Category Archives: Worship

God’s gathered people

My sermon for Sunday … on the everyday words “But” & “And”

(I get to preach at an English-speaking congregation this week. Since none of the members follow my blog (I think!), I figure I can post it here for folks who might not make it to a Church on Sunday, or who might be otherwise interested.  Add in your own emphasis when you see But/And.  Peace!)

Today I want to talk about an everyday word.  B-U-T — but.  It’s a word we often use without thinking – *but* because it’s so useful, it gives us a lot of information.

But is often a word that tells you a disappointment is coming.

Parent to child: “ I love you, but this behaviour has got to stop!”

At kids bedtime:  “It’s been a fun day, but now it’s time to sleep.”

Job review: “You generally did well, but we need you to …

News:  “Authorities have searched for the missing flight, but found nothing.”

In the home:  “I want to cook your favourite meal, but I don’t have the ingredients.”

In being disciples: “You are the salt of the earth – but if the salt loses its flavour, it is good for nothing.” (Mtt. 5:13)

“But” is a word that makes us react.  Think of two kids playing with dolls or cars, and one child takes the best toy.  The other one says, “But I wanted that one!”  The one holding the toy will, almost always, hold that toy tighter and prepare for an argument or even a fight.

Why does this happen?  Because our brains are what scientists call “anticipation machines.”  Our brains are like supercomputers – machines that are programmed to figure out what is coming next.  We need to anticipate – ready ourselves for – whatever is coming next, whether it’s paying attention to where our feet are walking, or knowing that hunger means we should make food, or that if someone is going to take my toy away, I need to protect it.

It’s the same for adults – our brains are anticipation machines.  And when we hear  that one word “But” we close down – we get ready to react.  Think of a job review: when they say, “your effort was good, but the results were poor” – you are not calmly going to agree to that.  Your heart starts beating fast, because you are preparing to defend yourself.  As soon as you hear “but” you are immediately thinking in your head of how to defend yourself, and how to change their mind.  Most people stop listening after “but” because they are already in their own head.  We hear “but” and assume we know where the conversation is going, so our thoughts leap ahead to trying to take control and turn the conversation toward better news.  We assume, because we are trying to anticipate what’s coming next, and figure out what that means for us.

One author describes it this way:  “[We long to be connected with one another, and we do so by] appreciating what people say.  You do not have to agree with them, but appreciate what they are saying.  One very good way to do this is to eliminate the word “but” from your vocabulary.  Replace it with “and.”  “But” can be a destructive word; it implies you have heard what is said *but* you have some objections that discount it.  “And” is innocent.  It simply adds to and expands what is being said already.  [The author closes with this:]  Words have great power.”  (O’Conner/Seymour NLP page 22)

So we have these two words:  But and And.  But is a word that prepares us for disappointment.  It’s a word that separates us from others.  But builds a wall so that it is harder to connect, harder to trust, harder to be in a positive relationship.  Listen for it this week, and you will hear it.

So what does this have to do with Church, with faith, with our Christian walk?  Well, our brains are anticipation machines.  When we think about God, or about the big questions in life, we use a lot of different kinds of information to help process our thoughts.  Think of the Bible.  One of our greatest questions comes from those first chapters of Genesis.  God created, *and* it was good.  God made Adam, and then made Eve.  God gave them a garden where they could live in peace and joy and connection with God.  And it was all good.  But God put a tree in the center of the garden (see? Limits, preparing for disappointment).  God said, you can eat of that, and that, and that, but not this.

And what happened?  The snake entered and said, “But why should there be limits? Why should you not eat, and be like God?”  And so they ate, and then when God came to them, they started saying “But she gave me the fruit… But the snake told me to… But, but.”  As soon as the people did wrong, they began saying, “but… but” – words that blame, and separate, and showed that Adam and Eve no longer trusted God to love and protect them.

We so often ask, “why is there sin in the world?  Why did God put that tree there?  Why did God give us freewill/”  The question is, at its simplest, a problem: we see that God loves us, but God lets there be pain and suffering.  God can save us from this but God doesn’t do it.  God is good, but God allows evil.  We know that God is so many good things – yes.  But we also know an immense amount of sorrow.  We are like Adam and Eve – so close to knowing and trusting God, but there are obstacles to our faith that we can’t overcome.

