Monday, 12 November 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Confession (Remembrance Day)

Today we are continuing with our sermon series on the Spiritual Disciplines and it is also Remembrance Day. This is also a significant Remembrance Day in that it has been 100 years since the end of World War 1.

Confession is the practice of sharing our deepest weaknesses and failures with God and with others we trust. We do this to seek God’s forgiveness, and healing. We confess as individuals, but it is also appropriate for us to practice confession as a group.

I think communal confession is important for us to do on Remembrance Day. War is always a complicated thing to deal with as Christians. The plain understanding of the words of Jesus seem to speak against any act of violence on the part a Christian. For example, in Matthew ch 5 we read, 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matt 5:38-44).
 Understandably, many Christians feel called to pacifism on the basis of these words. Pacifism is not to do nothing. It is a call to engage violence, but not with violence.

However, as Early Christianity went from a politically powerless group to being in control of the Roman Empire they felt the need to rethink how they would respond to violence. Some Christians who held power and were responsible for cities or countries suddenly had to figure out how to respond when a foreign army invaded and did violence to their people. Was it right to allow that army to have its way with their vulnerable people? This gave rise to the development of the Just War Theory which spelled out when violence can be used in response to aggression and injury. The theory teaches that when war is entered into, it is as a last possible course of action. The theory also outlines how a war is to be conducted. A military force can’t target non-combatants, for example.

Trying to decide if a war is “just” is incredibly difficult. 
How do you know when you have enough information? 
How do you know if you can trust your information? 
How do you know if you are being manipulated into a war for the benefit of someone else? 
How do you know if you are twisting things to make it easier to justify going to war? 
What if you are uncertain, but the weak and vulnerable are threatened?

St. Ambrose (339-397 AD) once said, 
“Whoever does not ward off a blow to a fellow man, when he can, is as much at fault as the striker”.
 But, that doesn’t mean a war can be entered into lightly. Martin Luther said that even just wars that we feel are necessary to participate in should be waged “with repentance”.   

Throughout Christian history we have been in an uncomfortable position. We cannot do nothing when innocent people are being threatened with violence, but our Lord calls us to be people of peace who love our enemies. Christians have often participated in war as a “necessary evil”, because to not engage in war seemed to allow a greater evil into the world.

If war is a necessary evil, then Martin Luther is right in saying that it should be engaged with repentance. We also need to confess that, though we go to war for the sake of peace, that peace often continues to elude us. Throughout human history we have engaged in war for the sake of peace, and yet wars continue. The ethicist Robert Brimlow suggests that we often find ourselves participating in “necessary” wars, but there may have been things we could have done to prevent the war if we acted sooner and with more faith. For example, perhaps we wouldn’t have found ourselves in such a difficult position facing the Holocaust if we had responded to World War 1 differently, and had acted differently even before that. Brimlow says, 
“The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure" (Brimlow, What about Hitler?).

As a society it is important to remember our past. It is important to remember those who suffered because of war. In particular, we remember those who are willing to put their lives on the line who believed that to do nothing in the face of violence is a greater evil. But, we don’t glory in war. We confess that the lives that were lost were often is as a result of our failure to find another way that would have saved those lives. And so, I think that confession is an appropriate discipline to consider today.

We are going to switch gears because I want to consider confession as an individual spiritual discipline, as well, but I do think confession is important as a communal discipline and I think it is an important element of Remembrance Day that we don’t want to lose.

Redemption is at the very heart of God’s relationship with us. God does not want to leave us in our brokenness. God wants to heal and restore us. Love is behind the work of the cross to forgive sins. God, in Christ, desires to absorb the power of sin and the evil of the world. The cross looked backward through history into all the nooks and crannies and dark places in the heart of humanity right back to the beginning. And the cross looks forward into the future to all the horrors that would manifest in the world. And over it all we hear the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). The cross of Christ frees us from the darkness that we have participated in- that has sometimes enslaved us. The cross of Christ shows us the lengths God is willing to go to to win us back- to show His self sacrificial love for us. That same love is constantly drawing us deeper into God.

Confession is one of the ways we press deeper into God. It is the way we expose the darker parts of ourselves to the light of the cross to be healed and forgiven. It is a way of removing barriers to spiritual maturity.

Our ordinary mode of confession is between us and God in the quietness of our hearts. There are times, however, when our quiet confession between us and God is a way of hiding. It can be a place where we are trapped by shame. We think that if people really knew the things I’ve done, the things I’ve said, the things I think- they would reject me. We can hardly imagine speaking these things to another human being. And yet, we yearn to be known deeply. … We are stuck- wanting to be known, but prevented because of our shame. There are times when it is important to bring our sin to someone we trust who can hear our darkness- who can be the body of Christ to us in that moment. The letter of James urges us, 
“confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16).
 The letter of John promises, 
“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9).

