The peace of Lent

Below is most of the material said or sung at the morning service on March 29, 2020. I provide it because the livestream on Facebook seemed to have a lot of issues.

Good morning; and welcome to each of you. As was the case last week, three of us are physically here at Mill Woods United Church – behind the podium is myself, Rev. Ian Kellogg; behind the piano is our Music Director, Bryan LeGrow; and behind the iPhone is Brian Sampson, who is streaming this service through Facebook.

We are glad that you can join our second online-only service. If you joined us live last week or watched the video later, you will notice some changes. For one, I hope this time everyone is able find the live feed via FB. Brian is also introducing some technical innovations. Please let us know about your experience.

Mill Woods United is a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place; and so many people are working hard to make this vision an ongoing reality despite our physical isolation during the pandemic crisis.

At Mill Woods, we celebrate and mourn together; we care for one another and our neighbours; and we reflect on how to follow the Way of Jesus. I am heartened by how so many of us explored ways, new and old, to do this work last week –Zoom meetings, a congregational phone tree, and an upsurge of caring and connection.

When we are able to gather in person again, I am confident that the connections being made while we are physically apart will make this an even stronger community of faith. With compassion and hope, let us continue down the paths we are walking.

This morning as always, we welcome everyone regardless of belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or cultural background. As an Affirming congregation we work to make this community a place where all of us feel safe.

We also acknowledge the land on which we gather. The church building where the three of us have gathered this morning is located on the traditional land of Treaty Six First Nations. From wherever you are joining us, I suggest you take time to think about the land you are on, about its history, about the blessings that its original inhabitants have bequeathed to us, and about the wounds they may have suffered along the way. We are all Treaty people, for which we give thanks.

Two weeks ago, our focus was on maintaining hope in Lent. Last Sunday, it was about maintaining faith. Today, the focus is on finding peace in difficult times.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended many things in life, including worship planning at Mill Woods United. But today and next week, we are preserving some of what had been in the minds of the Worship Committee before the pandemic.

The original plan for today was to provide a more meditative experience. Part of that was to involve my wife, Kim, playing a set of Tibetan singing bowls. I am sure that will happen some day, but not this morning.

The other part of the plan was to offer a service inspired by the Taize ecumenical community of France. This intention is still present this morning. Both the closing and opening hymns are Taize songs written by the late French composer Jacques Berthier. Like all Taize hymns, they are simple and repetitive chants. I hope you will feel free to join in at home as Bryan and I sing them.

Next Sunday, I also want to follow part of an original plan. April 5 is Palm Sunday, and as was done over the last two years, the plan was to dedicate the whole of the service to the prayers for communion using songs to guide us through this sacrament. My new hope is that next Sunday we will experience virtual communion. The three of us would lead the sacrament from this sanctuary and the rest of the community could partake of the elements in your homes. We will send out more information about this in What’s the Buzz on Thursday.

As for today’s short gathering, my prayer is that the words, music, and silences might give us some threads we could follow to help us maintain or restore the peace and equanimity we might need in trying times.

Lighting the Christ Candle

And now as we usually do, we light a candle to begin. If you happen to have a candle close to hand, please consider lighting it at this time as well.

As I mentioned Wednesday in my daily reflection, the process of livestreaming a worship service has the effect of making the entire world into a sanctuary. We call this large gathering room at Mill Woods United a sanctuary because it is a space of collective grief and joy, of prayer and song, and of the remembrance of what our community holds most sacred.

Streaming a service into one’s home via Facebook, Zoom, or YouTube might remind us that our homes contain all these same things. The space in which the three of us are standing is holy ground. I hope you will offer the same consideration to the space where you are this morning. We are all on holy ground.

If you don’t have a candle to light, please cherish what a candle flame represents. It is a symbol of the light that flickers within each of us and which helps to unite us in the peace of Christ . . .

“Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery,” VU #121, verse 1

Tree of Life and awesome mystery, in your death we are reborn, though you die in all of history, still you rise with every morn, still you rise with every morn.
Brothers and sisters, may the flame of this Candle remind us that we are not alone. The Spirit of Jesus is always with us continually offering us healing and peace.

And now, a Gathering Prayer . . .

