Restore Gently

(Galatians 6:1-10; Luke 5:17-26)

Sun, July 31, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

A couple had two mischievous little boys, ages eight and 10. At their wits’ end, the parents contacted a pastor for help. The pastor asked to see the boys individually. The eight-year-old was sent to meet with him first. The minister sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?”

The boy made no response, so the pastor repeated the question in an even sterner tone, “Where is God?”

Again the boy made no attempt to answer, so the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy’s face, “WHERE IS GOD?”

At that, the boy bolted from the room, ran directly home, and slammed himself in his closet. His older brother followed him and asked what happened.  The younger brother replied, “We are in big trouble this time. God is missing, and they think we did it!”

It seems to me that the whole idea of confession is usually a laughing matter, and not something we do regularly as Christian adults. But something may be missing in our walk with God, and our Church, if there is not much sharing hurts and speaking God’s blessing to one another, one on one.  The final chapter of Galatians says, 1 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.

Hearing someone talk about their sinful troubles, and responding with the word of Jesus is a gentle business.  And it must happen among us.  It is not only between the individual and God.

Dallas Willard wrote: Confession is a discipline that functions within fellowship.  In it we let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures.  This will nourish our faith in God’s provision for our needs through God’s people, our sense of being loved, and our humility before our sisters and brothers. (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 1988, p. 187)

But it is Deitrich Bonhoeffer who taught so wisely about confession and forgiveness in the church fellowship.  And did so in the 1940s.  Today, I really take a few pages from him.  

About the ministry our friends have to hear our confession and speak forgiveness, Bonhoeffer taught:

Our friend has been given to us to help us.  He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name.  He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it.  When I go to my sister or brother to confess, I am going to God.  (Life Together, 1952, p. 112)

Galatians 6 says, 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  The breakthrough to real community, true fellowship, comes through confession.  A problem kept inside us keeps us isolated.  To keep our secret, we keep a wall up between us and others.  

When a sin is shared with a brother or sister in Christ, it is revealed and judged as sin, and loses so much of its power.  The forgiveness of Jesus is spoken to us by another human being.  So the fellowship bears the burden of the sin, instead of it being hidden and weighing us down alone.  

It is a matter of love.  Of loving one’s neighbour.  When Jesus spoke once of giving His disciples a new commandment, what did He say?  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:33-35)

[Perhaps now is a good moment to share the story I skipped last Sunday morning.  Let me tell you Kierkegaard’s parable, ‘The Costume of the Actor.’  

Consider for a moment the world which lies before you in all is great variety; it is like looking at a play, only the plot is vastly more complicated.  Every actor on stage is acting differently from each other character in the play.  Each unique character that comes on stage is different from the actor playing the part – but we, the audience don’t get to see that.  Here, we see only what role the individual plays and how he or she does it.  It is like a play.

But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others – they are all quite alike, all one and the same: actors.  

But just suppose that some evening a common confusion comes over the whole cast so they think they really are the parts they were playing.  Wouldn’t that be an evil enchantment?

Likewise, suppose we, in our day-to-day lives, suddenly got confused, and thought we were the roles we play.  The Pastor, loved by everyone.  The wise, humorous senior citizen.  The dutiful and mature teenage cadet.  The intelligent tourist from a very special place in another nation.  

Alas, but is this not the case?  We seem to forget that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume.  Yet we tend to want to attach the costume tightly around us, so it can’t be taken off, and no glimpse is seen of the real person inside.  Kierkegaard says, But alas, in actual life one laces the outer garment of distinction so tightly that it completely conceals the interior… and the inner glory of equality never, or very rarely, shines through, something it should do and ought to do constantly.  (Works of Love, pp. 92-96) ]

What great love and community God gives us, if we but remember who we are, and if we see one another as equals before our God of love!  We are equal sinners; we are equal saints – before God.  May we be free to see and to love one another.  Fred Beuchener wrote: Even the worst among us is precious. Even the most precious among us bear crosses.

It is an amazing ministry that is needed – this hearing confession and speaking Jesus words of forgiveness and healing.  In 1 Peter 2:9 we read: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

You are priests to one another.  That’s why we say we believe here in the priesthood of all believers.  

It is by sharing our sin and pain with another person that we can be most certain.   When we meet God in the face of a person, we must let go of trying to control our prayer and how God responds.

Why is it easier to confess our sins to God than to a person right beside us?  God is holy and sinless, after all; our brothers and sisters are sinners.  Perhaps, when praying, we have simply been confessing our sins to ourselves, and giving ourselves absolution.  Not been meeting God at all.  Self forgiveness just won’t do it.  One can experience God hearing us when someone hears our confession.  Then we know we are not just talking to ourselves.  The wrong gets brought into the light.  

