Author Archives: Dugald Wilson

It All Begins Now

ILuke 4:14-30

We Protestants are an interesting bunch.  We have been shaped by one Martin Luther who had a deep crisis of faith and one day discovered that he didn’t need to prove himself good enough to be accepted by God but he accepted just as he was.  It was a profound moment of liberation for Luther and he set about liberating his church from the idea that you had to earn a place in heaven, by being good enough or by paying large sums of money to the church to purchase your ticket.  Justification by grace through faith became the catch cry of the new church that emerged.  God accepts and treasures you as a free gift, grace….accept this by faith and you are born anew.  And I trust you know this good news to be true.  I have to confess I need to go on hearing this because my faith is not always strong.  I thank God that there is an insistent whisper in the universe that keeps underlining this.  Amazing Grace.

There is an issue however with this message as the good news of Jesus.  Justification by grace through faith as I hear it is a very individualistic message.  If this is the good news of Jesus it seems to be about saving certain individuals.  Now clearly each and every one of us is precious to God – that is well seen in Jesus’ ministry.  He even goes out of his way to notice the untouchables, and the nobodies of the world.  It is good news to know we are loved, we are accepted, we are valued.  Jesus does set us free from the need to prove ourselves, to be good enough, and he sets us free from the crippling fear of a hell.  But it’s just not enough. There is something much more to Jesus’ message of salvation and healing than saving individual souls.  It’s not just for me and my salvation, but Jesus wanted to save and heal the whole of creation.

Jesus doesn’t talk of an individual’s justification by grace through faith.  He says I have come that the whole earth might find life in all its fullness.  He has come to bring heaven into earth. He says the kingdom of God is at hand, not just for a select few but for the whole earth.  His ministry was about transforming life, and transforming communities.  He talked of a new commonwealth.  Individuals mattered but individuals don’t stand alone.  We are all part of communities and we are all part of a larger web of life.

After spending time in the desert preparing for his ministry Luke gives us the bones of an encounter that serves as a key introduction to his mission. He arrives back in his hometown and on the Sabbath went with everyone else to the local synagogue.  He is handed the scroll of Isaiah to read and opens the scriptures at Isaiah 61, a passage originally from the time of Exile when the Babylonian captives were given good news that God was going to deliver them.  A new beginning was at hand.  God was going to act to set captives free, to deliver the poor, give new vision to the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  Great news.

It sounds like music to our ears.  We all want captives set free, deliverance for the poor, the blind given vision.  Nice words.  Nice sentiment. The reference to the year of the Lord’s Favour is a little less obvious.  It is a reference to what was known as the Year of Jubilee which was supposed to happen every fifty years in Israelite society.  (you can read about this in Lev  25:8-12) In that year all debts were cancelled and all property that had been sold was returned to the original owner.  This sounds odd to our ears but in Israelite society God owned the land and it was allotted to each family.  You didn’t own land but were simply trustees.  If you got into strife financially as plenty of people did in a hand to mouth economy you could sell your land but because it didn’t actually belong to you all you could do was sell it till the next year of Jubilee when it would return to your family again.  In effect you were selling years of use.  Investing ownership in God  was a radical way of ensuring the rich didn’t go on getting richer and the poor go down the plughole.  There was a constant rebalancing of wealth.  Likewise In the Jubilee Year all monetary debts were cancelled, and if you had sold family members into slavery they were released.  Everyone got a fresh start.  But it wasn’t just about people.  It was also a year of freedom for all creation, for the plants which were to be un-pruned and left free and wild for the year.  There was to be no intensive cultivation – creation was given a year to rest.  There were other laws about letting the land lie fallow every seven years, leaving some of the harvest around the edges for wild creatures and so on. The underlying message was the same, all of creation needed to be cared for, life was a gift, and should celebrate and emulate the grace of God.  All life should be given a fresh chance.   All creatures and plants included. 

It was a great passage to read.  But Jesus then sits down to teach on the passage that’s just been read as was custom.  Sermon time, and he says just a few words.  It’s happening now, this is what God wants and God want’s it now, here.  This is my ministry.

If he just said I have come to tell you God loves you, all would be well.  If he had just said believe and you are saved, there would have been lots of handshakes and pats on the back.  If he had just said have some concern for the poor and give them some left over change there would have been no issue.

But there was an immediate reaction….rage!  He says it’s time to take radical action to start living in a new way…the Kingdom of God way.  Forgive our debts and grudges, redistribute the wealth we have earned, sort out the conflicts, open the doors of the boxes we have put others in, set everyone free of the labels we have put on them.  Take better care of the environment.  You’ve got to be kidding.   It suits me to hold a grudge against old ‘so and so’.  It suits me to keep ‘x’ who I find a pain at arm’s length in a well-constructed figurative box.  The wealth and property I have is mine – I’ve earned it and I’m not about to put it at God’s disposal.  Don’t tell me to buy an electric donkey that doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses.    

