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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

Creator God,
Lord of all history,
Holy Spirit, breath of God,
with angels and archangels
and all the company of heaven,
we join the chorus of those who worship you.

We come, seeking your holy purpose in our lives.
Our hearts yearn for your presence.

We bring to you
our great need to belong
to be loved
to know that our lives matter.

We bring to you all the wrong pathways
we have travelled
as we seek to meet that need.

Touch us again with your grace and your mercy.
Teach us to rest in you.
Open us to wonder and mystery,
then set us toward Bethlehem.
There show us your Son, Jesus,
and fill our lives with your light,
for you are the One we seek.

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A prayer of confession based on meditation on Psalm 40 and Genesis 37

Holy God,
your name we praise.
You have called us by name
and welcomed us into Jesus’ family;
You promise your presence
and your Holy Spirit to help in times of trouble;
You stand by us
even in times of failure and shame.

Teach us to praise you
even when life takes us through dark places:
when death takes those we love;
when loss shuts down the future we had planned;
when hurts and betrayals wound our spirits;
when trouble gangs up on us;
when guilt swamps our hearts.

Open our ears so we can hear
your Word that brings truth and mercy and love.
Open our eyes so we can see
your Holy Spirit who works in surprising ways.

Then, grant us grace and courage
to enter they mystery of your presence in our lives;
grant us grace and courage to abandon ourselves to you.

We wait.

We listen.

We watch.

Come, Lord Jesus,
become part of our very being.
Speak, Lord, for your servants listen.

 

Assurance of God’s Grace

Our hope is in Jesus’ victory over the powers of this world.

We and our world belong to him

and he will not rest until all things are made new.

Be assured that God’s grace

is at work in your life

overcoming everything that separates you from God,

carrying you deeper and deeper into God’s great love.

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Holy God, holy and mighty,
You know the promises we have made in our best moments:
to love you with
all our heart
and all our mind
and all our strength.

We have promised to worship you alone.

And our intentions are good.

But you know the anxiety that grips our hearts
when problems loom large
and solutions are not easy to find.

We value effectiveness.
We strive for efficiency.
We know how to get things done.
We want to fix what’s wrong.

So, we are not too good with mystery,
especially with the mysterious ways
you work in us and in our world.

We struggle to trust you —
You, whose ways are not our ways;
You, whose timing is so different from ours.

Worshipping you above all else
has turned out to be harder
than we thought it would be.

We try to use you for our own purposes.
We try to summon you to serve our own agendas.
We want you to help us get what we want.

We would give up,
except you will not let us go.
You meet us in mercy where we do not deserve it.
You transform us by grace we do not earn.
You give us your Holy Spirit
to begin again,
to learn a better obedience.

So, we wait —
for the gift of your forgiveness,
for the gift of your Spirit,
for the gifts we need to be your people.

We wait,
handing control over to you
and to your mysterious way with us.

We wait,
through the grace of Jesus Christ
who knows us as we are,
yet loves us still.

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A number of years ago, I was a student minister on a pastoral charge in the Eastern Townships. I was invited for a visit with one of the families who came to their cottage in that area every summer. At one point, the children and I had wandered outside. We noticed a number of mushrooms and circles around the mushrooms on the ground around their stems. I explained to the children that the rings were fairy rings. The children looked a little sceptical so I went on to say, “We seldom see fairies because they are so shy. At night, though, when nobody is around, they come out and dance around the mushrooms. They dance so long that they wear the grass down in a circle around the stems. In the morning, you don’t see the fairies but you see the rings. That’s how you know that these are very special toadstools and this is a very special place.”

The father of the children had come up to where we were and listened for a while. Then, he said, “We have told our children that there are no such things as fairies. We believe you shouldn’t teach children things that they will have to unlearn when they get older because those things were not true in the first place.”

As he talked, all the little fairies — who had just begun peeking their heads out from their hiding places — vanished in a second. We were left with quite ordinary mushrooms with rings around their stems for which I am sure there is a quite rational, scientific explanation.

Ever since then I have felt sorry for those children. I have often wondered about them. With their world rendered so flat and one-dimensional at such an early age, how would they ever learn to hear the songs of angels?