When Richard Foster was a young pastor, he had read in the Bible about the ministry of confession, but had never experienced it.  He did not feel there was anything wrong in the least – except one thing.  He longed for more power to do the work of God.  He felt inadequate to deal with many of the desperate needs that confronted him.

Pastor Richard had many positive experiences of the Spirit of God, and he kept praying.  He got the impression that something in his past was impeding the flow of God’s life in him.  

He planned to spend some time, over three days, prayerfully reviewing his life, pen and paper in hand.  Day one, he invited God to reveal anything during his childhood that needed either forgiveness or healing or both.  Things that came to mind he wrote down, after a ten minute silent meditation. Day two: same plan, for his adolescent years.  Day three: a ten minute or more time on his adulthood.  

Then he went to a dear brother in Christ with whom he’d planned to share.  Slowly, sometimes painfully, he read his sheet of paper, adding only those comments necessary to make the sin clear.  

When Richard was finished, he started to put the paper away.  Wisely, his counsellor/confessor gently took the piece of paper.  Without a word, he took a wastebasket, and, as Richard watched, he tore the paper into hundreds of tiny pieces and dropped them in.  That powerful, nonverbal expression of forgiveness was followed by simple words of absolution – you are forgiven, in Jesus’ name.  

Next, his friend, with the laying on of hands, prayed a prayer of healing for all the sorrows and hurts of the past.  Richard Foster says the power of that prayer lives with him to this day.  

(Celebration of Discipline, 1988, pp. 149-150)

Foster planned and chose wisely.  It is important for us to be wise, even guided by the Spirit of God, in finding the right person, at the right time, to hear our confession.  One who is ready, prepared, spiritually mature enough, and who also has someone to hear his or her confession.  

Perhaps, if we need more of this to happen in our lives, in our Church, we start in small ways.  Some of our groups function as small sharing groups: the Men’s Fellowship, Ladies Bible Study, Women’s Missionary Society, and so forth. The spiritual friendships we develop there can lead us to holy moments of sharing and blessing one another.  

It is a great mercy of God when this happens.  It is an amazing ministry of God’s people.  Our God so loved the world of people, that Jesus was sent to deal with all these hurts and harms of ours.  Richard Foster wrote: Remember the heart of the Father; he is like a shepherd who will risk anything to find that one lost sheep.  We do not have to make God willing to forgive.  In fact, it is God who is working to make us willing to seek his forgiveness.  (Celebration of Discipline, 1988, p. 153)

Freedom’s Fruit and Failures

(Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Mark 7:14-23)

Sun, July 24, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Welcome to a place of freedom!  

Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last!  In one way or another, this has been the shout of many people throughout the centuries.  And certainly of Baptist Christians, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously said those words. Baptists are freedom-loving believers.

Religions have a tendency to become controlling and enslaving.  It becomes all dos and don’ts.  All rules and judgments for doing wrong things.  It sounds as if Judaism had become like that at the time Jesus was preaching, to His fellow Jews.

At our best, we Baptist Christians have stood for the freedom of each human soul to get to know God.  The freedom of each person to learn and understand the scripture.  The freedom of each local Church congregation to be in charge of itself.  And we have stood up for the freedom of religion – in whatever nation – freedom for us Christians, and for other religions.  We find this all comes from Jesus, who has set us free from earning our own way to God and heaven. We can rely on Jesus to pay our ticket, and to be our guide in all of life.

One part of the scriptures that is known for proclaiming a certain freedom is a book we read from again today.  In this letter of the Bible we call Galatians, the apostle Paul calls for the believers to live out their freedom.  But he also warns them about freedom.  He gives a list of troubles that can stay with us as we try to live free, and he gives a list of beautiful qualities that arise from our God-given freedom.  With spiritual freedom comes warnings.

Firstly, freedom should not be thought of as easy; freedom may turn out to be more difficult than slavery.  We might like to sing, feeling so willing and so inspired:

Make me a servant, humble and meek; Lord, let me lift of up those who are weak.

And may the prayer of my heart always be:

Make me a servant, make me a servant, Make me a servant today. (Kelly Willard, 1982)

But an older worship song, also in the hymnbook, prays this way:

Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free;

Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be…

Imprison me within thine arms, And strong shall be my hand. (George Matheson, 1890)

Galatians chapter 5 begins with this warning:  For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Why, if someone is set free from something, does one end up going right back to the trap they lived in?  Yet we do it.  We are set free from some habit, some situation that had us tied up.  Then we end up back in it again, where we were so comfortable.  We would rather be controlled by rules and regulations and various forces than be free and responsible for our own pathway.

I remember the rather loveable inmate in the film, The Shawshank Redemption, who, after years and years in prison – most of his life – he finally is set free.  A senior now, he has done his time.  But life is so different on the outside, in his own apartment.  He is not used to it.  He doesn’t have friends; he doesn’t have purpose.  He is free, out of prison… but he commits suicide.  

