Sermon – “Salt and light”

I wrote this sermon to be read out to the congregation by the Session Clerk in the traditional service, and the Sunday School Superintendent in the All Age Gathering. I couldn’t be there because I had a sore throat. What an interesting experience to write a sermon for other people to deliver!

Sunday 9th February 2014, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Salt and light

As I’m writing this sermon to be read to you, I’m reminded of the way things used to work in the Church of Scotland a few centuries ago. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were few ministers available, so each minister had several churches under their supervision. This is also why many churches still have quarterly communions instead of monthly or weekly ones. The minister used to write a very lengthy sermon, and then send it on to the readers in each congregation. They stood in the pulpit and read the sermon, unless it was their congregation’s turn to have the minister in their pulpit. Some suggest that we may be going back to that model soon, albeit without the ‘lengthy’ part…

Last week we began a journey through the sermon on the mount. The passage known as ‘the beatitudes’ deserves a whole series of sermons, as each beatitude is so rich in meaning and implications for our daily lives. We should take time to reflect on each of them.

We were invited last week to look at happiness from God’s perspective, which is always surprising and counter-cultural. How can those who are persecuted be happy? How can one be happy when they are insulted, persecuted and slandered because they follow Jesus? The challenge was to look in our own lives at one issue or situation that we would rather do without, and reflect on the opportunity it could provide for us to deepen our faith, and to learn to live more fully in God’s grace. Continue reading

From life/work balance to life’s work

In my training for ministry – which involved a complex programme of academic study, conference cycle, ministry placements, learning networks and so on – we were taught again and again about the importance of life/work balance. We were told in no uncertain terms that ministers should have two days off. I remember I was told off by a retired minister who saw the Order of Service from my church that mentioned my day off is a Friday. “You’re supposed to have two days off, not one!” he told me.

But then I was ordained and inducted to a pastoral charge, and was soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that a minister in the Church of Scotland has on their plate. Two days off? You’re joking, surely! When are you supposed to do all the work that needs to be done? “Remember, the church already has a Messiah!” – we were also told towards the end of our training. Hm… so I guess if I don’t get everything done the church would not cease to exist, or be less church?

As I reflected in my last article on the Protestant Work Ethic – a term coined by Max Webber – I was challenged to see work in a different way. What is the motivation for work? Is it to prove my worth? To earn my keep? To occupy my time to keep me out of mischief? Somehow, motivation seemed to matter a lot. Do I work myself to death in the church to prove to people that I am dedicated, that I am worthy, that they need me, that I am a hero of faith, that I am respectable? All these motivations ring so hollow.

Continue reading

Grace vs. Protestant Work Ethic

Yes. I want to write against the famous Protestant Work Ethic. I think it damaged the church in the West and it continues to do so. I really do. It created competitive capitalist economies and a considerable degree of prosperity in the West, but the price for all of these on the weak and the under-performing have been devastating. I had a sense that this was the case the moment I moved to Western Europe. Something didn’t feel right. Why did the poor in Glasgow tell a minister friend of mine: “Church is no’ for the likes of us!” Why did one of our non-church-going friends tell us that church is elitist, and only the well-off are really wanted there? That seemed a bit harsh to me. This was not something I experienced in the East.

It took me awhile to begin to realise why the church is NOT perceived by people living in poverty as a place of grace and acceptance, but rather as a place of judgement and condemnation. I believe we have the Protestant Work Ethic to blame for this situation. I know it’s controversial, but I will say it nonetheless.

Here’s how the wretched PWE works: If you want to amount to anything, you have to work hard, be frugal, and perform to your maximum ability. If you don’t, you starve. Or in other words, you’re not really worth very much. That’s it. Wait a minute! What? What about grace? Oh, here’s how it works: the results of your hard work and high performance are SIGNS of the grace you already freely received. Ooooh, right. OMG! This, friends, is how you render a word like ‘grace’ meaningless. Prosperity gospel anyone? That’s where it comes from! Not the same thing, but a logical consequence.

Continue reading

Pain is my teacher

“Pain is my teacher.” Say what? I said, pain is my teacher, not my friend. There’s a difference. A few days ago I woke up with a sharp pain in my neck, running down my spine, preventing me to turn and bow my head properly. Yeah, prayer was almost impossible! So was humility.