Instead of offering a prayer that I wrote myself, today I offer a poem written ten days ago by the popular novelist Alexander McCall Smith. Like so many poems, I find it has a prayer-like quality; and I hope you appreciate it. This is McCall Smith’s poem:

“In a Time of Distance”

The unexpected always happens in the way
the unexpected has always occurred:
while we are doing something else,
while we are thinking of altogether
different things — matters that events
then show to be every bit as unimportant
as our human concerns so often are;
And then, with the unexpected upon us,
we look at one another with a sort of surprise;
how could things possibly turn out this way
when we are so competent, so pleased
with the elaborate systems we’ve created —
networks and satellites, intelligent machines,
pills for every eventuality — except this one?
And so, we turn again to face one another
and discover those things
we had almost forgotten
but that, mercifully, are still there:
love and friendship, not just for those
to whom we are closest, but also for those
whom we do not know and of whom
perhaps we have in the past been frightened;
the words brother and sister, powerful still,
are brought out, dusted down,
found to be still capable of expressing
what we feel for others, that precise concern;
joined together in adversity.
We discover things we had put aside:
old board games with obscure rules,
books we had been meaning to read,
letters we had intended to write,
things we had thought we might say
but for which we never found the time;
and from these discoveries of self, of time,
there comes a new realization
that we have been in too much of hurry,
that we have misused our fragile world,
that we have forgotten the claims of others
who have been left behind;
we find that out in our seclusion,
in our silence; we commit ourselves afresh.
We look for a few bars of song
that we used to sing together,
a long time ago; we give what we can,
we wait, knowing that when this is over
a lot of us — not all perhaps — but most,
will be slightly different people,
and our world, though diminished,
will be much bigger, its beauty revealed afresh.

May it be so.

And now Bryan and I will offer an opening hymn. Bryan will play the tune once, he and I will sing it in unison twice, and then we will sing it three times more in harmony. It is from . . .

Opening hymn: “Come and Fill Our Hearts,” MV #16

Come and fill our hearts with your peace. You alone, O God, are holy. Come and fill our hearts with your peace, alleluia!

We listen to two readings –Bryan LeGrow

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds,
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

John 16:25-33 (Jesus on finding peace)

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus said to his friends: “I have often spoken to you in veiled language. But a time is coming when I will tell you about God in plain speech. On that day you will ask in my name.

Now, I am not saying that I’ll petition God for you — God already loves you, because you have loved me and have trusted that I came from God.  I came from God and now I leave the world to return to God.”

His disciples replied, “At last you’re speaking plainly and not using metaphors!  We’re convinced that you know everything. There is no need for anyone to ask you questions. We do indeed trust that you came from God.”

Jesus answered them, “Do you really trust me?  An hour is coming — in fact, it has already come — when you will all be scattered and go your own ways, leaving me alone; yet I can never be alone, for Abba God is with me.

I have told you all this that in me you may find peace. You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world.”

Reflection – The peace of Lent

The Gospel passage we just heard was the inspiration for the final sermon that my father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, ever wrote. He composed it the week before his death in June 2007 when he was 84 years old.

Like many ministers, my father continued to work during retirement. When he and my mother retired to Cobourg Ontario, he worked part-time at Trinity United Church. The amount of time he gave to the church slowly declined over the years as he spent more time enjoying his grandchildren, gardening, singing in a community choir, painting landscapes, and corresponding with a wide variety of family members and friends. Nevertheless, his final sermon shows that he never completely left the pulpit.

My father handed a copy of a sermon on this passage to my sister on the day before his death. He was to have delivered it later that summer in the small rural church where he had grown up; but of course, he never got the chance.

Last week, when I searched for a Gospel passage about peace upon which to base today’s Reflection, the passage from John came up, and it seemed to fit with today’s situation.

This passage is set at the end of long speech by Jesus on the night before his death. Jesus tells his friends that he his spoken at length to them so that they might find peace. Despite noting that they will continue to suffer in the world, he urges his friends to have courage because he has overcome the world.

But as my father noted in his 2007 sermon, we have good reasons to be skeptical about Jesus’ statement. In 2007, my father mentioned war, poverty, and pollution as sources of suffering that were still painfully evident nearly 2,000 years after Jesus, which among other things may indicate that in my case the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree. Today, we can add to the list the coronavirus pandemic, which, in the last months, has radically changed life here and most other places in the world.