We heard a lesson from Jesus today.  Does He not tell us about an inner change that prepares us to live a different life? Perfection cannot happen as we try so hard to do everything right in our lives. Completeness is a gift we receive from God, from the inside of us out. And working it out takes time.

Let me continue on a theme from last week:  the work and effort it takes to follow the Saviour in this life. It is a matter of discipline, training, time and effort.  Paul in Galatians gives us a list of Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth.  Spiritual Fruit growing takes time and work. God gives the growth, but we must do our part.

The progress of the human soul is like the progress of a piano player, or a carpenter, or a mathematician.

You take up the piano.  It’s going to be a beautiful thing.  But you must start at the beginning.  And practice.  Then learn more.  And practice.  And keep on and on and on, before you can play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Your parents could have told you: “You are free to play the piano – perfectly free. Here, we bought you a piano!” But in that freedom there is a lot of time and work.  Hmm, freedom is not that easy!

Recently I heard on the radio about a blogger who advises people about their finances and lifestyle planning.  Mr. Money Mustache is the name he goes by!  Peter Adeney is his true name, and he is known for retiring at the age of… thirty.  How?  How did he do it, and how does he recommend others do it?

Seems to me there are two things.  Save well.  And change your lifestyle so you use a lot less money.

He says to young people: here’s how to cut your life costs in half. Start by getting rid of your Debt Emergency if you have one. Live close to work. Don’t borrow money for cars. Ride a bike wherever you can. Cancel your TV service. Stop wasting money on groceries. Give your kids the opportunity to achieve greatness without being pampered. Lose the overpriced cell phones. Learn to appreciate the life-boosting joy of using your own body to get things done. Learn to mock convenience. Practice optimism.

Mr. Money Moustache is really on to something. As you read his teachings, you discover that this very appealing idea of retiring at 30 years old takes some serious work and serious changes in your life!

Our Jesus might well be telling us some of the same things.  Might even be using Peter Adeney to get through to some people about it!  

One day, Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  (Mark 8:34-36)

So Paul also warns that freedom will be challenging and will be work – work worth doing. I get reminded of this every time I was a pastor’s shirt like this, with a clerical collar.  This has been given the meaning of a slave collar, so a pastor remembers he or she is a slave to Christ.

Another warning we may see here in Galatians 5 is this: Freedom may destroy a sense of community.  It should not, but it can be used selfishly.

Paul wrote: you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  There it is again: slavery in our freedom.  Jesus sets us free from sin and guilt and death, but there is humble submission to others built into it.  

No wonder Paul warns his Christian friends so much here.  He must have heard they were doing a bit of biting and devouring one another!  Paul lists all these things that come from selfishness, including jealousy, drunkenness, promiscuity.  And he lists what comes from the Spirit of freedom: generosity, faithfulness, self-control, patience and the like.  

When we find freedom from old rules, old ways of doing things, we can take that freedom too far.  And we end up hurting others.  We end up living for ourselves all over again. Actually, when we find freedom in Jesus, we may end up being slaves or servants of others.  We become free to give our lives for others.  

To love one’s neighbour means, basically, to wish every person to exist, and wish that equally for everyone.  You want every other person to live, and to live well. Christian philosopher Kierkegaard wrote many parables.  Let me tell you about ‘The Costume of the Actor.’  

Consider for a moment the world which lies before you in all is great variety; it is like looking at a play, only the plot is vastly more complicated.  Every actor on stage is acting differently from each other character in the play.  Each unique character that comes on stage is different from the actor playing the part – but we, the audience don’t get to see that.  Here, we see only what role the individual plays and how he or she does it.  It is like a play.

But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others – they are all quite alike, all one and the same: actors.  

But just suppose that some evening a common confusion comes over the whole cast so they think they really are the parts they were playing.  Wouldn’t that be an evil enchantment?

Likewise, suppose we, in our day-to-day lives, suddenly got confused, and thought we were the roles we play.  The Pastor, loved by everyone.  The wise, humorous senior citizen.  The dutiful and mature teenage cadet.  The intelligent tourist from a very special place in another nation.  

Alas, but is this not the case?  We seem to forget that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume.  Yet we tend to want to attach the costume tightly around us, so it can’t be taken off, and no glimpse is seen of the real person inside.  Kierkegaard says, But alas, in actual life one laces the outer garment of distinction so tightly that it completely conceals the interior… and the inner glory of equality never, or very rarely, shines through, something it should do and ought to do constantly.  (Works of Love, pp. 92-96)

What great love and community God gives us, if we but remember who we are, and if we see one another as equals before our God of love!  May we be free to see and to love one another.  Fred Beuchener wrote: Even the worst among us is precious. Even the most precious among us bear crosses.  

