Finding Our Identity in Funhouse Mirrors (August 29, 2021 Sermon from Psalm 15 and James 1:17-27)

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If you were to describe yourself in a few words what would you say?  What do you consider your identity to be?  

When I think of who I am and the multiple identities I hold I can say that I am a thirty year old, a student chaplain, a friend, a daughter, a sister, a mental wellness worker, a writer, and a traveller to say a few things.  I am biracial of mixed Eastern European and Asian decent, a native English speaker, and a Canadian citizen born a Windsorite.  I also am a wannabe Scottish lass.  These are all things that give you a glimpse into who I am, but there is one aspect that overshadows everything else: I am a Christian.  I am someone who follows Christ, who wants to be more like Him, and who is training to be in ministry because I want others to know they are also known and loved by God.

In today’s Scripture passage from the book of James, two questions are brought to our attention.  The first one is Who is God?  And the second one is: Who are we in relation to God?  

We will begin first by looking at who God is.  The book of James refers to God as the creator of heavenly lights in whom there is no shifting shadow.  This references the fact that God made us and knows each one of us personally.  God is invested into our daily lives and wants to be part of our world.  This verse also mentions that God does not change – that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  

We all change and these changes can bring with them new identities.  For example: first you were single, and now you might be married.  First you were an employee, and now you might be a supervisor or project manager.  First you were young and then you got older.  At one point in time you might have worked and your identity might have centred around job roles and responsibilities, and now you may be retired.  For a large chunk of your life you might have self-identified as a student, and now you may think of yourself more as a professional who continually learns and grows on the job.  Many of us face major life changes at various points in our lives: the birth of a child or grandchild, our own children or grandchildren getting married and having a family of their own, moving to a different geographical location, changing careers, discovering a new hobby or interest and so on.  When these changes occur we stay the same person but our identity grows and develops, but God who is perfect always remains the same and some of God’s identities are listed to us in the Bible.  

Many of us grew up with the understanding of God as our Father and this is true, but the Bible also describes God in many other ways including as a friend, a comforter, a healer, a restorer, redeemer, companion, and teacher to name a few.  At various times in Scripture God refers to characteristics such as love, patience, faithfulness, and steadfastness.  

This shows that God can also have many identities and yet still be one person, yet God does not change in the way that humans do.  A person can decide one day that they no longer want to be a painter, a writer, a poet, or a musician and just put their gifts and talents away, but God can’t do that. In fact, in 1 Timothy 2:11-13 we read, “Here is a trustworthy saying: if we died with Him, we will also live with him.  If we endure, we will also reign with Him, if we disown Him, He will also disown us.  If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

Now that we know how God is described in the Bible, the question is: do you see yourself as you truly are?  The way God sees you?

When I was in Scotland I met a brilliant minister who described the concept of identity to me like being in a fun house.  If you have ever visited a fun house you know that there are various types of mirrors.  Some mirrors may make you look taller or shorter, some might make you look thinner or bigger (guess which one most of us would choose), and some might even make you have funny faces.  When we look at the mirror we can laugh because we know that this is not really who we are – it is a distortion of what we actually look like, but sometimes in our own lives we easily forget that.  We let other people define us.  

When we were younger we might have had a teacher tell us that we weren’t good at drawing or painting and even as an adult we might still believe that we are not artistically gifted.  We might have had someone tell us that we couldn’t carry a tune so in our adult life we might be self-conscious to make a joyful noise.  We might even have had someone tell us that we weren’t going to do well in university and so we should just consider joining the workforce.  As an adult we might still believe that we are incapable of doing something or that we aren’t a strong learner.  Believing these negative things that others have said to us can really hold us back from doing the things that would truly be life-giving to us.

Instead of letting others define us, though, we can choose to listen to the ways God defines us.  In the book of James we are told that we are the first fruits of God’s creation.  If you have ever picked your own apples or other fruit at a farm, you know how exciting it is to take the fruit right off the tree or vine.  Yet, in Biblical times, first fruits had even greater significance because it meant that a greater harvest was yet to come.  This is how God sees us.  We belong to God, we are claimed by God, and we are wanted by God.  God sees our full potential even if we don’t.  God knows that we were created for even more than we believe we are capable of.    God is the great gardener who plants, tends, and waters our souls so that we can produce beautiful flowers and bear fruit in our own lives that will help others.

The second half of the passage asks us a new question: Who are we in relation to God?  What James is asking here is really pointing to the difference between religion and spirituality.  

We probably all know someone who is very religious: they likely make sure to carefully keep all the rituals and traditions, they never miss a Sunday at church, and they are always quick to correct someone else who they feel is living their lives all wrong.  These people may have a head full of Biblical wisdom, but the question is: do they have a heart full of Christian love?  

Then we have people who are spiritual but not religious.  They may claim no religious doctrine at all, they may not even hold a belief or faith in Christ or a recognized Higher Power, but they believe that there is something greater out there and they try to live a moral life and help others.

Somewhere in between these two extremes lies the true Biblical lifestyle.  When someone is fully living for Christ, they do not merely concern themselves with Biblical commands, nor do they create their own version of belief, but instead they look to how they can demonstrate Christ’s love to others through outward acts.  They have a sensitive spirit, and they wish to relieve others from unnecessary suffering. In Aramaic the word “Spirituality” actually translates to “true ministry” and these are the people who really want to minister to others for the right reasons.

Now what’s interesting about this text is that James could have said anything when addressing the topic of spirituality and later on in the passage he does address some social justice themes, but he starts off with first drawing on personal character.  James writes that anyone who truly wants to follow Christ must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry because anger can diminish one’s ability to be an effective spiritual role model. The Message translation of the Bible reads, “lead with your ears, follow with your tongue, let anger straggle along in the rear.”

Just for interest’s sake, I decided to find a few fun facts about listening to share with you all.  Did you know that 85% of what we learn is through listening rather than talking or reading something, and yet, after someone has shared we only immediately retain about 50% of what the person said and that is assuming that we found the topic interesting.  An hour later we actually only remember 20% and 75% of the time we are distracted, preoccupied, and forgetful.  This explains why sometimes  you hear an inspiring sermon or powerful testimony and later on in the day you can’t totally recall all the details.  This is also why I personally like to take sermon notes.