Another Bible story:  the exodus.  It follows this question as well.  Imagine: the people are freed from slavery.  They had cried out to God, and God heard them.   Listen for the “and” words here – words that lead to God’s amazing acts.  Exodus 3:23-24 says:  “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”  The Message translation says, “God remembered, and God understood.”  In this, the word “and” builds up – takes all the broken separate pieces and puts them together to form the basis for an incredible act of love.  God’s great “and” led to Moses and the burning bush and the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea.  God answered evil with a great “and.”  Even the name of God has “and” in it – “the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.”  Listen again:  the God of Abraham (remember God’s promises to Abraham?) and the God of Isaac (remember how God led him?) and the God of Jacob (remember God’s faithfulness?).  Promises kept and guidance given and faithfulness you can trust in – this is what God gave out of love for his people.  And God said to the Israelites, wait and see the land that I’ve prepared for you to live in.  Another “and.”

But.  A word of doubt and resistance and anxiety and fear.  But the people went into the wilderness and were thirsty.  And God sent water from a rock.  But they were hungry.  And God sent manna and quail.  But they were lost.  And God sent a pillar of cloud and fire.  But they didn’t know how to live without Pharoah’s rules.  And God gave the 10 Commandments.  But the people wanted to have a god that they could touch and see, so they built a golden calf.  … You see how the story goes on:  God gives the people an “and” – “and this is why you can trust me”  and each time, they reply with “but” – “but there’s more we need; but we are frail; but we are so afraid; but we don’t know how to trust you, God.”

Our lives as humans are not easy.  We control so little; we fear so much.  We yearn for closeness with God, while we forget how and why we should trust God.  One of my favourite songs says, “I use one hand to pull you close, but the other to push you away.  If I had two hands, doing the same thing, lifted high, I could lift you high.”  That was the story for Adam and Eve,  for the Israelites, and for us.  And – [pull to heart] But – [push away].

Do you see this in your life?  I see it in my life.  I have a friend with whom I can be really honest about my struggles or times when I can’t figure out where to put my energies, when I feel kind of lost.  I tell her all the things I’m thinking about, and trying to do, and how things can be really hard.  And she often asks me, “Have you talked to God about it?”  And I think, “well, no, I haven’t.”  You know why?  Because I think, “But I should be able to do this” or “but God’ s already given me so much”    or – this is a good one –  “but God is busy.”  It’s that push/pull – God is good and loves us all; but God seems so far away.  We remember God’s goodness – and we forget God’s goodness.

I was thinking of how all of this fits into these weeks before Easter.   We are preparing ourselves for Good Friday, for that Saturday when the disciples lost all hope.  We are preparing for those days when we say “God is all powerful … but God in Christ was put to death on a cross.”  In these weeks, we look at our own hearts, and we understand that we can adore Christ while at the same time we crucify him again.

We are like Simon Peter in today’s Bible reading from Matthew 16: 13-25:

“13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

In a moment of blinding wisdom, Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, as the fulfilment of all of God’s promises.  He saw Jesus as the And.  Remember in the Exodus, when God’s people cried out because of their oppression?  And God heard them; And God acted; And God sent Moses to free them, to lead them, to give them a new Law which would give their lives meaning.  Moses saw God acting again And again.  Jesus was to be the new Moses – one sent from God who would free people from their sin, lead them to life in the Kingdom of God, and give them a new law that would be written on their hearts, to give life meaning, today and in eternal life.  Jesus did for God’s children what Moses did – though he did it in a new and unexpected way, and he did it not just for the Israelites, but for all of God’s creation.

And Peter suddenly sees this: that Jesus will bring humanity into a new freedom – that Jesus is the Messiah.  He says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  He thinks, “You are the “And” the one who will give us new stories to tell about God’s greatness, God’s faithfulness. You are the And that will put the nations together to worship God alone.  You are the holy One, sent from God, an answer to our prayers.”

Now Peter and the disciples were expecting a Messiah who would be a military leader, who would overthrow the government and whip the world into shape.  Peter wanted to tell the story someday that would sound like this:  “We cried out to God about Roman oppression, and God sent us a sword to cut off the head of the emperor; and God gave us a new king to rule Greece and Rome and Samaria; and make us rich and secure and then we will finally be a strong nation again.”  Those were the “And”s that people were expecting.

But.

But is a word that prepares for disappointment, yes?  But separates us from what we are expecting.  But puts doubt into our hearts.

Jesus said to Peter, yes, I am the Christ, the Son of the living God.  But in verse 21, he goes on: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  Jesus says, “but I will not be the military leader you want; nor will I be the kind of king you seek.”