Paul encourages the readers to pay attention.  Are you trying to get your own way, or is the Spirit of God getting His way with you? It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time…  But what happens when you live God’s way?  He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard…  (Msg)

Paul sketches out two pathways.  We are free to do whatever we want – to seek the things that satisfy us, give me what I want.  Or free to find our life in union with Jesus Christ.

The Creator has destined you for freedom.  You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.  

Christ Jesus has been crucified so that we can be in community.  Belong to Christ and belong to one another.

The Spirit of God is available to guide us and grow the fruit of the spirit in our lives.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  

Christ Is Formed In You

Christ is formed in you.  Jesus lives and grows into you, your body and soul. I was remembering at the communion table at Tideview Terrace the other day, ‘you are what you eat.’  Jesus’ body and blood – you are what you eat.  Well, are we?  Are we growing into little Christs?  Christ-ians?

In the heavy-hitting paragraphs of Paul’s letter to the Galatian Churches, he is so concerned about his Christian friends.  He finds them mixed up, splitting up, confused in their faith.  And today we read these words of Paul to them:  I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you… (4:19)  

It is significant that Jesus says ‘make disciples’ when He gave his last and great commission to His disciples.  Jesus did not say make converts. He did not say make church members.  He did not say make saved people.  He did not say make Baptists.  He said Go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them(Matthew 28)  Are you a disciple of Jesus?

There is real work to be done in our personal lives to follow Christ.  It takes attention.  It takes intention.  It takes time. No wonder Paul sometimes described it as running a race.

In his classic book, The Road Less Travelled, psychologist M. Scott Peck says:

There are many people I know who possess a vision of [personal] evolution yet seem to lack the will for it.  They want, and believe it is possible, to skip over the discipline, to find and easy shortcut to sainthood.  Often they attempt to attain it by simply imitating the superficialities of the saints, retiring to the desert or taking up carpentry.  Some even believe that by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle.   (F. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, p. 77)

So it is in the inner life of a human, our spiritual life.  Jesus famously said If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)  To do this, we need to have some spiritual practices in our lives.  We take up praying, reading the Bible, worshipping, and so forth.  Sometimes these have been called spiritual disciplines.  And there are quite of few of these.

If we skip ahead in the little book called Galatians, at 6:8 we read: If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

In his 1988 book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster wrote about spiritual practices as sowing to the Spirit.  He starts, saying:

A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain.  He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain.  This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines – they are a way of sowing to the Spirit.  The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us.  (p. 7)

So, what are some spiritual disciplines we Christians use?  Buddhists and Hindus are know for meditation, right?  Muslims have just completed a month of fasting called Ramadan.  If you are a practicing Christian, not just a nominal one, what things do you do to be with God and formed by God?

We pray, of course.  We read the Bible.  Check!  We… well, what else?  Worship…

The excellent Baptist author, Dallas Willard, listed disciplines of abstinence, and of engagement.  Spiritual activities we do alone, and that we do together. Disciplines of Abstinence are

Solitude silence fasting frugality

Chastity secrecy sacrifice

Disciplines of Engagement include

Study worship celebration service fellowship confession submission prayer

So, let’s take Celebration, as an example.  Would you call celebrating a spiritual activity?  It certainly can be.  To celebrate can be to put ourselves into God’s hands to do some joyful work with our souls.  Tony Campolo even wrote a book with the title, The Kingdom of God is a Party!  And points out one regulation about tithing is for celebration.  Dedicate one tenth of your income to the Lord God for what?  For a celebration?  Deuteronomy 14 teaches:

23 In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 26 …And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together.

You know about celebrating, here.  Despite my usual behaviour, I prefer rather high, formal worship services.  But when we congratulate people on their birthdays, or anniversaries, and the like, and shake hands and hug one another, I must give in and admit you do know how to celebrate, as a community.  Let us always dedicate our celebrations to the will of the Spirit of God.

Now, as an opposite example, let’s take Silence. Intentionally being silent as a spiritual discipline.  

Richard Rohr says: We need to be silent instead of talking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, and pennilessness instead of plenty.  Some of you, I’m guessing, have a lot of silent time in your day-to-day lives.  I hope and pray that it often becomes quality time with God, and with yourself.  Usually, it takes real silence to see inside ourselves!  

Others of you have to work at getting some quiet time for yourself… and you relish it when you get some silence.  And, with practice, we can even get to the point of being silent inside – turning off the constant thoughts in our minds and the talking we do inside our heads.  

Back in early May I was at a four day retreat for pastors at a very posh camp.  For 48 hours we kept silence.  Off on our own for reading and praying and thinking.   Together in the dining hall, signalling with our hands for the salt and pepper and ketchup. 🙂  Most of us Christians have very little experience in silence on purpose – for God’s purposes. Might be worth exploring.

