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. 
Amen

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. 
Amen

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
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