Prayer as Listening – Advent sermon series 2

Last week we met the hermit crab who needs to find a larger shell to grow into. We considered prayer as personal growth. That when we come to various crossroads on the journey of life and faith, we can either give up on a life of prayer or we find another form of prayer.

Today, we consider how important our community is to that journey. Indeed, our relationships are critical and vital to our health and well-being. In truth we cannot do without a community of faith if we want to continue maturing in faith.

After last week’s first in the sermon series on prayer, I was made aware of howthese hermit crabs will find their new, larger shell. Apparently, they find a spot on the beach and line up, together, in a little community of crabs. When a new member of that community finds them on the beach, that new crab drops its old shell at the front of the line. Shell-less, it then goes to the back of the line to wait its turn in finding a larger shell.

The crab at the top of the line – who has waited the longest – has first dibs at the new shell freshly deposited. If it fits, great! Off it goes to resume its life, wherever. If it doesn’t fit, it will keep its place at the front of the line until a shell is left there that fits. The second in line will then try it on. And, in this way, the line moves forward over time until each crab in the community has found a new, larger shell for its growth.

According to this pattern, no crab is left on its own to find its new shell. In this little community no crab is left by itself on the journey of searching, seeking and finding. The hermit crab’s growth is supported by a community of crabs on the journey they share, even as each crab occupies its unique place in line. No two crabs are the same, after all.

Often we think that what glues us together in community is talking, saying words. When we feel we must assert ourselves aggressively. We impose our opinion about who we are about and what we believe about things. We think we are doing the right thing by initiating our opinion. “Speak up!” is the mantra that captures what we believe binds us in community.

Here, we must confess that at the root of this strategy is a fear that if we don’t first assert ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world, somehow we are betraying our own beliefs. We are afraid that if we listen first, we’re not advocating for own ideas and why those ideas matter; we are afraid we’re giving up on our convictions.[1]

“Samar Minallah Khan, the feminist Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker, was enraged. Local tribal leaders were trading little girls as compensation for their male family members’ crimes.

“These leaders, responsible for settling legal disputes in their villages, act as local judges. A long-standing practice was to address major crimes by ‘compensating’ a harmed family with a daughter of the family doing the harm. The guilty father or uncle was then considered ‘free’ and the village was told this issue was ‘resolved.’ Samar thought this tradition, called swara, was horrendous: It forever changed a young girl’s life, through no fault of her own.

“But although Samar was angry, she realized she’d never get to the outcome she wanted if she led with that anger. So, she tried something else. First, she listened more than she talked. She listened to the religious (male) leaders explain the use of swara and its benefits interpreted by the Prophet Mohammad. She listened to the fathers and uncles who allowed their crimes to be expiated this way. And, by listening, Samar learned so much that it enabled her to bridge a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of difference.

“Samar had first assumed that the fathers whose crimes were being forgiven this way were happy to let their daughters suffer for their crimes. But when she listened to them, she heard that they were not. They wanted another way.

“She [also] heard from local leaders that they placed an extremely high value on tradition. She heard from religious Muslim legal scholars that swara was a form of ‘vicarious liability’, which is not allowed in Islam. And finally, she heard that in earlier times, disputes were also resolved by sending a girl to an enemy’s family, but she didn’t stay there permanently; instead, she would be given gifts and then sent back to her parents’ home. All of this, she taped.

“She convened local communities to watch these videos and talk with one another about the tradition and its implications. One by one, local tribal leaders changed what they considered true justice. They decided that swara could be replaced by monetary compensation. Samar created change not by selling her idea, but creating a way for everyone to arrive at a new idea, together. What Samar did was to ask people to share their perspective, without trying to convince them of hers.”[2]

This process took time and a whole lot of patience. If we do this thing together, as Saint Paul advocates in his letter to the Romans, we need to be like those hermit crabs lined up together on the beach waiting for and taking turns in finding our next, larger shell.

The values of sharing, of collaborating, of operating in harmony with others – these are at the root of Saint Paul’s description of a community of faith, in Christ: May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.[3]

The search for God—this is our prayer life—begins with accepting our humanity. After all it was in the stable of Bethlehem, the stable of humanity that God has come in search of us. I like this translation of verse seven in chapter fifteen of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Accept one another, therefore, as Christ has accepted you.”[4] We accept another by learning first to listen.

So, it’s not talking that binds us into community. It’s not needing to force our way in, somehow. In truth, when you think about your closest relationships, what binds you together—what functions as the cartilage—is the confidence and trust that the other truly listens to you. And therefore accepts you. Not, “Speak up!” but rather, “Listen up!” needs to be our mantra. Prayer is not primarily talking but listening.