Our world is constantly filled with noise and chaos, and yet there are not many people who truly listen to what we are saying.  These past two weeks I took a United Church course from the Centre for Christian Studies and one of the topics we addressed was related to conflict.  The truth is that almost all conflicts can be avoided simply by respectfully listening to someone, honouring their differences, and properly hearing their concerns, and yet too often people want to jump in with their own agenda and steamroll others.  Sometimes in the midst of an argument it can be easy to think about our next comeback line rather than to take a moment to pause and reflect.  There are times when we are in a group setting and are so emotionally attached to a topic that we can’t even fully hear what the other person is saying because we are so excited just to formulate our own thoughts that we can’t wait to share with those around us.  At least this has been the case with me in my own life as an extrovert.

Being slow to speak is another challenge in our society.  Today with so many of us using social media and technology, it can be very easy to just share everything about ourselves online and sometimes this is to our detriment.  Sometimes in the heat of anger, it can be very tempting to send someone a nasty text and when we do not see the person in front of us we can forget that the person behind the screen also has feelings.  The best advice I can give is that if you are seriously angry about something, please hide your phone and don’t log onto Facebook until you’ve been able to calm down a bit.

Slow to become angry can be a confusing request at first.  After all, it is sometimes because of righteous anger that major changes have taken place in our society.  It was anger that caused the Suffragettes to fight for a woman’s right to vote, anger that caused abolitionists to stand up against slavery, and anger that caused people to care more about the environment.  Yet the anger that James is describing here is not that type of anger – he is referring to resentments which eat away at us, cause us to lose sleep, and cause us to be generally unhappy people.  James cautions that these attitudes can hinder our effectiveness as ministering people rather than promoting righteous purposes. Instead James urges us to be careful, thoughtful listeners, to carefully choose our words, and to be patient, reflective, and forgiving.

In the last part of the passage, James urges us to be doerers rather than hearers and he uses the analogy of a mirror.  When we wake up in the morning, many of us look at a mirror.  We make sure we brush our teeth, that our hair is brushed, and perhaps we even put on make up.  Now imagine that you looked at a mirror and you saw that you had a huge streak across your face, but as soon as you left the washroom you forgot all about it and went to the party looking like that.  What do you imagine others would think?  Perhaps they would point it out to you and you might become embarrassed.

This is how it is with God’s children.  If our desire is to be set apart from the world’s agendas, then we need to spend time gazing deeply at the Bible which acts as our mirror.  We need to ask God to reveal the things that we need to become conscious of.  We need to be alert to times when we are given encouragement or even correction from others.  In this passage being a hearer implies hearing instruction from God but then failing to internalize it.  Basically hearing something convicting and letting it brush off us rather than applying it to our situations.  This is different than doing which implies an active and continual obedience to God’s precepts.  In other words it’s not a one shot deal.  We might need to be reminded again and again of the same thing.

 Here’s an example: say that you were trying to have a healthier lifestyle.  It wouldn’t be enough just to eat fruits and vegetables and go for a long walk today after church and then eat chips and chocolates for the rest of the week and expect to have good results.  We would need to apply ourselves daily, we would need to make the right choices every day if we wanted to see improvement by the end of the month.  It’s that kind of commitment that James is referring to here.

We began this sermon by considering how we describe ourselves and how we see our own identity.  In Psalm 15 David asks “Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain” and he answers his own question with these words, “Only the one whose walk is blameless.”

It is impossible for any of us to be blameless.  We all falter and fail at various times.  There are times when we need to rely on the help and support of others to help pick us up, and yet, we all are worthy of entering into God’s presence.  

We are invited to come into God’s midst not because we have done all the right things, not because we always live out true spirituality, and not because we have all mastered the perfect balance between speaking and listening and never getting angry.  Rather we are part of God’s family because God sees us as His first fruits.  He sees us for what we are capable of becoming.  He delights in the harvest we bring in through reaching out and loving those around us.  There are many ways that we can see ourselves and some of those ways are accurate and others are more like those fun house mirrors which seek to give us a false perception, but there is only one way that God sees us.  God sees us all as beloved children, as worthy of love, and as deserving of His grace.  It is only in claiming our true identity in Christ, that we will able to serve and bless others.

May it be so.  Amen.

“Cave Time” – Psalm 34 (August 21, 2021)

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When was the last time you were in a cave?  If you have never been in one, you can imagine what it would be like. What did you see?  What did you hear?  How did you feel?  What did you experience?

I have not been to too many caves in my life.  In 2010, I was able to visit the Caves of Qumran in Israel where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and about two years ago I visited Gilmerton Cove, a hidden cave in Edinburgh where the Scottish Covenanters (a group of 17th Century Presbyterians who were against the country’s religious and political views at the time) hid for their own lives.  When I think back to my experience of being in these caves, I remember them as being dark, cold, and damp.  However, caves aren’t such bad places to spend time in because while they do have these negative characteristics, they also have positive ones; they are quiet, often remain at the same temperature, and provide natural shelter from storms. From a practical Biblical worldview, caves also would have made the perfect spot to hide from enemies as was the case with David.

David, the writer of this Psalm, found himself in a cave not just physically but also spiritually and emotionally.  Although this Psalm is a stand-alone chapter, it’s important to recognize the context of what came before it, this is all outlined in the book of  First Samuel.  Believe it or not, the cave story doesn’t start with David, it actually starts with Saul.  When Samuel, a great prophet of God, first met Saul, Saul was shy, a spotlight dodger, and lacked confidence.  The Bible describes Saul more or less as a nobody.  He was from the smallest tribe in all of Israel (the tribe of Benjamin).  This tribe was only 25 miles in length and 12 miles in width – so smaller than the distance from Windsor to Essex, yet the area was strategically located and had a population of just over 35,000 people.  The Bible says that Saul stumbled upon his kingship accidentally – he was looking for his father’s donkeys that had gotten loose when he turned in to ask Samuel for advice.  Samuel told Saul where the donkeys were alright, but he told Saul something else – that he would be the first King of Israel.  With this new knowledge, Saul hid from the crowd on coronation day until the other Israelites found him and dragged him out.  We are told that Saul was 30 years old when he was appointed King and he had a reign of 42 years.

