Prayer as Growth – Advent sermon series 1

In the movie, “Good Boys”, three young friends explore the meaning of friendship and growth. On the journey towards maturity, Max, Lucas, and Thor discover what it means to be in a healthy relationship that can change over time.

Everything is going fine until each boy begins to pursue individual goals. At the same time, they realize that what one of them wants to do is not necessarily what the others like to do. It looks like they are going their separate ways. And the friendship group appears to dissolve.

When Lucas sits down with his parents in tears, bemoaning the breakup of his friendships, his parents offer some sage advice. They recall an old pet Lucas used to have – a hermit crab. But, when Lucas was much younger he wasn’t told how exactly his hermit crab had left them. His parents, now, tell him the truth:

The hermit crab had to find a new shell, they say. And died on its way to the beach. They explain that a hermit crab eventually outgrows its shell. And must find another shell that is larger into which it can continue to grow. If it doesn’t find a larger shell, it will die one way or another.

Lucas makes the connection that he is growing, and may need to find a larger shell to grow into – a larger social group, new friends, other activities. Leaning on this truth, Lucas is freed from the self-blame for the recent troubles with Max and Thor. It is normal and healthy to go through these growing pains in relationship. As it turns out, the boys learn to find a new way of relating with one another – a way that respects each other’s unique talents and personalities.

Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul describes a healthy relationship to God.[1]And as we grow in this relationship, we change. And the way we relate to God changes.

In this first part of the series of sermons in Advent on prayer, I would like to underscore this theme: Prayer as growth, in our relationship with God.

There are times in our lives, events and circumstances, that give us this sense that our whole person–our deepest desires, the core of who we are–is actually waking up. At first some experiences may not feel particularly enlivening. Ironically, it is often difficult, challenging times in life that cause this re-birthing within us.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “Wake from sleep, now is the moment! Shed your clothes of darkness and ignorance and be clothed with Christ.”[2]This imperative is a common theme in Paul’s writings; to the Ephesians he writes: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead!”[3]

And in our Gospel text today, Matthew records Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” especially at the time when you are in the darkness of not knowing, or in grief, or loss or some kind of suffering. This is the time to wake up, for God is doing a new thing for you.[4]Do you not perceive it? It is time to get up. It is time to slough off the old and make room for the new. It is time “to live into the reality of the new age about to dawn.”[5]

We hear the call at this start of a new church year and the first Sunday in Advent. We hear this call to spiritual renewal as we seek to deepen our lives of faith and wait upon the coming of the Lord into our lives. The call to renewal starts with prayer.

I started by saying there are occasions in our lives that become opportunities—divine invitation, you could say—to try a different way of praying.  Like spokes on a large wagon wheel, there are different ways to pray—intercessory praying, devotional prayer, prayers with lots of words, prayers without using any words, imaginative prayers, body prayers, sacraments, song, music, art.

A variety of prayer forms give us ways of growing and deepening our relationship with God in Christ. Because at the centre of every wheel—even one with several spokes—is the hub, which is Christ. The ever-present, living Lord, moves with us and in us down the road of life.

As we grow older, for many of us, the only real question is: Why doesn’t  God answer my prayers? Because of this conundrum alone, many of us frequently just stop praying and hope for the best. Hopefully on our life’s path, when we meet others we listen to them and discover that no two of us have exactly the same spiritual journey.[6]So, why would we believe there is only one way to pray or only one way of understanding what happens in prayer?

We are each like the hermit crab, seeking to find a larger shell to grow into.

But how can we be encouraged to find a larger shell? How can we even believe that we are growing, that our broken lives so weak and stained by life’s hardships be the place wherein Christ makes his home and through which Jesus’ light shines? How is this even possible?

I heard this week the story of someone recently walking through the woods. Without yet any snow on the ground to brighten things here in Ottawa, the landscape is shrouded in browns and darkish colours. Blah. While walking the forest path, she stopped at large, oak tree which still held its leaves.

But the leaves weren’t full and vibrant with life as you would see in late Spring. They were curled at the edges, no longer pulsing with life-sustaining chlorophyll. Like crumpled, dried paper, these leaves hung there, lifeless and dead. Just waiting for the inevitable drop to the ground.