Jesus grants us the authority to declare forgiveness in John 20, 
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (Jn 20:23).
 To prepare for confession you may want to sit before God in prayer and ask if there is anything that you need to confess, and write down anything that comes to mind. Look through your life and examine yourself using the teachings of Christ- to the Ten Commandments, to the 7 Deadly Sins and Virtues. Where in your heart do you need healing. It may be helpful to go to a priest, or your spiritual director for this, but you might also want to go to a mature Christian sister or brother who you know you can trust. A mature Christian is so aware of the depth of their own sin that they will not be shocked by yours. 
(St. Paul talks about being the chief among sinners (1 Tim 1:15). He can say that because he sees his sin from the inside. All mature Christians will see themselves this way because everyone else's sin is seen from the outside. When we see out sin from the inside, it is always darker than when it is seen from the outside.)
 When confessing You don’t have to go into great detail, but you should be specific enough that you aren’t hiding your sin in generalities. If you confess that you have been "not nice" to your spouse- I don't know if that means you ate the last piece of pizza or if you hit them. So be specific enough that the sin is clear without going into gory detail. Confess with the desire to not sin anymore.

Sometimes people think the church is a place for perfected saints. We sometimes even hear people say that they will come to church once they get themselves sorted out. … The church is not a place for the perfected. The church is a hospital- it is a place where we seek healing. As we consider confession we should remember the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (who ran to the son and embraced him without really allowing him to get his full confession out), or the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in search of the one that was lost. God is always more eager to forgive us than we are to seek forgiveness. 

Spiritual Disciplines- Submission

The spiritual discipline we are looking at this week is submission. That is not necessarily one that would be on the top of the list for most of us. It is not one we are particularly drawn to. There is nothing trendy about it. We might even think it is a bad thing. We all know that authority can be abused, so when we think about submission we might think about cult leaders who demand complete submission on the part of their followers. … In a society suspicious of authority, we are taught to not submit. The idea of practicing submission, as if it is good for us, seems strange.

Christian submission is always a submission to Christ. And it usually happens in the context of community. Submission is not having to have things our own way. It is giving up our right for the benefit of someone else. … For example, say you like Christian heavy metal music, but you recognize that most people can’t relate to that on Sunday morning. You refrain from sending the priest a note after worship every Sunday requesting the inclusion of more Christian heavy metal music. So, you submit to the will of the community because you know Christ desires unity.

It is also important for leaders to submit themselves to the community when appropriate. So, for example, a leader might not worship exactly according to their particular tastes for the benefit of the community. If a priest leans towards high church worship, using “smells and bells”, they might practice submission to the community and practice more of a 'low church' worship if it would be more beneficial for the community to worship that way.

As we read in the letter of James, 
“[we] covet something and cannot obtain it; so [we] engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:2).
 How many church communities have split because they didn’t practice the spiritual discipline of submission with one another. How many wars and murders have taken place because people feel they have to get their own way. What would politics look like if parties were willing to submit to each other where they felt they could do so with integrity?

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8) he discusses the issue of food dedicated to idols. Some of the people in the church were okay with eating food dedicated to idols because they knew that the idols had no power. Others, however, were very bothered by the idea of food being dedicated to idols and would completely avoid it. To eat that food would be like participating in idol worship. Paul recognized that those who were not bothered by eating the food had the right to do so, but he urged them to give up their right so that they wouldn’t cause offence to those who were bothered by it. They practiced submission for the sake of unity- to not cause a problem for their sisters and brothers whose consciences might be bothered.

Or, perhaps you submit yourself to someone who is a spiritual director for you. I once heard the pastor Eugene Peterson talk about a woman who began attending his church. She was a new Christian, and she was truly absorbing the way of being a Christian. But, after a couple years at his church she seemed to always be living with a man. She jumped from one boyfriend to another even after she had been attending for a couple years. Peterson didn’t shy away from preaching on sexual morality, but she never really seemed to grab hold of the Christian teaching about sexuality belonging within marriage. After knowing her a while, and after he knew she trusted him, Peterson asked her if she would be celibate for six months. He didn’t offer her any explanation. He just asked her to do it for him. She trusted him, so she submitted to him without really understanding. He received an angry call from her boyfriend shortly after she agreed, but after a couple months she realized that she had found a profound freedom in her celibacy. He saw she had a problem with her identity- she didn’t know who she was outside of a sexual relationship. Peterson knew the practice of celibacy would show her that in a way that his words wouldn’t.

A wise spiritual director can call us into practices that we might not understand to be good for us until after we practice them. They can help us work towards becoming Christlike by helping us stop doing things we shouldn’t do, and start doing things we should.

Richard Foster says, 
“Self-denial is simply a way of coming to understand that we do not have to have our own way. Our happiness is not dependent upon getting what we want” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 113).
 Submission teaches us humility by diminishing our ego that is offended at not getting what it wants. This teaching is central to the way of Christ. Jesus says, 
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). 
“He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:39).
 Jesus calls us to have an other-centered life, as opposed to a self-centered life.

Jesus didn’t just preach this, he practiced this as well. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays, 
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39).
 It is an ancient Christian teaching that Jesus had two natures- Divine and human. Jesus had to bring his human will into alignment with his Divine will. In his human nature, Jesus did not want to suffer and die, but within the Divine will there was a greater good to be obtained through his sacrifice. Jesus submitted his human will to the Divine will. … This is something we are all called to do- submit our human will to the Divine will, trusting that God is good and wants what is best.

This is not about letting people walk all over you. As we read the gospels we don’t get the sense that Jesus is a pushover. Jesus was very purposeful about when he practiced submission. There were many times that Jesus did not meet the expectations of people around him. He was constantly disappointing people by not conforming to their ideas about who the messiah was supposed to be. Jesus carefully discerned the right times to practice submission. It is also important to notice that there are many times when he did not submit to people’s expectations.