Saul did not start off entirely corrupt.  Sure, he lacked wisdom, experience, and inner strength, but he also followed what he was commanded to do and as such was able to rescue some of the Israelite cities from destruction.  It didn’t take long, though, before Saul’s insecurities led to narcissism and he began to do thing his own way without accountability to anyone else.  Saul soon became rebellious, self-seeking, and eventually even rejected God’s ways in favour of his own.  The Bible actually says that as a result of this there came a definite point when God had enough and the Holy Spirit’s presence departed from Saul.  This is when David, a young shepherd boy, who is equally powerless, inexperienced, and naive enters the scene, and yet David exudes a sense of confidence and faith in God almost immediately that quickly endears him to those around him.  It’s a little vague, but the gist of it is that even though David is now King, Saul still thinks he is.  Saul refuses to relinquish his power and control, and begins to feel a professional jealousy towards David.  Although the Bible describes the emotion as jealousy, we know that what it really stems from is anger and fear.  This anger and fear causes Saul to try to kill David on several occasions, but his lack of success drives David to flee for his life.  

David’s flight first takes him to Gath, where he was unable to find refuge.  It was here that he came face to face with the evil king Achish.  A king who mocks him and seems to want to cause him harm.  David is afraid and acts undignified rather than King-like and once again takes off.  

This is how David finds himself in the Cave of Adullam – a limestone cave in the mountains of Judah between Philista and Hebron. This cave is the perfect place for David – not only is it a good hiding spot, but it is also highly protected – because it is on Philistine territory if Saul were to attempt to attack it the Philistines would defend it. David has now found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place – between fleeing from King Saul and fleeing from his other enemy King Achish.  King Achish is also called Abimelech in some translations though scholars suggest that this is a title rather than a proper name.  

It is in this cave that David becomes a band leader of a group of misfits whom the Bible describes as distressed, indebted, and discontented, probably not unlike how David would have felt given the circumstances and he asks them to allow him to stay with them until he learns what God will do for him (1 Samuel 22:3).

How would you feel if you were fleeing for your very life?  I think this is an image that many of us have heard about in the news such as when we consider the issue of the refugee crisis, but it is likely not one that most of us here have experienced.  If I were to run for my life, I think I would feel a mixture of shock, fear, and exhaustion.  And it’s important to remember that back then this was not about hopping in your car and driving over the speed limit, David likely literally and physically ran for his life.  I started training to run a 5K about 4 weeks ago and I am already tired after every session.

Yet, David seems to take a different approach.  He is not filled with self-pity, he does not collapse in exhaustion, and he doesn’t hold on to a grudge of bitterness.  Instead it was in this cave and at this particular time in his life that David proceeded to write three Psalms.  Today we know these Psalms as Psalm 34, 57, and 142.  These Psalms all capture the spirit of crying out to God in the midst of great distress, and seeking God in a time of great fear and anxiety.  Psalm 57:1 in particular sums this up perfectly “I will take refuge in the shadow of Your Wings until the disaster has passed.”

At first all looks bleak.  David feels abandoned, disillusioned, and starts to wonder where God is in the mess, but with God’s help, the cave becomes a symbol of character building, strength, and hopefulness.  It is in the cave that David’s inner being is developed.  Instead of seeking revenge when he is given multiple opportunities to kill the very man who wants to murder him, David refuses to act unjustly.  Instead of giving into a wave of defeat, David decides to depend on God, instead of allowing the trials to swallow him up, David learns complete trust, and instead of choosing to sin, David decides to surrender to God. Therefore, what looks to us like a massive frustration, becomes a great source of fruitfulness.  David refuses to be a victim, instead he pushes himself to become victorious.  Theologian James Montgomery Boice articulates this whole notion beautifully, “David may have been hiding in a cave, but his heart was hiding in the Lord.”   An unknown theologian said it perfectly “many are the afflictions, but more are the deliverances.”   It is sometimes in the most pain and inner chaos that our most beautiful moments are formed.  Think about how many inspiring songs, beautiful hymns, meaningful prayers, and poignant poems were produced by individuals during the bleakest seasons of their lives.  Think about how many artists have created beautiful emotive masterpieces through seasons of depression and loss.  Perhaps even some here can relate to how close God felt in those times even though it felt like everything around you was collapsing.  

In Psalm 34 David earnestly cries out to God.  The imagery he gives of God is of a deliverer who rescues him by pulling him out of a pit.  The challenge he gives himself is to continue to believe that God provides for the righteous, and the action point David requests of his listeners is one of praise and thanksgiving. David acknowledges that belief in God does not equate with an absence of difficulties and trials.  He notes that even the lions (the most noble wild beasts of the day) will sometimes be hungry, but in the same breath he trusts God with provision and sustenance.  This is a call not just to moral uprightness but also to spiritual integrity.  I like the imagery of God as a compassionate lover of Creation.  It reminds me that through the struggles, God still loves our world.  Even though we constantly hear of upheaval in the news, political dissension, natural disasters, external divisions, and economic collapses, that God is still bringing good things in.  Humans may sometimes take advantage or even trample those things, but God still provides beauty, grace, and righteousness to this life.  Think about the ways that children show innocent wonder, the ways activists practice solidarity, and the ways churches provide for the least of these.  These are all signs that goodness is not extinct, that truth is not dead.

Where do you need God to show up in your own life this week?  What image of God do you need to hold in your mind today?  Are there things in your life that are causing you to call out for God and to seek after God? What is afflicting you and of what do you need to be delivered?  Are we living from a place of grumbling or of gratitude?

This past week, one of my friends from my clinical pastoral education class put out a challenge to write a Psalm in our own words.  I would like to close with a poem I wrote based on Psalm 34 that I hope will be uplifting to you this morning:

I will lift God’s Name up at all times

Telling everyone I meet about the awesome things He has done,

The hidden surprises He has brought,

And the stealthy ways He has moved.