To make matters worse Jesus starts naming outsiders as deserving God’s favour, and saying his hearers have domesticated their religion.  Outsiders don’t even put in the hard yards of going to church every Sunday.  This new earth is for them too?  What sort of God are we talking about here.

Seems like the answer to that question is pretty clear.  God is a God of grace.  God has a concern for everyone.   God wants to transform the world as we know it because it’s not providing life in all its fullness for everyone, and God wants us to take risks for this new earth NOW

Clearly it was all too much for the local synagogue.  Rage…. Isn’t this Joe’s son, and maybe the heat has got to him.  Who is he telling us good people what to do.  We are God’s people and we work damned hard to get what we have.    Jesus is just upsetting the apple cart.  He’s got a lot to learn about how the world really operates.

But Jesus is adamant.  The good news wasn’t about some distant heaven somewhere in the future, but about finding heaven in our midst now.  It was about Gods faithful solidarity with all humanity and all creation NOW.  It was about Gods compassion and call to be reconciled with one another NOW.  It was a summons to dare to be different NOW.    

Everyone agrees that the poor and down trodden should be helped sometime, that oppression and exploitation of the earth should cease one day, the planet should be respected one day, that wars should cease someday.  But for Jesus the message is clear…that someday is NOW.

The day has come today to cancel debts, to sort out issues with your enemies, to share bread with the hungry, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to care for creation….to start walking a new road.

The church as I know it still struggles to cotton on.  We are still often in the someday mode.  I look around us and see all sorts of petty conflicts.  We are real human beings after all and we still have much to learn about how to sort out our life together.  I look around and we are all somewhat lukewarm about the idea that we are trustees of the wealth we ‘own’.  We ask how will I benefit from ‘my’ wealth  instead of using it to transform life for all.  We hear about issues about our environment and say someone else can take the steps to sort it.  I find it mind blowing to think that if Jesus used a plastic bottle of shampoo we could dig it up intact today some 2000 years later.  How many plastic bottles and bags have I consigned to the trash to lie around in the earth and other places or break down and fill the oceans with plastic pieces?   Am I really with Jesus and the kingdom of heaven on this?  As his disciples we should be leading the charge to care for our environment, to be the radical ones who try to practice sustainability, but sadly too often you and I are in with the crowd.

I know it’s not easy stepping out of the patterns of life we are all embedded in, but the call of Jesus is a call to take radical risks to give witness to a new way of living……  NOW.   We are to be the Good News….NOW.  it was all too much for the hometown crowd that day, and if I’m honest I have some sympathy for them.  If we are going to be different we will need to encourage one another, bounce ideas off one another, question and learn together, pray together, act together.  NOW!

Dugald Wilson 3 Feb 2019 t

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We are Apprentices

  Luke 5:1-11

People called Jesus “Rabbi”, which means teacher.  He gathered around him a group of people called disciples.  Disciples are people who believe their teacher has something to teach them.  They are questioners and learners.  The word disciple come a Latin word which means to learn.   Learners ask questions, learners experiment, learners commit time and energy to following.  Maybe a good term in our time is “apprentices”, because learning for discipleship involves hands on practice.  Discipleship is a way of life.

Discipleship is an honoured and treasured term.  I remember as a young man reading Jesus’ teachings and being drawn into a way of looking at the world and other people that resonated deep within.  I was looking for a guide to show me how to live well and Jesus helped me see what was good and true.  His teachings helped me find values to live by.  As a young child I discovered speaking the truth was one of those values.  I discovered it was much better to tell my parents that I’d broken a precious ornament rather than concoct a story about how the cat had mysteriously jumped up and knocked the prize vase off the mantelpiece…  I was amazed at the way Jesus reached out to strangers and people who were rejected by others and tried to do the same.  I saw kids being treated badly by others at school so would try and befriend them.  Kids from other countries or with a different skin colour would often be picked on or ignored, so I tried to put myself in their shoes and befriend them…  I didn’t realise it at the time but the space to reflect as I walked home from school was an invaluable time of solitude where I could reflect and chew things over and Jesus was often part of that time. 

In my early 20’s I took to heart Jesus’ advice to live simply and tried to avoid being duped into the consumer dream that happiness is found in having the latest whatever.  I found others interested in that dream and we set up our flat to live simply, because we believed that’s what Jesus taught.  Part of that dream was to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle so as to consume less of the world’s resources which we did for some years, but alas the meat lover has won through again.  We talked about issues together and were part of the anti-nuclear movement staging street dramas and doing whatever we could to alert others to the evil of nuclear weapons.  When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, we took his words seriously.  To spend billions on making and peddling weapons of destruction in a world wracked by poverty and basic health and education issues, seems so wrong.  Jesus clearly stood for another way.  His rage at the merchants ripping off the poor in the temples was clear evidence of that.  His overturning of the money tables was not an anti-business protest, but was a protest about ripping people off and inappropriate and evil ways of making money.  Our banking industry needs to take note.  In our flat we talked often of how we could be a witness for Jesus and we tried to invite someone to share a meal with us each week.  Getting to know how others ticked and why they held views that were different was important. 

