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Sermon – When you come to pray

A couple of years ago, if someone had asked me, “What do you know about prayer?” I would have answered brightly, “Prayer is talking to God.” And if the person asking me was at all sarcastic, as I am, they might have replied with “Well kudos, Penny-Anne, for still being able to quote the catechism you learned when you were, what, six? But in the subsequent 50 plus years, what have you learned about prayer?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? You went to holy school for five years. Didn’t you learn anything about prayer in theological college?”

“Not really. I don’t remember taking any courses in it. But even if they had offered some, I doubt I would have taken them. I mean, a course in prayer sounds kinda boring. And maybe they thought we knew all about prayer before we registered. If they did, they were wrong.”

My prayer life truly did not advance much beyond what I learned as a child. Oh, I was good with praise. I think the human race is hard-wired to praise a Power greater than itself. People write poems and great musical compositions to praise God – the Hallelujah Chorus for instance. And the same thing with gratitude. I find myself giving God thanks all through the day, especially if I try something new on the computer, and it actually works! “Oh thank You, thank You, thank You!”

But petitioning, asking God for stuff, I was still at the level of ‘God bless Mommy; God bless Daddy. God bless this one; God bless that one.’ Like God doesn’t know who needs blessings without me pointing them out? And it got to be stale and dry and it felt like an enormous waste of time. But I didn’t know how to pray any other way.

I also believed that the chances of my prayers being answered were directly proportional to the number of times I said please. “Please grant me this, O Lord, I humbly pray. Oh please, please, please, please, PUH-LEEEEEZE! Amen.” There’s a story in Scripture of a widow who demanded a judge give her her rights. She was so persistent, she wore him down and eventually he gave her what she wanted. I figured, it worked for her… Maybe I too could wear God down by sheer persistence.

Finally, one day, that still small voice in the back of my head, that we all have, said, “Do you know how it makes me feel when you beg?”

“Never thought about it. Not good?”

“No, not good! It’s like I’m some kind of tyrant and you have to come cringing before me and beg me to give you what you need, what’s good for you. Penny-Anne, you don’t trust me.”

And in a rare moment of personal honesty I said, “No. I don’t trust You.” And I want you to understand this was just a couple years ago. So if you have any illusions about how “spiritchul” I am, get rid of them. I have struggled with my faith all my adult life. And I envy, in the sinful sense of the word, those who have that simple childlike faith in God. Because I don’t have it. Faith is something I push against. I doubt. I question. And I talk back to God. I am nobody’s role model.

“No, I don’t trust you,” I said. “You have not proven yourself worthy of my trust. You don’t answer my prayers for myself or my family or friends. You don’t spare us catastrophes. I feel like You won’t listen unless I beg You, and sometimes, many times, not even then! So, prove You’re not a tyrant, and not capricious about answering prayer.”

Whenever I sincerely challenge God like that, there’s always an answer forthcoming, particularly when it’s about something important like my image of God as tyrant, or my ignorance regarding prayer. And very often, because I’m always reading, God’s response will come to me in the form of a book.

I follow the blog of a Doctor Lissa Rankin. She’s a medical doctor who is on an incredible spiritual journey and I find what she has to say is often very helpful in my own spiritual quest. One day, she was recommending a book by Tosha Silver called Outrageous Openness. And there was a representation on the cover of the Divine Feminine – so right there she’s speaking my language. And if that wasn’t enough, the figure was winking at me. How could I resist? I ordered the book right away.

When it arrived, I turned to the back leaf of the dust jacket where the author’s picture is and the little blurb about what she does, and that’s where I learned that Tosha is an astrologer! An astrologer! And a word flashed through my mind – flake! Followed quickly by two more words – total flake! And I thought well there’s seventeen dollars I’ll never get back. And again, that little voice at the back of my head, that we all have, piped up and said, “Are you that arrogant? So arrogant that you think because you’re down on astrologers I must be too? So arrogant that you can’t believe that I could use anyone, ANYONE, to get a message through to your precious little self? Are you really that arrogant?”

Clearly, I’m exactly that arrogant. But I’m not stupid. And I come from good Scottish stock and I’m not spending seventeen bucks on a book I never read. That’s just crazy talk, that is!