We have two mental operations that are meant to work in tandem: Explanation and Imagination.(Thanks to Eugene Peterson, in Subversive Spirituality, for these ideas.) Explanation pins things down so we can control them and use them. Imagination opens things up. Imagination makes connections between the visible and the invisible world. It helps us touch mystery. If you sever one from the other, you end up with a distorted view of reality. Human life and hope suffer.

Over the past hundred or so years, the balance tipped toward explanation. In the Western world, we were enthralled by what we could know and use and control. We were captivated by technology — the capacity to explain and manipulate increasing portions of the universe.

Few people noticed that a casualty of our rush to explain everything was imagination, and with it, our sense of awe and wonder at what we do not know and what is beyond knowing and saying.

I remember reading somewhere about a father who took his eleven year old son out into the backyard to look at the stars — to wonder at the immensity of the universe, at the beauty of the canopy that was spread out overhead. This was in the early years of space travel and communications satellites. The young boy looked up at the stars and only said, “So, which ones did we put up there?”

A theologian once asked some Amish friends, “Why don’t you have televisions?” She had assumed that they would say that they shunned all modern inventions. Their response surprised her. They said, “We used to have televisions. Then we noticed that our children were not singing songs anymore. They were not dancing and playing games. They were just sitting watching other people. So, we got rid of the televisions. Now, our children sing and dance and play again.”

The evidence is mounting that children who spend their days passively watching television end up with crippled imaginations. They have diminished capacity to envision something different from what is before their eyes. So much of the reality they see on television is violent and corrupt and ugly. Because their capacity to imagine a different scenario gets impaired, they believe society cannot change. The trouble is so big. The world is so out of control that nothing they can do will make a difference. They lose hope. They give up, turn inward, and focus on just taking care of themselves. They look for their own comfort or they act out in rage.

Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth tries to get our imaginations going again. That is not to say that what he tells us is just make-believe or made-up fantasies. Luke is saying, “Touch the mystery of God’s coming to earth in a baby born in Bethlehem.” There is something more going on here than what our five sense can account for. There is something happening in the world that cannot be fully explained.

We know he’s trying to touch they mystery because there are so many angels in the story. An angel comes to Zechariah and Elizabeth and tells them that they are going to have a baby — a baby that all the reason in the world says is impossible.

An angel comes to Mary and tells her she’s going to have a baby. Again, it is a pregnancy that defies rational explanation.

An angel tells Joseph that it is all right to take Mary as his wife. What is going on in her life and in his cannot be accounted for by everything he knows but he can trust it anyway because it is a holy work of God.

Angels — a whole host of angels, angel armies — announce to shepherds that God’s Messiah, God’s Saviour of the world, has been born in a little village outside Jerusalem.

All of this is unbelievable. It is unexpected. Yet, it is so true that two thousand years later we still tell the story and sing praises to the One that the shepherds and worshipped that night.

There are angels everywhere in Luke’s story. They are a healing balm for our imaginations. They open us to the possibility that, just beyond what we see and know, God is at work saving the world.

Did you notice that , in the middle of his talk of angles, Luke insert Governor Quirinius and Caesar Augustus and an explanation about Joseph and Mary heading to Bethlehem because of a royal decree and a census of the Jews? These are the folk who are trying to keep everything nailed dow. They keep adding up all the numbers, hoping that that will keep people in all their proper places. They have some power, to be sure. They saw a word and pregnant women have to travel across the country. But, says Luke, do not be so impressed by them. Luke spends 132 verse telling the story of Christ’s birth. Caesar and Quirinius together — history makers that they are supposed to be — get two verses. And, they don’t get any visits from the angels.

An old couple, a young girl, a worried man and a bunch of no-account shepherds get angel visits and songs and stories. The men who are running countries and empires get two verses and no angels. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Herod was dead in the ground. Quirinius was gone. caesar’s glorious Roman Empire was beginning to crumble and fall. It is the followers of that little baby born in Bethlehem that are making the empire’s foundations shake.

Feed your imagination with Luke’s stories. Learn that you cannot tell what is really going on merely by reading the news. God is at work in unexpected places among the most unlikely of people, bringing new possibilities for which we had not planned. Because God is at work, hope stays alive. Corrupt systems will not last forever. The wicked will not always prevail.