I read that a true friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you. Isn’t that our spiritual longing, our motivation to pray and connect with God? Isn’t that the dream we share? That one day each of us meets a person with whom we can really talk, who understands us and the words we say—who can listen and even hear what is left unsaid, and then really accepts us. God is the fulfillment of this dream.[5]And so, in prayer as in all our relationships, we listen to God whom we love as God listens to us.

In making room for another in the act of listening receptively, the irony – when we first listen well—is we find that we ourselves have found a place to be heard. Deeply heard, understood, and accepted. By others in community and by God who stands beside us in line and waits for us to find that larger shell.

[1]Nilofer Merchant, Mindful Listening: Emotional Intelligence Series (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2019), p.75.

[2]Ibid., p.69-71.

[3]Romans 15:5-6

[4]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.38.

[5]Ibid., p.38-40.

Children’s skit: A true Christmas cheer

This skit was presented by three puppets during the Christmas Eve service at Faith Lutheran Church on December 24, 2018, as the children gathered around the manger scene:

[the sound of Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells is heard …. ]

MACY: [singing] “Jingle all the way, oh what fun it is to ride on a one-horse open sleigh …” I love this time of year! Meeeeerrrrrrrrryyyy Christmas everyone!

JILL: [looking sad]

MACY: Hi Jill, how are you? You look sad. Is everything ok?

JILL: Oh well, you know …

MACY: Come on, Jill, put a smile on your face! Christmas is great! The lights, the songs, the snow, the presents, the ginger bread dough …

JILL: [sigh] I just find this time of year kinda hard to take, is all.

MACY: The message of Christmas is joy! We went with friends to church, remember?

JILL: I know the message of Christmas: [speaks quickly, like rattling off a list] God so loved the world, and sent Jesus to us, born a baby in Bethlehem. Mary & Joseph and no room in the inn. The stable and manger. The shepherds in the fields. The angels chorus. The magi from the East …

MACY: And that doesn’t help? God is with us. God is with you! I can’t wait for Christmas dinner!

JILL: Yeah. But last Christmas my grandma died. She always made the turkey. And my family always fights when we get together at Christmas. And they complain about everything: the traffic, the busy malls, not having enough money, the hypocrites at church, the flu, Donald Trump, etc. etc.

MACY: Let’s not get political here!

JILL: Not only does Christmas make me feel I miss my grandma, everyone around me gets really grumpy at this time of year. Stress, or something. [shakes head] I don’t know how the Christmas message has anything to do with all of that.

MACY: [trying to cheer up Jill with some distraction] I went Christmas shopping yesterday, and look at this! [displays ugly Christmas sweater]

JILL: Very nice [sulking]

MACY: I even found another sweater I like that I’ll wear on Christmas day: On the front is a picture of Jesus’s face and the caption reads: “Let’s party like it’s my birthday.”

JILL: [shakes head as ISMAEL comes onto the scene]

MACY [with enthusiasm] & JILL [softly]: Hi Ismael.

ISMAEL: Hi Macy! Hi Jill! I heard your great singing! Getting ready for Christmas?

MACY: Yes [looks at Jill questioningly]. At least, I am!

JILL: What are you doing for the holidays, Ismael?

ISMAEL:  We don’t celebrate Christmas, but my family gets together and we make a whole bunch of baklava to take to take to my uncle’s restaurant in the Market.

JILL: I love sweets!

MACY: What’s ba-kla-va? [tries to pronounce]

ISMAEL: In my religion we eat it during the holy days. It’s a layered pastry soaked in honey and served with walnuts.

JILL: Yum! [rubbing her tummy]

ISMAEL: My uncle opens his restaurant on December 25thfor anyone who doesn’t have a home, to come and have a meal. Baklava is very popular!

JILL: My grandma always had a baking day before Christmas. I went over to her house every year to make cookies for the Christmas meal.

ISMAEL: Hey, we’re making the baklava tomorrow. You’re welcome to come over and help us.

JILL: I’d love to learn how to bake it! [her head is held high, obviously happy now]. I can bring some to my family dinner.

MACY: Can I come, too?

ISMAEL: Sure! The more, the merrier!

MACY: How do you like the snow, Ismael?

ISMAEL: Love it!

MACY: Can I teach you a song? It goes like this ….

MACY, JILL & ISMAEL interlock arms and skip off stage singing together the first lines of “Jingle bells, Jingle bells” fading to the rousing applause of the congregation!