I will talk about how great God is,

Even when I feel defeated, deflated, disappointed and depressed.

I hope you will join me in elevating this Name.

I looked for God, but at first it was in all the wrong places.

At first I looked for Him in places of fame, fortune, and status,

I sought for Him on the road to relationships,

Looked for Him on the path to prestige,

Jumped into the lake of lust,

Swam in the river of regrets,

He was nowhere to be found.

But when I truly called out to the Lord in eager expectation,

When I cried out in trying tears,

He heard me, and He yelled back “Here I am!”

I was in a pit of pretense,

A snare of sin,

A prison of passivity,

And He lifted me out

Setting my feet on the rock of righteousness.

Those who look to God,

Whose sole desire is to find rest in Him,

Suddenly change their tune,

No longer singing a song of self, but of salvation.

Their hymn of holiness rather than a poem of pride,

Shame has no meaning to them,

They are not ensnared in guilt,

For they have access to heavenly glory.

I knew a man once, he was poor and had nothing,

Even his backpack was barren,

His clothes tattered and torn.

Yet all he did was cry out “God, please help!”

And God did.

He didn’t even have to wait for God was with him.

God is everywhere, but He is especially close to those who want Him to be,

Those who want deliverance from the collateral damage of this world.

God invites us to dig into His Word,

Just like it’s a huge piece of chocolate cake.

He invites us to jump into His peace,

As if it were a cool, refreshing spring on a hot day.

God doesn’t hold back,

He doesn’t deny access to His throne,

He doesn’t keep treasures to Himself,

Nor does He force forgiveness,

He only offers it freely.

His only invitation “come.”

If you love life,

If you long for love,

If you are crawling towards compassion,

Pursue peace. It’s there.

God looks after the weak and weary,

His ears perk up when He hears injustice,

His heart pangs when He perceives pain.

The Lord is close to the broken,

He bandages the bemused,

He performs surgery for the stricken,

First-aid for the frustrated,

CPR for the one who has lost their childhood.

That’s not to say life will be perfect,

No more troubles from henceforth,

But it is to say that God is true in trials,

Trustworthy in tests,

He builds and restores,

He fuses together the parts that are broken.

It’s not like that for those who choose not to access His grace,

But the rescue is there for the restless and righteous.

Anyone who chooses Him won’t be disappointed.

A Heart Divided Sermon Based on: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 and Proverbs 9:1-6

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I would like to begin this morning by asking you a question: if a genie in a bottle showed up in your house offering you three wishes what would you ask for?

Some of us might immediately be drawn into the practical needs: a new car, a way to pay off a mortgage or a job.  Some of us might ask for adventure, travel, and leisure.  There are also needs that weigh heavily upon us – healing for ourselves or a loved one, help for a child or grandchild who has made some wrong turns perhaps due to addiction or peer pressure.  There might be a temptation for fame, prestige, and promotion.  Or there might even be the spiritual answers: to know that God has answered a prayer that means so much to us.  Perhaps even a prayer about a loved one turning to God when they have gotten lost and confused on their journey.  And finally there are the global wishes: wishes for an end to world hunger, an end to injustice, illiteracy, or oppression.

None of these wishes are wrong in and of themselves.  Sure, some of them might be considered more pious than others and some might appear to be more self-seeking or vain, but in the end of the day, even the apparently superficial wishes usually come from a place of deep desire – a desire to feel secure, valued, and acknowledged.  There are perhaps some people in this world who only look after “number one,” but what I have experienced over the years in my various ministry placements is that most people at their core are inherently good.  Sometimes the good is clouded over by grief, trauma, and a hard exterior, but most people truly do want to help and be supportive of others they meet.

Solomon was one such man. When God appeared to him as a young man he was offered anything that he could think of.  There were no stipulations to God’s rules.  No price limit, time limit, or speed limit.  In short: Solomon was free to ask whatever he wanted.  And Solomon chose well.  He didn’t ask God for too much or something that would only benefit himself, rather he asked for something long-lasting and enduring, something that would truly make him a great king.  He asked for wisdom, and the Bible says that God was pleased with his request, not only granting it but also giving Solomon all the things he didn’t ask for (good health, wealth, honour, a good reputation, and a long-life). I am sure that these are things that all of us here would wish to have, and so it seems at first that Solomon has it made and that the young king has arrived.  Sadly, we will see later on in the story that isn’t necessarily so and that what something looks like on the outside can be strangely deceptive to what is really happening on the inside.

Wisdom has been something which all cultures and religions have sought after throughout history.  Whether we talk about the Dali Lama of Buddhism, the Pope in Roman Catholicism, the Sheikhs of the Muslim community, or the Knowledge-Keepers and Elders within the Indigenous communities, human kind has always searched for leaders who could provide insight and sound teachings.  A trip to the library or even a quick google search will reveal a myriad of proverbs and wise sayings not just from the Bible but also passed down through word of mouth from even the remotest tribes in the world.  Grandparents have shared stories with their young grandchildren of admonition to help them learn morals and values, and many people have invested time and money into seeing wise counselors, life coaches and spiritual directors whom they consider to be wise.

 The search for wisdom is nothing new, but the asking of it in Solomon’s case was novel.   In fact, it was in the search for wisdom itself that Adam and Eve made a very unwise decision.  Rather than simply asking for it directly the way Solomon did, they trusted the serpent who promised them that if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that their eyes would be opened and they would be like God.  So Adam and Eve ate without any further thought to the matter.  We all know what happened after the fact – it resulted in pain, suffering, and death.  The search for wisdom has been placed in all of our hearts, but yet the lengths and methods we use to acquire that wisdom are what truly can determine the state of our souls.