When it came to the inevitable O.E. (overseas experience) I felt called by Jesus to do something different.  Most seemed to head to the UK for a couple of years but I wanted to look at world poverty and decided to spend a year in a wealthy country and a year in a poor country to see what I could learn.  In America I volunteered to help in a rehab community for people suffering from mental illness.  It gave me a fascinating insight into the importance of community as a healing power.  I also learned as I walked the streets of wealthy American cities that there was terrible poverty there and many it seemed were consigned to the scrapheap of life.  Wealth invariably brought injustices as those with plenty tried to protect their position. In India I helped with the Presbyterian mission project in Jagadhri as well as spending time in a multi-faith project in Bihar state (maybe the poorest state in India) teaching children from surrounding villages about agricultural practices that might enable them to grow more food.  I learned that people with very little are often happier than those with much.  I learned many aid projects end poorly because they are too quick fix and not there for the long haul. People and communities are always very resistant to change even when the change will bring benefit.  I also learned that other religious traditions can help us rediscover spiritual practices of Jesus like the setting aside of quiet time to meditate and reflect with God who lives within on what was really motivating and driving my life.  Learning from other Christian traditions and other religions was an important part of listening to Jesus, and seeking to be a apprentice….someone who was constantly learning from Jesus.

Youth is, of course, a time to experiment and learn.  Unburdened by responsibility you can take risks and can be idealistic.  Sometimes I had no idea where I would lay my head at night, but things usually work out and around the world people are wonderfully gracious and kind.  Time progresses and sadly taking risks, experimenting, and exploring get trampled in our lives.  We start worrying about the future and get entangled in relationships that mean we are responsible for the welfare of others.  We adopt routines that minimize risk, or avoid pushing boundaries.  It’s easy for Jesus to become domesticated.  No longer is Jesus a teacher and we apprentices, but we are much happier to talk of Jesus as possibly a friend, or as a nice guy, and church can become a club rather than a community where we experiment and learn.  We reflect this in our makeup.  You go to Sunday School and Youth Group to learn and then you settle and get through life with the knowledge you’ve learned in those early years.  The truth is faith has to continue to grow and change as we learn more and more about life and face new experiences like what to do with wealth, how do we face aging and death, what do we do about climate change.  Too often faith becomes a private matter, a Sunday only matter.  We might go to a study group, but they tend to be about talking, head knowledge, and not ongoing transformation.  After three or four sessions we are as deep as we want to get with each other.

I believe that most of us want to live a life that honours God, our creator, a life that is meaningful, a life of significance, a life that honours our calling.  We want to live a life of integrity, a life that is true to our essence, and which will make a difference in our world.  To do this I believe we need a spiritual guide and we need to commit to ongoing learning.  As Christians we believe we see God most clearly in Jesus.  Jesus, is our light, our teacher, our Way, and we need to be learners of this Way throughout our lives.  Life long apprentices. 

I was speaking a while ago to a person who was learning a new way of living.  He had joined a  Weight Watchers group.  He said he’d been trying to lose weight for years and knew all the head stuff about what was required.  Eat less, exercise more….it’s pretty simple really.  But however hard he tried he never managed to put it into practice.  His weight remained the same or in reality slowly crept up over the years.  What made the difference he said was meeting with others who supported him and encouraged him to head down another road.  He needed to learn some strategies to do things differently, and he need to know others were with him as he instituted some changes in his life.  In just a couple of months he’s lost nearly 10kg.  It’s being part of a group that regularly meets together and encourages each other to with helpful advice that’s made the difference, he said.

I don’t quite understand why our religion and spirituality is so private.  I don’t understand why we give up learning.  I don’t know why we stop questioning and growing like little children do.   Life certainly becomes more complex as move down the track and face dilemmas and issues.  Disciples of Jesus don’t stop wrestling with that complexity and experimenting with answers. 

The truth is, Jesus didn’t just communicate some nice ideas, but declared “I am the way” and invited his disciples to form a community that would learn together and practice together a new way of living.  We live in a very different world some 2000 years after Jesus lived, but fueled and inspired by his example, teachings, and sacrifice, and listening for his Spirit alive in our time our eyes and hearts can be Jesus opened to see the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst.  We make the Way by walking not standing still or by always looking back to past traditions. 