And Peter, hearing Jesus say “but …” reacts.  His brain, that had been anticipating such joy and glory, is horrified.  Peter, who had just listened so closely to Jesus and understood so much, now has his brain shut down.  “But no!” he says – “never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!”

And this is the truth of our faith:  That God gave the world an And – a great, unifying And, one that would heal and put together and overcome obstacles – But the world couldn’t recognize it.  But we couldn’t see Jesus, or the Kingdom of God.  But we were afraid and did not trust God’s plan.

Strangely enough, the fear and doubt that people felt made it so they could not stand up for Jesus.  From the disciples sleeping during Jesus’ agony in the garden, to Peter denying Jesus, to the religious leaders manipulating the Law, to the people shouting for Barabbas to be freed.  People’s fear was what drove them, not their connection to God.  They were afraid of Rome, afraid of soldiers or economic ruin, afraid of standing up to each other.

And so Jesus’ predictions came to pass: he was made to suffer, and die.

And to be raised to life on the third day.

Because when God hears our cries, God responds.  God sent the And into the world, like a lamb among wolves, and the Lamb lived.  And the people were saved.  And God’s promises remained firm.

Now, because our brains are anticipation machines, we can hear this story and we can learn to anticipate God’s actions.  We can say, God has acted in the past, and the past gives us clues to look for God in our midst.  Instead of thinking, “But God is so far away” perhaps we can think, “God was faithful in the past – I have heard the stories and believe them, so I will look for God to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  I can look for all of that in my life.  I can look for that today.  And I expect to see it.”  Our brains will look for what we anticipate – what we expect to see.  So if we hear these stories and believe them, then we will look *and* see that God is good, that God is acting today.

But – a word of caution.  As we open ourselves to seeing God’s will, we will also see where God’s will is not done.  We will ache for the pain in the world.  Jesus gave his disciples this and:  “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  In other words, we will become part of Jesus’ “and” as we deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him.  Seeing the pain of the world, being a witness to places where God’s promises seem to have failed, is agony.  We are witnesses to not only Christ’s agony on the cross, but the crying out of God’s children today.  As we open to God, we open to others, and we realize that we must be the “and” that looks past the walls so often built.  The walls that separate people and races and tribes; the economic walls that leave some to be hungry; the walls in families where we find it hard to forgive our spouse, our parents, or our children.  We need to be the “and.”  “When we say, “But I cannot forgive that” we let the walls stand.  Replace it with the and – “I am hurt, and I think you are too; and we can find a way forward.”  “But I am so frustrated with that government party” may become “I am so frustrated; and I must speak out about the issues that matter to me.”  When we say “But they are so different from us “ we can change it to “They are different and that is a gift from God – diversity that makes us all richer and more creative.”  Turn the “but” into an “and” and you may see God enter into situations that before had seemed impossible.

Our brains are a gift from God, but they don’t run well on auto-pilot.  Today, notice how your brain is an amazing anticipation machine.  See where that helps you; and also see where you jump to conclusions or make quick assumptions that mislead you.  Today notice what you anticipate.

And tomorrow, listen for where you hear the word “but.”  Listen for whether it builds up or tears down.  Listen to your own words, as well, and see if you can replace “but” with “and.”  Remember what the author said, “try to eliminate the word “but” from your vocabulary.  Replace it with “and.”  “but” can be a destructive word…. “and” is innocent.  … Words have great power.”

Words do have great power; and we give thanks to God that God speaks a word into every situation.  God spoke Jesus, the new Moses,  the Living Word, into the world, and that changed everything.  No one anticipated that a baby born in a manger and a man executed on a cross would have great power to change and save lives – and yet it came to be.  This week, may your words have great power :  power to open your eyes, power to see God at work, and power to witness to the love of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

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Malaysian Silent Night (Malam Kudus)

As I sit here at my desk, in my apartment on the seminary grounds, I hear the strains of “Silent Night” drifting up to my ears. Except it has … drums. And voices are mic’ed (have microphones). And though it’s cool outside, it’s 85 degrees (30 Celsius). And they are singing in Malays. It is not a standard “Silent Night” rendition, at least not for me.

But you know the story of how the original “Silent Night” came to be, yes? A Church in Germany was preparing for their usual Christmas organ – yes, with bells and whistles, literally – when the organ stopped working. It was broken, and so at first glance, the celebration was, too. But the pastor asked a friend who was good with guitar to write something that would inspire worship on one of the holiest nights of the year. And so out of the context of brokenness came a wonderful gift – a gift to many generations, a gift to many cultures, a gift that seems to reach into every place in our world.

