Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Good, better, best - who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?

Sermon from Sept. 11, 2016
Texts: Matthew 18:1-5; 20:20-28

This sermon was preached as part of a series on early followers of Jesus.

Our texts today are about a Mama and her boys. Salome and her sons, James and John. Matthew refers to her as the mother of the sons of Zebedee, but since we have a chance to give her her name back, I think we should take advantage of it. She was a mother of two disciples, but also a follower of Jesus in her own right. As seems typical of all followers of Jesus, Salome and her sons had days when they could see the path clearly and days when they ended up distracted by something interesting in the ditch. I love that in both of our texts Jesus redirects, but doesn’t condemn or scold. I imagine him standing on the road and waiting patiently until his followers were ready to hear why the things in the ditch were really not the point of the journey.  

In Matthew 18 the disciples approach Jesus with a question. They come to him and ask “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Who’s the king of the castle? Who’s the fastest? Who do you like better? What exactly is the measure that determines greatness in this new world you’re creating? And Jesus responds by placing a child in their midst. He responds by redirecting their attention from the shiny appeal of greatness or status that they have been gawking at in the ditch to a small human being who represents the opposite of what they desire. And then he tells them that they must become like that child, that welcoming a child is as welcoming the son of God.  

I imagine the disciples standing next to Jesus, looking from the ditch to the road and back again. They are drawn to the appeal of success, importance, adoration, and confused by this instruction from one they so admire; to become like the child before them. The child who, in their 1st century world is valued for what they offer to the life of their family, but outside that circle, not important, not powerful, not desirable. Yet, they are to become like children. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Why?  

As many of you are likely aware, this year was an Olympic year. And the Olympics Games is the epitome of the emotional roller coaster, it’s the story of greatness personified in Penny Oleksiak, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Andre DeGrasse. This year’s games began with an impassioned speech from the president of the International Olympic Committee who said that at the games, “we are all equal.” But is that true? While the Olympic Games is about bringing countries and athletes together, isn’t the entire point to discover who is the best, who is the greatest? 

I love watching the Olympics, but I also find them confusing. Faster, higher, stronger. It’s thrilling to see the athletes come out to the track, the pool, the court, the gym with pride and grim determination. It’s thrilling to see them battle to the very last millisecond, to witness their incredible joy at achieving a personal best and it’s devastating to see them tumble from a podium finish. When all is said and done, we celebrate with the three who are left. The crowd is cheers, the athletes circle the track with their country’s flag filled with pride in the moment. They really are better, they really are the best…or at least 2nd or 3rd best.  

But we also see millionaires compete against athletes who can barely pay the rent, we see athletes who train in state of the art facilities compete against athletes who can see through holes in their roofs from bomb attacks. Protestors are held back by armed security in a country in the midst of historically significant recession, political unrest, and a major health crisis.  And weeks after the closing ceremonies, the Paralympic games begin with relatively little fanfare and serious funding issues. Luke-warm interest from sponsors and poor ticket sales, led to cuts in staffing, transportation, re-location of events…  

Who is the greatest? 

And then there are the anomalies, unique moments that seem heart-warmingly different. A North Korean and a South Korean take a selfie together, a New Zealand and an American runner help each other across the finish line, a Syrian refugee who once swam for three hours in open water to save a dinghy of 20 refugees from capsizing, swims the butterfly and freestyle events.  

Who is the greatest? 

As much as the games bring joy, anticipation, excitement, and even some healthy competition, they also stand in stark contrast to our text. In the anomalies they celebrate our oneness, but in their rankings, they celebrate our ability to better one another, whether through genetics, training, funding, support, infrastructure, or in more cases than we would wish, through performance enhancing drugs.  

The disciples ask Jesus “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” and Jesus called a child into their midst.  

In Matthew 20, we find a rather interesting continuation to this discussion on greatness. Here we find Salome approaching Jesus with her sons in tow. Perhaps she knows that her boys were part of the group trying to finagle the secret from Jesus about how to get to the top, perhaps not. Regardless, she is here asking a favour of Jesus. And it’s a pretty significant favour. She says, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” That is one bold Mama willing to advocate for her babies. She wants to make sure they get their due, that they have their place, that they are safe, that she has done her job.  