We sometimes worry that in submission we will lose ourselves, but Richard Foster reminds us, 
“self denial does not mean the loss of our identity as some suppose. … Did Jesus lose his identity when he set his face toward Golgotha? Did Peter lose his identity when he responded to Jesus’ cross-bearing command, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:19)? Did Paul lose his identity when he committed himself to the One who had said, ‘I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’ (Acts 9:16)? Of course not. We know that the opposite was true. They found their identity in the act of self-denial.” (p.114).

There are ways that submission can go wrong. If we just submit to everyone all the time without discerning when it is appropriate it can degenerate into self-hatred. That is not the way of Christ. If we go to the other extreme, always needing to get our own way and never submitting to any other will, then we might end up in self-glorification. That is a self-centered and prideful life. … The spiritual discipline of submission avoids both of those extremes.

There are many ways we can practice Submission. First of all, we submit ourselves to the will of God. We do not accept any submission that is in contradiction to the will of God. To this end we submit ourselves to Scripture as we can best interpret it according to the Spirit of Christ.

We can also practice submission in the context of our families. Practice not getting your own way with those you live with, maybe your husband or wife, or maybe with extended family especially when it comes to how you organize family holidays. Commit to truly listening to each other’s desires. We could also practice submission with neighbours- maybe try it on the road or in the parking lot- especially when someone takes your parking spot.

Every spiritual discipline leads to a corresponding freedom. They are means to an end. They are to guide us into a deeper life with God. In submission we learn to de-center ourselves from the universe. We get off the throne and accept that things don’t have to go our way. The way of Christ is a cross-carrying life. We will not be able to carry our cross unless we practice submission and learn to love in a way that we are not the center. And in that we will be open to God being on the throne of our lives. 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Solitude and Silence

The spiritual discipline we are looking at this week is Solitude, but we might also call this Silence. For the most part they go together. We go to them for a similar reason. They offer us the opportunity to receive a similar grace. The practice of solitude “calls us to pull away from life in the company of others for the purpose of giving our full and undivided attention to God” (Ruth Haley Barton in the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality). Silence is a way to cease using our voice to manipulate our environment. It is also a way to still the voices that try to manipulate us.

Through both solitude and silence we quiet the noise outside us so that we can still the noise within us. … We are constantly being bombarded by stimulation- radio, Tv, podcasts, books, advertisements, magazines, smart phones, facebook, instagarm, email … not to mention face to face conversations, and the excitement of community and driving. … In our society we are dealing with all kinds of pressures, all kinds of strivings. Depending on what part of our life we are living we strive for education, career, friendship, romance, wealth, success, health, retirement, travel, etc.. Our life is full of things to strive for, either because we think that will make us happy, or because we are pressured to seek after these things because that is “just what you do”. We strive with others for various things and this leads to incredibly complex relationships.

Many of us are addicted to noise. To be in the silence and to be alone can be almost painful for some people. For many of us, it’s like we don’t know who we are if we aren’t doing something. Our identity is tied up in the pressures, the strivings, the activity, and the noise. We use words and actions to manipulate our image. We speak to control the agenda. All of this noise distracts us from our inner reality.

Modern society has a heightened level of noise, but societies have always had pressure and there have been many who have sought solitude. In Thomas Merton’s book, The Wisdom of the Desert, he says that according to the Desert Fathers and Mothers 

“Society… was regarded as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life … These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”
 To this Henri Nouwen ads the comment, 
“this observation leads us straight to the core of the problem. Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul” (The Way of the Heart, p. 11).

The Desert Fathers and Mothers sought the death of the false self that was imposed on them by society, so that they could seek the true self that was found only in their relationship with God. In the solitude and silence of the desert the Fathers and Mothers wanted to give God full access to their souls, so they could be free from the bondage of human expectations. They wanted to re-center their lives completely on God, and to do that they had to respond from an inner reality with God, rather than external pressures.

There's a kind of parable about a man who is out in a little row boat. It's twilight and starting to get dark. There is a bit of mist on the water. The man in the boat stops rowing and just drifts. He relaxes and enjoys the gentle rocking of the waves. After a while he sees a sail off in the distance. However, the man's appreciation for the beautiful scenery begins to be disturbed because the small sail boat begins heading in his direction. He starts to wonder, "does the person in the boat see me?" The relaxed evening becomes tense as the sail boat gets closer. Eventually the man yells out. "Hey! change course!" The boat gets closer and closer, and the man is yelling at the top of his lungs, "You idiot! What are you doing?! Move! move! Change course! open your eyes! you're going to hit me!" The sail boat is headed straight for the man in the boat who is now standing and screaming at the top of his lungs. The two boats nearly collide, but the sailboat just misses the man and his rowboat. As the sailboat passes by the red faced screaming man sees that the sailboat is empty. The sail boat is at the mercy of the wind. No one is controlling it.

This parable is used to say that our peace is not determined by our outward circumstances. Sometimes we can be like the man in the row boat. We can scream our lungs out and stamp our feet as hard as we want, but even if we succeed in changing our outward circumstances we will not find peace. All that will happen is that our faces will turn red, our blood pressure will rise and our peace will be destroyed. The parable teaches us that our peace doesn’t come from outward circumstances. Rather, our peace comes from an inward reality. When we remove ourselves from the outward circumstances we normally deal with by entering into solitude and silence we will discover the peace, or lack of it, within ourselves.