In my 61 years on the planet, I’ve read a lot of books. Some were dreadful. Most were pretty good. A few were exceptional. And a handful were life-changing. Outrageous Openness is in that last category. Because of that book, after six decades of life and I don’t know how many years of religious education, I finally learned how to pray.

My fundamental problem with prayer, specifically asking God for stuff, was I didn’t think God was inclined to give it to me without a certain degree of cajoling. And even then I might not get what I wanted because God seemed erratic, and not particularly enamoured of me.

Tosha on the other hand, has this idea, to quote her, that God is an “ardent…suitor who writes us love letters every day that often go unopened.” Not only is God crazy about us, but God is our Source – for everything! So if God loves us and is our Source, is all this love and goodness going to be measured out to us with an eyedropper? No! Like any ardent suitor, God wants to shower us with gifts and good things every day.

So why didn’t that happen more often?

Why did my prayers so frequently go unanswered?

Turns out, it wasn’t God.

It was mah prayers!

Here’s how I used to do it:

Step 1 – Tell God what I need. I need a promotion.

Step 2 – Give God all kinds of suggestions as to how to accomplish this task for me. If you could just make So-and-So retire…If You could make the Department Head recognize my superior abilities…If You could help me make a connection with someone in HR who could help move me up the ladder…

Step 3 – Beg. Oh please, please, please, please, PUH-LEEEEZE!

Step 4 – Repeat Steps 1 through 3 until something happens, and hope it’s something good.

Turns out, I got the first step right.

Step 1 – Tell God what you need. OK. Promotion.

Step 2 – Admit that you don’t always know what’s best for you.

I don’t? Well no, I guess I don’t always. So OK, I want a promotion, but I don’t always know what’s best for me. Now what?

Step 3 – Make an act of trust that God knows what’s best for you, and loves you, and wants your highest good always.

Alrighty. I want a promotion, but I don’t always know what’s best for me. But You, God, You do know what’s best for me, and You love me, and You want my highest good always. That it?

No, one more. Step 4 – Leave the situation in God’s hands and disengage from the outcome.

Whoa! You just lost me there, sister! I don’t want to disengage from the outcome. I want to control the outcome.

Really? You just admitted you don’t always know what’s good for you, but God does. God, the Almighty, All Wise, Creator of the Universe loves you and has your best interests at heart, but no, you want to control the outcome. You, who can’t even control how many potato chips you eat in one sitting, you want to be in charge of how things work out. Is that about right?

Well, put it like that, you make it sound stupid. :-) So what am I supposed to do instead?

Give thanks. Give thanks in advance for however the situation is going to turn out, because whatever happens, you have put yourself in alignment with the will of the God who loves you, so you know, whatever happens, it will be alright.

You might remember a while back a movie called Shakespeare in Love. And there was a running gag in the picture where one character says, “All is lost!” And a second character says, “It will be alright.” And the first character says, “How shall it?!” And the second character says, “I don’t know.” I love that because it shows such great faith! We don’t need to give God suggestions. We don’t need to know the how’s of the circumstances. That’s God’s job.

When we put the situation in God’s hands, when we resist the temptation to force an outcome, to manipulate or control things even with our prayers, when we can give thanks in advance for whatever the outcome will be, we can stop worrying, stop begging, and be at peace. When God is given a free hand to work in our lives, the result is always our highest good.

Even when the outcome is not at all what we wanted, even the opposite of what we wanted.

Do I believe that? Do I believe what I just said? Almost. I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to believe that even if the news is dire, if the outcome looks like a complete disaster, I will be alright. Here’s two examples of why I’m starting to believe this. Just lately I was watching a video of Dr. Christiane Northrup, in which she said that some of her patients actually told her, “I’m glad I had cancer. It saved my life.” Glad you had cancer? What an extraordinary thing to say! I have no doubt they were telling the truth. I just don’t understand how they could say such a thing. It has something to do with faith and trust. But I don’t understand it yet.

