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Monday, July 19, 2010

Forgiveness is a process, not a product

In the sermon on Sunday I said that a disproportionate number of sermons have been about how we gain access to God's forgiveness. Not enough sermons have been about how we forgive ourselves and others. I think that this is unfortunate, and distracting from what I would see as essential to the spirituality that Jesus taught.

We live in a culture in which self-interest and consumerism are powerful influences. It is not surprising then that "forgiveness" has been packaged as a purchasable product. Preachers have pandered this product as something that Jesus has paid for with his "precious blood", and we can get our portion of the product if we accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

This approach to marketing has at times been effective in winning converts to a version of the Christian faith based on fear of damnation, which exploits our self-interest. If we can be convinced that we will go to "hell" if we are not "saved", then we can be further convinced to buy into the solution, which is to accept the brand of Jesus that is being sold by a particular preacher or church franchise.

If I sound cynical in this characterization of "evangelism" as high pressure sales, it is because I think that it is abusive of people, and gives Jesus a bad name.

During these summer weeks I have been using the Lord's Prayer as the basis for a series of teaching sermons. It has struck me that me that Jesus taught this prayer as a model for how people can approach God. I see no indication in the Gospels that Jesus believed any so-called "saving act" or "blood sacrifice" was necessary.

Jesus invited his followers to pray to God as a loving parent- the word used for father in the original Aramaic tongue is "Abba", which is something like calling God "Daddy".

Jesus instructed us to pray "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

I notice that Jesus did not tell us to pray "forgive us our trespasses, because the price for our sins has been paid by the death of Jesus on the cross".

Jesus did not teach that. Jesus gave his friends the example of this prayer, including the line about asking God to forgive us, while he was still alive.

This suggests to me that Jesus' death was not necessary to gain our forgiveness, and that in his lifetime, Jesus taught people that the basis for God's forgiveness was not in a price being paid, but in the love of "Abba".

I also notice that the forgiveness talked about in the prayer is not just God forgiving us. It is not just a product we seek for ourselves. Forgiveness is also a process, something we are called to do. We are to forgive,even as we are forgiven.

The emphasis in our culture on "getting" often means that not enough attention goes to the giving, and forgiving, that we are called to as people of faith.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jesus takes the wheel

On Sunday I showed the congregation a very funny, and instructive clip from the movie Talladega Nights. The clip shows a fictional NASCAR driver named Ricky Bobby saying grace before a meal. A theological debate erupted during the prayer, which made for a good launching place for my sermon.

Last October I visited an old friend, Ray Luther, who is the pastor of a Society of Friends (Quaker) congregation in High Point, North Carolina. Ray grew up very near High Point, in Randleman, North Carolina, which is home to the Richard Petty Museum. Richard Petty may be the most famous, and most recognized NASCAR driver of all time. (Incidentally, he raced his first race at the CNE grounds in Toronto.)

My friend Ray brought me to the museum, and this afforded me the opportunity to glimpse the important role stock car racing has had in the culture of that area.

Ray told me that just a few months before he had taken part in an event called the "Faster Pastor". This is a stock car race in which all the drivers are pastors of local churches, who borrow cars, while the owners, and presumably, the church members pray for their success and safety on the track. I am including a link to a video clip from the High Point Fox Television affiliate.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Another Jesus Prayer

I have just started a series of "Summer Seminar" Sundays at Trinity United in Oakville. For five Sundays: July 4,11,18 and August 22 and 29, I am teaching about the Lord's Prayer. Some of my inspiration for this series comes from Becoming Jesus Prayer: Transforming Your Life Through the Lord's Prayer, by Gregory V. Palmer, Cindy M. McCalmont and Brian K. Milford. These three authors are all ministers in the United Methodist Church in Iowa.

The book was designed as a guide for a 7 session group study. I am adapting some of their material, and adding to it, and presenting my own version as the "sermon time".

The context for these presentations is a modified version of the typical Sunday morning service, shortened and simplified for summer time worship. I have thought for a long time that people who make the effort to come to a non-air conditioned sanctuary for worship on a sunny summer Sunday morning deserve at least 2 things: a sermon that nurtures their faith and a service that is a bit shorter!

This summer I am also experimenting with what I hope will be a more contemplative style of worship- a format that has built into it more opportunities for silence, reflection, and prayerful encounter with God.

I spoke about prayers we know by heart, and the potential that the use of memorized prayers has to help us make the journey from our "heads to our hearts".

There is a tradition amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians of something called "hesychasm", which is essentially "prayer without ceasing". I was first introduced to this way of prayer in a little book called The Way of a Pilgrim, which is the story of a Russian spiritual seeker who lived in he mid 19th century. He describes receiving instruction on this way of prayer from a "starets", an Orthodox monastic priest and spiritual director, who read to him from a classic text on the subject called the Philokalia:

"Find a quiet place to sit alone and in silence; bow your head and shut your eyes. Breathe softly, look with your mind into your heart; recollect your mind-- that is, all its thoughts-- and bring them down from your mind into your heart. As you breathe, repeat: ' Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me'- either quietly with your lips, or only in your mind. Strive to banish all thoughts; be calm and patient, and repeat this exercise frequently."

Much of the rest of The Way of the Pilgrim is description of this seeker's internal journey, and wandering in the world, as he deepens in his practice of this discipline of prayer. While the object of any true contemplative practice is not a temporary spiritual high, but only to live with a deeper awareness of God, it is still encouraging, and exciting to read these words from near the end of the book:

"The prayer of the heart delighted me so much that I thought there could be no one happier than I in the whole world and could not imagine how there would be any greater or deeper contentment in the Kingdom of Heaven. Not only did I experience all this within my soul, but everything around me appeared to be enchanting and inspired me with love for and gratitude to God. People, trees, plants, and animals- I felt kinship with them all..."