We live in an age of information overload.  The last 20 years or so have afforded us the opportunity to simply speak into our phones or smartspeakers while the answers come to us immediately.  We no longer have to do the hard work of research, instead we can simply type something into Google and within seconds a result will be sent to us.  We can post a question on Facebook and probably will receive a relatively wise answer from one of our friends who works in the field and can connect us to the right sources.  Zoom calls allow us to connect to all sorts of master classes from various experts around the world, and during the Pandemic opportunities for free studies at major universities were offered to help curve the boredom.  Yet, knowledge itself does not necessarily equate with wisdom.  I’m sure we all know someone who is very intelligent and has multiple degrees yet constantly make bad choices in their own lives.  We also all know people who have little or no formal education and yet are extremely wise and have amazing street smarts.  So while if anyone advocates for education and the academy it would be me, I also recognize that it does have its limits.

Wisdom on the other hand is something completely different.  The words wisdom and wise are mentioned over 500 times in the Bible with promises given to those who seek after it and warnings given to those who don’t.  Wisdom is attributed to the ways we act and conduct ourselves, to our emotional and spiritual maturity, and to our understanding and ability to recognize justice and it primarily comes from a heart that is ready to listen to God.   It is not simply the pursuit of wisdom that God devotes time to in Scripture though, but also the best ways to use it.  We are taught to be wise as serpents but innocent as doves and we are instructed to use our gift wisely.  Thus wisdom is not a gift given to be taken advantage of and abused, but rather a gift given to help other people.  Think about the wisest teachers, ministers, and mentors that you have met in your life.  They might have been incredibly wise people, but had they chosen to keep their wisdom to themselves and not to have shared it with you then their wisdom would have been in vain and pointless.  Wisdom is given so that we might instruct the next generation and help them as they blaze their own path.

What we know from Solomon’s reign is that while his initial request for wisdom was good and pleasing to God, it was incredibly short-lived and his reign both began and ended with apostasy (the renunciation of his beliefs).  The Bible gives us clues as to why this might have been.  Firstly, we know that Solomon always lived his life on the edge and was never fully in.  He still relied heavily on his father David’s faith to help him get by rather than making a commitment to God for himself.  He also did not do everything that he knew he was instructed to.  

The Bible says that Solomon had the right heart AT FIRST, but then he soon found other things to preoccupy his time and attention.  He also left the temples of his wives open when he was explicitly told to tear them down.  He did this because he was more concerned with his political alliances than with his faith.  The Bible tells us that a “house divided cannot stand” and it definitely didn’t in Solomon’s case.  We cannot serve two masters – we cannot serve the ways of this world and the ways of Christ.  We cannot commit to ending injustice while also participating in unjust activities.  We cannot preach of a world of peace, harmony and good-will if we engage in attitudes which promote just the opposite.   

This reminds me of my favourite slogan or rule of life that I personally live by “half-measures avail us nothing.”  In other words: you’re either in or you’re out, you’re either hot or you’re cold.  Solomon was simply mild and lukewarm in his faith preferring to please people over pleasing God. Towards the end of his reign he also made his constituents’ lives unbearable.  He placed heavy burdens on them and made them work hard in a way that ultimately left his workers unhappy with him and displeased.  No one likes to feel taken advantaged of or used, and unfortunately, Solomon’s wisdom did not extend into the way he saw anyone other than himself.  In the end of the day he still saw himself as number one.  Solomon’s wisdom soon gave way to pride, then arrogance, and lastly forgetfulness as he ceased to remember who he was and where he came from.  

We all have many decisions to make every day and many of these decisions require us to use wisdom.  When we were children, we had to choose to make good choices such as looking both ways when crossing a street, not eating too many cookies before dinner, and not talking to strangers.  When we get older, these life choices become much more complex.  Who will I marry?  Which university will I choose to attend?  What will my profession be?  Where will I live?  How will I invest my finances, and so on.  We then make choices which only we can decide for ourselves – which faith or religion will I take part in? Will I choose to remain part of the church or to leave?  Will I choose to spend or to save?  Who will I spend my time with and give my energy to?  Will I choose to make physical and mental health a priority and if so what does that look like for me?  Perhaps you never thought about applying wisdom to these situations, but the truth is that for any choice we do make there will be consequences – either positive or negative.  Sometimes in our adult lives we may need to exercise boundaries, we might gain or lose friends as a result of our choices and viewpoints, we might gain or lose respect or prestige in our family or jobs, we might gain or lose our peace of mind based on the choices we ultimately decide on.  

Part of wisdom is about recognizing what we are responsible for and what we’re not.  We are only ever responsible for our own selves – our own emotions, responses, reactions, and beliefs, and we cannot expect others to be responsible on our behalf.  This is why the serenity prayer has gained lots of traction over the years.  I’m sure many of us know it.  The short version goes like this “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Real wisdom brings us peace of mind, peace with others and peace with God.  Real wisdom is fine with being vulnerable, admitting that we don’t know it all, and asking for help.  Real wisdom is seeking out those who we believe can help us in our circumstances and following their advice.

When I think of wisdom, I think of my own journey to ordination with the United Church of Canada.  The process I am undertaking is all about discernment.  It is all about soul-searching, sharing my life map with others, and looking for God signs along my journey.  It is about accepting both feedback and encouragement.  It is ultimately about trusting those who are wiser than I am to lead and guide me in the right direction.  Sometimes the process towards gaining wisdom can be difficult and stressful.  Sometimes self-awareness and deeply probing into one’s own life can be exhausting, but in the end, it is worth it.  It leads me to a greater sense of how I can best support others.  It reminds me that life is more than just my own little world and it ultimately helps me to get out of self.

As we close our reflection this morning I want to share a short story I read about wisdom from an unknown author: A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.

But, a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.”

Sometimes it’s not the wealth you have but, what’s inside you that others need.

I pray that this week God will join us on our own quest towards wisdom.  That God will enlighten and enliven our hearts.  That God will speak to us and direct us as we search out how to be more Christlike.  And ultimately I pray that we will use the gifts of wisdom we have been granted to be of maximum benefit to our brothers and sisters as we also encourage and guide them on their own journey.  May it be so.  Amen.  