In this scenario I again imagine Salome and her boys calling to Jesus from the ditch. Since the “become like a child” incident two chapters ago, Jesus has done a lot of instructing on the kingdom. He’s taught them about forgiveness, commitment, releasing possessions, the last being first, and even predicted his own death. And yet here these disciples are again distracted by the lure of fame, fortune, or perhaps, security. And so Jesus redirects their attention. He asks them if they are really able to drink the cup he will drink, perhaps they hear it as the cup of blessing, or perhaps they really do understand it to be the cup of judgement. Regardless, the requirement of them is the same. As the disciples argue angrily with the two brothers for attempting to get ahead, Jesus tells them, they must become like servants to one another. The Son of Man didn’t come to earth to be a King doted upon by cowering subjects, a ruler whose throne rests on the backs of the multitudes. Jesus came to be a servant to all. 

In both these stories, Jesus reveals the shiny lure of fame and status to be a distraction from that which is truly important, living a life of love and service in the kingdom, a place where one’s status is not determined by earthly measures of success. In the kingdom of God, the greatest is not the one with the most physical strength, academic degrees, money, or even the potential to earn it. The greatest is a child, the greatest is a servant.  

Jesus’ instruction to become like a child is often read through a contemporary and romanticized understanding of childhood. It’s all about sweetness and innocence, awe and wonder. Scholars concerned with the social location of Jesus pretty quickly reject that interpretation, reminding us that children were not little chubby cherubs, adored and spoiled by family and friends. They were important, certainly, but as vital contributors in families who needed each pair of hands in order to survive. They did not have status, not even in their cuteness. They did not have the power to determine their realities, particularly if they were girls. Scholars would say that Jesus is not telling us to become like children so we can emulate the 21st century child, but so we, like the disciples, can recognize that power and status at the expense of others is simply not a part of the kingdom of God, it is not what we are to seek.  

And I agree. But I also wonder if, by dismissing the impulse to search for characteristics for us to emulate, scholars also dismiss a powerful tool for us as disciples. I’m not sure about you, but I find it quite difficult if someone says don’t go over there, it’s wrong, but they don’t tell me where I should go. I end up stuck. Not seeking power and status is great. But what should I seek? Powerlessness? Telling people to live into powerlessness or live into a complete lack of status has proven quite destructive in our history. The instruction to become like a servant has often been read that way, manipulating women into remaining in abusive relationships, forcing slaves to remain with masters and silencing oppressed people groups. We do our communities and the biblical story a great disservice if we read into any text instruction from Jesus for oppression or violence to continue or for those oppressed to be happy with their lot.  

So I wonder if we might take a both/and approach and consider just a few characteristics that might have been embodied by the child or servant that Jesus was describing.  

As I prepared this sermon I wondered what characteristics we tend to notice in children and so I asked a number of people what words they would choose to describe a child. And by a significant margin, the top characteristic was curiousity. Openness, a receptive posture, a desire to discover. As one of my friends put it, children are hungry, and not just for food!  

And I thought yes, of course! When you do not have absolutely everything you want at your fingertips and the power to immediately change your circumstances, you are curious and searching for possibilities. James, John, and Salome left the security of knowing where resources would come from, the safety of knowing their place in their communities, and stepped onto the road with Jesus not knowing where it would lead. No wonder they so often ended up in the ditch, they were hungry, curious and searching! A wealthy merchant, then or now, who soars above the rest can simply swoop down and scoop up whatever they want. The world is their oyster, or their pantry, or their vault. Not so for the child, not so for Jesus’ disicples. Jesus invites all who wish to follow to walk into the kingdom with curiousity, with a true openness to discovering the activity, the provisions of God. And sure, we may also discover that a VCR doesn’t toast a grilled cheese sandwich, but we have learned!  In the kingdom of God those who are the greatest are not those who can soar above the crowds, it is those who walk the road, discovering that the small child they have embraced is Jesus.