The 17th century mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once said, 
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone” (Pensées).
 We often think that we will find happiness and peace by changing our outward circumstances. What the desert father and mothers found by going into the wilderness was that the issues they had with society didn’t completely vanish. They had inner pressures they had to deal with, which they could only confront in solitude. In dealing with their inner turmoil, with God’s grace, they could find peace.

We see examples of people seeking solitude all through the Bible. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and in solitude he wrestles the angel and receives his blessing along with a new name, Israel. Moses encounters God through the burning bush in the wilderness while tending sheep. We read today about Elijah encountering God in the sound of silence rather than in the powerful wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Jesus often went off by himself to solitary places to pray and be alone with God.

There are a variety of ways to practice solitude and silence. It is often helpful to go away somewhere. For an extended time of solitude go to a retreat center. Kingsfold in Cochrane has cabins where you can go to be alone with God. Or, you can find solitude closer to home by going for a walk in nature. You probably want to consider not listening to music and not bringing a book with you, and turning off your cell phone. In the silence we come face to face with our desire to be entertained and distracted. We confront our memories, and our sense of self worth. Fantasies, sins, old conversations, regrets, all bubble up in our soul in solitude and silence. Then we stay in that long enough that the initial surge of inner noise surge calms down. The goal is to turn off the outward noise enough that you become aware of your inner noise. In solitude we become aware of our inward compulsions, our desire to control, our attempts to manage our image, our agenda. In the solitude we are confronted with the thought about what gives us worth.

There are a number of practices we can do in the silence. There are forms of silent listening prayer that don’t disturb the stillness and seek to give control to God. We should be careful about filling the silence with our words, even if you are alone. Listen, even when you are alone. If you read Scripture during this time, read small amounts. Spend more time reflecting on smaller portions of Scripture. … Consider spending time in self-examination. Reflect on your life and your future. You may want to journal to make yourself more aware of your inner reality.

The grace we seek in solitude and silence is an awareness of the inner stories that exert pressure on us. What gives us worth? What were we told as children that define us even now? Do we only know who we are if we are busy and active? … In the silence and solitude we might just discover that we are loved by God just as we are, and that God has things under control. … Amen

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Guidance

We are continuing to look at the Spiritual Disciplines, and this morning we are looking at Guidance. Guidance is experiencing an interactive relationship with God that gives direction and purpose to daily life. Guidance is how we make an important decision as God’s people. It is how we see our options and then choose one of those options.

The Bible gives a lot of direction on how to live, and it is important to know our Bible, so that we know the general principles that should direct us. When we look at the Ten Commandments, for example, we see that we shouldn’t worship other gods, or steal, or murder, or lie. But, the Bible doesn’t necessarily tell us who we should marry, or if we should get married at all. The Bible won’t tell us which career we should pursue, or if we should change careers. The Bible won’t tell us precisely how we should help a family member or friend who is in trouble with drugs. And, when we are diagnosed with a serious illness and the doctor gives us three options for treatment, the Bible probably won’t tell us which medical treatment we should choose.

When it comes to these kinds of specific personal issues the Bible doesn’t always have much guidance to offer us besides some general principles. General principles are good for how we should direct our lives generally. But, most of us aren’t usually trying to decide between stealing our neighbour’s car or going to Bible study. In that case, the Ten Commandments’ direction to not steal is helpful.  
It's also worth saying that we probably shouldn’t expect God to give us direction on things that are plain in Scripture (Lk 16:31). If God has told us not to steal, we probably shouldn't ask God if it's okay to steal (unless there are some extreme circumstances we are dealing with). …. 
We need more specific direction to decide if we should go back to school or stay with our career. Many of our decisions aren’t actually about right and wrong, they are often a matter of calling. We are often having to decide between two good things because it is unwise or impossible to try to do both. Or, maybe you shouldn’t do either because you are already over committed.

Jesus was well aware that we were going to have to make decisions that require more specific direction than the general teachings given by him and the rest of Scripture. In John 16 Jesus tell his disciples,
 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:12-13).
 So, what we need are practices that can help us learn the direction of the Holy Spirit.

There are a few practices that can help us make a decision in these matters. There are things we can do as an individual. In this I would recommend Dallas Willard’s book, “Hearing God”.

First, it is probably a good idea to make sure we clear away anything that might make it hard for us to hear from God. If we have a blatant sin in our life that is persistent and we don’t repent of it, then it will likely make it harder to hear from God until that is dealt with. God might care more about that sin being dealt with than whatever we are trying to make a decision about. (Imagine a mob hit man trying to hear from God about what home to buy. God likely has larger concerns in that man's life.)

It is also important to come to God with an obedient heart. If we are unwilling to follow what God will say, then it seems unlikely that we will receive direction until we would be willing to follow the direction received. Why would God give us direction that we aren't going to follow? That isn't to say that we will follow that direction without difficulty or question. Jesus took some time to be okay with God's direction in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46; or consider Saul's experience in Acts 9).