OK, one more example.  Fasting.  Quitting food for a day, or longer.  Of course, it does not have to be food.  You can try fasting from facebook, fasting from criticism, fasting from television, fasting from driving your car.  We have lots of options, and with them, our God can teach and train us, deep inside.

Fasting and praying are, of course, ancient practices.  When we hear Jesus speaking – today’s reading from Matthew – He just assumes that Jewish people will be giving alms to the poor, they will be praying, they will be fasting.  So Jesus gives some guidance.  The Gospels tell of times he fasted himself.  

Fasting takes time and practice, naturally.  We don’t just start with fasting for seven days!  Start small.   And maybe get a trainer or a group together to help on the path to fasting.  

Maybe it is like training to sail a sailboat.  Have some of you done that?  Or you are beginning your training?  Well, you start at the beginning, and work at it, before you head out all on your own to pilot a sailboat in the Annapolis Basin.  But you will be able to do that, one day.   

So with a spiritual practice like fasting.  It takes time and commitment.  

The following was written by an individual who, as an experiment, had committed himself to fast once a week for two years.  Notice the progression from the superficial aspects of fasting toward the deeper rewards. (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p.58)

  1. I felt it a great accomplishment to go a whole day without food.  Congratulated myself on the fact that I found it so easy…
  2. Began to see that the above was hardly the goal of fasting.  Was helped in this by beginning to feel hunger…
  3. Began to relate the food fast to other areas of my life where I was more compulsive… I did not have to have a seat on the bus to be contented, or to be cool in the summer and warm when it was cold.
  4. …Reflected more on Christ’s suffering and the suffering of those who are hungry and have hungry babies…
  5. Six months after beginning the fast discipline, I began to see why a two-year period was suggested.  The experience changes along the way.  Hunger on fast days became acute, and the temptation to eat stronger.  For the first time I was using the day to find God’s will for my life.  Began to think about what it meant to surrender one’s life.
  6. I now know that prayer and fasting must be intricately bound together.  There is no other way, and yet that way is not yet combined in me. (Alphonsus Liguori, 1696-1787)

There are many spiritual practices – disciplines – that we can use.  Thank God that in recent decades we Protestants are learning again about some wonderful activities that we’d forgotten about thru history.  

There are many others.  And many things we already do that have spiritual value.  Time and energy we spend – or should we say, gain – with our loving God and Father.  Think of how you spend your days, and why.  And how the Spirit of God creeps in.

[When I enjoy nature – as I often do – why am I enjoying it?  Thanks to a couple of pastor’s spiritual retreats in recent years, I am working to figure this out.  Asking God why. Why do I get a thrill out of finding an odd or rare plant growing in the woods?  (You don’t, but I do!) Why do I go to a camp on an island once a year for a weekend of bird-watching?  Why is it I can spend an hour on a beach just to watch the tide come in, creeping under and over the pebbles, making the dried seaweeds flow, filling and flooding the hollows between the rocks?  

I guess I have realized one thing.  I am receiving gifts from the Creator.  Enjoying some amazing little things in this world.  Taking delight, finding joy.  This is of God, is it not?  And along with this I want to pay more attention to the Creator when I am enjoying creation.  I want to walk with the Master while I am hiking. I want to have my own soul opened up to the Spirit who is present with every leaf and boulder and bird.]

Do you have some spiritual disciplines that you did not always realize were forming you?  Habits and hobbies that are actually special times when God can do more with your soul?  

The story of olympic runner, Eric Liddell, was told in the classic movie, Chariots of Fire.  Do you know that moment in the film when this amazing runner spoke of how God made him fast.  “When I run, I feel His pleasure.”  For many people, running or other sport can be a spiritually-forming activity.  

A Christian friend, who was a high-school teacher in Lockeport, went back every weekend to the family home in Bridgewater, about an hour’s drive.  That time alone in his van, at the start and the end of every school week, was a refreshing time for him.  

I remember the story of a Christian woman, somewhat troubled in spirit, who learned that her daily routine of getting out the needles and yarn could be a time of knitting before God.  Time with the Lord as she was knitting.  It became a blessing to her.

I have not composed a lot of music in my time; I had a season of creative activity about 25 years ago.  I wonder about the creative people who write music, and how for some this is co-creating with the Almighty Creator.  Gardeners and farmers might also experience this, not to mention visual artists, and so on, and so forth.  

These can be activities that give your soul rest.  That open your inner self.  Quiet your mind.  Inspire your heart. Make your path clearer. Bring God nearer.

I have my moments of longing for just a closer walk with Thee, Jesus.  And I have my moments of feeling in anguish that Christ be formed in you, my people. As the Apostle Paul felt,  I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you… (Gal 4:19)

Come with me.  Let us be disciples of the Master, not mere converts.  Christ is formed in you.  May it be so.