Because God is at work, no situation is irredeemably hopeless. A light shines, even in our darkest nights. There is a force loose in the world that is greater than we are. That force gives hope that is stronger than our despair. It brings peace that is stronger than our conflicts. It gives joy that is stronger than the sadness. There is love that is stronger than all the forces of hate.

On that first Christmas night, we learned that that force is not an impersonal power. That force has a name: Jesus, God saves. Emmanuel, God with us. We know the name because the angels told the shepherds and they were not ashamed to speak of things they could not explain.

Make room for imagination in your life and in the lives of the children you encounter. Help them see that a vast, amazing reality hovers just beyond their sight. Show them a world brimming with glory so that they fall to their knees in wonder and in awe. Encourage them to stay open to the unexpected. Tell them the stories of God’s intrusion into our world. Give them eyes to see and ears to hear the angel’s songs. Tell them, “Unto you is born this night in the City of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” This is good news which shall be for all people. Though many do not see it now, one day, all creation will cry, “Glory!”

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A meditation for Christmas Eve

 

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.  This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.  They were sent to the house of an old professor who lived in the heart of the country….”

So begins C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The ‘something that happened to them’ was a series of adventures in a magical land called Narnia.  The way into Narnia was through an old wardrobe in the spare room of the old professor’s house.  It was not always possible to get into Narnia through the wardrobe, but sometimes, they would open its doors, push their way through the fur coats that were hanging there and, instead of coming up against the back of the wardrobe, they would just keep on walking.  Soon, they would find themselves in the middle of a forest in a place very different from England.

For one thing, in Narnia the animals –some of them anyway – were able to talk.  For another, time passed differently in Narnia.  The children might spend months in Narnia but, when they made their way back through the wardrobe and tumbled out its doors into the spare room, they would discover that only a few seconds had gone by back in England.

There were two worlds existing side-by-side.  The four children moved back and forth between them, sometimes living in the ordinary world of school and homework and games and arguments with each other, and sometimes having amazing adventures with talking beavers and fauns and a wicked queen and a mysterious lion called Aslan.

The analogy isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t do justice to the story, but in some ways, Christmas Eve can feel like the border land between two different worlds.  There is the ordinary world of getting ready for Christmas – decorating, shopping, travelling, all mixed in with children’s hockey games and doctor’s appointments and shovelling the snow.  Then, we make our way into the night for the Christmas Eve service.  We put aside the busyness, the candles are lit, we sing the carols and we enter into worship.  We sense that we are in the presence of mystery – mysteries we cannot explain or really understand.  Mysteries we can only enter into.

Those mysteries speak to the longings that are deepest in our hearts:
for someone who will bring peace on earth;

for things that are beautiful and holy and true;

to live for the things that matter;

to be what we were created to be.

Sometimes, in a moment haunted by grace, we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Luke tries to help us touch the glory.  He fills the story of Jesus’ birth with images that are large — larger than life.  There are angels, but not just any angels.  There is the “angel of the Lord” who makes even hardened shepherds ‘sore afraid’.  The skies explode with a “multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing, ‘Glory to God in highest heaven.’”  For a few moments the night is filled with light from a world beyond our own.  We touch the mystery of things holy and eternal.

Then, Luke draws us into the glory in another way.  He shows us a scene of profound simplicity.  Two ordinary peasants, far from home, arrive in Bethlehem to pay their taxes.  While they are there, they welcome their first-born child in very humble surroundings.  They wrap him in swaddling clothes and use a manger for a cradle.  It is all so ordinary.  It’s not really worth taking notice, except that Luke makes sure we know that here the Saviour is being born.  This common, ordinary place is full of the glory of God.

In C. S. Lewis’ story, England and Narnia don’t intersect.  The children venture into Narnia but creatures from Narnia don’t come into England.  The children talk about their adventures in Narnia only with each other because they are pretty certain that people in England would neither believe them nor understand.  The two worlds are split apart.

But, that’s not the way it is with the story Luke tells.  Here, as we stand at the borderland between two worlds, we are given startling news.  In the baby born in Bethlehem this night, God has put our two worlds back together.  God  has traveled across the boundary between the two worlds and has taken up residence in our midst.  In Jesus, God brings God’s glory and God’s Goodness and God’s beauty and God’s holiness into our ordinary world.