 I cannot tell you how many times friends or mentors, listening to my frustrations, have invited me to curiousity. Irritation or anger rarely lead to reconciled relationships, only a lot of whining and complaining. And when I finally choose the posture of curiousity, I am inevitably led into humility. Jesus asks us to become as children, and as servants. This is not a forced servanthood; it is not about allowing others to crush us beneath their feet. It is a chosen posture. It is a posture in which I acknowledge that I do not hold the corner on truth, that I am human… and so are you.  

In Elkhart Indiana I met an ER doctor who attended a Mennonite Church. In one faith formation class we were discussing a recent violent incident that had happened in a nearby community. The level of fear was high and a temptation to self-protection, to us and them, to creating walls and embracing privilege was certainly present, regardless of how much we wished it wasn't. Fear does that. But this doctor, a very quiet young man, said that in his work, fear, dominance, and force never bring about the safety people think it will. Hearing him speak, I gleaned that he had learned to practice humility. When someone was agitated and presumed dangerous in the ER, he would walk out to the patient and kneel before them. He said it was remarkable how quickly humility on his part, could bring calm to the patient in a way that towering over them or voicing threats never could.  

I think one final characteristic for us to consider is trust. In order to wholeheartedly embrace a life of curious and humble discipleship, we will need to trust the one who calls us. Choosing curiousity on the road, rather than soaring success is a risk. Choosing a posture of humility, rather than a posture of surety is a risk. But as chick trusts in the care of their mother hen, we are invited to trust in God who is our caregiver. A caregiver who does not need us to succeed, to reach the top, to win. A caregiver who does not expect us to know everything or to be perfect. Rather than a life of striving for status and success, we are invited to a life of curiousity, humility and dependence, trusting in the one who created us, who calls us, and who empowers us to live into the kingdom of God. Amen.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

I'm back!...I think...

Hi all, it's been a long time since I've posted here. Ministry has been busy! 

Recently I've had a request for some of my sermons in script form, so I'm bringing this blog back to life as a place to share those words. My sermons, like most, are meant to be preached to a particular congregation, in a particular time and place. They may not always make sense outside of that context. They're also meant to be communicated orally, so they're not always awesome pieces of writing with well-edited grammar, formatting, and references. You have been forewarned! 

This summer our congregation has been exploring one word from our vocabulary of faith to wrestle with each week. The word is chosen by the preacher, and it's usually a word that gives the preacher some discomfort, or a word that they want to explore in greater depth.  

Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church
August 7, 2016
Vocabulary of Faith – Repent!
Text: Luke 3:2-9, Isaiah 30:12-18 

Up until the middle of last week, this sermon was supposed to be about blood. However, I began to realize that if I was going to wrestle with all of my feelings about the language of blood in scripture and Christian tradition, you wouldn’t have a sermon until sometime next year, if ever. So I decided on a much simpler word, Repent. And of course, that was really not simpler at all. Though I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to explore it.

Our text from Luke today is an Advent text. And I must admit that every time I see it come up as the text for worship or for faith formation, I cringe. Is this really what Christmas is about? How do I hold this angry man alongside a precious baby and twinkly Christmas lights? All I see is a bearded guy on a street corner screaming at people to repent. All I hear is “you are bad, you are wrong, you have sinned.” While I didn’t grow up with hell and damnation sermons, this text always brings them to mind and I wonder, “Should I be slamming my fist on the pulpit. Is that what you do to communicate the message of John the Baptist?”

The other impulse I experience when I hear this text, particularly around the Advent season, is the impulse to watch everyone else who seems to be doing Christmas better, or holier. What are the rules to a just, merciful, and loving Christmas? Should I be buying nothing, or is too rigid to not give gifts at all? Should I be making all my own gifts? Is the chocolate I’m bringing to this potluck fair trade? Which organization is the most ethical in terms of donations? I feel guilt, regardless of the decisions or changes I make, there is guilt. I’m just sure I’m doing this all wrong. If I wasn’t, why would John be yelling at me?!