Us & Them & We

(Galatians 3:23-29; John 17:20-26)

Sun, July 10, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Monday, I went to a family picnic and met some long-lost relatives.  I knew Grampie and a bunch of his family were to be at Port Maitland beach, so I found them.  I walked over to this group of, well, mostly strangers, and I was welcomed! There were three or four great-aunts and uncles I did know, and a couple cousins. But I got to meet a brother and sister of my grandfather I’d never met, plus several of my first cousins once removed, second cousins, etc.  I was immediately welcomed, even hugged by perfect strangers.  They fed me hot dogs and potato chips.  They laughed & told stories. We’re strangers no more.

That was, of course, an easy moment for Us and Them to become We.  We were family after all, the White family.  Some of us just had not met yet.  

Many other moments in life the ‘Us and Them’ doesn’t naturally become We.  We have plenty of ‘Us versus Them’ in our society, in our lives.

Politics in Canada, Great Britain, the United States, and everywhere, is always Us vs. Them, eh?  The tragic violence we have been hearing about this past week – shootings and the like – show the heart-breaking destruction of Us vs. Them.  The beauty of diversity and differences among us humans has a dark shadow of hatred and mistrust and competition.

How do ‘us and them’ become ‘we’?  Outsiders become insiders?  Strangers become friends?  It actually starts, as it did for me at Port Maitland beach the other day.  We start by learning that we already are made to be one by God.  And because of that, we are all more alike than different.

You are all one in Christ Jesus, wrote Paul to the Galatian believers.  Even among churches, there are such barriers and a lack of team spirit and family living.  Sometimes we Christians are so different from one another; sometimes the slightest small differences are the molehills we make into mountains.  I have had no contact, in two years, with the Pastor or people of the Bible Believers Baptist Church, near here.  One might expect various Baptists to get along, but sometimes the closer we are in name, the less cooperative we are.  We get to celebrate with Grace United today as they covenant with their new Minister.  Despite how different we may be from them – and some of you left them to become part of us – I trust that we are one in Christ.  One with Grace United, one with Bible Believers Baptist, etc.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  (G 3:28)  More than anything in this strongly worded letter, Paul is telling some congregations to be what they are: act like it!  Not telling them what to do to become one.  Telling them they ARE one – now be who you are.  

These are remarkable words of Paul.  Paul who wrote this letter as an early Christian missionary.  Paul who had been a Jew, even a religious expert in the law, and a Pharisee.  Paul who would know well the daily morning prayer of the Jews that thanked God that “Thou has not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.”  Paul turns this on its head with his statement.  Those age-old divisions are broken down by Christ crucified.  All are included.  All are one.

We remembered today, in that great prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17, that the Saviour, before He died, asked that all those who followed Him and His Way would be ONE.  As He and God the Father are One, so may they be one / we be one.

So know this… and live it.  Perhaps this begins with knowing the oneness God creates in us.  Then, taking steps to live together as one.  Knowing the lengths the Creator has gone to reconnect with humanity – the Jesus story – and remember that with everyone we ever meet.  

Lee Bilcher put out a little statement on July 4th:

So I am an American who lives in Canada, who is celebrating our Independence Day. Just a few days ago my brothers and sisters in Canada celebrated Canada Day. At the end of the day, do we serve someone whom is elected when an election is called or every four years? Aren’t we all citizens of heaven and serve the One [who] is the same yesterday, today and forever?

Indeed.  Amen!  Lee is remembering teachings like Philippians 3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.

We will not know every other citizen in heaven who lives in our own town with us.  We will not like every other citizen of Christ’s Kingdom we do know.  We will not get along perfectly with everyone else on Jesus’ team in Digby County.  Yet in Christ we can still remember and respect each one who is with Him.

The longing of believers for us to get along – and to get together – is sometimes a strong but sad longing.  We wish for cooperation and fellowship, but know it ain’t gonna happen.  A Canadian worship song I like a lot – which we might learn someday – is ‘Deep In Our Hearts,’ by John Oldham (1995).

Deep in our hearts there is a common vision;

Deep in our hearts there is a common song;

Deep in our hearts there is a common story,

Telling Creation that we are one.

Deep in our hearts there is a common purpose;

Deep in our hearts there is a common goal;

Deep in our hearts there is a common message,

Justice and peace in harmony.

Deep in our hearts there is a common longing;

Deep in our hearts there is a common theme;

Deep in our hearts there is a common current,

Flowing to freedom like a stream.

No matter what you are, what kind of person you are, you are:  Created by God.     Valuable to God.

Like all others. A hurting soul.  A hurter of souls.      

