SUNDAY MORNING STUDY GROUP SERVICE, WESLEY UNITED CHURCH,
MAY 25, 2014
The May 25the service was led by members of the Sunday Morning Study Group. Five members of the Study Group delivered reflections, readings or prayers. All but one of these – Catherine Maloney’s reflection on hope – are reproduced below. The Study group is now in summer recess, but will begin meeting again on September7. Please consider joining us.
I. REFLECTION: THE WORD MADE FLESH JOHN WHYTE
The gospel attributed to John starts with these words: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And later, it says, “And the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
The notion of Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is not as much of a mystery as, at first glance, it might seem. The Word is the force behind creation. It is the spirit of creation, the ideal on which creation was formed. It is the power of blessing or grace that formed the world and all that is in it. It is, if you like, the wisdom and power of God.
Flesh is what we have, what is here. It is the material reality of our world. It is our actions and our choices. It is often the place of our strivings, our ambitions and our fears. The John gospel starts by fusing two realms that seem distinct but, in fact, are not – the first is the realm of creativity and blessedness, of awareness and memory, spirit and hope, some say the realm of divine presence. The other realm is the material world that we live in, and experience and negotiate with every day – and all of the time. The joining of these is profound. It is the central point of Christianity and, I believe, it is a lesson that flows from all religions. It brings into lives of action and relationship the grace of goodness. It encourages our understanding of how we can realize the promise, the love and the hope of the Word. Religion’s hope is that the spirit of blessed creation will show us how our lives can reflect creation’s fullness, generosity and love.
For Christians, the idea of God’s incarnation in the form of Jesus is a particularly powerful way of linking the holiness of creation to the way we choose and act. God is with us and is a part of us. Flesh – the materiality of the world – has becomes imprinted by, and made part of, the Word. That is also why Christians pay such attention to the gospels – their message is that Jesus has pointed, through his remarkable words and deeds, how our lives should reflect creation’s spirit of love.
It is also revealing, I think, that the metaphor for the holy wisdom that lies behind creation is the Word – or words – or language. There is nothing so contingent, nothing so mediated by our experience, our knowledge, our understanding, our wisdom, and our values, as our language. Jews may understand this better than Christians; it is a more openly interpretive religion than ours often seems to be. You know how the gospels stories are always painting rabbis and layers, Pharisees and scribes as disputatious and challenging. What they are being challenging about is the meaning of texts. It is a struggle over words. This is a not a bad thing, and certainly not a stupid thing. All text is contingent. All text has to make sense in relation to all we know. One generation’s ideas about the meaning and purposes of a text can never serve as the answer to the next generation’s questioning. In our lives and in society we live by eminent texts – love letters and constitutions, anthems and the Bible, political slogans and poetry – and we need constantly to search for the meanings of all of these that resonate fully and deeply with what we, with our critical brains and instincts, have come to know and understand.
By the placing of the mystery of creation within the fluidity of language, we are invited to an on-going interpretive engagement with that holy source. Our own capacity for naming and understanding this is affirmed. Our faith is, indeed, our faith.
So that’s a general introduction to the things that we, as active Christians try to think about. We try to understand what living faithfully actually means – what we have learned from the Christian tradition, its theological writings, the Bible – especially the gospels – about how to live faithfully. Like all of you, we seek the way to connect the Christian idea of holy living with the things that we do, that our businesses do, and that our governments do, in a world of actual events, actual conflicts, and actual needs. And in doing this we do well to read the works of others who open our hearts and minds to the interpretations of Christian faith that bring our understanding of it out of the context in which the Bible was written and into the world that we struggle with today. In short, we are engaged in the inevitable human business of seeking a connection between a world of spiritual awareness and the world that we live in and are an active part of – between the Word and Flesh.
II. REFLECTION ON KAREN ARMSTRONG’S TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE MILDRED HARPER
About three years ago copies of a “Charter for Compassion” were circulated in this church, as it was in many places of faith and secular centres around the world. I read it at the time and thought to myself – what nice warm, fuzzy, motherhood words - and just about as meaningless. However, a couple of years ago the group that gathers here most Sunday mornings decided to read, think about and discuss Karen Armstrong’s book ”Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” written about this very same Charter. Given that Karen Armstrong has been described as “one of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world”, and is also a skillful writer with a razor-sharp mind, it was clearly time to pay attention.
The challenge she poses, in her own words, is this: “One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, (or) Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule …. Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody – even your enemies … ”
She then points out that the world is now dangerously polarized at the same time as it is more closely bound together than ever before by the electronic media. We are hostage to growing rage fueled by poverty and violence, and by terrorism which threatens us all. All-out war is no longer an option, but what is there?
While the Charter itself and Armstrong’s challenge for the global community are directed to both secular traditions and religious ones, her thinking seems to be that because all world religions put the Golden Rule at the centre of their teaching, all religion has an important role to play in bringing this teaching into practice. Therefore adherents of all religions – including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity among others – are called to “restore compassion to the center of morality and religion” and to “return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of the scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.”