Despite these sources of suffering, Jesus offers peace to his followers. But how can we know peace in the face of the world’s problems; and in what sense has Jesus overcome the world?

I believe that the Way of Jesus does reveal the world overcome, but not in a common-sense fashion. Trusting in the Way — which is a Way of Lent and Easter, and of death and resurrection — doesn’t by itself end war, poverty, or pollution. Nor does it prevent one from being infected by the new coronavirus or protect a community from the death and devastation that it can cause.

What the Way of Jesus reveals are deeper realities than the everyday plane on which most of our fears and desires play out. The Way doesn’t do away with ordinary suffering. Instead, it shows how a new life of love and joy can be found beyond suffering.

This is not to say that following this Way means we won’t want to reach out in compassion to our neighbours or struggle to end war, poverty, or disease. Instead, I believe it frees us from fear, which can give us more scope to love our neighbours as ourselves and to work for a world without war or disease.

The fear that we feel in the face of COVID-19 is centred in our egos. Such fear is unavoidable and should not be ignored. By paying attention to fear as it manifests in our bodies, hearts, and minds, we gain important information about ourselves and about what is happening around us.

But when we absorb the lessons of Lent — that suffering is unavoidable AND that we are united with Love through our interconnections with each other and all of life –we can better respond to crises and opportunities.

The current pandemic has astonished us. Perhaps for the first time ever, everyone on the planet is engaged in the same conversation. I deeply appreciate a lot of this focus – the courageous work of frontline workers; the energy and skill of researchers and scientists; and the caring of friends and neighbours who are reaching out to one another despite being physically distant. Other parts of this focus I don’t appreciate – things like blind panic, criminal opportunism, and attempts to use the crisis to divide instead of unite.

Trusting that the Way of death and resurrection has overcome the world can help us lay our panic to one side and respond with compassion, reason, and hope.

Wendell Berry’s poem points to our interconnections with the natural world. As individuals, we are all vulnerable and mortal. But as part of the web of life, we are indestructible. Experiencing this connection in his body, Berry rediscovers Grace.

The poem by Alexander McCall Smith that I used as a Gathering Prayer emphasizes our indestructible connections to the rest of humanity.

At the level of the ego, we are vulnerable. But at the cultural, biological and cosmic levels, we are already one. We are already healed.

You may have heard these words before even as they may strike you as too abstract. You might be able to understand the Way of Jesus, but not in a way that dissolves your fears of getting COVID-19 or your grief at the death and destruction it is causing.

This is where meditative practices might help. Singing Taize hymns, which are simple, repetitive, and communal, might do this. Walking mindfully in nature might do it. Sitting in silence to follow the breath or other sensations might do it. Getting “into the zone” while playing sports or performing music might do it. Whatever practices one finds that help settle one’s mind, body, and spirit in the midst of the world’s troubles can be worthwhile.

I appreciate meditative practices when they remind me of how ephemeral and unreal the ego is, and how at the depths we are already saved. When we achieve a measure of peace above or below our fears, we are better able to pursue the joy and beauty that comes from working with others for a better world.

One day, the pandemic will pass, although how long and torturous the path to that day will be, no one seems to yet know. What society will look like and how we will be transformed is hardly clear at present either. But as partisans of the Way of Jesus, we can be confident that, with Grace, we can experience a deep peace even in the darkest hours. We can also have confidence that the eternal realities of faith, hope and love will be just as valid in the “after time” as in the “before time.”

By walking on a Way of death and resurrection, Jesus show us that, despite suffering, the world has been overcome. He invites us to join him on this Way, which among other things is a path of peace; and in response, I can only say, “Thanks be to God.  Amen.”

. . . music for meditation . . .

Friends, this is the part of the morning where normally we would take up an offering. But even though our in-person gatherings are suspended, our ministry is not. So, I offer some ideas about how we can give to Mill Woods United.

If you are on PAR, which is an automatic monthly debit – thank you. This is our main source of income, and we appreciate the intention behind your givings and their reliability.

You can donate online at millwoodsunited.org. Just look for the “How to Give” button, which is on every web page, and follow the links to an online donation facility.

You can mail cheques to the church office.