And another woman, Carol Bryan, had cosmetic treatments of filler injections in her face that went terribly, terribly wrong. The stuff got into her optic nerve and left her blind in one eye. And she was horribly disfigured. If you’ve ever seen pictures of The Elephant Man, that’s who she reminded me of. The flesh of her forehead started to slip down over her eyes, and she had to tape it back, just so she could see. She endured many excruciating surgeries, one of them seventeen hours long, just to obtain a normal face. She’s advocating now for stricter regulations on cosmetic procedures and she’s encouraging other women considering these treatments, particularly young women, not to let society dictate how they should feel about their looks. In an interview, she said, if she could, she would not change what happened to her. In her own words, “Because regardless of how much I suffered…it gave me a new and worthy calling.”

She wouldn’t change it if she could? That’s the kind of faith I want, to be able to believe so much in the love of God that even in the direst circumstances I would know God is working for my highest good; that even if I must suffer, even if I must walk through hell on earth, I will be alright.

How shall I?

I don’t know.

But God does.

And someday, when I can trust that, it will be enough.

Let’s bow in prayer…

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Sermon – “Greater works than these…”

I preached last Sunday. These have been tumultuous times for our church, and although I had resolved not to preach for the foreseeable future to give more time to my writing, I couldn’t refuse when asked. Here’s the sermon:

Sermon – Greater Works Than These

There’s a Charlie Brown comic strip, that begins with Snoopy and the little bird named Woodstock, both sitting on top of Snoopy’s dog house. And Snoopy is thinking, “Someday, Woodstock is going to be a great eagle. He’s going to soar thousands of feet above the ground.” And in the next frame Woodstock takes off, tumbles upside down and flutters through the air hither, thither and yon. And Snoopy thinks, “Well, maybe hundreds of feet above the ground.” And right then Woodstock crashes to earth and looks around stunned and confused. And Snoopy thinks, “Well, maybe he’ll be one of those eagles who just walk around.”

This morning, we heard this incredible promise from the lips of Christ – “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

Greater works than these? But Lord, I’m one of those eagles who just walks around, and you want me to do greater works than yours? Greater than feeding the multitude, healing the sick, raising the dead? Tough act to follow, Lord!

Jesus also said, “With faith you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and you could say to this mountain, ‘Go join the mulberry tree,’ and they would obey you!

So, just how much faith would we need to accomplish all of that? The disciples were thinking they’d need a ton of it, so they say to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” And Jesus says, “No.”

“No?”

“No. You don’t need me to increase your faith. You already have enough faith. You have faith the size of …(and they’re thinking he’s going to say the size of a mountain or the size of an ocean) But no! The size of a mustard seed!”

“Well,” they asked, “how much faith is that?”

“About this much. Now come on you guys! You have this much faith, don’tcha?”

And they say, “Well, sure. I mean, who doesn’t have that much faith? But Lord, you want us to perform miracles and work wonders…with this much faith? That’s not a lot of faith, Lord.”

“Actually,” Jesus replies, “it’s exactly enough faith. All you need.”

“So then, what you’re saying to us is, you want us to have a little faith in our ability to work miracles?

“No, you silly gooses! I want you to have a little faith in my ability to work miracles through you. Get it? All you have to do is believe in me, just a little bit, and I’ll take care of the rest. Now off you go, heal the sick, cast out demons, preach the Good News. And while you’re at it, move a few mountains and get a few trees throw themselves into the ocean. It’s fun. Try it.”

And off they went.

At several points in his ministry, Jesus called his disciples, “Oh ye of little faith!” And I used to think he was scolding them for not having more faith. But now I don’t think he was scolding them, but teasing them, reminding them that their little faith was sufficient for miracles. To my mind he’s calling them, “O ye of just enough faith!”

And what was it Jesus wanted his disciples to believe? He wanted them to believe that his Spirit lived and was active within each of them, and that was the Source of their power to do the works of Christ. Christ’s own Spirit. What an amazing idea! I think it’s what Annie Dillard was getting at in that quote on the back of our bulletin – if we’re going to invoke the power of the Holy Spirit, we should buckle up, because we’re invoking the power of miracles!

And that’s what the disciples learned. They came back rejoicing! “Lord! Even the demons were subject to us in your name!” That must have been pretty heady stuff. These were ordinary people, not scholars or theologians, just common folk, and wherever they went, miracles followed. And Jesus said, “Not bad for faith the size of a mustard seed.”