Maybe we have been hoodwinked by our academic tradition that defined learning as acquiring information and knowledge.  We would be better off thinking of ourselves as apprentices  – people who learn by hands on learning and experimenting. The real answers lie in our lives here and now.  Past answers can help. But actually we have to face the reality of now.  If you ever had children that learned karate you’ll know the meaning of the word dojo.  A dojo comes out of the Japanese tradition  and it’s a place or school where you learn to practice martial arts or mediation.  Theoretically you could have a dojo to learn knitting or cooking.  The important thing is that it’s a place or a group where you learn how to do it through practice.  You learn karate by fronting up and focusing your energy to smash bits of wood.  It’s hands on practice.  It involves failure, commitment of time, some pain, connecting with people at the same stage and with the same vision.  Together the skills and the mental focus is learned that enables you to do amazing things.

It starts with someone recognizing and voicing a desire to learn and to grow.  Someone saying I don’t get it, I need help.  Asking a question.  Recognizing an itch or a hunger and being honest enough to own it.   I believe the gospel of Jesus, spreads not by force, or fear, but by fascination.  People itching together, people asking questions, people connecting.  Now there’s an interesting image for a church community!  People connecting with God by looking to Jesus as the rabbi, the teacher, the way of life.  People connecting with each other but also engaging with his Spirit today. People who know we make the road by walking and connecting. (net/cross)

So apprentices…. Learners…..as I’ve said before the church of the future is about circles…people engaging, connecting authentically, searching for true life.  Where 2 or 3 gather in my name, I will be there said Jesus ….maybe you have a question or an itch you need to share?.

Dugald Wilson 10 Feb 2019

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Nehemiah for today

Introduction to Nehemiah 1:1- 2:8

There is a whole book in our Old Testament called Nehemiah and it tells the story of his mission to rebuild the wall around the city of Jerusalem.  It’s a bit of a strange story to have in the Bible so let me fill in some background.

The book of Nehemiah is closely linked with the book of Ezra and probably originally they were one book.  We’ll hear about Ezra in a minute.  For those of you who like dates we are talking about 450BCE.  The land of Israel has been occupied for over 100 years.  First it was the Babylonians who ransacked Jerusalem in 586BCE, destroyed the great Temple, and carted off many of the leaders and others as slaves in Babylon in what is known as the Exile.  It was a crushing defeat of a proud people and it caused much soul searching.  How could their God let this happen? 

The hard answer proclaimed by the prophets in the Old Testament was that the people had abandoned God.  They no longer kept the laws, and the worship of God had become a meaningless ritual.  Great disparities of wealth and a lack of respect for neighbour and life ensued.  Dishonesty, greed, and self seeking prevailed, and Israel lost its distinctiveness as a nation.  The defeat by the Babylonians was God’s judgment said the prophets.  The people had been unfaithful and this was the consequence.  But the Babylonians didn’t last either.  The great Persian King Cyrus had conquered his own grandfathers Median Empire (modern day Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan) and had moved north and west and conquered what we call Turkey.   Finally he moved south and conquered the Babylonian Empire. 

What was astonishing is that everywhere he conquered he brought a firm humane rule that respected those conquered.  He created new rules and a term which lasts into our own time – the laws of the Medes and Persians – laws which stand the test of time.  The defeat of the city of Babylon was a staggering event.  Cyrus diverted the river Euphrates which ran though the city and marched in on the dry riverbed with the city walls intact.  There was little killing, no marching off of captives, no demolition of the religious symbols as the Babylonians themselves would have.  Cyrus was an emperor who thought in terms of commonwealth with everyone benefiting from peaceful trade and shared knowledge.  The vanquished were treated humanely rather than as slaves.  Cyrus looked at all the various people in Babylon, captives from many lands that the Babylonians had brought there and said, “if you want you can go back home. I’ll even provide assistance to help you.” 

The Jewish population were not sure.  They had been there 50 years and some had prospered as Jews often do.  What had changed though was that they had drawn closer to their God. The hard times had caused them to turn back to God and their soul searching had led to a re-valuing of their faith.  God hadn’t abandoned them as they thought, but they had abandoned God. 

A new dream began to emerge and that was God’s Holy Temple must be rebuilt in David’s city, in Jerusalem.  So a contingent of exiles was formed with a mission to rebuild the Temple.  Cyrus was generous.  He gave the Jews all the vast treasure of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple when the Babylonians had destroyed it.  You can read about their mission under the leader Zerubbabel in the opening six chapters of Ezra.  You’ll also read there that there was a rift between the returning exiles and those who had remained in Jerusalem.  The locals had intermarried with others and the exiles saw them as being second rate Jews who had acquiesced to the values and customs of the foreigners and others who lived around Jerusalem.  They were seen to be like chameleon lizards who adapt in appearance to whatever environment they are in. When these locals offered to help rebuild the Temple they were rejected.  It all caused strife and delayed things somewhat and the rebuild appears to have run out of steam.  The prophets Haggai and Zechariah weighed in with support to get the job completed.    Cyrus dies but his successor was also a man of tolerance…Darius.  You may remember he learnt something about the Jewish God when he consigned Daniel to the lions.  It was under Darius that the Temple was finally finished and it seemed a new age had dawned.  There were wonderful celebrations, but in reality the completion of the Temple wasn’t a magic bullet for the struggling Jewish community.  There is a lesson for us….our mission to repair a fine building is not the missions.

