper 14 (Sunday between August 7 and August 13 inclusive) – Ephesians 4:25-5:2, Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 329.

[6] Clark-Soles, 327.

[7] Ps 130:5.

[8] Ps 130:4.

[9] Eph 4:30; 5:2.