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

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A new church? Embracing diversity

After my article on “The Future of Victorian Worship,” I decided to go into more depth regarding the three underlying values (conformity, compliance and standardisation), but this time looking at them from the point of view of new ways of being church, rather than just new ways of doing worship. This is first of three articles to come on this subject. The next two will be tackling the issue of stimulating the imagination, and then encouraging creativity.

1. What we take for granted

If you grew up in the church – depending on the variety of contexts you were exposed to – you will probably have a set of ideas about church that you take for granted. For instance, you may take for granted that a church needs to have a building, a membership roll, a board of elders, a pastor, and of course a Sunday morning service where we sing songs, say prayers, and listen to a sermon. These are only some of the things we take for granted. All these things are important to keep in mind when we set out to imagine new forms of church. Continue reading

A short (fictitious) conversation with an 80 year old

“I’m worried…” John said to me, his eyes fixed on the carpet after we talked about the weather.

“What are you worried about?” I asked, shifting in my seat, struggling to find a comfortable position on his sofa, moving cushions and tucking them behind me.

“All my grandchildren were born in the church… went to Sunday School… and now they left the church. It’s just us old folk!” he replied, his face darkening.

I nodded silently, trying to be respectful to his grief even if I had 100 explanations in my mind as to why that is happening everywhere in the church. For an instant, I felt the clerical collar choking me. I know why they aren’t coming. Let me tell you!! I thought.

“Have you ever asked them why they don’t come?” I asked him breaking the silence.

“It’s not just my grandchildren… We don’t have any young people in the church!” he added.

“Yes, that’s true… to a certain extent… we do have some…” I attempted to correct him. “But have you asked them why they don’t come?”

“Yes, I did. I don’t remember exactly what they said… Oh, yes, they said it’s boring!” he recalled scoffing.

“Boring… yes. My children get easily bored too… The bored generation…” I said, enjoying a wee laugh with John.

“When I was their age I was in Sunday School, and then Youth Group and Boys Brigade, I was in church every Sunday, and I never stopped…” he told me emphatically.

“Were YOU ever bored in church?” I asked him looking for his gaze.

“What?” he asked, taken aback by my question, as if saying ‘What’s the point of that question?

“Were YOU ever bored in church growing up?” I repeated, looking straight at him.

“I… I think so… I mean… There was a lot that went over my head… I didn’t understand everything… But I still went. I didn’t give up!” he said.

“I was the same, John. I don’t remember ever not going to church. But here’s a question for you: Were you ever given the option to not go?” I asked him tilting my head.

“Huh? No… no…” he shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to say. You’re saying I didn’t have a choice!” he said with a grin.

“Did you?” I insisted.

“Of course I did!” he said with a higher pitched voice. “All my friends were there!” he justified.

“Mhm. Yes… it really does help to have your friends there, doesn’t it? I was the same. All my friends were church friends!”

“Exactly!” he said with some relief in his smile.

“Do you remember your parents ever asking you if you WANTED to go, or if you liked it?” I asked, taking him back to the initial rub.

He thought in silence, trying to jog his own memory, scratching his head. He shook his head.

“I can’t remember…” he said softly and sighed.

I nodded silently.

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?

Satisfaction in conversation

One of the activities in life people seem to identify as satisfying and pleasurable is conversation. I fully share that view. After spending almost two hours in conversation today with one of my church leaders, even if it was spent in talking about ministry, it was deeply satisfying and connecting. There is just something special in two human beings sharing and exchanging ideas. There is something in the listening and reaching out, understanding and interacting that is so deeply human and fulfilling. Not all conversations are like that, of course. Some tend to be confrontational and conflictual, but even in those cases an effort to actively listen and empathise can be satisfying in the end.

It seems that on one hand society is becoming increasingly individualistic and isolational, while on the other there is a craving for human contact and interaction. People talk more about wanting to connect and socialise than they talk about the need for private space. Social networks add to the feeling of connectedness while removing the pleasure of direct personal contact, often making communication skewed and unnatural, creating a kind of fragmented conversation. Perhaps this is an effect of the tension between the private and the social, not to mention the shrinking space in our agendas which we can give to direct human interaction. One thing I know for sure: A Facebook interaction does not compare with a face to face conversation. Nothing compares to looking in a person’s eyes, gauging their body language and tone of voice, the subtle dance of the eyebrows and lips as they respond to what you say and so on. Facebook has its place, but we should never assume it could ever replace human contact.