The next chapter of the story belongs to Ezra the priest.  Ezra was a rather pious man who would be labelled a religious fanatic in our time.  He lived in Babylon about 50 years after the Temple was complete.  There was by then a new king Artaxerxes.  Ezra could see that the distinctive Jewish way of life was in danger of being lost back in Jerusalem and while there had been a turning back to God with the building project it hadn’t lasted.  The people of God there had no cutting edge, no distinctiveness.  They were Jews in name only, they had a chameleon religion. 

He nagged Artaxerxes with a message…”there are a number of good Jews living in Babylon who would like to return to the land of their ancestors.”  Eventually the King said go and Ezra went with about 1700 others and sort things out in the homeland.  Ezra wasn’t pleased with all the backsliding he found back in Jerusalem and set about teaching the locals about the laws of Moses.  Ezra was particularly keen to re-establish the Sabbath, to impose a tax to pay for the proper running of the Temple, and to stop intermarriage with Canaanites and other races.  At the core of his mission was a desire to establish Jewish identity that had been watered down with all the mixing of religion that had been going on.  He even went as far as annulling all the mixed marriages from the past and wanted to send the women and children involved off out of Israel.  In the book of Ezra you can even read a long list of  the marriages that were dissolved!  As you can imagine there was opposition and poor old Ezra ended up minus quite a bit of hair which he pulled out in frustration.  Restoring the soul of the people wasn’t as easy as just passing laws to protect purity, and ranting and raving about how bad they all were.    

Reading…Nehemiah 1:1 – 2:8

Enter Nehemiah.  Nehemiah was a cup bearer of King Artaxerxes Cup bearers sound a strange profession but they were very trusted individuals in charge of what the King drank.  Not only did they have to be a good chooser of wines, but they had to ensure no-one poisoned the wine because that was a common way of getting rid of kings.  Nehemiah was a confidant of the King.  Nehemiah was also concerned about Jewish identity and the need to re-establish a new sense of Jewish distinctiveness.   The Temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem the spiritual home of the people but Jerusalem was a city in ruins without a city wall.  Nehemiah heard God’s saying that he needed to go back and rebuild the wall.  King Artaxerxes liked his cup bearer very much and could see he was not sick in the physical sense but that he was suffering from a sadness of the heart. “As long as you come back you can go”, he said, and even provided an armed escort and a promise to provide all the timber necessary for the job.

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem he could see there was much to be done but also he was going to find opposition in the form the local governor who didn’t appreciate Nehemiah arriving on the scene with his connections with Artaxerxes. The surrounding inhabitants of the land also didn’t want a strong Jerusalem, so Nehemiah took control of the city.  He seems to have been a great organiser of people and got the locals with money organised to each take a section of wall to repair.  No more just looking after your own interests, but Nehemiah talked about the common good.  “We can work together to do something we could never manage by ourselves.”  I guess today we might say Nehemiah was a great team builder.  There was opposition but Nehemiah was determined.  It started with jeering, but developed into armed clashes, so Nehemiah organised armed guards and a system to signal to everyone when trouble was brewing.  The work will continue said Nehemiah but every builder and labourer will be protected.  In one hand a tool and in the other a weapon. If you go to Israel today you’ll see nothing has changed. 

The people, reassured, protected, and with a will that believed God wanted the work done had the task completed in 52 days.  There was a great ceremony and Ezra the priest read the Torah to all the thousands of Israelites gathered in the Temple precincts. Many gathered had never read or heard the law being read before so Nehemiah and the Levites moved amongst the people to explain what was read.  There was great consternation among the people as they heard the teaching and saw they had failed to keep these laws.  But Ezra and the other leaders also affirmed the people with the message, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  In a great revival the people re-covenanted with God to keep the laws, to keep the Sabbath, and to tithe their income to support the upkeep of the Temple.   

But the story ends on a downer.  Nehemiah eventually heads back to Babylon and sometime later comes back to Jerusalem to see how things are going. He tours the city and finds the Temple staff and leaders are not keeping the tenets of the Torah.  The priests are not being paid because people have stopped tithing.  Out on the streets the Sabbath is not being kept, and the corruption the reformers had fought to erase is back.  The transformation Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah all longed for had only partially taken root.  Nehemiah’s story ends with an angry man going on a rampage telling the people to keep the Torah and saying to himself and to God, “at least I tried!”

