First of all, before we even start today’s sermon, I need to apologize. Last week I preached about James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. I told you that Fowler taught at Harvard. On Monday morning, I received a very kind and gracious and gentle email, that pointed out to me that James Fowler never taught at Harvard, but rather at Emory University. My professor, Sharon Daloz Parks, was from Harvard. But I got Fowler wrong. I love eating humble pie on Monday mornings.
And on that note, there has been a lot positive feedback and desire from you to learn more about these Stages of Faith. And so the kind and gracious and gentle Dennis Hiebert, who did his dissertation on the Stages of Faith, has offered to lead a seminar on it here at Grace. Bring a bag lunch on Sunday, Nov 19, and you’ll dive in after church. And hopefully Dennis won’t have to spend too much time undoing all the things I got wrong last week.
As you can see in, this morning is the third and final part of my sermon series. It might not all wrap up nice and neat and tidy at the end. So you really can pick and choose what you want. But I’m still hopeful it’ll be helpful.
And as usual, you are 100% free to agree or disagree with me. Here at Grace, we allow for disagreement. Unity is not uniformity.
And, in an effort to allow for communication to be a 2-way street, not only will I be available in the side room after worship to continue to conversation, but, in your bulletin you’ll see Q & R. You are free to text me any questions or thoughts that spring up, and we’ll take a few minutes to engage with them.
Okay. Off we go.
Today’s scripture (1 Kings is one of my favourite stories in not only the Old Testament, but the Bible.
God was not found in the wind. God was not found in the earthquake. God was not found in the fire. But God was found in the sound of silence.
God was found in the silence.
I’ve dubbed today Graduate Class. We’re going to start really practical, and then we’re going move into the really theoretical, and then back into the practical, and not one of us is going to be able to go home today and say that we didn’t learn something new, or try something new.
We are part of a tradition that, for thousands of years, have sat with questions of sin and salvation and growth and maturity and identity. And prayer seems to be a vital piece of the puzzle on how we grow and mature and how we live and act in the world.
But I also know that prayer is quite frustrating more many of us. What are we doing? Does it work? Why do we do it? How do we do it? What if I don’t do it?
And why does praying sometimes feel like I’m treating God like Santa Claus? Thanks for the toys. Can I have some new ones? And why am I not getting that pony that I ask for every year?
But, in my experience, and based on today’s Scripture that God is found in the silence, I have learned a different kind of prayer. It’s called Centering Prayer.
Quite a few of my Mennonite pastor friends, and quite a few spiritual directors and authors and speakers I follow all practice Centering Prayer, but we seem to all have learned it from our Catholic sisters and brothers.
It’s probably a prayer that is most connected to this morning’s Scripture passage, where Elijah found God in the sheer silence.
The idea behind Centering Prayer is that we learn to sit in silence. And in that silence, we experience God’s presence within us.
We’re going to aim to sit in silence for 60 seconds. Think we can do it?
There’s this great app for this called the Centering Prayer app. The day that I discovered this app, I came to office just gushing with enthusiasm. “Mel! Look! A centering prayer app! You can even set a timer! Now it’ll tell me when my time is up so I can stop worrying about how much time if left”
And he looked at me, a bit puzzled. “You know, I just use my digital watch every morning.”
“Mel. The 1980’s are calling. They want their digital watch back.”
To do Centering Prayer, all you have to do is think of a sacred word of intention. That word can be God, Jesus, Spirit, Peace, Love, Faith – Whatever you want. For me, my word is always peace.
And as we sit in silence, every time we breathe out, we gently say our sacred word. By doing so, I like to think that we are giving God consent to shape our lives. We give God consent.
And, generally speaking, if you’re anything like me, you hate silence. We fill our lives with music and podcasts and Netflix and social media. We don’t do silence well.
And so today, for these 60 seconds of silence, you are probably going to be assaulted by your thoughts. Your thoughts might be mundane, they might be viscous, they might be humiliating. That’s all normal and expected.
But in our silence, when the thoughts come, all we have to is return to our sacred word of invitation. Just gently say it again, and let that thought come and go. And then another thought will come. Acknowledge it, and return to your word.
By doing so, you are giving God permission to change us. And we start moving from communicating with God to communion with God.
Ready? Close your eyes.
Take a few deep breaths.
Gently say your sacred word of intention.
When the thoughts of the day, or of life, come to mind, just acknowledge them and return gently to your word. Over and over again. Just return to your word.
Now, for some of you, you’re thinking: “We’re just getting started!” And others of you are thinking “If I have to sit in silence for 60 seconds next Sunday I’m not coming!” Both are very normal responses.
No matter your experience, if you simply show up, you get an A+. Participation trophies for everyone.
Centering Prayer is one of the ways I move from communicating with God to communion with God.
My Spiritual Director and I were talking a few years ago, and since we both learned Centering Prayer from the nuns at St. Benedict’s Monastery, she asked me if I was practicing it. I looked at her: “I don’t have time for this. I have little kids!”