When Giving Up Is Not an Option (Sermon from August 8th: 1 Kings 19:4-8)

Photo Taken From: Bing Images

Last week, I began my sermon by asking everyone to think about the top three best moments in their lives.  The general theme I presented was that we are more likely to remember events that include people, places, and experiences over material things.  We talked about gratitude and remembering that God can provide for us even when things look challenging just as he gave the Israelites Manna (bread from heaven) in the wilderness.  

Today, I want to ask a different question for you to ponder: has there ever been a time when you felt like giving up?  When you were just done with it all, completely tired, and felt like there was no point to keep going?  In short, have you ever reached a point in your life when you just felt finished?

Mental wellness is a topic that has gained a lot of traction in recent years, but can still be a taboo subject within the church.  It is estimated that about a quarter (or one in four) adults in Canada have faced a mental health struggle at some point in their lives, and during the pandemic a survey was released showing that only 2% of Canadians actually felt mentally well.  While not everyone was diagnosed with depression or anxiety as a result of the lockdowns, it is safe to say that the new way of living impacted lots of people negatively.  Many people struggled with increased fear, isolation, and loneliness, and there were some individuals who did not know where to best access supports.  

Personally, I am one of the 98% of Canadians who really struggled during the COVID season.  There came a time a few months into the pandemic when I truly felt despair.  I remember sitting on my bed having a Zoom call with my mentor as we read a book and studied together.  My mentor only lived about five minutes away but due to her husband being elderly she was shielding and we couldn’t meet.  All of a sudden, she asked me what I thought about a certain paragraph we had just read, and I told her that I had no idea what we read even though I had read it out loud.  My friend was very patient and told me that we would just take our time and go back to the paragraph to look it over again.  

Suddenly, my eyes filled with tears and I hung up the call.  My bewildered mentor called me back to see what was wrong, but I was not able to articulate myself and just continued crying.  From that day on I was no longer OK.  I exhibited many signs of significant depression and I thought there was no possible way I would be able to make it through this pandemic.  I am glad that by God’s grace and the love and support of friends and family I have not only made it through but in some respects have thrived during COVID, but I am reminded of many others who did not meet with the same results and are even now feeling the effects of a global tragedy.

In today’s reading, we are met with a depressed servant of God named Elijah.  Elijah had a very important role of telling the Israelities what God was saying and he was not always popular because of this.  Lots of times he was highly respected, but there were also times when people didn’t like him because he said things which were unpopular and challenged people in authority who felt that they had the right to do whatever they wanted.  Before the text that we read today, Elijah was presented as self-assured, confident, and successful, yet in this moment we see a very different reality.  Instead of a powerful man, we see a vulnerable one.  Instead of someone who is courageously leading, we see someone filled with shame and guilt over his own perceived failures to the point that he begins to feel defeated, deflated, and depressed.

In today’s passage, we meet Elijah right as he is fleeing for his life.  Elijah has spoken up to Ahab (the evil King of Israel) and as a result Ahab and his wife Jezebel seek to kill Elijah by the sword.  Elijah runs away in fear and hides in a cave.  Suddenly Elijah no longer sees himself as a prophet, rather he sees himself as a weak man who couldn’t do what he was asked by God to achieve.  Elijah then sits down until a broom tree (also known as Juniper tree) and begs God to let him die because he is no better than any of his ancestors who also could not accomplish the task he has been entrusted with.

The fact that Elijah is sitting under a broom tree is likely because it was the most common tree found in the desert.  It offered very little shade and perhaps showed a sign of resignation, that Elijah simply didn’t have anymore fight left in him.  Just like for so many of us, Elijah was his own worst enemy and saw himself in a more negative light than anyone else did.

The amazing thing is that even when Elijah was filled with despair, and perhaps even a bit of self-pity, God appears to him not once but twice.  The first time that God appears he provides Elijah with some bread and water, which satisfies Elijah’s physical needs for a short while.  The second time God appears, he provides for Elijah’s spiritual needs by speaking to him not in an earthquake or a fire, but rather in a still small voice which causes Elijah to cower in fear.  In other words, God did not make a spectacular display for Elijah, but rather just gave Elijah what it is he directly needed.  It’s interesting to note as well that this is not the first time that God provided bread out of nowhere to Elijah, there was also a story just two chapters before where there was a drought in the land and ravens came down with bread to give to Elijah to keep his physical stamina up and as a result he was able to help others on his journey.

When I was in Saskatoon I spent quite a bit of time with some Indigenous friends.  One of the things I learned was about the Medicine Wheel.  This is a holistic model that sees us as whole people.  It reminds us that we all basically have four aspects that need to be nurtured for our own health and wellness: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  Thus our physical needs are very important.

 I am sure that we have all been hungry at some point in our lives, and we know that when our physical needs aren’t properly cared for it can impact our mental and emotional health.  For example, have you ever been with someone who had not eaten for a while and they started getting angry and a bit snappy?  There’s actually a trendy phrase for this called “hangry.”  Or have you met someone who hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep in days and they aren’t able to do their work to the best of their ability, perhaps making careless mistakes or being lethargic and lacking concentration? Physical health is so important in fact that when people are trying to recover from drug and alcohol addiction they are taught an acronym called HALT – in other words they need to watch out for times when they are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired because these will be moments when they are more likely to give in to their old coping mechanisms.

What I love about this Bible story is that God first recognized Elijah’s physical needs, provided him with food and rest, and then attended to his emotional and spiritual needs by giving him hope and letting him know that God was there.  In fact, it wasn’t long after this whole despondent episode that God provided for Elijah in another practical way, by giving him a helper.  Elijah was able to mentor his new student, Elisha and this helped to take some of the pressure off of just one person.

In our own lives, we can face similar experiences.  There are times when we work for social justice and passionately advocate for a certain cause, only to realize that others in society are not as excited about it as we are.  This can make us feel like our work is in vain, and it can make us want to give up because we don’t feel we are being met with the recognition, resources, or respect we think we deserve for it.  It is in those moments that God shows up and provides us with the strength to keep going knowing that our directive is from Him and not from what society pressures us to become.  