We also probably need to slow down to hear the Holy Spirit’s direction. If we are really distracted and frantically busy we will probably not be able to hear from God until we find a way to become inwardly still.

The main way we hear God, personally, is through an impression on our spirit, or as an awareness of certain thoughts entering our mind. An impression on our spirit is something like the feeling of conscience. For example, when you are about to do something you know is wrong and something in you doesn’t feel right, that’s your conscience. Or when you know you should do something to help someone, the pressure inside you is your conscience. … Similarly, you will sometimes have thoughts enter your mind. You might have an idea, or an image enter your mind. That might be God communicating with you. (Which isn't to say that every thought in your head is from God.) …

It isn’t always easy to discern between our thoughts and God’s voice, though. … I once had a woman come to me absolutely certain that God told her to go to university to become a doctor, and that the church was supposed to pay for it. She was completely sure of herself. I was presented with two options- 1) Do what she said, and therefore obey God’s command. Or, 2) don’t do what she says, and be disobedient to God. … That is the problem with trying to discern God’s will on our own. Sometimes we twist our own thoughts to make them seem like God’s direction. She was not open to the idea that maybe she heard wrongly, or that something like this had to be discerned with a community.

Sometimes it is important to have someone else help you discern God’s guidance. There is an ancient tradition of going to a wise and saintly elder to help you hear God. There are a number of names for this kind of relationship- the most common name at present is ‘Spiritual Director’. A good spiritual director can be very helpful to see on a regular basis, but especially when you have an important decision. … Choose a spiritual director very carefully. Unfortunately, not all people who call themselves spiritual directors are good, and even if they are good, your personality might not ‘click’ with theirs. A good spiritual director can help you walk into a deeper relationship with God. …

When you look for a spiritual director you are looking for an experienced Christian whose life has depth when it comes to spiritual matters. You are looking for someone who loves God and loves you. You are looking for someone who understands suffering, and how someone can grow through suffering. It is also more important that this person knows God, rather than merely knowing about God. You can have a PhD in Hebrew and not really know God. They should be someone who listens more than they speak. They should be someone who helps you hear God, and not someone who just gives you advice as if they are God.

It has also been a practice in the Christian tradition to call together a group of wise, faithful, and prayerful Christians to help you seek guidance. When I was discerning a call to ordination to the priesthood my priests called together four people from my church who committed to help me discern if I was called to become a priest or not. We met once a month. They asked me questions, I told them my thoughts and doubts, and we prayed together. In the end they told me that I should go to seminary and pursue the priesthood. … It was helpful to have a number of people help me. They were honest enough to ask me hard questions and they loved me and the church enough to know that it was important to hear rightly.

We see this practiced in the book of Acts as the early church sought direction regarding how the Gentiles would be included in the church. In Acts 15:28 we read the conclusion to their group discernment- “…it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”. This doesn't have the ring of absolute certainty, but they had enough confidence to move forward on this important matter. 

We can hear God as individuals, and that is a norm as we live day to day. No doubt God also wants us to learn to make decisions on our own without having to be told minute by minute what to do, but there will be times when we are in need of guidance and it is important that we develop the skills and relationships that are important for those moments. It is important that we take time to learn to discern God’s voice within ourselves. … It is also helpful to have a mature Christian we look up to that we meet with periodically to help us discern what God is doing in our life. It doesn’t matter if we call that “spiritual direction”, but it is a relationship that many Christians throughout history have found to be helpful. Wise elders are very much in need in the church. … It is also important to have fellowship with other Christians in a small group. It should be a group of people we trust- people we can be honest with- people we can pray with- people who love us and who we love back- people who love God and yearn to know God better. … God wants to speak with us, and give us direction for our lives. For this reason we were given the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us. May we be attentive to all the ways the Spirit is speaking to us. AMEN

Monday, 15 October 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Fasting

Whenever I talk about the Spiritual Disciplines there is one discipline that people tend not to take very seriously- That’s fasting. The suggestion that people should try fasting is often met with laughter or eye-rolling. That just tells us how affluent our society is. We live with such abundance that the idea of going without food tends to be something that doesn’t seem realistic. Many of us believe it might even be dangerous or unhealthy to not have three meals a day. Most of us have missed meals, but it is rare to go a full day without eating something. We live in an amazingly abundant society, so we have the privilege of scoffing at the idea of going without food.

Richard Foster defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity”. Usually this is abstaining from food, but sometimes we will talk about abstaining from things like social media, television, or specific foods (many fast from chocolate and wine during Lent). It is especially important to have times of abstinence when we encounter something that is starting to enslave us. … Foster would say that a hunger strike or dieting is not necessarily a spiritual fast because they are not necessarily directed towards spiritual goals. … The discipline of fasting can’t really be understood apart from prayer. They go together- fasting adds a certain kind of energy to prayer. And prayerful repentance is particularly connected to fasting. As are preparation for ministry and when seeking healing.

When we search the Bible regarding fasting it becomes clear that it is has been a spiritual practice of God’s people throughout the Bible- Old and New Testaments. Fasting was a spiritual practice of Moses, King David, Elijah the prophet, Queen Ester, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, and St. Paul- to name a few. Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. And Jesus assumes that his followers will practice the discipline of fasting. In Matthew Ch 6 Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast…” He says, “when you fast…”. The assumption of Jesus is that his followers will include fasting as part of their spiritual practice. … So, fasting has been a constant practice in the life of God’s people. The Early Church practiced fasting, as did many other Christians including: St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards, but many others as well. Fasting has also been practiced outside of Christianity- it is no exaggeration to say that fasting is a spiritual practice of humanity.