 

Discerning Mission today

I’m offering the following reflection to members of our congregational council prior to a conversation we hope to have around discerning a mission focus at Faith Lutheran. I invite your responses, too!

A missional theology for the 21st century

I emphasize the 21st century, because since the 15th century most mission work done by Christians was heavily influenced by what is called the “Doctrine of Discovery”. Please listen to/watch the audio/video at this link https://youtu.be/Ygk3X5Xjjh4 as background material to the question of mission in the 21st century. While Bishop MacDonald reflects its historical effect upon the Indigenous people of Canada, this paper will clarify underlying assumptions of a mission strategy that breaks with the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

Moreover, it is important for ELCIC Lutheran congregations to be aware that a few years ago in national convention, the church formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery” (Visit http://www.elcic.ca/Documents/documents/DoctrineofDiscoveryMotionFINAL.pdf).

I will presume that bearing witness to the Gospel of Christ does not mean we treat people as objects against whom we must compete for doctrinal supremacy. People are not objects with whom we must compete for the truth. Mission is not a game. Mission is not a war. People are not a means to an abstract end, pawns manipulated on the chessboard of religious winners and losers.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” assumed that what we had (the truth, the right way of thinking, the right doctrine of God, etc.) we had to communicate, usually violently, to the other who was infinitely inferior in their thinking and worldview. In other words, our mission practice was usually characterized as an imposition, a forced laying-on of what we believe upon the passive or resistant recipient. The harder we tried, the better. Success was measured by victory on the battlefield, literally and figuratively, and number of souls converted to Christ.

The “Doctrine of Discovery”, moreover, paid little attention to the truth that God has been revealed in all of creation – including those with whom we relate in any missional work (see “incarnational” below).

In the emerging understanding of mission today, the following characteristics stand in contrast to the assumptions of the “Doctrine of Discovery”. As such, the culture of doing mission is undergoing a radical transformation. The diversity and multi-cultural social environment in Canadian society, especially in large urban centres such as Ottawa, make our context particularly attractive to practise and exercise these principles of, and attitudes towards, mission:

1. Respectful

When people who differ from each other in significant worldviews, a respectful encounter is characterized by the willingness to listen first. When all parties in the encounter demonstrate curiosity and a desire to seek deeper understanding from the other, the mission encounter can be deemed a respectful one. An initial question asked by the Christian seeker who is curious about the other, is: “What can you teach me?” / “What can I learn from this encounter?” As such, the Christian also shows genuine humility.

2. Incarnational

God is revealed in all of creation. God’s manifestation is revealed in different ways among different people. Such an outlook is more Hebrew than Platonic. Plato described aspects of reality as an imperfect, refracted reflection. In contrast, the Hebrew notion of physicality, and the Christian belief that the humanity was God’s very embodiment, suggests the revelation of God is encountered more ‘in the flesh’ rather than in abstract ideas. This incarnational mode of mission leads to at least two important implications:

First, mission is God’s work and activity before it is ours. In other words, God is already active ‘in the world’ before we decide to do anything about it. Discerning a mission focus is then about acknowledging an opportunity and then choosing to participate in what God is already doing. Second, mission work therefore addresses real life, practical needs of all creation (see ‘restorative’ below). If a missional initiative is more about spreading the right ideas about God than focused ‘on the ground’ and the particular needs of a particular people in a particular context, than that initiative lacks an incarnational understanding of God’s work.

3. Relational

Based on the Trinitarian appreciation of God (The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit – One God in Three Persons), any missional work in God’s name will be relational. In other words, mission is a communal, corporate act instead of an individual, solitary, autonomous effort in and by the church. As such, a missional approach will hold that when one member of a community suffers, then the whole community suffers (1 Corinthians 12:26. Though Paul refers here to the church and therefore this verse has important implications for the pastoral care of and among Christians themselves, we can also suggest that the general principle applies to broader circles of community, including in the public sphere). We are all interdependent beings, as much as we like to emphasize the rugged individualism and self-reliance in North American culture. Despite these strong notions that continue to influence us, we do need each other. More than one famous person has said that a society is judged by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable members (often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but was also allegedly expressed by American novelist Pearl Buck and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (1965-1969)).

4. Mutual

Flowing from relational and respectful understandings of mission work, a healthy encounter is usually mutual. A basic definition of mutuality is: “What I want from you, I will first give to you.” If I want respect, I first need to give it. If I want your trust, I need to trust you. If I want you to listen to me, I first need to listen to you. Mutuality is thus a rendition of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in a mission encounter is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of mission work: Our (deeper) needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.