Is that what repentance is about? Is repentance about guilt? I think I’ve always assumed that to repent was the same thing as being sorry, or confessing. Confess or repent of what you’ve done wrong and you will be forgiven. But is that what repentance really means? Is it that basic? Is it just about finding my faults and wrongs and saying I’m sorry?

I know that I’ve been told in the past that the Greek word that we translate as repent is metanoia which literally means a turning or a change of mind. This always seemed a more fulsome response to wrongdoing. Saying sorry isn’t enough. You have to change as well. So, is it about me seeing my bad behaviour, confessing, and then deciding to be good? Is it an act of will?

But when I looked at both of these understandings of repentance – guilt followed by confession, and change made possible through willpower – I found myself profoundly dissatisfied. Something was missing. The Divine was missing. I can feel guilt, apologize, analyze my behaviour and decide to change, completely apart from God. We do it all the time. Yet repentance is a term rarely used outside of religion. It is a term with deep roots in our faith tradition and many others. Jesus calls us to “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and when I hear those words I wonder, what is this repentance that Jesus and John, calls us to?

In Luke 3:2 we find John the Baptist in the wilderness when the word of God comes to him. The wilderness isn’t simply an escape from the hustle and bustle, it’s not a holiday. In scripture, whenever the wilderness is mentioned, it is specifically a place of searching, wrestling, testing, seeking God. And yes, it’s quite fascinating that Matthew and Mark tell us that John’s this scruffy guy in camel’s hair who eats honey and locusts. But he’s not just living that life because it’s the hipster thing to do. John has taken himself away to the wilderness to listen for God, and maybe hygiene, cuisine, and fashion weren’t particularly high on his list of priorities.

It is there in the wilderness that John hears the word of God and it’s a word that stands side-by-side with the words of the prophet Isaiah. Words about the transformation of the world 

Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 

And this transformation, this salvation will come about through repentance. And this repentance is brought forth from God.

I was caught in particular this week by Isaiah 30:15 in which Isaiah tells the people of Israel “In repentance and rest is your salvation.” The people of Israel have been rebellious, carrying out plans that were not from God. In their fear, they had been negotiating with Egypt, seeking protection from Pharaoh. Basically, frantically running around trying to fix things and in the process they placed their trust in oppression. It is, perhaps, our natural tendency to run around doing works that we hope will lead to our salvation. But repentance comes to those who rest in the presence of God, who empty themselves of agenda and worry and make space to receive, to have their eyes and hearts opened to the glory and grace of God.

When we rest in God we begin to truly encounter God as vast, intimate, creating and redeeming. We begin to see God clearly and that can be frightening. We may be afraid to encounter a God who is righteous and just. Yet, we may be equally afraid to encounter a God who is only compassionate. Yet, the whole of God, longs for the whole of us. And it is through seeing God clearly that we begin to see ourselves clearly as well, the incredible beauty and the brokenness. When speaking about Isaiah’s call from God, theologian Marlene Kropf says, “In God’s bright, hot, shining light, what Isaiah sees is the truth about himself: he is incomplete, unwhole, unholy”(Preparing Sunday Dinner,  33). In meeting God, God is revealed to us, and through this revelation we are revealed to ourselves. And there God waits with grace.

None of us on our own has the courage or strength to face our own woundedness. None of us on our own has the power to make metanoia happen. It is God who is capable of this transformation. John says, “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” There is so much hope in these words. No matter how hard headed or hard hearted we are, our redeeming God can even transform stones in the bringing about of this new world.

Repentance begins in the revelation of God. And that revelation is only possible if we seek God. Walter Brueggemann says, “Israel will be saved and strong when it lives in trust, that is, in returning, rest, and quietness. The four terms bespeak attentive adherence to Yahweh…This assertion clearly intends to contradict the activities of feverish anxiety for which Judah has been condemned in verses 1-14. Judah’s shalom depends upon and stems from life with Yahweh” (Westminster Bible Companion vol. 1, 244).