What do we make of it all.  Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, all diagnosed an issue with their religious community.  That issue was that their religion has lost its saltiness.  The laws which brought life were forgotten.  It had lost its cutting edge.  The people of Jerusalem had become chameleon Jews who fitted uncritically into the patterns of the world around them.  Seeking wealth, possessions, and comfort.  God was no longer a living presence but a distant and dead reality.  Later religious leaders would recognise that building temples or walls doesn’t change hearts.  Stories like Ruth and Jonah were needed to remind people that God is much bigger than one select group.  I’m surprised that our dear friend Donald hasn’t championed Nehemiah the wall builder, but I want to champion the idea that God can be found in all people, and in all places and fine buildings and fences and walls aren’t particularly fancied by God. 

If Nehemiah were around today I would suggest that instead of rebuilding walls he would rebuild spiritual practices.  Instead of putting stones on top of one another to build a wall we need to build spiritual practices into our lives that nurture the Way of Jesus within our lives.  We need to build lives that are not built on the foundation of consumerism and acquiring more, but on building a relationship with God and participating in the mission of Jesus to discover life in all its fullness.  Keeping the Sabbath as a day to re-orientate in God, building and participating in a community of faith, finding prayer practices that work for you, asking more often what is God saying to me, making space to reflect and listen to the inner places, nurturing spiritual companions for the journey, meeting to study scripture together, reading good spiritual literature, practicing hospitality…. These are some of the building blocks that will build lives that are changed from the inside out.   

Listen to what Nehemiah is saying to you!

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What are Your sealed orders?

What are your sealed orders?  – Ps 139: 1-6,13-17, 1 Cor 12: 1-18

I don’t know how many of you enjoy doing jigsaws.  I’m one of those people who can get addicted.  I have strategies of finding all the pieces with straight edges to go around the outside, and then looking for bits of a particular colour or texture so that the seemingly impossible task of fitting it all together can be accomplished.    This morning I’ve given you each a piece of a jigsaw, and I’m inviting you to consider it for a moment.  I’m wondering what you can tell me about your piece…?

Unique, only piece like this, part of bigger whole, etc…

One of the messages of that wonderful Psalm 139 is the unique way each of us is made.  There are some pretty radical claims made that somehow there is a guiding hand at work in our very conception and the way we are knitted together.  It isn’t pure chance that you are you and I am I.   The poetic images tell of a power at work within our very DNA, and even I think within the family and community that nurtured the sort of person we are. I say this is a radical idea because it is in stark contrast to the prevailing narrative of our modern world which proclaims its all chance, luck, and genetics.  The prophet Jeremiah who struggled with understanding his life was comforted by these words of God.  “

I’m inviting you to hold your little unique piece of jigsaw and hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah:  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  (Jer 1:5)  Jeremiah struggled with depression and sometimes could see nothing of value in his life so these words were of comfort to him. 

The Holy Spirit of God was somehow there as the first cells that were you came together, and somehow within your very DNA the Spirit was at work creating the very unique being that you are, and dedicating you to your unique holy purpose.

One way a modern mystic and healer, Agnes Sanford pictured this was that before we were born each of us were given what she called ‘Sealed Orders’. It was as if right at the beginning God sealed within us a unique way of sharing love with the world.  I should explain these sealed orders are not commands, but are an invitation to live out your true purpose.  They are not something we are commanded to do, but invited to be.  In our protestant tradition we would call these sealed orders our calling.  Sometimes we talk of ministers being called but actually in our tradition we believe each of us is called….each of us has a divine dream within our being, a dream that will help heal the world.  Frederick Buechner, the wise American author said, “the place God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

These ‘Sealed Orders’ or what God invites you and me are embedded somehow within us.  If we can discover these we will lead a meaningful life and we will be deeply at peace with ourselves because we are in harmony with our true purpose.  People who never discover their sealed orders are invariably unhappy and unfulfilled.  Dr Bernie Siegel tells the story of a man who wanted to be a violinist but instead became a lawyer in order to please his parents.  He developed a brain tumour and was given a year to live.  He decided to spend his last year doing what he really wanted.  He quit law and devoted himself to playing the violin.  A year later he had a job as a violinist in a concert orchestra and the brain tumour was gone.

Sadly often in our modern world people see a job as a means to get money rather than the way we might live out their our dream.  It is a huge factor in the discontent seen in the modern world and we would do well to talk of calling and life purpose much more often, but I guess if you remove any idea of  God beyond us or guiding power calling and purpose become problematic .