Randy and his team are also working on setting up an e-transfer system for the church. So, stay tuned for more on that.

Just by joining this livestream or watching the video later you have contributed. We deeply appreciate your support and your willingness to find new ways to reach out, join in, and make a difference in the neighbourhood and world. Thank you!

Sharing concerns: And now before prayer, I share some prayer requests. The Congregational Care Committee set up a phoning tree this week, so if you haven’t already received a phone call from that group look for one this week and in the weeks that follow. It is from these calls that I offer the following prayer requests.

Kathy Crawford is holding everyone in prayer during this tough time. She prays that we may we reach out and send ripples of caring to each other.

Dave Elliot asks that we uphold his mother in prayer. She lives in a nursing home in Red Deer where she just celebrated her 103rd birthday, but is no longer allowed any visitors. And so, we pray for her and all seniors living in care. They are even more isolated than usual.

Cathy Dubeau told us that her son Christopher was sent home sick with some symptoms, and is quarantined at home for two weeks. Cathy was in contact with him, and so she is also self-quarantining. And so, we are asked to remember Cathy and Christopher in our prayers.

If you have a prayer request you would like the community to hear next Sunday, please phone me or drop me an email.

Prayers of the People

And now friends, I invite us into a time of deeper prayer. Please pray with me . . .

God who is Love, may we feel your presence every moment of our lives. May we be grateful for this and all blessings.

Today I start by giving thanks for prayer itself. By settling into prayer, whether alone or in a gathered community like this, we can centre our small spirit within the Great Spirit of Love we call God.
In prayer, we create space in which to stop and rest into an awareness of all that surrounds us, both our wounds and our blessings; we create space in which to remember our interconnections to family, friends, and neighbours and the whole of suffering and beloved humanity . . . and to our connections to all living beings and to the whole cosmos;
we create space in which to thank our Source in Love.
This moment, despite its difficulties, is filled with the radiance of natural and cultural beauty and with the many blessings of spiritual growth.
As we breath together, may we remember our sacred values– compassion, learning, mutual respect, inclusion, love – and why we hold them sacred.
As we breathe in, may we be filled with a spirit of thankfulness. As we breathe out, may we send love to the far corners of the world with boundless generosity.
In breathing, may we be overwhelmed again by the amazing beauty of the world and our deep and eternal gratitude for Love, which is our source and our sure destiny.
And as we rest in silence, may we give thanks for Grace and touch again a peace that passes understanding . . .

God of Hope

May the sick find care; the scared find reassurance; the lonely find community; and the poor find abundance.
Today, we pray for the homeless, for refugees, for First Nations communities, for the immuno-compromised, and for those whom social distancing has brought painful loneliness.
We pray for nurses, doctors and other medical personnel; for researchers and epidemiologists; for scientists of all kinds who are gathering the information that is needed; for manufacturers who are re-tooling to help; and for communities of faith like this one where people gather as they can to pray, sing, reflect, and strengthen our wills to respond.
In the face of a changing world, there is much for which we pray.

God who is Love,

As we reflect on Love, reach out in Love, and uphold Love in all our relationships, may touch again your Great Spirit, which is our eternal Source.

God of Healing,

Today, some of us are hurting. May we know your presence during times of pain, when we feel lost, or when we are mourning.

And now let us take a moment in silence in which we can remember others in prayer. . .

Loving God, these are our concerns and joys, which we lift to you.
And now let us close our prayers as I offer the prayer that Jesus taught us, singing . . .

The Prayer of Jesus (sung, Wendy Edey’s version)

And now friends, we will now close this time of worship with another Taize chant. Bryan will play it through once. Then he and I will sing it in unison twice. And finally we will sing it three more times, but as a round. It is from More Voices, #86 . . .

Closing Hymn – “Give Peace to Every Heart,” MV #86

Give peace to every heart. Give peace to every heart. Give peace. Give peace.

Blessing

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you
Deep peace of Christ the light of the world to you
Deep peace of Christ to you.


We Sing: “Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery,” VU #121, verse 2

Seed that dies to rise in glory, may we see ourselves in you
if we learn to live your story we may die to rise anew,
we may die to rise anew.

Extinguishing the Christ Candle

Be well friends. Go in peace! And stay in touch..

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