Most of us have few dramatic, extraordinary moments in our lives when we glimpse glory or touch holiness.  We long for it.  We spend our lives searching for it.  But, for the most part, it’s not part of our experience.

Tonight we train ourselves to see that glory and to touch that holiness in the midst of the mundane.  We listen to the story that points us to the glory in humble circumstances.  We come to the table to receive ordinary bread and drink that have been made holy by the presence of Jesus Christ with us.  Then, we begin to realize that it wasn’t just a story that happened long ago.  Because of what happened that night, we can know that God’s salvation is being born in our trips to the hockey arena, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, around the supper table, in our schools and in our places of work.
The wonder is that we get to participate in the holy work God is doing in our lives. It is a gift, which means that what is required of us is simply to open our eyes to see it, our hearts to cherish it and our hands to receive it.  As we leave this place, the taste of grace lingers in our souls.  We return with the shepherds to our ordinary lives, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.

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Where We Live

 A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett.  The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 4.

Scripture: Genesis 2:4b -15

“Where shall I look for enlightenment?” the disciple asked the elder.
“Here,” the elder replied.
“When will it happen?” the disciple wanted to know.

“It is happening right now,” the elder said.
“Then why do I not experience it?”

“Because you do not look.”

“But what should I look for?”
The elder smiled and answered, “Nothing. Just look.”

“But at what?” the disciple insisted.

“Anything your eyes alight upon.”

“Well, then, must I look in a special kind of way?”
“No.”

“Why ever not?”

The elder said quietly, “Because to look, you must be here. The problem is that you are mostly somewhere else.”

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, “The hardest thing in the world is to be where we are.” It is hard to be where we are because life is hard and we want it to be easier than it is. It is hard to be where we are because the three thousand advertisements we see per day tell us that life — our life— can be better than it is. We deserve more. We deserve the best. All we have to do is to buy the products they are selling: beer, soap, drugs, shampoo, lottery tickets. We can drive a better car. We can impress better people. We can travel to a better place.

“The hardest thing is to be where we are.” Where we are, says Genesis, is the garden in Eden. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east. And there he put the human he had made.” Genesis 2 tells us that twice in seven verses. “The Lord God took the human and put the human in the garden of Eden.” Perhaps the storyteller was afraid that our minds might be elsewhere. We might be distracted and not know where we live our lives.

When many of us think of the Garden of Eden, we think of a perfect place, of paradise. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, we miss what the storyteller is saying about our lives. The place where humans “are” is Eden. Eden is bounded by four rivers — Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. We know where the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers are. Use a search engine and they show up on a map. However, nobody knows where Pishon River is. Nobody knows where the Gihon runs. You cannot find them on any maps. Not on the internet. Not in an atlas.

God places us in Eden. Our lives are bounded by the known and the unknown. We live in the midst of visible realities like rivers and maps and trees and buildings and different kinds of soap and beer and shampoo. We also live in the midst of invisible realities like love and forgiveness, truth and humility, hope and mystery. You cannot touch them but they influence our lives in powerful ways.

Generally, we are more comfortable with the visible, concrete, material realities of our lives. They are easier to control and manage. I do not know if it is peculiar to Western culture, or whether it is just human nature, but we tend to like things we can control. At least, we like things that feed our illusion that we are in control. One phone call, one appointment with the doctor, and that illusion dissipates in a flash, but still we cling to the illusion that we can control our lives.

The largest part of our lives — the love, mystery, hope, truth — they are not things we control as much as we experience them. We enter into them. Generally, we do not attend to them as much; however, they influence our lives in deep, profound ways. If we are to live well, we need to drink deeply from the rivers of Pishon and Gihon.

The names of the rivers are plays on words. “Pishon” means “that which spreads out far in the distance”. It is a river that overflows. It floods its banks and destroys home and farms and roads. It is a wild, destructive river.

“Gihon” is also a river that grows. However, it grows in a positive sense. The harmony is large and growing larger. It leads to life and fruitfulness and vitality.

Tigris and Euphrates hold a similar tension. hideqel means sharp, violent, hard, piercing.

pherat means being fruitful, productive. This garden in which God places us includes both positive and negative possibilities.