You might think that God would make it easy to discover our sealed orders but for some reason that is not so.  I think that has something to do with our separation from God as human beings.  We who live east of Eden will have to work to discover our true reason for being – our ‘Sealed Orders.’

I think we start discovering our ‘Sealed Orders’ when we ask the question, ‘what is the unique way I was created to share love with the world?

We start getting in touch with our ‘Sealed Orders’ when we notice the things we get most absorbed in life, or the things that bring joy and fulfillment in our lives. 

There are other ways we can get a glimpse of our sealed orders.  Consider these questions….”who are our heroes and why?”, (“what creature or living thing in nature do you feel drawn to?”)   “If you had only one year to live and unlimited resources what would you like to do?”,   (“what do you have to do?”) “what activities bring you a deep sense of peace and joy?”, “when do you feel most alive in your body?”, and “what do your friends see as your unique way of giving love?”.  It’s interesting but if you are observant you’ll see these sealed orders on display even in children as you watch them play and if you carefully observe what catches their attention.  Even before birth in many cultures of our world there will be some clue as to what to call a new baby  so in our scriptures often someone’s name gives a clue to their sealed orders.  Jesus’ name was revealed before his birth – it means savior.  Others get a name change along the way like Peter, the Rock.

There are other ways to discover our life meaning.  I’m not suggesting we go looking for death but people who have near death experiences and claim they meet up with the Presence of Light and Love invariably have a much clearer sense of mission in life.  They seem to glimpse their purpose and are empowered by love to live it out.  An encounter with God will often reveal something of our meaning and purpose.  Looking at our unique being through the lens of tools like the enneagram can give us clues. I think a core purpose of a church community is helping one another see more clearly our sealed orders.  I don’t think we usually do it well.  Like society around us we are good at seeing faults in one another and we all have those.  What we need is more people who encourage and name what we see as our friend’s way of giving love to the world.  People like John the Baptist who refused to claim the crown of Messiah but instead pointed to Jesus and said “he’s the one who has come to heal the world.”

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Paul doesn’t talk about sealed orders or ways we can share love – he uses another term – spiritual gifts.  In a number of his letters he says we need to learn what our spiritual gifts are so we live out our unique lives and can serve God in healing this broken world.  He says everyone is gifted somehow, and one of the key functions of church is to help each other discover our spiritual gifts.  He names some of these gifts….

Wisdom, trusting, hearing God clearly, healing, encouraging, leadership, administration, teaching, praying, practical helping, offering hospitality.  We could add other gifts….

Paul encourages us to discover our gifts or ‘Sealed Orders’ and reminds us that all of us are gifted.  Then he says that when people get to know their gifts they need to offer their gifts and use their gifts in service for the healing of the earth.  Further he says together as a church family we can we can build a team of ordinary people who know their gifts and together can make a great difference.  That’s another reason I’ve given you a piece of a jigsaw.  Each of us is just one part and we need each other if we are ever going to put the jigsaw together and create a new picture.   Each living out our ‘Sealed Orders’ and sharing love with the world.  This healing of the earth is a team game and often it’s the least important pieces that can be the critical pieces in terms of putting it all together.  So there is a challenge here…to know our own gifts better, and to help each other know our sealed orders.

A story. The chaplain of a woman’s prison invited a team of spiritual directors to lead a retreat day with the prisoners.  The theme of the day was self esteem because that is a huge problem in prison.  So many prisoners and other misfits in society believe they have no constructive purpose in life and that leaves them very vulnerable to destructive influences.  Low self esteem literally infected these prisoners.  They had poor posture; their skin was sallow, their voices thin and their eyes full of fear and doubt.  In the afternoon the spiritual directors asked for a volunteer and Kathy raised her hand.  She was invited to sit at the front while the other 20 participants were asked to tell Kathy the things they really valued about her.  Prison life doesn’t encourage that sort of question but slowly the other women began to name Kathy’s gifts.  Someone kept a list of what was said for Kathy to keep.  The surprising thing was that as Kathy heard the women list her gifts her entire appearance changed.  She sat up straight and her skin began to glow.  At the end she was asked how she felt.  She said, “there is a warm glow in my heart that is spreading all over me,” and you could see it.  The others had helped Kathy discover something of her ‘Sealed Orders – her unique way of sharing love with the world. I’m not about to ask for a volunteer but I am asking you to commit to working harder to be aware of your own gifts and to share with others in our faith communities  what you see as their unique way of giving love to others.  Instead of seeing faults, see gifts.  Name the gifts.  Instead of keeping a passive distance take the plunge and affirm the gifts you see.  And if you want an extra challenge do it for someone you maybe find it hard to get along with easily.  That really gets the Holy Spirit excited!