In that instant, the clouds high above suddenly broke. And streams of sunlight immediately penetrated the darkened woods and shone upon these listless leaves. In that moment of brilliance the leaves were clothed in the light. They were animated in the sunshine and restored to an incredible vision of renewed life. They absorbed and reflected the light. Their previously deadened state was transformed.

In the darkness of predawn, it is indeed hard to believe there is anything but the night. But arise, awake! The light is coming. And when the son comes as it does every morning, we are transformed and renewed in the light. And our lives reflect again God’s grace and love.

 

[1]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.18.

[2]Romans 13:11-14; ibid., p.16.

[3]Ephesians 5:14.

[4]Matthew 24:42; Isaiah 43:19.

[5]Howell, ibid., p.14.

[6]Ray Leonardini, Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners (New York: Lantern Books, 2018), p.1,41.

The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

Annual Pastor’s Report

Effective Partnerships

The most significant event in the life of Faith Lutheran Church in 2016, was the decision to complete an extensive renovation of our worship space and narthex hallway. To complete this major modernization project, we partnered with the capable and esteemed contracting company from Stittsville, “Amsted”.

This decision precipitated what may in the long run prove to be just as significant, if not more so: The decision to join with the local Anglican parish on Sunday mornings during the time of the renovation (which lasted into 2017).

Even should nothing enduring come of the relationship between Faith Lutheran Church and Julian of Norwich Anglican Church, the mere exercise of gathering as a hybrid congregation for the last ten consecutive Sundays in 2016 plus two Christmas Eve services caught the attention of the Christian community in Ottawa and across our Eastern Synod.

Meeting to worship with local Anglicans affirmed both the existing Full Communion relationship between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC), an agreement existing since 2001. As such, given the other options during our vacancy from 43 Meadowlands Drive West, meeting with an Anglican congregation was attractive, since doing so facilitated many logistics of worship between our similar liturgies, as well as kept a certain momentum alive for meeting at all, during the renovation/vacancy period.

On Lutheran liturgy Sundays (every other Sunday) at Julian of Norwich, we expressed our unique identity within the union of two distinct congregations. For example, each congregation has different histories, as well as contrasting governance structures (i.e. Anglicans are governed episcopally, while Lutherans are governed in a congregational structure).

While comparing congregations is fruitful, challenging and enjoyable, the fact that we began this relationship knowing we were returning home at some point allows us to pose critical questions of review of our ‘way of doing things’ freely, both around sacramental practice and mission.

During the Eastern Synod Assembly in June, your lay delegate (Julia Wirth) and the pastor heard again the four main, missional themes of the Eastern Synod (Effective Partnerships, Healthy Church, Spirited Discipleship, Compassionate Justice). No doubt, our congregation participated in a way no other Eastern Synod congregation has, in affirming the value of seeking “Effective Partnerships” in fulfilling God’s mission, especially during times of need and change.

Loss and Transition

A basic assumption of committing to the renovation project was that we had to take leave of our current building, and specifically our place of prayer. Doing so was an act of courage. Leaving a place that has symbolized a constant certainty in the lives of Faith members for over fifty years was not easy. Our sense of stability in faith was disrupted, as we were challenged to distinguish between the form (‘our’ building) and function (the purpose) of faith.

This leave-taking coincided with other endings. June 2016 marked the last time the Faith Lutheran Women (FLW), structured the way they had been for the last few decades, met in typical fashion (see report). For some time prior to this they had been talking about closing their account and ceasing to meet ‘as is’. In the latter part of 2016, that talk became reality.

Also, the Confirmation program that for several years had been a successful experience for leaders and participants alike, did not in the Fall of 2016 achieve the critical mass of students to warrant a class structured in the same way. As a result, no program started up at the start of the school year.

These events, I believe, constitute ground for growth and maturity of our community as we practice the spiritual gifts of detachment and trust. The prophet Isaiah spoke the word of God to the exiled people in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.:

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Before the new thing arrives, we need to stop the old thing. These endings are not failures as such; rather, they provide the space for the new thing God will have for us. What we are called to in disruptive times of loss and transition, I believe, is to be patient, have presence of mind and openness of heart, and be willing to take a risk together when something presents itself in our hearts as possibility and passion.

Poised for renewal

Moving into the new year, Faith Lutheran Church is poised to embrace a season of discernment, reflection and new beginnings.

Not only will we return to enjoy the gift of a refreshed, safe and healthy environment for meeting in our newly renovated building, we will be encouraged to reflect on what this space, created for at least another decade of ministry, worship, and mission, will be used for.