If is out of this life with Yahweh, this revelation of God and self, that we are moved to confession. Confession is simply truth-telling. It is not done in fear; it is not an act of groveling. It is the simple act of coming before the fullness of a loving and just God to name what God already knows. We give voice to the limitations, failures, sin, and incompleteness that has been revealed to us and thus create space within for grace to flow, cleanse, and restore (Kropf in Vision Journal: Transformation, 48). The presence of the Holy Spirit, given to us through life with God, enables us to speak that which can be so difficult to name. We name not only our own personal sin, but that of our people. And again, we speak these words in the presence of God who longs for us, who desires to make us whole.

And John is quite clear that repentance, seeking God’s revelation and confessing our sin is required of each one of us. The Jewish people were claiming virtue based on their lineage and John makes it abundantly clear that we cannot rely on our family trees. He says, “do not begin to say to yourselves, that we have Abraham as our ancestor.” It does not matter if your father or mother, or grandparents or siblings have repented, been baptized, become members of a church, been faithful followers of Christ. John is calling for the repentance of all. Each life must be one of divine transformation in order to fully bring about the kingdom of God on earth.

What follows our confession is an outpouring of grace. Because we have seen God, and seen ourselves with clarity and honesty, because we are confessing in the presence of a God who loves us intimately, we are bathed in God’s healing light. Truth telling is followed by truth receiving.

In my previous understanding of repentance as confession, or simply an act of will, I was often left confused by the weight that remained within me. Kropf notes that “When the prayers of confession in worship leave us feeling dispirited or morbid or guilty, we haven’t met the true and living God” (Vision Journal, 48). I suspect this is equally true for personal confession. It seems that when our confessions are based solely on guilt because we’re caught in sin or because we are comparing ourselves to others, we are left with what one writer refers to as, “worldly sorrow.” And that sorrow only leads to death. It is not metanoia. In Acts chapter 11, Peter shares of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. We are told that when his listeners heard this, “they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Repentance is meant to lead to life. Revelation, confession, and the grace of God frees us and transforms us sufficiently that we are empowered to live changed lives.

All of this is necessary to repentance. All of this is necessary for us to bear good fruit. I intentionally did not have Luke 3:10-14 read today. If you look ahead at those verses you’ll see that the crowds ask John, “what then shall we do?” And John offers them some specific examples. But their “what then”, is based upon the entire message they have received. I wonder if we are far too quick in Mennonite churches to leap ahead to the instructions of what we are to do as if we can do these things in our own power. We can be excellent power-house workers. Perhaps, not unlike the people of Israel who often focused on immediate problem-solving, rather than seeking God. It is upon receiving grace that we are given hope and strength to repair wrongs as we are able and to engage in God’s vision for the world. The truth telling, and truth receiving give us clarity of vision, they allow us to see and hear God’s call on our lives and so to bear good fruit.

John’s words about bearing good fruit sound harsh. He says “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” He basically says that a tree that is not living and growing and changing, will not shelter others in the storm, it will not feed the hungry. So it might as well be tossed into the fire, what other purpose does it have?

So yes, we are to bear good fruit, but that good fruit doesn’t come about through our extraordinary abilities, rather it is the outcome of divinely inspired repentance.

Over the last year or so, I have witnessed a weariness in the hearts of many people. A weariness at the anger, the injustice, the hatred, the oppression, and sometimes the sheer stupidity of the actions of humanity. I have also witnessed so many weighed down as they do their best to confront and confess their complicity in unjust systems and unjust actions. A lot of that confrontation and confession of guilt seems to happen online through blog posts and rapid-fire commentary. And yet it appears that many of us remain mired in guilt, unable to discern God’s vision or how God would have us act in light of these situations. It feels hopeless. And so I wonder what repentance has to say to this weariness. I cannot speak for others, but I wonder for myself, if I have been acting without seeking, confessing without clarity, frantically producing whatever fruit I can manufacture from my own fractured spirit. Like the people of Israel, I wonder if God is calling us in the midst of racism, politicking, war, climate change, refugee crises, poverty, and oppression to a space of repentance and rest – to seeking God in the wilderness. Not so that we might avoid the pain, but so that we can be God’s transforming presence in it.