5. Collaborative/cooperative

These are mission initiatives that reflect in their organization an effort and desire to be cooperative and collaborate with others. Such efforts presume not a competitive model in the marketplace of charities. Rather, these organizations envision working with different levels of government and the non-for-profit sector to achieve the highest quality of service and maximize resources for a common, shared goal.

6. Restorative

To be ‘restorative’ in doing God’s mission, is to incorporate an incarnational theology with relational, respectful and mutual modes of mission. That is, we look to where God is, in the world around us, and go there. We observe and ascertain the physical needs of the most vulnerable in our society, and we seek to meet those needs – in order to make things right or at least better. This restorative approach also presumes we address some systemic injustices in our society. Mission is not merely ‘charity’ work (which tends to be individualistic and maintain unjust structures). Rather, we gain awareness of the reality facing the vulnerable, we engage in advocacy on their behalf, and/or we engage in action to help a group, directly.

7. Authentic

A Christian mission theology for the 21st century is rooted in an identity that is clear and strong. In this emerging missional style, a confidence and joy in Christian identity is maintained and grows. We are not ‘blending’ nor ‘losing’ our faith in first listening to the other, seeking understanding of the other or loving the other first. In learning more about another’s faith, religion, or worldview, we do not lose what is most important to us. In truth, the opportunity is there to become stronger in our faith by learning more about someone who is different from us/me.

Maintaining faith-integrity is integral to this emerging missional culture. Being authentic and true to one’s belief, maintaining healthy boundaries of respect, and giving others freedom to choose – these all speak to an authenticity that is attractive in and of itself in a missional encounter. As the Twelve Step founder, Bill Wilson, laid out the policy of “attraction not promotion” (Cited in Susan Cheever, “AA and Anonymity – What Would Bill W. Do?” The Fix: Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up, 06/07/2011) , we do not force, we attract.

This might mean agreeing to disagree on some things while still respecting the other. Being authentic implies, also, that Christians in a diverse, multi-cultural world, must keep learning about their own faith, and acquire new skills in relating to each other and the world around us (e.g. active listening, assertiveness). We cannot assume anymore that everyone ‘out there’ knows what we mean when we present crosses, sing hymns, or use familiar (to us) words and symbols. We need to know what these mean to us before sharing our faith. We need to learn how to listen, and to ask for what we need and want from the other. Changed lives will attract others to inquire about the faith, not beating others over the head with a bible nor by the force of persuasion and argument.

8. Local

Finally, the emerging theology of mission in the 21st century is increasingly local in scope. In 2014, Synod Conferences in our church were restructured into smaller units, or local Ministry Areas (e.g. the Ottawa/St Lawrence Conference evolved transitioned into four separate areas: Ottawa Ministry Area /Montreal Ministry Area /Seaway Ministry Area /Upper Ottawa Valley Ministry Area). As a result, the focus of congregational and regional activity bears more on the local geographical context of the church. That is, individual congregations are now encouraged to relate more within the immediate geographic surroundings in mission work with other local congregations, as opposed to the vast area represented by the predecessor Conference structure.

Not denying the good work of national and global missions, Lutherans in Canada are encouraged to focus on more local, immediate needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

An implication of a local emphasis in mission is, we are poised to engage people more, thus fulfilling the relational, respectful, mutual modes described above (rather than merely putting a cheque in the mail to some distant, detached-from-our-reality effort – as worthy and good as it may be). A local mission, then, becomes more present to us and our ordinary, daily lives.

9. Compelling

A purposeful and authentic mission commitment will emerge from who we are as a congregation. I paraphrase Frederick Buechner’s words to say, we must go to where “our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need”. What will generate a collective commitment and enthusiasm for a project will depend on the degree to which the creative juices in our community flow in this discernment. We can think outside the box. We can risk failure. We can try again, and not give up. It’ll work when the imagination of the congregation is stirred and captivated. Is the initiative meaningful to a growing number of people associated with the church? Younger generations want to make a meaningful difference for the better, in the world, through their activity in the church.

Conclusion

In discerning a mission focus for our congregation, I would consider these principles as guideposts for the degree of our participation. For example, to what degree does such-and-such initiative reflect respectful, incarnational, relational, mutual, collaborative, restorative, authentic, local and compelling principles of engagement?

Respectfully offered, and for the purpose of ongoing discussion,

Pastor Martin Malina
April 2018