“Okay, what’s’ the first thing you do when you go to your office?”
She said, “You know Kyle, you have one of the only jobs in the world where you could take a few minutes to pray, and your church won’t fire you. They’ll probably actually be really grateful that their pastor prays.”
Those spiritual directors just gently cut through all the layers, don’t they?
Oh, and a quick thing – Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself years to figure it out.
And if you find that you fall asleep while praying, enjoy that. When we fall asleep while praying, I think God treats us how we treat our children when they fall asleep in our laps… Filled with an immense, overwhelming love.
Before we get to prayer #2 we’re going to have a short romp through history and psychology.
Augustine of Hippo was a bishop around the year 400. He wrote a lot of things, and was quite influential in Christianity becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire. He also was one of the first Christians to encourage Christians to fight in the army, as Christians were mostly pacifist for the first 300 years after Jesus, but that’s a different sermon.
Again, we’re just going to scratch the surface here today, but one of the things that Augustine talked about the idea of original sin. It’s an idea that’s not technically in our Mennonite Confession of Faith, but it still has been remarkably influential in many of our lives.
It’s the idea that after Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the garden, humans have since, been born sinful. We’re born into sin, and we all need saving from that sin. We’ve inherited these inherent flaws from our sinful parents. So Augustine advocated the baptism of children, to ensure that even if they were to die at a young age, they would still get to heaven.
Augustine argued that we, as humans, lived in utter in depravity. That we were depraved. The definition of depraved is morally corrupt or wicked.
The doctrine of original sin has been used to justify all sorts of mission activity. If we don’t go and tell people about Jesus, they are living in sin, and will go to hell. So we must go and tell the so they can be save. And we experience salvation by seeking forgiveness for our sins, by being born again, and this not only gets us into heaven, but should help us to live better lives by trying to sin less.
But, what if Augustine got it wrong? And got it wrong by one vowel in English (even though he didn’t speak English, because English wasn’t really a language yet).
What if we as humans are not depraved?
What if we as humans are deprived?
When I first learned that Augustine might have been wrong by one vowel in a language that wasn’t invented yet, sweet mercy me, that has been a TSN turning point for me.
What if, we as humans, are deprived?
I think of it like this: When we are in our mother’s womb, all our needs are being met. We are one with our mother’s, we are fed through the umbilical cord, and all we know is love.
And then we come out screaming at having to leave that happy place.
But quickly we’re swaddled up and fed again.
And when we get to observe the beauty and peacefulness of a newborn baby in their parent’s arms, we get to see love at its best. All the baby knows, is love.
But, eventually, parents cannot meet all the needs of their baby. The kid gets hungry, and they have to wait. Or they get cold. Or they hit their heads. Or they get sick.
And as parents, we obviously do our best, but we know that we can’t satisfy all their needs.
And, so I like to think that as children, we learn to act out, almost like Freudian defense mechanisms. We try to protect ourselves from the cruel, cruel world out there. And so we learn anger to get attention. And we learn to lie to avoid punishment. And we learn to sneak Halloween candy. And we learn to take our siblings toys because we want them.
As we grow, we are more and more deprived from the primacy love of God (hence why healthy religion is always about us returning back to God).
Some people call it “childhood wounds,” as that’s a bit unfair to the parents who are trying their best and obviously not trying to wound their children.
But as Chris Heuertz says, “Childhood wounds might not be real wounds. They might have been how we internalized the impression of our caregivers shadow.” Or if you’re a Star Wars fan, how we internalized our parent’s dark sides.
It’s the idea that our parents all gave us baggage that we have to work through, and that we’re all going to end up giving our own kids baggage that they will have to work through. Let alone any baggage or trauma that the world gives us.
And so, eventually, these form our ego.
Psychology will define our egos in fairly neutral terms, like our concept of self, or our personality, or who we think we are.
But some spiritual writers refer to our ego as a mask, as a culmination of our defense mechanisms, as something that we project. And something that we think will protect us.
Thomas Merton called it our False Self and our True Self.
The false self is simply who we think we are. But our thinking doesn’t make it so. Rather, it’s our fictitious self, our manufactured self. Our false self is all the labels that we apply to ourselves, and how we project all those labels to the world. The false self, in some ways, is our ego. The false self is the illusions that we believe about ourselves. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. (This is a mash up of Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, and Ian Cron).
Whereas the true self is our identity, hidden in Christ with God. If we peel back all the layers, what’s left? Who are we? We’re not as autonomous or independent as we think we are… but that reality is bigger and more solid than most of us know. Our true self is our unchangeable anchored self. Who we are always was and still is and will always be, from the moment of conception. (This, too, is a mash up of Rohr and Merton and Cron).
The false self is not our physical bodies. Some spiritual writes wish that instead of the word “Flesh”, the apostle Paul used the word “ego”. So our physical bodies aren’t the problem, but rather, our egos are. And when we’re able to name our egos for the illusion they are, we are able to put to death, and able to live into our true selves.