The Bible doesn’t explicitly describe how to fast, it assumes that people know how to do it. We also can’t really say that it is a commandment for us to fast, though it is an assumed part of the spirituality of the people of the Bible. …

The Bible seems more concerned with teaching us how to fast rightly, rather than convincing us to do it. At numerous points the Scriptures ask people to question their motives in fasting- Are we doing it to connect with God, or is it a show to impress others with how spiritual we are? Some of the prophets do this, and Jesus teaches about this in Matthew Ch 6. Jesus questions our motives, but he still assumes that we are going to practice fasting. Richard Foster also points out that in Jesus’ teachings “there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion. We have no more reason to exclude fasting from his teaching than we do giving or praying. … Certainly we have as much, if not more, evidence from the Bible for fasting as we have for giving” (Celebration of Discipline, p52, 54).

There are at least two opposing fallacies when it comes to practicing fasting (and most of the Spiritual Disciplines). One, is to turn the practice into a legalism where you have to participate in fasting in order to be saved and to be acceptance by God. And the other extreme is to reject it completely because it is seen as too extreme, or as a part of a bygone era. Fasting is a part of the wisdom of living a spiritual life. The Bible and Christian history treat fasting with seriousness and that should make us investigate it seriously.

Fasting has been an assumed reality for the majority of Christian history, but the question remains- “why fast”? In our culture fasting might seem particularly strange because we are taught to indulge our desires and appetites. To resist a natural desire is considered unhealthy. We have come to believe that if we only had all of our desires fulfilled, that we would finally be happy. (The people I meet who give that kind of control to their desires are not happy people.) We live in a culture of indulgence. But, we don’t have to serve our appetites. We don’t have to be enslaved by our desires. When Jesus was fasting in the wilderness, he was tempted to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. He responded by saying “one does not live by bread alone”. Jesus adds that we live, rather, “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It is God who ultimately sustains us. It is God’s word that keeps us in existence at every moment. If God were to stop speaking us into existence, we would no longer exist. By fasting we express that our true hunger, our true need, is for God.

In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is advising a lesser demon, Wormwood, on the art of leading a human soul astray. At one point, on the topic of prayer, Screwtape advises,

 “At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (p16).
 Our bodies and our spirits are not independent of each other. Fasting uses our bodies to create energy for spiritual work.

So, what happens when we fast? There has been some recent interest in the area of fasting on the part of health researchers. 

 Jason Fung, a medical doctor, became interested in fasting because of his work with people living with type 2 diabetes (see The Complete Guide to Fasting by Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore). Fung became interested in fasting’s ability to control insulin and lower glucose levels in his diabetic patients. According to Fung, when we eat food it increases the insulin in our body. This causes our liver to store sugar in the liver and produce fat. When we fast, our insulin decreases, and we burn stored sugar and fat. While researching fasting Fung discovered it had a number of additional health benefits. Studies have shown that fasting lowers blood pressure, decreases risk of cancer, and increases growth hormone that helps maintain and grow muscle. Fasting has been shown to boost brainpower, slow the effects of aging, improve heart health, improve insulin sensitivity, lower blood cholesterol, decrease inflammation, and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Fung also mentions that many ancient cultures have used fasting as a medical treatment as well as a spiritual practice.

Human beings are made for periods of feast and famine. Throughout history we have experienced times of abundance and times of scarcity. Human beings haven’t always had access to three balanced meals per day, so it makes sense that our bodies have the ability to adapt to a lack of food by increasing our energy and mental sharpness, so that we can be better equipped to find food. There are days when we get three buffalo and there are days when no buffalo to be seen.

It is helpful to know some of the health benefits of fasting to help battle against some of the myths about fasting being crazy or dangerous. But, our primary concern here isn’t the health benefits of fasting. We are thinking about fasting for spiritual purposes. When we are fasting we realize how much time we spend preparing or eating food. That time can be used for prayer and study. When we get used to fasting we also notice there is a certain kind of calm energy that fills our minds and hearts. We gain a new appreciation for how little food we actually need. We gain a greater awareness of what we eat, and we reawaken a gratitude for the food we eat. We also become aware of how often we eat out of habit rather than out of need. I remember fasting one day and I sat down and grabbed a handful of nuts out of the bowl and put them in my mouth. I swallowed them by the time I remembered I was supposed to be fasting. That eating was not even on a conscious level- it was automatic. …

Dallas Willard has said that fasting teaches us to be “sweet and kind when we don’t get what we want”. When we first start fasting we can become quite irritable and it can be tempting to be short with the people around us. Fasting can help us to treat people kindly even when we are feeling internally irritated. … There are many other benefits.

So how do you fast? There are lots of kinds of fasts, but what I would suggest is eating no food (I know, duh). I still drink black coffee, black tea (no cream or sugar), or water. You might be tempted to nibble on something small, but that actually makes the fast harder because it sort of teases your body rather than allowing it to jump into fasting mode. When you first start you might feel a headache at some point. If you do, I usually feel free to take a Tylenol. I sometimes fast for up to 4 days. If you are going to do that it is easier to be away from home like at a retreat centre. At home I have fasted for longer period of 2 months eating one meal per day. And there are many other ways to fast.