That same power is available to us. That same Spirit is living in each one of us. So why aren’t we working the same wonders that Christ did, and even greater works than these?

Short answer?

We are.

Take feeding the multitude.

Hunger relief on a global scale is reaching more people today than ever before, and certainly more people than Christ ever fed. So I guess you could say that we’re doing a “greater work” than Jesus. Has global hunger been eradicated? No. And it’s not for a lack of food. There is enough food and there is enough money. But there’s not enough good will, yet. We have a natural tendency to hoard what we have, because we think if we share it, we have to lose some of it. But that’s not the way it works in the kingdom. Remember the miracle of the loaves and fishes? The little boy gave away his lunch and five thousand people were fed, (including him!), fed until they couldn’t eat any more, and baskets and baskets of scraps were left over. In the kingdom of God, it’s like we’re standing in a torrent of running water. If I splash a little on you, am I deprived? No! The water keeps pouring in! I can throw buckets of water on you, and the water pours in faster than I can pull it out. There is no scarcity. That is a misperception based on fear, fear that there’s not enough to go around. When we come to see the inaccuracy of that assumption, and learn to live in the reality of God’s abundance, when we freely and joyously open our hands to share, global hunger will be eradicated.

But let’s bring it down locally, to our little church here. We certainly feed the hungry by supporting the mission and the food bank. I believe that the people who attend Deborah’s fitness group bring a donation of canned goods for the food bank as their “admission price.” So we do feed the hungry in that way.

And Lord! the potlucks around here! Any excuse for a potluck. When your church’s motto is “Until we eat again,” you know that no one’s going to go hungry at St. Andrew’s in the Burg.

And it’s not just the food we share. Christ not only broke bread with those he called to his table, he shared his presence as well. We do that when we come together after service to eat and talk and laugh and listen to each other, and get caught up. There’s a churchy word for that. We call it fellowship. When we come together to fellowship, we strengthen the bonds that make us a church. It’s a very necessary activity and it just happens to be delicious. ?

So that’s feeding the multitude.

All right then, what about healing the sick? Jesus healed the sick all the time. Do we? Starting on a global scale again, all the medicines and vaccines today are curing illness on a magnitude Christ never dreamed of. And we’re even preventing disease. Christ healed people, but I don’t think he ever prevented a disease. We can do that now. That’s another “greater work.”

But let’s bring it on down to our church again. How do we heal people?

I don’t know if love can always cure someone, but I do believe it always heals them.

Around Christmastime last year, V. reminded us to be mindful of our sick and shut-ins, and send them a card to let them know we were thinking about them. And I thought, “What an awesome idea!” And I was a little embarrassed I hadn’t even thought about doing it. So Tony and I sent out a few cards, one of them to S. A little while later, she sent us a thank you card for our Christmas card. She was so touched by it, and how beautiful it was! I don’t even remember what it looked like. I remember there was a lot of red, and some glitter, but that’s it. But it meant so much to her. Now, did she throw away her walker? No, she did not. But she was healed a little bit. And so were we in sending the card. Mother Teresa said that the greatest disease on the planet was not leprosy – we have medicine for leprosy. The greatest disease is loneliness. But there’s a medicine for that too, and this church is quite liberal in using it – your cards, your prayers, and your visits. We even have a new pastoral minister now who visits our sick in hospital, K. An essential ministry of healing.

And there’s boarding house. Some of the residents there suffer from mental illness, and while their illnesses are not cured, the residents are deeply healed by the love and caring of L. and D. and all who are involved in that ministry. And I daresay, the ministers themselves are healed by the residents.

So, St. Andrew’s Amherstburg is two for two! Alright!

But now for the big one. Raising the dead. Does St. Andrew’s have any ministry of raising the dead?

On July 6, 2015, St. Andrew’s suffered a great loss in the passing of Jill Pardoe. Jill was very dear to me, and I struggled with her death. I found I could come to church for worship, but I could not face coffee hour, could not even enter the church hall. It was too painful. I couldn’t listen to people, I couldn’t speak to them, I couldn’t do my fellowship. So after service, I would hide out in the basement. I’d sit in the library and read, (and we have a very nice little library downstairs thanks to G.) or I’d file some sheet music in the music room. Busy work. This went on for months.