Can be saved by Grace thru faith in Jesus the Christ.

Relate to God the same way as all others.

There is amazing welcome, reconciliation, fellowship, cooperation, and ministry possible for people.  Not because of us; because of Christ.  But it takes our willingness to cooperate with what the Spirit of Jesus desires to do among us. In this world we shall be light.

Amid the violence and hurt between people that is so painful right now, or still aches from events long in the past, Christ can take us forward.  He may desire us to let go of prejudice and privileges we have, to be a brother or sister to others.  He may guide us to listen long and hard before we spout off our opinion, our answer.  Jesus may open our eyes to know the power and responsibility we have to make a difference in our society. You are the salt of the earth: light of the world

I met Mark Buchanan years ago on a Pastor’s trip to Bolivia. I soon learned he was not only a Baptist Pastor in British Columbia, at that time, but also the author a several good books.  

Mark wrote the feature article in Mosaic, the spring 2016 issue – our Canadian Baptist magazine.  Did some of you read his article, The Day I Stopped Driving By, about fellowship and ministry and reconciliation with First Peoples?  He ends the article with this story.

Ray Aldred is a Cree storyteller and Christian theologian, and a dear friend and colleague of Mark.  Recently, they both spoke at a church conference on missions.  They decided on the final evening of the conference to weave their talks together, back and forth, circling each other’s stories, building off each other’s insights.  It was like a tribal dance.  Obviously, they had to choreograph it.

“I think you should invite me up right at the start,” Ray said.  “I will honour the traditional occupants of the land and thank them for allowing us to be here.  And then I will pray with smoke.”

Praying with smoke is a Cree tradition (shared by many Plains Tribes) of burning sage or sweet grass  in an abalone shell(the fragrance of which bears an unnerving resemblance to cannabis), snuffing out the fire, and wafting the smoke, with an eagle feather, until its fragrance pervades the room, all the while inviting the Spirit to come from all four corners of the earth and, like the fragrance, fill the room.

Mark: “Um, ok.  You know people will freak out?”

“I know.” said Ray.  

“I’m good then.  Let’s do it.” said Mark.

So they did.  And people freaked out.

Mark was up next.  “I sense,” he said, “that many, if not most of you, are deeply uncomfortable with what just happened.  I’m going to ask you to do something with that: neither reject it nor embrace it. I’m inviting you, instead, to hold it in open, upturned, outstretched hands.” – he modeled this as he said it.  “And I’m asking that you give both Ray and me an honest hearing.”

That seemed to settle things down, and so Ray and Mark spoke, back and forth, moving in and out of each other’s space, doing their dance.  They talked about the broad sweep of the Canadian church and government relations with First Nations people throughout our shared history.  They talked about the tribal, ceremonial, and storytelling roots of biblical faith.  They talked about how the church had repeatedly missed opportunities with First peoples to share the full gospel in all its wild, profuse, subversive, scandalizing extravagant beauty and potency; had failed to incarnate the wide-open arms of God, and yet every once in a while had got it right.

By the end, Mark sensed a new readiness and openness among those present.  He stood on the platform and held out his open, upheld, outstretched hands.

“Some of you,” Mark said, “still aren’t sure what to do with what you saw earlier.  But I’m sensing that most of us – maybe all – want to be part of a new story.  We’ve heard enough of the old story to feel some appropriate guilt and shame and heartbreak.  But what use in getting stuck there?  Let’s resolve to create a different future.  I’m not even sure what the next step is, other than it involves a fierce ‘Yes’ to that different future, and unswerving commitment to write a new story.  If you want to be part of that, would you stand, and with open, upturned, outstretched hands, say to God, ‘Yes.’

As far as Mark could tell, the whole congregation stood.

Us and Them can become WE.  Thanks to God.  ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer European and Cree, there is no longer black and white; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are heirs according to the promise.’  

This is our Faith. That Jesus makes us Children of the family of God.  We can be Clothed with Christ.  The Us vs. Them become One, become We.  

No Foolish Faith

(Genesis 15:1-6; Galatians 3:1-14)

Sun, July 3, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

For two years or so, my wife, Sharon, has been learning to play the guitar.  In one series of lessons, Sharon happened to learn to play a classic teen tragedy song called Last Kiss, first recorded in 1961.  About a girlfriend killed in a car accident, the chorus asks: Oh where, oh where, can my baby be?

The Lord took her away from me

She’s gone to heaven, so I’ve got to be good

So I can see my baby when I leave this world.

Is that the Gospel?  The Good News?  “She’s gone to heaven, so I’ve got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world.”