There are some people who probably shouldn’t fast or who should be very careful about fasting- People who are diabetics, expectant mothers, children, people with heart problems, people with eating disorders, and anyone who isn’t generally in good health, should either not fast or be very careful about fasting. Do your homework. 

Fasting is about putting God first. It reveals what is enslaving us, but as we cut those ties, we also learn to “feast on God” (as Foster puts it). Ultimately, the only way we will know why we should fast is to experience it. Once we try it and we feel God using it to transform us we will realize that fasting is a gift, and God wants to use it to bless us.

As Jesus fasted in the wilderness he learned where his priorities were to be. He was to be faithful to his Father. The Devil tempted Jesus with many good things, but Jesus knew that they were not the best things. We too are tempted by many good things, but they are not the best things. Fasting can help us make more room for God and God will faithfully use it to bring us the freedom He wants for us. AMEN

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Mental Health and my realization

I know I usually just post sermons, but I have been reflecting on a realization that I had about a year ago.

Like most people, I have put in quite a lot of effort attempting to solve my problems- especially my mental and spiritual problems. The way I have often gone about doing this was analyzing my emotional issues and my sins. I would journal about my "issues". I would go as deep as I possibly could. I would turn over every single stone and scrape the green slime I found underneath into a test tube, which I would run through a centrifuge and then put under a microscope.

There were many benefits to doing this. I learned a lot about myself. I learned the beginning glimmers of thought that would turn into sin if left unchecked. I learned what traumas from my past were still effecting me, and many many other things. I learned a lot.

But there was a downside. I became so focused on sin and my mental state that I went down a deep dark hole and it felt like there was no bottom. Eventually, I think it led me into depression.

Through some of my training in preparation for being a priest I was taught to look for the pain because the meaning was usually where the pain was. As a hospital chaplain the joke was that you knew you did your job if the patient was crying. It was funny because there was a little truth in it. We were taught to look for the edge of the wallpaper and start pealing it back. I started to assume that a smile was really just a mask for pain. The smile wasn't real. I couldn't do any good work with a smile, but tears I could work with. The real spiritual growth happens through tears. ... I assumed that was true for myself and for others for a long time.

Now, I'm not saying tears are bad, and I'm not suggesting we all walk around with fake smiles on our faces. Be real, or at least find people you can be real with. What I am saying is that I fell into a trap. I came to believe that sadness and pain were real and happiness was not real. Happiness was a mask. It was an illusion. There was no depth or meaning in joy.

The theological reality, however, is that joy was first and is more foundational than sadness. Joy will be eternal in God's kingdom and sadness will have an end. Joy isn't a mask- joy is at least as real, or maybe more real, than sadness.

I had come to believe that I could reach a state of psychological and spiritual wholeness through dealing with all my problems. It's like I had a box full of strings with knots in them and my job was to sit and go through the box and untie the knots. Once all the knots were untied then I would finally be whole and free and happy. But the box never seemed to ever get empty. I got good at looking at knots. I got good at finding knots- sometimes I found knots where there were none.

My realization was that I was not going to find joy and wholeness by dealing with my pain. I came to believe that I had to find a way to focus on the beauty and joy that is more foundational to God's creation. I don't ignore my pain, but I no longer see it as more real than joy. When I realized this I felt like I walked out from under a dark cloud. The depression that had lurked at the edges of my mind for so long (see dysthymia) seemed to dissipate.

I'm not saying this is true for anyone but me. I know there are people who deal with incredibly debilitating depression and mental illness. I'm not saying that I have the cure for depression for all human beings. I'm just saying I feel like I found my way out and perhaps there is someone out there who will read this and that will be their way out too.


Spiritual Disciplines- Celebration

Today we will be looking at the Spiritual Discipline of Celebration, which is appropriate for Thanksgiving weekend. As a Christian discipline, Celebration creates the context for receiving the grace of joy that comes to us as a result of our faith and confidence in God.

It is sad that Christians are not often thought of as joyous people. And sometimes it’s a true accusation that some Christians aren’t very joyous. 
We can sometimes take ourselves too seriously. Sometimes in our desire to lead pure lives we run the risk of noticing every act that falls bellow the standard. We notice it in ourselves and we are plagued by guilt. Or we notice it in society and we are plagued by judgment. ... Sometimes we are so focused on issues of justice or the suffering of others, at home or abroad, that we feel like we don’t have any right to celebrate. How dare we? Sometimes in our teachings we can become obsessed with a sin-focus Gospel. We become all about not sinning, and turning to Christ to forgive us for our sins. These are important things, but they are not the only things. Surely there is a problem if our focus on sin drowns out the goodness and beauty of God. Or, sometimes we have seen less than wholesome examples of celebration and we worry that we will be drawn into drunkenness, lust, and all kinds of other temptations as a result of celebrating.  All of this means that, unfortunately, Christians are not always known as joyous people. 