And I started to feel a little guilty about it. But then Reverend T. R. came to our church one week as a guest preacher, and he told of his experience after the death of his first wife. And he said that he too could come to church for worship but had to leave right after because he couldn’t bear to be with people. And he said when we’ve suffered a great loss, we have to “build a scaffolding” around our hearts to protect them and give them a chance to heal. And I thought, “There’s my permission! There’s my permission!” And I told him when he returned a few months ago how much that meant to me.

So, I continued hiding out in the basement. And not once in all that time, did anyone ever say to me, “You should be over this by now. Jill wouldn’t want you to grieve like this. It’s not healthy. It’s time to get on with your life.” No, not once. The only thing anyone ever did say to me was, “I understand,” and give me a hug.

Then in the Spring, I had to take some time off for my stomach problem, and later in September, when I was planning to come back, I realized I still couldn’t face coffee hour. And I asked Tony, “What am I going to do if I still can’t even go into the hall?” He replied, “Do what you can do.” Very good advice.

Providentially, the first Sunday I came back after my stress leave was when all the trouble erupted at the church. Our elders had been removed, people thought Presbytery wanted to shut us down, and there was chaos and anxiety and not a lot of answers. I felt a great need to help, make some contribution, and I couldn’t do that if I was hiding out in the basement. But I still couldn’t go into the hall, so what could I do? I decided to stay in the sanctuary and talk to people after service. I asked them for guidance, for information, for suggestions on how I could be of assistance. And as I did so, my courage started to return. One day, the person I wanted to talk to was standing at the top of the stairs just inside the church hall, and I thought, I can do this much. I can climb the stairs and stand there and have a conversation. And I did! And I was very proud of myself.

A couple of weeks later, I climbed those same stairs again, walked into the hall and sat down at a table. And I thought, “Woo hoo! Look at me sitting at a table, chatting people up like it’s the easiest thing in the world!” Although my heart was thudding in my chest – boom, boom, boom!

And there was someone at the table who was watching me with a very kind look on their face. And finally they said, “You’re back.” And I replied, “Well, for now.” But “for now” turned out to be “for good.”

The way you respected my privacy, the way you waited for me to come back when I felt ready, and especially the way you honoured me by allowing me to help during a very difficult time for our church, all of that, pulled me up out of darkness and back into the light again.

So if anyone ever says to you that St. Andrew’s Church is weak, doesn’t measure up, and needs to change, tell them – “We raise the dead at St. Andrew’s Amherstburg. What do you do at your church?”

We know we don’t do this on our own, but by the power of the Christ’s Holy Spirit. We don’t need any faith in ourselves and just a tiny bit of faith in Jesus to allow him to work through us and accomplish miracles for others, like you did for me, bringing me back to life.

And I am profoundly grateful to you, O ye of just enough faith!

Let’s bow in prayer…

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Dreams of power

Had my scopes done a couple weeks ago, and the results of the gastroscopy were not as positive as I had hoped. My stomach condition hasn’t healed. But I’m off my meds and am experiencing only the mildest symptoms for which I’m extremely grateful. In addition, I’ve developed another condition as a side-effect of the medication. I’m not going to mention what it is because to name something is to give it power, and I don’t want to do that any more. So henceforth, it shall be referred to as “the condition that must not be named.”

I was disappointed for a couple days or so. After all, it’s so unfair. I have an exemplary diet and I’m faithful to my exercise, and I live a healthy lifestyle. So, you know, what gives?! After some more honest reflection I think I know what it is I’ve left undone.

My inner work.

Oh, I’ve just been playing with meditation, and stress management, and confronting and releasing the pain of the past. Dabbling. Just enough to say I’m doing it. But I’m not. Not really. And when I admitted that, the thought occurred to me that my physical self won’t heal until my inner self does.

And that, children, is what they call motivation. :-)

I’ve stepped up my practise, and as if to confirm I’m on the right path I’ve been getting dreams of power. I almost never remember my dreams, but lately they’ve been coming through loud and clear. One in particular.