There are other times when we face a little blip in our journey and things don’t go as we expect.  Perhaps we face a physical health issue, a family matter, a delay in our education or career, or a mental heath crisis which forces us to stop or post-phone our journey for a time.  Just like Elijah, we can be reminded that this one event is not our whole story.  That just because something isn’t happening the way we want it to right now does not mean it will be that way forever.

Sometimes there are moments when we will feel like we are in the desert, physically and metaphorically, there will be times when we feel we have nothing left to give because we gave all that we could, but then God will strategically place people in our lives at just those exact moments.  It has happened to me so many times and one of my former mentors used to tell me that these were “divine appointments.”  Moments like when you are going for a walk or going to the store and you’re having a bad day only to stumble upon one of your friends, or moments when you are ready to throw the towel in and then you go to church or go to a group or workshop only to hear the exact words you needed to for that day. It’s just incredible how God works at those times.

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to some of the writings from my friend Dr. Jacqueline Marie Maurice from Saskatoon who is an Indigenous educator, writer, and health and wellness coach.  Dr. Maurice has taught me a few more things since I got to know her which really relate to this topic as well.  One of the things Dr. Maurice taught me was that when we are faced with a crisis we all have a decision to make: will I have a breakdown or a break-through?  

Sometimes that is easier said than done.  I have struggled with depression for the past 18 years and in that time there have been a few moments when I did have a break-down.  However, the root message behind it is not shame but encouragement, because I learned that even in those moments when I did break-down, God used my past experiences to build others up.  I have come to see that nothing is wasted in God’s economy and today I have the privilege of sharing my story with others so that they know that they are not alone and that God loves them even when everything in their life feels bleak and hopeless.  Part of the reason I share my story now is because I see that it benefits others and that God uses me to help give strength to those who feel all strength is gone.  

Dr. Maurice also taught me this wonderful concept called “Healing the Healer.”  As someone who is in the helping professions herself and also trains and mentors students who are becoming helpers, Dr. Maurice taught me that in order for me to be the best in my role, I also must be looking after myself.  I must practice self-care, know my own weaknesses, be self-aware to recognize when I am struggling, and have the strength to reach out and ask for help from my peers and colleagues so that I can continue supporting the patients and clients I saw at the hospital as a chaplain.

 I believe this is invaluable advice because our society often pushes us to be busy and put other’s needs before our own.  Growing up Christian, I was always taught that others were more important than me and that God wants me to serve others and give to them.  This is true, but what is equally true is that if I am running on empty, I will not be as productive in my role.  If I am able to fill up on spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation, have meaningful conversations with friends and family, take time to go for walks, and make sure my physical needs are met then I become a happier person, less stressed and more pleasant to be around. In Dr. Maurice’s own words, it is important to “honour and invest in your mind, body, spirit and emotions every day, create and embrace balance, and honour the riches deep within our heart, soul, and being so that we can keep going and enrich the lives of others.” (Out of the Shadows, Volume 1)

Eugene Peterson also sums up this notion of resting in Christ perfectly.  In Matthew 11:28-30 of the Message Paraphrase he writes, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

In the The Passion translation it reads like this  “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant, and easy to bear.” 

However, even though both these translations word things a little differently, the main theme remains the same in them.  When we are burnt-out and feel we cannot go on any further, Christ is offering us rest.  Last week we talked about how sometimes it is difficult to just accept something without having to work for it, and here Christ is offering us that gift again and reminding us that all we need to do is receive his freedom and love, we don’t need to apply more pressure on ourselves to earn his grace.   

Yes, there will be moments in our lives when a negative situation will be all consuming, but through faith and trust in God, the situation can be lessened and we can begin to see that it is just one small part of who we are.  Just like God provided Manna for the Israelites in the desert, and just like God provided Elijah with shade, bread, water, and a nap, God is also providing for us each moment and in every trial that we face.  As we end our reflection time together, I want to share something that Rev. Jim Tenford from St. Andrew’s United Church Moose Jaw recently shared on Facebook to a group I am part of called “Below Average Ministers in the UCC” (we are called Below Average because we are all under the average age of 56 for paid accountable ministry personnel) he writes: “Reading over this week’s reading from 1st Kings I was thinking that ‘Broom Tree United Church’ would be a great name for a congregation.  It’s a place to listen to God, have a rest, and eat some cake!”  I pray that as a church and as individuals we will be able to offer this same service to others – to listen to them, pray with them, offer them hospitality, and help them to grow in their full potential.  May it be so.  Amen.

Manna from Heaven – Sermon on Exodus 16

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If I were to ask you what the top five best moments of your life were, I am willing to guess that the main ones that come to mind would have less to do with material possessions and more to do with people, places, experiences, and memory making.

We live in a society that always seeks the biggest, best, fastest, and newest, and yet, many studies have shown that when someone actually gets the object that they think they want, they often are only satisfied with it for a short amount of time before they think about the next thing.  Take phones for example.  Someone might want to save up for the newest IPhone only to receive it and it become outdated within a few months.  Suddenly the new phone seems to have much better technology, is much easier to use, and has additional features which we suddenly feel we cannot live without.  

It has often surprised me, in fact, that the countries which are the richest economically have the highest rates of stress, anxiety, and depression compared to poor countries.  There are some people who struggle with mental illness due to chemical imbalances within their brain which cannot be helped, but can be managed effectively with the right treatments, yet, there are many others who struggle with discontentment simply because they have too many options and opportunities than they could possibly ever desire.  Perhaps hard to imagine for some, but there are actually Millennials (people in their 20s and 30s) who have gone into debt trying to keep up appearances on social media by going on trips or wearing clothes they cannot afford and in recent year a new phrase has been created called FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  It seems that while social media has many benefits, one draw back is that people spend money to impress people they don’t even know or even like.  On my own Facebook page I have over 1300 friends and yet there have been times when I have felt lonely.  There are many other Millenials who feel the same way, they have many followers but when it really comes down to facing a tough day, they hardly know who to call to cheer them up.  In many ways, online friendships have replaced real ones, status updates have replaced authenticity, and fear of missing out has replaced being truly grateful and savouring the present moment.