Richard Rohr calls it the false provisional adaptive self, and declares that it needs to go in order for the true self to emerge.
The self that has to die is the false self.
Our egos need to get out of the way.
Only then can we start to live into the full, good life that God is calling us into.
(Told you this was going to get theoretical <smile>)
One of the best ways to identify our false selves, the illusions that we believe about ourselves, is to pay attention when we get angry at things. Or offended. Or we want to lash out. Or we want to assert our own sense of rightness. This is the false self defending itself.
For example. Ashley and I coach high school ultimate Frisbee in Grunthal, and to help our team learn the game, we try to organize an alumni game every year. So the now young adults come from the last few years and we have a great time.
This year, after the high school team beat the alumni team, which was just delightful… like, we were pumped. We had grade 10 girls playing against 24 year old men, and they won! And after the game, one the very first players we coached 6 years ago came up to me and said, “Kyle! I just wanted to let you know that I think it’s great how involved you are in the community, even I don’t agree with everything you say.”
The fury and the rage and anger rose up. I thankfully said “Thanks” and walked away, but that car ride home… What kind of back handed insulting compliment is that?!?! And at work the next day, oh Mel and Audrey and Cathy heard my anger and frustration.
What does this guy know about me and my family and my job and my life? I’m not even his Facebook friend! Who does he think he is, judging me? He doesn’t know me.
A few months later, when I’m a little less mad, I can name it. This is my false self defending itself. This is my false self thinking that I am worthy or love and a good father and a good husband and good pastor and a believer in justice and equality and that guy has no clue what he’s talking about (and I actually know very little about his current life, either, but I’m sure he’s doing his best to live with integrity as well).
But does it matter? All those labels I have for myself… what’s underneath them? My true self, hidden in Christ, right? We let the masks, the illusions, run the show.
The false self by itself isn’t bad. It’s a necessary part of our lives that has helps us survive and sometimes helps us thrive. But it will only take us so far. Eventually, the false self has to die. We need to name it and expose it so that we are better able to dismantle it so we can live into our true selves. The self that God made and loves.
So, for those of you who have jobs where they don’t pay you to pray, or whose home lives are full of boisterous children, or who would rather have your fingernails peeled off than sit in silence, I’ll teach you one more prayer.
It’s called the SNAP prayer. SNAP is an acronym. And if you like taking notes in church, write this one down. (I learned this prayer from Ian Cron).
And this prayer has been instrumental for me in exposing my false self and learning to rest in my true self.
Some people suggest doing the SNAP prayer at regular intervals in our lives. Like, morning, afternoon, and evening. Where we set alarms and do it.
Others suggest that we do SNAP prayer when we are in a particularly emotional state, positive or negative. So when something happens to us that we want to react to right aways, we remember SNAP. The choice is yours.
The S stands for stop. So whatever you’re doing, stop. Unless you’re driving on the highway. Then symbolically stop.
The N stands for notice. Take a minute and notice what’s around you. You’re breathing. Your feelings. Where you are. The trees or the messy house or the people around you or the birds or the sky or your lunch or your emotions or the blankets for MCC. All of it. Take a few minutes and notice what’s around you.
The A stands for ask.
Ask yourself 3 questions: “What I am believing to be true right now?” “Are thse beliefs true?” “How would my life change if I let go of this belief?”
So, as an example, we’ll go to my car ride home after that ultimate Frisbee game where I was fuming on the ride home.
First Question – “What am I believing to be true right now?” “He doesn’t know my life.” But when I stopped and thought, deeper questions emerged. “Am I not living my life with integrity? Is this what people think of me? Do they just write me off? Am I failing at this whole Frisbee coaching pastor thing? Am I failing?”
Second question – “Are these beliefs true?” No. Probably not. I am not a failure. People disagree. My identity is a beloved child of God.
Third Question – “How would my life change if I let go of this belief?” “Well, I’d be less angry right now. And more loving. And my present to my kids when I get home. So, really, if I let go of these, my life will be better.
But do you see how the false self is defending itself? When we’re angry, or offended, or want to push back against someone, that is one of the easiest ways to label our false self.
And unless we are willing to sit in silence, we will have a hard time naming the false self. We will not be able to see masks that we wear. We will not see the illusions that we believe.
But once we’re able to name it, we can P, which stands for Pivot. We can choose to not listen to that voice. We can pray asking God for help to change our behavior. We can keep trying to live our lives with integrity. We can choose to rest in our identity as beloved children of God, the identity that we always had and always have and always will have.
SNAP. There you go.
Prayer can honestly be life changing. And the prayers that I find most life changing are the ones where I sit in silence. I’m not entirely convinced that if my ego is the part of the problem, that my ego can get me out the problem. I don’t think the ego can show the way to God. I think need ego needs to get out the way. And in silence, we can give God consent to help us get our egos out the way.
Elijah was on a mountain. God wasn’t found in the fire, the earthquake, or the wind. God was found in the sheer silence.