I’ve got to be good.  This is so inextricably bound to our cultural ideas of heaven and the afterlife.  But it does not quite sound like grace, the grace of God that comes to us through Jesus.  Do we get to heaven by doing enough good and avoiding enough wrong?  By obeying laws – the Ten Commandments; Jesus’ teachings? The Bible does speak of, after all:  the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.  For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: (Rom 2:5-6)

And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.  And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. (Rev 20:12-13)

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. (Mtt 16:27)

No wonder people feel the weight of guilt at times, and strive to work their way into God’s good books, into God’s good graces, we might say.  But this legalistic way is not the real way to God, not the whole story.  Obeying God’s law is not the Gospel.

Paul wrote to his friends in Galatia with personal, passionate alarm:  You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? …Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? (Gal 3:1, 2)

Last week one person was able to join me to talk over the first half of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  (Hopefully by the end of this month more of us can gather to talk over the whole book!)  Early in the story, in the long pilgrimage of the man named Christian, he carries an immense burden of shame and guilt on his back.  After being well-advised by a man named Evangelist, Christian gets let astray when he meets up with a fellow named Mr. Worldly Wiseman.  

Mr. Wiseman asks Christian what he is looking for.  “I know what I desire to obtain, stated Christian. What I desire is ease – to be eased of my heavy burden. . . Worldly began his advice: why, in that village over there, the one named Morality, there dwells a gentleman whose name is Legality. He’s a very judicious man with a good name, an individual who has skill to help people off with such burdens as yours are…”

Go to Mr. Legality, in the village of Morality. This route is off the path that Christian had been given by Evangelist.  When Christian is stalled on his journey when facing a dangerous spot, Mr. Evangelist finds him again, and warns him of this wrong path.

Evangelist says to him: This Legality, therefore, is not able to set you free from your Burden.  No one was as yet ever rid of one’s Burden by him; no, nor ever is like to be; for by the deeds of the Law no one living can be rid of one’s Burden. Therefore,  Mr. Worldly Wiseman is an alien, and Mr. Legality is a cheat. . . Believe me, there’s nothing in all this noise you’ve heard from this foolish man except a plan to cheat you of your salvation by turning you away from the Path in which I set you.”

The rest of the story – of the Gospel – includes the cross of Jesus.  His sacrifice for us.  He makes things right with God, and offers this righteousness to us.  Paul wrote to his friends:  For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse… Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”   

According to Paul, a life of striving to obey the rules is a foolish way.  So it was for Christian in the novel by John Bunyan.  The path of faith – of confidence in Jesus – is right, and is a more arduous journey than the path of trying to obey and earn one’s way to heaven.  Christian has a long way to go in getting to the Coelestial City.   But it is the right way.

Yet, when we step back and consider our own experiences a Christians, so many people have a stage in life of trying to be good for God, and working our way to heaven.

Back in the 5th century AD, St. Augustine wrote about the “4 States of Man”:

* The first state of man (the haec sunt prima) is “living according to the flesh — with reason making no resistance.” This is life without religion, and even without much for morals.

* The second state of a human is “recognition of sin through the Law . . . but sinning knowingly.”   This is the stage of knowing there is right and wrong, and knowing we do wrong.  

* The third state of a human is “faith in the help of God — but one perseveres in seeking to please God.”  This stage is common for Christians.  We give our heart to Jesus, so to speak, but we keep striving and struggling to live up to all the Bible tells us – still acting on our own – and the Bible tells us a lot on how to live!

* The fourth state of a human is “the full and perfect peace in God.” This we find in harmony with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. At last, one is confident in the Saviour, and trusts in Jesus righteousness instead of one’s own goodness.  One’s goodness springs from the new life with God, not vice versa: not living good enough to live with God.  

Augustine continues, “Even the good merits and qualities which people may display toward one another are gifts from God. Every good quality comes from His grace. God’s mercy is the ground of salvation.” (The History of Doctrines, Reinhold Seeberg, p. 366)

So, we have the opportunity, to  bear witness to this grace of God.  Whenever someone does speak of being good – good enough for God – we know there is a better approach.  God is good enough.  It is this Amazing Grace everyone sings about.  It is the God who is Love, that people speak but don’t quite know.  “We love because God first loved us.” 1 John 4:19.  

We occasionally hear an old hymn about Jesus’s sacrifice at Calvary that begins with this stanza:

My song is love unknown, (Samuel Crossman, 1664)

my Savior’s love to me.

Love to the loveless shown,

that they might lovely be.

Oh, who am I that for my sake,

my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

God’s love for us is real when it is still unknown.   ‘My Saviour’s love to me.  Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.’  This fills out the Good News. R 5:8 tells us ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’  

So, give good news to others.  The life of goodness is not a battle to behave well enough to be rewarded.  The good life is a gift from God – seen in Jesus and His story.  The real work of day-to-day life is to accept and receive the grace of God, instead of being independent.  Christianity takes effort, but not earning our way.

“God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good.” – Richard Rohr.