It shouldn’t be this way though. St. Augustine taught that 

“the Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot!”.
 In the Old Testament, the people are commanded to gather together to celebrate certain feasts. And these weren’t two hour dinner parties, these were week long massive parties. (see here and here) … In John 15 Jesus said, 
“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
 Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunk (Luke 7:34). His first miracle in the gospel of John was turning water into wine so that a wedding party could continue on (John 2). Paul says that evidence of God’s spirit dwelling in you is a character marked by joy (see the Fruit of the Spirit- Gal 5:22). The Eastern Orthodox Theologian Alexander Schmemann said, 
“… from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of Joy… all-embracing joy”. 
“Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy”.
  From the beginning Christians were living a life where joy was more real than any suffering they were enduring. THink about the martyrs that faced their executions with courage. They could do that because they knew that the lion in front of them was temporary but the joy God has for them is eternal (E.G. Perpetua here, and Rom 8:18).  Suffering is temporary to the Christian. Joy is eternal.

Even though Joy and celebration are deeply embedded in our Scriptures, Christians aren’t always known for celebration, but, to be fair, the truth is that a lot of modern western society has forgotten how to celebrate. Writing in 1969 the theologian Harvey Cox said that modern people have been pressed 

“so hard toward useful work and rational calculation [they have] all but forgotten the joy of ecstatic celebration…”.
 We might have an efficient society, but we have a tendency to value work above all, and without celebration and times of joy our work can lose all meaning and motivation. We live in a society filled with anxiety and this is the enemy of celebration (Phil 4:6,7, Matt 6:25). 

According to Richard Foster, and many other Christian teachers, only one thing produces genuine joy- that is obedience. A life lived open to God, especially when dealing with life’s difficulties, leads to the possibility that misery can be transformed. God doesn’t just want to transform our miseries though, God wants to transform and sanctify our ordinary lives. As we offer our daily lives to God in obedience, God will use our lives to produce profound joy. In fact, Foster says that “Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives”.

So how do we practice Celebration as a spiritual discipline? Perhaps we can follow St. Paul’s advice when he calls us to choose to think certain thoughts. He tells us to set our minds on what is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious (Phil 4:8). These things point to the goodness of creation. As we turn to God in thanksgiving for the goodness of creation we shape our minds and become who human beings were meant to be. The theologian Alexander Schmemann said, 

“When man stands before the throne of God when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. … Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven.”
 The word “Eucharisto” means “thanks” in Greek. If we cultivate a thankful spirit by focusing on the goodness all around us, joy will be a result.

This has even been shown by those researching in the field of Positive Psychology. (Positive Psychology focuses on having a healthy mind, rather than on just dealing with psychological problems.) They have 

“shown that people who are habitually grateful are happier than those who are habitually ungrateful; they are less depressed, more satisfied with their lives, have more self-acceptance and have a greater sense of purpose in life. They are also more generous.” (See Rupert Sheldrakes, “Science and Spiritual Practices”, chapter 2). 
So, a big part of celebration is focusing on gratitude for all that God has given. If you find it hard to find something to be thankful for try holding your breath for a minute or two and then thank God for oxygen and working lungs. You might want to make it a daily or weekly practice to "count your blessings". You can use a journal, or just do it in your mind, but list things you are grateful for. They don’t have to be big and profound. They can be small and simple- like the smell of newly mowed grass, or birds at the bird feeder. (see the Book of Awesome)

 Saying grace before meals, even if short, helps us be thankful for what God has provided.

Most of us have become uncomfortable with singing, and dancing, but all over the world these are the natural ways of celebrating. Most of us might have to rediscover these. These come natural to children, maybe they can teach us. Put on some music and dance by yourself. Gather around a piano or guitar and sing. Dare to learn a few folk dances, or some silly games.

Enjoy the art of clean comedy. Laugh, poke fun at yourself. Enjoy good comedy that doesn’t require crassness to be funny. (see reverend fun)

Image result for the best reverend fun cartoons

Image result for the best reverend fun cartoons

Image result for best reverendfun

Image result for best reverendfun

Enjoy the fruits of creativity- your own or someone else’s. Enjoy fantasy, imagination- art, music, story, and drama. Watch movies or go to plays. Read books out loud together. 

Find ways to celebrate with your family, friends, and community. Find reasons to gather like, birthdays, marriages, anniversaries, a new job, or reaching a goal. (We have friends who had people over nearly every Sunday. It was a potluck, so everyone brought something and they would add card tables to make a giant long table. There was always a lot of laughter around that table.) Celebrate Christmas, and Easter as spiritual disciplines. They can be rescued from the clutches of commercialism. And when you find yourself sighing, "I guess I better clean the house", remind yourself that this is a spiritual discipline. It does something for your soul and the souls of those who come. Redeem All-Hallows-Eve (Halloween) as a celebration of the victory of the saints over the powers of darkness through the power of Christ. Find or make up reasons to celebrate and laugh together.

Celebration puts us in the place to receive the grace of joy. Our call to joy is a call to believe that God’s goodness will overcome the pain of the world. Resurrection will overcome the cross. The Kingdom of God will overtake the Empire of Darkness.  The prophets talk about a time when God’s justice will overtake the suffering and evil in the world. For God’s people to celebrate in a world full of pain is a protest against the darkness. It is a declaration that God will overcome, and evil will not have the last word. We celebrate to express our faith that God is good and created a good world, and in the end joy is eternal and suffering is not. So we need more practice in joy than we do in suffering. AMEN    

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