This is not a post about S&M. I will leave that for later. I don’t like pain. Pain is not my friend. I fight pain. I try to kill it. Give me paracetamol and ibuprofen, and anything else I can throw at it, especially the strong, funky stuff.

I went to a massage therapist who asked me to sit with the pain and learn from it, as she was guiding me. Pain is an indicator, a signpost to many kinds of disfunction – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – that I am not paying attention to. Pain invites me to pay attention and learn from it. Killing it is useful only because you need to function – I didn’t take time off work – but that is not enough.

That is so counterintuitive. Sit with the pain? Learn from it? Pay attention to it? No, no, kill it! Give me the big guns, kill it dead! And if we can’t kill it, distract from it. Right?

Well… no. The therapist’s invitation reminded me of several sermons I preached about the cross – namely about the requirement to pick up our cross daily if we are to follow Jesus. There is something about being a disciple that requires a different approach to pain.

I noticed my first reactions to that pain. I was angry and upset. “Why is this happening to me?” Notice I said it’s happening TO me, not that I did anything to cause it. No responsibility there. I rebelled against it, got angry with it, wanted it gone. I turned my pain into suffering, and not the good kind. I think we do that a lot with necessary pain: We turn it into unnecessary suffering by bitching and moaning about it, and refusing to take any responsibility for it or learn from it.

As part of the therapy, I was invited to sit with the pain, to pay attention to my body, to what it’s saying to me, to regain control over my muscles. That requires presence, and in this case it was painful. But only when I accepted the pain and began to pay attention did it begin to subside; not immediately, but soon after. When I realised, after paying attention, that I was doing all sorts of things that caused that pain, the pain began to make sense. On top of that, our bodies are depositories of emotion. Often we have to work very hard at being present to figure out the source of unaddressed pain. (Physical pain doesn’t always have a physical cause.)

Then I realised that a good minister, a good preacher will invite people to do the same with the pain that comes in their lives. They will teach and invite people to listen to their pain, to pay attention, to not run away from it or distract themselves from it. It is not enough to say to someone in pain that Jesus loves them. People may demand spiritual pain killers, and a minister may have to administer some of those. But that is not enough. They also need to be taught and lead sensitively in learning from their pain. Is this what Jesus meant by ‘the way of the cross’? I think it is, in an existential sense. We made the cross to be about setting ourselves up for being killed or victimised, as if we are actually looking for pain as an indicator of spirituality. That’s masochism, and not spirituality.

Pain is my teacher. Pain is not my friend. I’m not looking for it. But when it comes to me, it comes for a reason, to tell me something. “Have a seat, pain, let’s have some tea…”

The Energy Meter or What I’ve learned from Halo 4

Yes, Halo 4 is a video game on the XBox. I play it with my son Marcus, and we both enjoy shooting down aliens. The only problem is they shoot back, so we need to be careful that we give our characters time to ‘regenerate’ before they can return to battle. So if the energy bar on the top of the screen goes flashing red, we need to hide from the enemy, and give ourselves time to ‘recharge’ before we re-engage in the fight.

That made me think of how we could all use an Energy Meter on the top of our screens. Imagine one day waking up, and as you wake up you notice all kinds of readings and dials in your vision, as if you were wearing a high-tech helmet. Let’s imagine you wouldn’t freak out and wonder if you had been abducted by aliens. What kind of meters or dials would you want? If you watch Continuum, you’ll know what I’m talking about; same idea.

I would want an Energy Meter at the top of my screen with the following readings: -10….-5….0….+5….+10. Wouldn’t that be awesome? When your energy level is below zero, into the negative figures, you know you shouldn’t be around people, because you’re likely to be useless to them, if not downright toxic. You need time to recharge. Before engaging with others – co-workers, clients, and most of all, family members – check your reading! Is it below 0? Are you encountering people with negative or positive energy? If you can get away with it, hide until you get the reading above 0!