I’m holding a sword. I can feel the weight of it in my hand. My opponent steps out from behind a wall and I advance on him. I never take my eyes off him and my grim, determined expression never changes but as I move toward him I drag my sword against the wall causing a shower of golden sparks which I know will intimidate him. One phrase keeps repeating through my mind – “I’m done playing.” We engage and I vanquish him.

Then a woman confronts me holding some sort of silver metallic instrument. It’s not a weapon, but a device designed to pull the sword from my hand by centrifugal force. It would have worked too, only I don’t let go. When we’re face to face I yank the instrument from her hand and disdainfully toss it away. I say, “Get out!” She just rolls her eyes. I scream at her, “GET OUT!!!” And she rabbits off fast as she can.

Finally, an old wizened man lies on the ground in at my feet. He’s dying, but with his last breath he thanks me for giving him an opportunity to fight a worthy opponent before he died. I feel no remorse at having killed him, only respect for an honourable foe.

It was The Mister who interpreted the dream for me. “Sounds like you’re doing away with everything in your life that does not serve you, or your healing.”

I know in my heart he’s right.

So listen up all you blocks and barriers, fears and resentments, worries and stupidities that have kept me bound, scared and living small – you might not be able to see it, but there’s a sword in my hand.

And I’m done playing.

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Christmas Eve, 2016

Best thing we ever did, tossing the tree this year and decorating the living room instead. Over every doorpost and lintel, all along the mantel, the piano, and the bookcase, clear lights wrapped in holly garlands gleam and glow, giving the whole room a rather Narnian look. You almost expect Mr. Tumnus to come clopping in from the kitchen. And look! Is that a lion print on the rug? :-)

To my enormous surprise, The Mister quite enjoyed helping me decorate! Past years, his contribution was bringing up the boxes from the basement and leaving me to go to it, which used to delight me, but last year I had to admit it was getting to be a bit much. But this year he was Johnny-on-the-spot, hammering in nails, working the twist ties, moving things til they looked just so, and leaving three or four times a day to buy more materials. “We need more lights, Missus!” “We need more garlands, Missus!” “We need more lights and garlands, Missus!” Great fun!

And although the weeks leading up to tonight were busy, (my calendar is a mess! Can’t wait to turn the page!) the stress has been reduced by a factor of 10, at least. Maybe because there was more room in my living room, I felt more room to breathe, take a moment, and wonder…wonder what it would have been like to have been in that stable two thousand years ago. The young couple, weary, exhausted, the woman having just given birth, dozing on her husband’s shoulder; the animals, at first started by their urgent entrance and the woman’s screams in labour, now quieted, peaceful; the angel-bedazzled shepherds and the exotic kings from the east bowing to worship the baby in a manger. (And for you Scripture scholars out there, I know I’m mixing my gospels and playing fast and loose with the liturgical calendar, but bear with me for a moment.) I watch all this from a quiet corner of the stable until the moment comes when I know it’s time for me to offer my presents. I step forward, kneel, rest my forehead on the rough wood and whisper, “Jesus. Little brother. I don’t have anything to give you, nothing that you’d want. But I need something from you tonight. You’re about to find out how difficult it is to live in this world you’ve come to save. You’re going to get really tired. You’re going to work so hard, and you’re going to fail. You are going to love your heart out, and it’s going to get you nailed to a cross. Oh there’s resurrection and ascension and all that good stuff on the other side, but in the moment, you’re going to feel weary, fed up, confused and frightened. Like I do sometimes. Like all your followers do sometimes. The straight and narrow road ain’t strewn with roses. Doing greater works than you leads to greater problems than we ever thought we’d have to handle and oh! sometimes Jesus we’re going to get it so wrong!”

“Not that we’re going to give up. No, because there is all that good stuff on the other side. You’ll shown us that. But right now, we need, I need, a little comfort and joy, just a touch to keep me going. So, if your mamma says it’s alright…” And I look over at the exhausted Madonna who gives me a little smile and a little nod. Then I gently move the baby over, carefully crawl in beside him and hold him warm against me. And as I inhale his clean baby scent from the top of his head, my body relaxes at last, and my eyes start to close.

Hoping we’ll all sleep in heavenly peace this sacred night. Merry Christmas all. And the best in 2017.

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