We live in a wonderful world. We are especially conscious of this as we live in Canada. It is a land of enormous beauty. It has bountiful, productive land. It abounds in amazing diversity. However, this is also a world where one out of three children in Sub-Saharan Africa is dying of hunger. This is a world where earthquakes and tsunamis wipe out whole villages; where refugees crowd into boats that capsize before reaching freedom; where greed and exploitation put whole ecosystems at risk so that the coral reefs around the world are all dying. Eden is a good place but it is not perfect. Bad things can and do happen here. Good and evil are part of the realities of our lives. So are birth and death, harmonious growth and violent destruction.

Any faith worth having is a faith that helps us deal with both realities truthfully and with hope. Said Craig Barnes, “Christians always live carrying in one hand God’s promises of how it will be and, in the other hand, the hard reality of how it is”.  We carry God’s good and holy purposes for us in one hand. We carry the hurts and losses and pain and grief that contradict the goodness and joy and peace that God intends in the other. That’s where we are. “Life isn’t logical or sensible or orderly Life is a mess most of the time. Faith must be lived in the midst of that mess.” (Charles Colson)

That is where we wrestle for faith: which is why it is crucial that the garden is in Eden. Eden, says Genesis, is in the east. The east is where the Messiah, the Saviour, comes from. The word Eden is qedem, which also means “the glory of God”. We live in “the glory of God”. Most of the time we miss it, but that is where we are.

Eden can also mean, “where new beginnings come from”. It can mean “the place where grace comes from”. We live our lives in the midst of God’s glory, in the midst of the new beginnings God is making possible, in the midst of God’s amazing grace. Said C. S. Lewis, “God walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”

Genesis 2 spends a lot of time telling us the lay of the land where we live. It is getting us oriented in the presence of good and evil, of life and death, of fruitfulness and destruction. Much of life consists of negotiating our way among those realities with courage and hope and faith when courage and hope and faith are not easy to come by.

Genesis 2’s most decisive orientation is the one that keeps us awake and alert to God’s gracious presence: we live in Eden, a holy place filled with the glory of God.

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Sally Longfellow is a minister in the United Church of Canada. Years ago, when her children were still young, she would give them “the speech” every year at Christmas (Christianity Today). “Remember,” she would tell them, “Jesus only got three presents, and none of them were toys, so don’t be disappointed by what you get.”

One year, during a worship service after Christmas, she called the children of the congregation forward for the children’s time. She asked them about their Christmas celebrations. They told her about all the presents they had received. She asked, “What do you think Jesus would say to Santa Claus today?” Her daughter answered, “Jesus would say, ‘How come I only got three presents and none of them were toys?’”

In the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we celebrate God’s choice to come to us in a most unexpected way. God, Creator of the cosmos, full of power and might, chooses to be born to two Jewish peasants on the fringe of the Roman Empire. The Holy Spirit, free and wild, chooses the limitations of human life.  The God of  unimaginable glory shows up in the midst of ordinary human beings who are confused and frightened and not at their best.

The mystery we touch in this season is that God uses such unexpected people and such unexpected methods to get near to you and to me. Ever since that first Christmas, God has been gathering together people who have been surprised by Jesus and who are open to the mystery.

I have a friend, a minister, who sometimes prays in worship, “Lord, let something happen in this service that isn’t printed in the bulletin.” He wants to leave space for God to break into the familiar routines. He wants to leave space for the Holy Spirit to break into places where the congregation had stopped expecting anything significant to happen.

It is a great mystery — that through the unexpected God brings new life, and hope, and salvation. Jesus often gets born into places where you are confused or broken, frightened or uncertain.

Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem”, is a beautiful, haunting song about God’s intrusions into our hurting, broken world. The chorus says:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

There is good news: even when life has not met your expectations, you are not abandoned. God is not absent. God has not given up on you. Look around — look closely: even in the darkest night, the presence of Jesus the Christ still shimmers there. The darkness has not overcome the light of Jesus.

God’s path to the future opens in unexpected directions. Stay open to it. Your life, your Christmas, don’t have to be perfect or good enough or right enough. In Jesus, God offers you three gifts and none of them are toys.  In Jesus, God offers you God’s own presence — full of mercy and grace and love. Receive the gifts and you discover they were what your heart wanted all along.

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