I expect for many of us, taking off to the wilderness is not easy. So if you are seeking wilderness space in which to seek God, our sanctuary will be open each Saturday night until Gathering Sunday on September 11 from 7-8 pm for silent prayer. Let us continue to seek the God who longs to make us whole. 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

A year of prayer: Reflections on prayers of gratitude

What is enough?

How does choice actually diminish my gratitude?

How does busyness play a role?

Over the past month, as I've attempted to be mindful and breathe in each moment as a gift, I've found my mind alive with ideas and wonderings. 

I find gratitude challenging. This might be an understatement. If I am to be very honest, I often find myself wanting more, making comparisons, wanting not this, but that (a "that" which is only a millimetre over from "this"), and falling victim to the socially acceptable norm of busyness, even when I'm not really busy at all. 

A friend of mine posted this article on fb today which struck a chord for me. It was a reminder that I have far far far more than I need. Yes, it can be challenging to make ends meet and to get all the bills paid. Yes, we are in student loan debt up to our ... not sure what body part makes sense here. But we have a place in which to live. We have family and friends. We have employment (even if more employment would be helpful). We have eaten every day this month. We have clean water to drink and bathe in. We have furniture and books and I'm typing on a computer that is connected to the internet. Yes, it's true that we have far less than many people, but it's also true that we have vastly more than most people. So why oh why do I struggle with gratitude!? 

Each day as I walked to work, I tried to breathe in and give thanks for the moment, for life. And that was and is, I think, a very good thing to do. It helps to orient me and it does make me more grateful, it really does. Yet, one day as I was walking I wondered whether or not I had the right kind of toque. Or maybe it was the scarf. Either way I was distracted and suddenly recalled a psych experiment that I learned about in my first-year psych class called the "two-string problem."  In the two-string problem a person is placed in a room and he has a chair and a pair of pliers. Two strings hang from the ceiling and he needs to bind them together with only the supplies he has in the room. The strings are too far apart to be able to reach both at the same time. When our prof gave us this problem, very few people were able to come up with a solution, we simply didn't have the right stuff at hand, or so we thought. The challenge we faced was figuring out a way to use the pliers in a novel way -- using them as a weight for a pendulum.

The two-string problem is an example of the theory of functional fixedness. Functional fixedness "concerns the solution of object-use problems. The basic idea is that when the usual way of using an object is emphasised, it will be far more difficult for a person to use that object in a novel manner." This, it strikes me, is part of my difficulty with both gratitude and enough. Not to throw all the blame on consumer culture or media, but just watching a few commercials is enough to offer some evidence that functional fixedness is beneficial to anyone trying to sell something. The more specific the usage, the more variety of items we need. And even though there are a large number of websites throwing out every "life-hack," one can imagine (using everyday items for other purposes to reduce cost/waste), I still generally think that I need a hammer to go with my nail. Which, is actually not true at all. There are dozens of things that can take the place of a hammer. 

And I do think that all this variety gets in the way of gratitude. Somehow I have come to believe that I need certain (rather specific) items to achieve certain goals. If I don't have those items, I sense that I am lacking something and thus feel less grateful. I suspect that the less I have and the more I stretch myself to simply use what I've got with imagination, the more grateful I am likely to be.

And finally, busyness. Another friend highlighted this article on busyness today. One of the points of the article is that many of us simply default to "busy," as our response when people ask us how we're doing, laying it out as a badge of honour, rather than the sickness that it actually is. I'm seriously guilty of this one. Even on days that are relatively leisurely, if I'm asked how my day is going, I'm likely to respond with "busy." It's like our contemporary version of "fine." When I was growing up, "fine," was a socially acceptable throw-away response. It was a response that carried a bit of stoicism with it. It meant I was good and didn't need help. It was, more often than not, a lie. While "busy," is also a socially acceptable throw-away response, that is also often a lie, it has different connotations. It seems to  indicate that I am indispensable (which I am not), that others are stretching me to my limits (which may or may not be true), that my life is filled with burdens (indicated by the sigh that accompanies my response), and that ultimately, you should feel sorry for me, and be awed by my ability to survive the insanity that is my life. 