Today’s Scripture passage deals with a chronic case of despair syndrome.  In Exodus 14, God miraculously brings the Israelite’s out of Egypt, saving them from their slave masters and drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea. How is it then, that the Israelite’s forget God’s provision so quickly – that they swing from celebrating with song and dance in chapter 15, only to complain and accuse Moses in chapter 16 of bringing them out in the wilderness to die?  It seems that even though the Israelite’s are no longer physically enslaved, they are still enslaved by their old mindset of want and their old beliefs that they won’t get what they need.

During the Israelite’s complaints, they revert back to the classic “good old days” mentality.  They remember Egypt as being much better than it actually was.  Looking back, they forget that they were slaves and being treated mercilessly.  They forget that they feared for their lives, weren’t able to practice their customs and traditions, and were overworked, instead, they see it as the better option.  They ask Moses why he has brought them into the wilderness to die, suggesting that it would have been better to have stayed and died in Egypt.  They list off cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion, and garlic showcasing that the land was lush and vibrant and provided for them compared to the desert they are now in, and they question Moses’s competence as a leader to give them what they think they need.  In this moment of anger, they forget the miracles God gifted them with in the desert: guiding them by a pillar of cloud and fire, sweetening the bitter waters, and providing an oasis of  springs and palm trees in the middle of the desert.

At first glance, it is easy to judge the Israelite’s for their childish behaviour, and yet, it is so easy to fall into this trap ourselves.  Sometimes it is easier to stay in the proverbial pit that we know so well rather than risk going into an unknown fire.  Sometimes we may complain about our job, and yet we might not know how to make it better or we might fear what it would look like to stand up for ourselves or even walk away entirely.  

To a lesser degree I faced something similar when I eventually left an organization I had worked for for over 7 years.  During the first lockdown I felt that God was stirring my heart to go back into ministry and pursue ordination (something that had been on my mind for several years and which I had trained for in seminary).  I began to feel these stirrings but at first I was too afraid to make the leap.  Eventually I decided to begin meeting regularly with a spiritual director.  In our first session together, the spiritual director told me that sometimes people stay in the same job because they are used to it, familiar with it, and know what is expected of them but that God wanted to use me for something far greater if I trusted Him.  I put in my resignation the next day and began my journey with the United Church which I am currently on.  Just like the Israelite’s there are days when it hasn’t been easy.  There are days when I look back remembering all the wonderful things about my old job, about living in Scotland, and about all the wonderful people I met.  Sometimes in the midst of academic assignments, job searching, and trying to find my bearings, I compare my present reality and think about the “good ole days,” but when I re-centre my thoughts on my calling and vocation, I am filled with gratitude and remember that I am on the right path.

In my reading of this Scripture I saw two ways to look at this story and I want to present both of them to you now.

The first way is to think about how the Israelite’s always wanted more and truly seemed to suffer from selective memory.  They would ask God for something they needed, God would provide, they would be content, but then they would worry and fret about what was coming next.  We often see this in society as well.  How many times have we heard a child say that they will be happy and never ask for anything ever again if their parents or grandparents simply get them that one new toy or take them to Disney World?  Well the parents save up for the skateboard and when the kid bounds down the stairs on their birthday and unwraps their gift they stare in amazement, express thankfulness and whiz down the street, only  to see a TV advertisement or something in the store and ask their parents for that the next day.  

Unfortunately, most adults don’t outgrow that phase either.  How many times have we heard someone say: I’ll be happy when I get a job, I’ll be happy when I get a raise, I’ll be happy when I get a promotion, and I’ll be happy when I finally retire.  There is always something more to be striving for.  

I’m sure many of us have also met someone who keeps hoping to win the lottery.  Sometimes people will say if they won the lottery they would truly be happy because they would be able to pay off all their debts and start with a clean slate, and yet, studies have consistently shown that many lottery winners actually end off worse than they did before they won.  Many winners become depressed, lose all their earnings within a few short months or years, and sometimes even get divorced as a result.  In other words, getting the biggest, brightest, and best does not always make us as happy as we thought it might.

The second way to look at this text is to remember how difficult it is to receive.  It is important here to remember that these were not just a few rogue individuals who complained to Moses and Aaron but the entire assembly.  A nation about as big as Chicago or Toronto, and a whole generation who had grown up under the oppression of slavery.  It was difficult for them to imagine that God would graciously provide for them without them having to do anything on their part except receive what was given.  Receiving the manna had nothing to do with their individual or collective skill, cleverness, strength, or industriousness, rather it had to do with them graciously accepting.

In my own life I have travelled to many poor countries and it has been humbling to receive from the people there.  At first, I almost didn’t want to accept food and hospitality from them because I knew that when they were offering me something it meant they were having to do without, and yet, to say no to what they wanted to give me was to insult them and to deeply hurt and offend.  Therefore, even though everything inside me was saying I should be the one to provide for them, I knew that I just needed to be a guest and let them be the Host.  

There are many opportunities in our lives when we are guests.  Sometimes literally, but many other times metaphorically.  There are times when people give us a genuine compliment and we might blush and be quick to backpedal and tell them that they are just flattering us.  There are times when we actually need the help of another but we might be too shy or embarrassed to request it thinking we wouldn’t want to trouble them even though we know we’d do the same for them in a heartbeat without having to be asked twice.  There’s a great line in one of my favourite hymns “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” that says “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Or, if church music isn’t really your jam you may know this line better “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, for I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.  Lean on me, for it won’t be long, ‘till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

In this coming week we will face many opportunities and some obstacles.  I’m sure there will be moments when we will feel utterly amazed and grateful, but there might also be times when we feel helpless, anxious, and afraid.  It was like that with the Israelite’s.  I learned a few years back that anger is a secondary emotion and one of its prime causes is fear.  The Israelite’s were likely afraid because they didn’t know what was coming next and perhaps even felt out of control with all the uncertainty.  When we feel out of control and anxious this week, we can rely on the Hand of God, the fellowship of our church and the support of our closest friends and family.  May we go into this new week believing and daring to dream the impossible, journeying in gratitude, and receiving the love of others just as we extend grace and compassion to them.  Let it be so. Amen.