Late in 2016, the congregational council unanimously endorsed a proposal for a 3-month sabbatical for the pastor in 2017. The sabbatical covenant, based on the Eastern Synod Guidelines for Sabbatical, addresses the need for leaders to take periodic and extensive ‘pauses’ in vocational life, for renewal, reflection and discernment.

The benefits for the congregation mirror those for the pastor. From the perspective of providing some distance, a sabbatical gives freedom for everyone to step back, assess the structure of ministry and mission in the congregation, and contemplate new ways of supporting one another in our lives of faith.

For example, healthy congregations in general have several highly functioning lay leaders who engage proactively not only in managing a church, but in leading the mission of the church. The health benefits to the congregation, as for the pastor, following the sabbatical give opportunity for renewal of the mutuality of the relationship between pastor and congregation in God’s mission. The ‘reset button’ is pressed, and energy flows again.

Adaptive Change: Put away the mallets and start asking “Why?”

“There is a wonderful story of a group of American car executives who went to Japan to see a Japanese assembly line. At the end of the line, the doors were put on the hinges, the same as in America. But something was missing.

“In the United States, a line worker would take a rubber mallet and tap the edges of the door to ensure that it fit perfectly. In Japan, that job didn’t seem to exist.

“Confused, the American auto executives asked at what point they made sure the door fit perfectly. Their Japanese guide looked at them and smiled sheepishly. ‘We make sure it fits when we design it.’

“In the Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and accumulate data to figure out the best solution — they engineered the outcome they wanted from the beginning. If they didn’t achieve their desired outcome, they understood it was because of a decision they made at the start of the process.

“At the end of the day, the doors on the American-made and Japanese-made cars appeared to fit when each rolled off the assembly line. Except the Japanese didn’t need to employ someone to hammer doors, nor did they need to buy any mallets. More importantly, the Japanese doors are likely to last longer and maybe even more structurally sound in an accident. All this for no other reason than they ensured the pieces fit from the start.

“What the American automakers did with their rubber mallets is a metaphor for how so many people and organizations lead … a series of perfectly effective short-term tactics are used until the desired outcome is achieved. But how structurally sound are those solutions?

“ … Long-term success [is] more predictable for only one. The one that understands why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.

“Going back to the original purpose, cause of belief will help … [churches] adapt. Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do …? the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and …[other] opportunities available today?” (1)

Being poised for renewal means we need to understand the nature of change in institutions such as the church. Some definitions, outlined in a report generated by the Eastern Synod Mission Committee late in 2016, draw the distinction between Technical Change and Adaptive Change:

Technical Change is about fixing problems while essentially keeping the system the same. In other words, where’s the mallet?
Adaptive Change, on the other hand, is about addressing fundamental changes in values that demand innovation, learning and changes to the system itself. Start with ‘Why?’ And then lead from there, by design not default.

During this coming year, which will give all of us permission to pause and reflect, please resist the temptation to rush into doing something either because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or because we are too anxious not to remain awhile in the uneasy ‘in-between’ time of loss and transition. Be patient, take deep breath, pray, and reflect on the following questions:

Our adaptive challenge questions for 2017:
1. How do we communicate? To whom is each of us accountable?
2. How well do we listen and seek to understand the other? Give concrete examples.
3. Will we create a list of those who are not in church (technical strategy); or, will we identify the needs in the community surrounding 43 Meadowlands Dr West, in Ottawa (adaptive strategy)?
4. How will prayer be our starting point?
5. What are other ways besides worship that serve as entry points for the public to engage the church? This is important.
6. How do we see worship as a launching pad, not a destination, for following Jesus? This is very important.
7. What are the gifts we have as a church? (personnel, space, talents, passions, etc.)
8. How well do you know your fellow congregants’ jobs, professions, contacts, interests, hobbies, talents, passions?
9. Why do we initiate a ministry or mission outreach activity in the first place? Who is the target group? What is the purpose of doing it? Does everyone know the purpose? Why or why not? Is there general agreement about the purpose? Why or why not?

Thank you again for the privilege of another year doing this work with you. Blessings and Grace, on our journeys moving forward,
Pastor Martin

(1) Simon Sinek, “Start With Why”, Penguin Books, New York, 2009, p.14-15, p.51