But what do you do when it’s in the negative? One thing you don’t do, if you can, is interact with others. You have to get it above zero. Just being aware of it and owning the reading is a huge step. Far too often we encounter people when we’re full of negative energy without even being aware of it, and we end up damaging relationships and people. Being aware helps a lot. But then, I am told, don’t do a ‘downer’ – “Oh, I’m so negative… boohoo’ – but rather say something like “I don’t have energy, I need to replenish my reserves”. It’s a normal thing that we get tired, and we need to manage our energy levels. Lots of things can help with that: taking a moment or two, prayer (done correctly), meditation, reading, closing your eyes, smelling and drinking good coffee or tea etc.

What did you find works for you? What do you do to get a more positive reading on your Energy Meter?

Rest in beauty

Have you ever been so tired that nothing seemed to work to give you rest? You try strong coffee and tea, taking a walk, watching TV etc. and nothing seems to yield any results. I don’t think I’m too bold in assuming that most people have been there at least once in their lives. I hear more and more of people who are off for stress from their work. I know what it feels like, and the causes are hugely diverse. I venture to say we work too much and rest too little.

But as I am now exploring the idea of ‘life in abundance’ I am particularly interested in what we actually do when we feel so tired that not even sleep looks appealing. One thing I can say for sure: there is no single remedy to this. Hope is clearly a huge factor. We need hope: hope for relief, hope for a sunny day, hope for emergence, hope for restoration, hope for recreation. But what I find works every time as an emergency remedy is beauty; beauty of any kind.

When I was feeling tired on my day off  I decided to go for the first time to see the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. (I know, shame on me for not going sooner!) The collection was beautiful. I didn’t like seeing it with a guide, though. She was lovely, informative, engaging. But that’s not how I want to approach art. I don’t want to think about it, to be told useless information and the get interpretations. I don’t really care for them. Art is not about an intellectual connection. Art should be about an emotional, deeply human connection beyond the rational. Somehow I felt I was missing the point…

I found that when I feel so tired that nothing seems to work to get me out of it, only music works. My favorite artist for 2011 is Maria Mena. Her beautiful, calming voice has a truly therapeutic effect on me when I’m feeling exhausted. (Her physical beauty is also therapeutic, but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone I said that!) Bach knew what he was talking about when he said that the sole purpose of music is the glorification of God (territory of mystery) and the refreshment of the soul. When music looses that aspect of refreshment of the soul and it becomes about propaganda it is just annoying. I often don’t know why a particular musical piece has a calming, restful effect on me. U2’s ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ from ‘Rattle and hum’ worked like a charm for me today, for instance, especially the choir ending.

At other times it’s other artists that manage to provide rest, for reasons I can rarely articulate. But perhaps that’s the point. I don’t have to articulate it. It’s not about rationality. In the past I was accused of being too ‘cartesian’. I’m beginning to think that’s still the case in many ways. Trying to reason your way through everything is not the way to go, especially when one is dealing with fatigue that goes beyond the intellectual. Beauty is not to be articulated. It cannot be controlled without being ruined. It is to be enjoyed, embraced and trusted even when it makes little sense. That is perhaps the power of beauty: The hope and rest it provides goes beyond mere reason. When we encounter beauty – whatever it may be – we simply smile and feel better. We don’t know why. We just do. That is both scary and beautiful…

Retail therapy or post-retail therapy?

I like shopping. No, I love shopping. I confess. One of my favorite pass-times is to go from shop to shop with my wife. I don’t always buy stuff, but I just like to be there.

Today – a beautiful sunny day – I was walking through Glasgow City Centre and then I sought refuge from the cold in a Shopping Mall. I immediately became aware of the deep sensation of comfort when I was enveloped by a cloud of warm air blown from on high (the air vents, not the sky). It was lovely. I was cold before, now I felt cosy. ‘Ahaaaa, so that’s your game!’ I thought. The message is clear: ‘Don’t go out in nature, it’s cold and uncomfortable. Come in here and give us your money. It doesn’t matter you don’t need any of the stuff we’re selling. Buy it anyway. It’s on sale. Who doesn’t like a bargain? Sale is now on!’

I didn’t buy anything. I was too much aware of the attempted guilt trip for not contributing to the consumerism machine and just walked by the shops with a confident grin on my face. No, I will not. I didn’t, and it felt much better than if I had given in. I couldn’t wait to come home and calculate how much I saved. Awesome!