What made Silent Night so wondrous was that it was perfect for that moment. It met people’s needs – needs they didn’t even know they had, until the bells and whistles broke. And there was something about that song in that moment that meets us in our moments, in our context. It works with full choirs and hesitant solos; it works as a praise song with drums and mics, and as a lullabye. It has been translated into almost every language, played by almost every instrument, put in almost every hymnal and songbook. The moment tonight when I recognized the strains of Silent Night, in Bahasa Melayu and with a steady drum beat, was a perfect moment, when all was right and things matched together beautifully.

So often, when things break or when they’re unfamiliar to us, our minds want to close a door. It is so hard to tell our brains not to panic, not to flinch, not to turn away. That was how the original Stille Nacht (Silent Night, in German) came to be. And it is how Christians across centuries and across cultures can come together to be the Church, because as long as Jesus is the center, we don’t have to panic! He gives us time to come together, he gives us hope that we can open up our rituals and our celebrations and our hearts, he gives us places and moments to be the Church in and for the world. That is why we have the bells and whistles – because we want to rejoice, loudly and with one voice! Yet we have this foundation, that when we have a chorus of languages and need new ways to play our praises, God is there, making a way for all creation to welcome the gift of Jesus.

Love and hope and peace, from our God, to you and yours.

Keeping the candles inside the cathedrals?

missionary training's prayer candles

Light and the Word –      gifts from God

With the power outages on the East Coast, a lot of people have been using candlelight for everything from walking around their house to doing late-night Sudoku.  Candles are such a symbol of faith.  They cannot light themselves – they must receive light from someone else.  Once lit they can be generous with their light – sharing flame without losing anything, casting light over a whole room, giving warmth and a unique glow that is both calming and energizing.  Flames burn and wicker and dance, and are so mysterious.   Jesus Christ is the Light of the World – and he said to the crowds,”You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:14-16)

But candles are also frail.  Have you ever tried to carry a candle outside?  Wind can whip it out at any moment.  Even walking with a candle can be a challenge – that little bit of movement takes all our focus and gracefulness.

Most people have had the occasion to see candles at Church.  They are a sign of -1- God’s presence, of -2- the holiness of a place, of -3- the Spirit working in mysterious ways.  Yet aren’t each of these three alive and life-giving in every place and time?  I am reminded of the lyrics of the song “April Showers”:

(Oh) Like April Showers on the slick cement

When I consider how our light is spent

Keeping the candles inside the cathedrals

Hold on tight, Don’t go into the night So full of evil

So often as Christians we focus our energy of worship, fellowship, and giving within the walls of cathedrals, in part because the beauty of Church buildings is inspiring, but also because outside of the cathedrals our candles are open to all kinds of winds and chaos.  Candles won’t stay lit; our spirits are frail; we cannot prove our beliefs; we may feel alone when away from the gathered saints, so our witness is silenced.  Yet it is the world outside of the cathedral that needs the warmth of faithful friendships.  This world needs the beauty and mystery of God in a world where to value something we first have to measure it.  This world needs to see candles get blown out and miraculously re-lit by the Light of the World, over and over again.  It is the darkest places that need light the most.  And, you may not know how much your light matters to people around you.  “Remember to be kind to everyone, for each one is fighting a battle that you cannot see.”  Carry your candle, O lights of the world – feel God’s presence in the carpool and the holiness of your kitchen and the Spirit sending you to a world in need.

Enjoy the song “April Showers” by the Christian band Caedmon’s Call:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HagtNrzW5NY

Find the lyrics here:  http://www.metrolyrics.com/april-showers-lyrics-caedmons-call.html

PS – and the song goes on:  “Rain rain don’t go away, we need you this dry and dusty day…  Rain rain don’t go away, though some may say please go away.”  You may remember the child’s song “rain rain go away, come again some other day.”  The song April Showers plays on that, saying that the rain is like the waters of baptism, the flood of God’s presence washing through our lives.  Rain is powerful stuff – as these storms have proved.  We might want the rain to go away so that we will feel safe, so that our lives won’t be risked and changed.  But if we’re talking about the rain as God’s presence, then we do need God to come into our dry and dusty souls, refresh us, give us life abundant – even as we try to deny that we need God in order to live.  Ah – what a song, and what images of our need and God’s love!