Compassion is not to be understood as pity, nor is it self-sacrifice or martyrdom; it is closer to empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand what another is feeling and thinking, his or her needs, and how, or if, those needs can be met. We are all familiar with acts of compassion in our own lives having either experienced or heard about them, and we respond with admiration and gratitude. Sometimes these acts are immediate and instinctive, as when a child is pulled out of harm’s way or when, as happened in Sochi, a Russian cross-country skiing competitor broke his pole in a race and a Canadian coach passed him a new pole saying by way of explanation, “This is his country and it was important that he be able to finish the race”. While we know compassion when we see it, and it is rare enough in our personal experience, it is almost non-existent in the public sphere of global interaction.
Two things in Armstrong’s book give me hope. The first is that it recognizes that no one country, race, individual, or any religious, philosophical, or political persuasion has a monopoly on compassion. Her arguments are addressed to all men and women. The twelve steps she outlines are to help us imagine and understand the “others” with whom we share the planet so that we can engage them with respect.
There is no doubt that, as is often pointed out, we are “hardwired” for survival. Our primitive or “reptilian brain” is the source of the strong, basic drives without which the human species could not have survived; we still need them and could not discard them even if we wished. But over many thousands of years a new brain, the neocortex, also developed alongside the reptilian, and this enabled humans to think, reason, reflect, and then to care for others. In other words, our brain is also hardwired for compassion. There are many examples from philosophy, myths, and history that show that, because we are thinking beings, we can moderate our actions; we can work with our primitive brain without letting the old impulses determine our reactions. And this is my other reason to hope – that, while any progress will inevitably be slow and messy, with hard work it may still be possible.
III REFLECTION ON HOPE CATHERINE MALONEY
To be posted at a later date.
IV READINGS ON HOPE ROGER FRY
From Vaclev Havel, “Disturbing the Peace”
Hope is a state of mind, and not of the world. Either we have hope or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world, or estimate of the situation. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. … Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously leading to success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
From speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
V REFLECTION ON PRAYER AND PRAYER LINDA PRATT
Today I have been entrusted with leading our prayer time.
As we seek to explore and expand our beliefs and practices, questions about prayer arise: "What is prayer, why do we pray, to whom do we pray?" I am not able to answer all of those questions today, but I would like to share my personal approach to prayer.
A number of years ago I realized that my current form for prayer was no longer meaningful for me. Once that happened I spent considerable time wondering about prayer. This has been particularly true as my understanding of the Sacred has moved away from a God who hears and responds to prayers.
Through my contemplation and study I have come to a place where I am comfortable with my personal form of prayer. I use the term "personal" because my prayer arose from a weekend that was devoted to developing an individual prayer for each of the attendees and this is what I am sharing with you today.
I believe that prayer is not about changing the heart or mind of God, but is more about our own transformation. Prayer and meditation give us time apart from words and allow us to travel from our minds to our hearts. For this to happen, our prayers need to include time to listen--time to be silent.
I'd like to explain the content of my simple prayer and how I use it and then I will ask you to join me. I usually pray this prayer at the end of the day, just before sleep and I admit that I don't always get all the way to the end before falling asleep.
The first line of my prayer is: "I am grateful for this day". I then review the day thinking of each of the good things that happened or that existed around me. This includes being grateful for the small, everyday things: I am grateful for a great morning cup of coffee, I am grateful that my partner made me breakfast, I am grateful that I had time to relax and read the morning papers, I am grateful for a sunny day, and so on. I only list positive things, and as I prepare for sleep I am ready for good dreams.
The second line of my prayer is "with my love I surround and support". Here I think about family members, friends and others in the world who need care and support. I think of each of them, one by one, surrounding them with my love. While focusing on an individual I gather the type of energy that I think might be helpful to them and I send it to them. This might be courage for an upcoming challenge, health to face acute or chronic illness, stillness from the pressures of life, love in the presence of grief, whatever is appropriate for their situation.
The next component is a quiet, listening. "In silence I am." Here I am quiet, letting go of the mind's busy thoughts, quietly listening. Of course, my mind doesn't always cooperate in this silence as it seems to always want to be very busy. I notice these thoughts, let them go, and just slowly breathe and with each breath repeat, "In silence, I am, and again, in silence, I am."
From the silence I move to the joy of stating that I am made of stardust – science tells that we are all made of star dust. What a wondrous concept and one I celebrate each day. It truly means that we are one with all of nature – with the whole universe.
The final step is to honour the spirit, or God, if you prefer, in each of us – Namaste .
Now, sit back, relax, and join with me in prayer. I will lead you through each statement followed by silence to allow you to formulate your personal prayer statements. There is no need for you to do anything other than consider your own being, your own situation.
Let us pray:
We are grateful for this day. In silence we list those things for which we are grateful. (Pause).
With our love we surround and support, gather and send healing energy.
In silence I am. (Pause).
Celebrate the thought that each of us is made of stardust and are one with all creation.
Namaste--I honour the spirit, in each of you.
Amen--so be it.