Dugald Wilson 20 Jan 2019

Background to 1 Corinthians 12:

When Paul came to the city of Corinth around 49 AD he would have found a bustling commercial center of about 80,000 inhabitants.  It was a boom town.  Athens down the road was a cultural center with a rich history, Corinth was a hive of business and manufacturing opportunity.  It was a tourist town and some of that tourism revolved around the temples – one to Aphrodite on the mountain overlooking the city with its sacred prostitutes, another to Apollo,  but more popular was the temple of Asklepios, a god of healing.   In and around that temple many representations of body parts made of clay have been found indicating people’s thanksgiving gifts for their healing. One of the rituals in this temple was eating the meat offered to the gods and Paul picks up on this issue of eating food offered to idols in one of his later letters to the small Corinthian church. 

Paul founded a small Christian community in Corinth during his 18 month stay.  Typically he encouraged some with leadership ability like Stephanus, Apollos, Gaius, Erastus, Chloe and Pheobe.  Gaius had a large fine house which served as a meeting place for the new group of Jesus followers.  However most of the new group which numbered maybe 30 people by the time Paul moved on were of low status.  Inevitably this caused issues.  When Paul moved on he kept in touch with the communities he founded with letters.  His communities would make contact with him about issues they were facing and Paul would offer advice.  We have two letters written to the Corinthian Church in our New Testament, but there were more. 

As we hear in Paul’s letters the status issue was a repeating core issue.  Gaius’s house would have had an elaborate dining room where typically invited guests could recline on couches and enjoy fine hospitality.  Adjacent would be a larger open space, the atrium, where other guests were offered standing room and the food offered less lavish.  The design of the house and the social customs of the time divided people according to status in ways that were much more divisive than our own society.  This division and way of seeing each other inevitably crept into the new group and when the little community came together the well to do ones retreated to the formal dining room for some fine dining while the rest stood around in the atrium and got ecomomy class food.  This was anathema to Paul who aims some pretty strong words to the community.  This new religion, of Jesus followers, respected and valued every person.  Every one was a child of God and women and slaves in particular were drawn to the new community because it offered recognition of them as human beings and it valued the contribution they could make.   

We’ll hear some of Paul’s deeper thinking on all this in the passage we are reading from 1 Corinthians today… its about spiritual gifts….the way each of us is wired and the gifts we bring to God’s mission of renewing and healing the earth. ?u*

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Christmas Day 2018

What is Your Yearning?
I want to reflect on a word I introduced to (you) this advent as we prepared for Christmas. It is the word yearning. Yearning is not a word often used these days. It’s probably a word like trivial… Anyone under 20 would have no idea what it means. Yearning is about an intense longing or eagerness for something. There is at Christmas plenty of what I would call Lite yearning…. Wanting or wishing are not yearnings. Christmas is full of wishing and wanting but most of it is about trivial stuff made in China.
Full strength yearning is a deeply religious word. But I want to digress…
I think God is found in our yearning. True yearning comes from deep within, from our soul. If you are in touch with your yearning you’ll be in touch with why God breathed life into you.
People often talk of Jesus as a great moral teacher. I think he was, and I think we need to heed his moral teaching, but one of the profound truths he brought in to the world was a valuing of our humanity. As Christians we claim God was in Jesus yet the stories of his birth make it clear he was very human. A baby born in a poor house and put in some hay for a bed. It’s raw living. It says it is deep within our humanity that God is found.
We often picture God, if we picture god at all as something or someone out there somewhere, but what if God is deep within us as human beings. I think Jesus affirms that idea. Our humanity is not alien to God but is somehow soaked in god like the trifle you may eat at lunchtime is soaked in sherry.
I think in each of us there is a calling, a yearning,, a way of being, a gift that we bring into the world. I sometimes call it a soul dream. It’s usually apparent even as a youngster, but often we only see that much later in our lives as we get more in touch with this yearning. I think God is found in our yearning. True yearning comes from deep within, from our soul. If you are in touch with your yearning you’ll be in touch with why God breathed life into you.
So I have an invitation to you this Christmas as you unwarp gifts…. Take time to unwrap the gift of yourself over the next few weeks. Take time to be more aware of your yearning. Jesus calls us to be more authentic, more us. We are as human beings God breathed but we need more silence and stillness to discover that… more conversations with others about our deep yearning. We need to look for the deep yearning in our children and see if we can’t nurture that.

Beware though, if you start digging within it will bring you close to God and that could be scary and it certainly will be risky and challenging. It will also be fulfilling. I think we’ve had enough of saying our lives are about making money, endless activity and busyness…having freedom to do what we want…. We need authenticity and listening for the God voice of yearning deep within. And a final word….our yearning is often not clearly defined. It’s not usually reduced to a simple statement, but the best we manage is often to say’ “it has something to do with…..” “Something to do with”, is a good place to start.
May God bless your yearning.

Dugald Wilson Christmas Day 2018

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