I'm not saying that we should go back to using the word "fine," in all our casual discourse. Nor am I saying that responding with "busy," is always wrong. I suspect there are a few people who can claim that response with a good deal of integrity. But I'm simply wondering if my use of "busy," actually gets in the way of living out of gratitude. Maybe my life is busy, and I need to make some changes (busyness for many of us is quite often chosen) in order to live a life of gratitude, letting go of striving and excess. Or maybe the label "busy," doesn't even really apply and it simply masks the beauty that's already present.

So my month of offering prayers of gratitude has led me to a few convictions. One, that I need to pay attention to what I actually require to live a life of enough. Two, that seeking out creative ways to use what's right in front of me will likely make me far more grateful since I'll always have what I need! And three, when people ask me how my day or week has been, I'm being given a chance to reflect and answer honestly. I suspect that if I take advantage of those brief moments to reflect, the response might sound far more like "rich," or "full," or "beautiful," rather than "busy."

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Year of Prayer: Month 7 - Prayers of Gratitude

Living with gratitude, or at least the concept of doing so has become rather popular in the last number of years. The movements of mindfulness and awareness have contributed to the rising popularity of this spiritual practice, and I think for good reason. When we are mindful, when we practice awareness, we do indeed grow in our capacity to be grateful.

It is not uncommon to see individuals sharing what they are grateful for on facebook in either word or image. The book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp has inspired thousands to consider what truly brings them lasting joy in their lives and her website offers space for people to share the gifts they are experiencing in their own lives. It seems that gratitude is catching, at least in some spaces.

As I seek to offer prayers of gratitude this month, I feel challenged by the words of Adele Ahlberg Calhoun who states,
Gratitude is a loving and thankful response toward God for his presence with us and within this world. Though "blessings" can move us into gratitude, it is not at the root of a thankful heart. Delight in God and his good will is the heartbeat of thankfulness (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 29).
For me the challenge here is to recognize each moment, each breath as gift. To recognize that the very presence of God within and around me is enough.  For someone who is naturally more on the pessimistic end of the spectrum, perhaps it would make more sense for me to start with a gratitude journal or something like the 1000 Gifts Challenge, but I am also aware of my potential need to keep track, or to tally up my blessings and weigh them. Perhaps I will note things I am grateful for, and share them with others at some point along the way, but I want my starting point to be with gratefulness for each breath.

As a way of centering myself and entering into this practice with intention, I've chosen a song to start each day. The particular song I've selected never fails to draw me into gratitude for God's presence, and for the presence of those around me. I pray that this month will be one of centering my attention on the gift of being, and the presence of the one who simply is.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

A year of prayer: Reflections on Praying in Color

My intention this month was to spend time praying in colour, and if it should happen that I needed more structure I would use mandalas. Well, I guess I needed more structure! 

One of the things that I love about praying in colour or doodling prayer is the way that it can get you out of your head and into your heart and body. Normally praying in colour does that for me. Normally it helps me to shut off my brain and enter into a different kind of prayerful space. But this month, it didn't. This month I really needed mandalas in order to move out of my head, to let go of my thoughts. I found I kept wanting to write words, and the words led me to more thoughts. The simply movement of colouring in the lines was needed in order to let go.

One of the things that I began to notice as well, was that the more colour options I had open to me, the more difficult it was to let go of my worries or my need to process things cognitively. For a portion of the month, I only had 5 or 6 markers to work with, and none of them were really my favourite colours. So I simply worked with what I had, and I was surprised to find an increased sense of spaciousness within me. It became easier to let go of product and settle into the action of pen on paper.

I was also reminded of how much I have always loved colouring, particularly on good quality paper (this was a treat when I was a child since most colouring books in the 70s and 80s were made of a thin, smelly kind of recycled paper). I can look back on my childhood and recall particular colouring books that brought me joy, or the thrill of a brand new pack of pencil crayons. It seems as though colouring has always been an action that brought me back to myself and helped me to centre, long before I had words to articulate what was happening. The playfulness and freedom of praying with my hands through the action of colouring, doodling, and drawing has been a powerful discovery for me on my faith journey and continues to bring new life.