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Patterns of the Presence - Wisdom

Sun, Aug 30, 2020
Teacher: Chris Appleby
Duration:19 mins 6 secs
Mindfulness and Memorisation are two inportant Christian disciplines if we're to stay focussed on God rather than worrying about life.

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I have a problem! Well, I have lots of problems, but this one is that my mind sometimes works too fast. Now you might think that that’s a good thing. There are times when you need to think fast: when you turn a blind corner and someone is hurrying towards you; when the car slides on a wet road; when you spill your glass of red wine on a white tablecloth. But I’m thinking of times when I come across some situation and my mind immediately jumps to conclusions, when I make an instant judgement about someone, or when I instantly fear the worst.

But then there are other times when I find my mind isn’t engaged at all, when I sort of drift through the day without really noticing what’s going on around me and that’s equally a problem for me.

There are also times when I echo the words of Neddie Seagoon on The Goon Show: “I don’t wish to know that!” Sometimes it feels like it’s all too much and it would be better to escape from reality.

Well what we’re thinking about today is how the Biblical idea of wisdom might change the way I use my mind. We’re going to be thinking about two complementary disciplines: mindfulness and memorisation. It’s always good to have sermon headings that alliterate isn’t it?

Mindfulness

You may well have heard of mindfulness. It’s one of those ideas that have become popular in recent times, springing perhaps from Buddhist teaching but picked up by new age spirituality, and found useful by psychologists; but it’s also a practice that fits with much of Christian teaching.

Listen to what we find in Ps 46: “8Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. 9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10"Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth." 11The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” There are times when we need to stop and just listen. To stop worrying, be still and remember that God is with us, that he’s in control of everything that goes on.

Jesus warned about worrying, which is what often happens when we concentrate too much on what’s going wrong. What did he say in the Sermon on the Mount? “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:25-27)

Notice he doesn’t say don’t plan ahead. And he doesn’t just say don’t worry. That never helped anyone. No, he says pay attention to what’s around you. Look at the birds of the air. In the next bit he says to look at the lilies of the field. He wants us to lift our eyes above our present situation to see what he’s doing. He wants us to focus on the good things we have right here and now rather than getting overwhelmed by what might happen tomorrow.  He says leave that until tomorrow. Just deal with today.

I’m sure you can see the relevance here to what we’re all going through at the moment. It’s very easy to be weighed down by the worry of how long this pandemic will be around; how much longer we’ll be stuck in our homes and immediate neighbourhoods; how much longer we’ll have to put up with sweaty face masks; how hard it is to get our work done, particularly for those with children home schooling. But in the midst of that we have a choice: we can worry about the future or we can look around and realise what a blessed country we live in. We can think about the comfort of a warm, dry home, of freely available food and medicine and medical help, not to mention toilet paper! We can perhaps turn off the inner voice that’s telling us we’re not being productive enough and instead think about the boon that technology has been for so many of us.

There’s an incident in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is invited to the home of Mary & Martha and Mary sits at Jesus feet listening to his teaching while Martha is busy preparing the meal. Martha comes out and complains to Jesus that Mary’s left her to do all the work and Jesus responds: “41Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42 NRSV)

Two weeks ago Richard talked about leaving space for silence, turning off the clamour of the world around us and this is connected with that. Mindfulness has the idea of letting go of worry and the need to control your circumstances and becoming aware of God’s presence, God’s action in the world around you and in your life. It might involve looking at your world with fresh eyes, looking to see how God is present in that world even when the world is messed up. It might mean suspending judgement about someone until you work out what they’re really like; until you see how God might be working in their life as well.

Many of you will have sung a children’s chorus many years ago that went “Count your blessings name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God has done.” It was a simple chorus with a profound message. The psalmist puts it like this: “1Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. 2Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” (Psalm 103:1-2 NRSV)

I was talking to someone recently who had been feeling under great stress so he’d been to see a counsellor. One of the suggestions he was given was to think back over each day and ask what was one good thing that happened today? How has God blessed you? He’d been so overwhelmed by things that weren’t working, by criticisms, by what appeared to be failures on his part that he hadn’t been able to see the good things that were happening every day.

Do you remember that occasion when Elijah set up a contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mt Carmel and the prophets of Baal failed, while God sent down fire from heaven to light up Elijah’s sacrifice? Well the next thing we read is Jezebel promising to kill Elijah by the following day. So Elijah flees into the desert, exhausted, lies down and asks to die. He’s in the pits of depression. But God sends an angel who strengthens him and sends him on to Mt Horeb where God tells him to go up the mountain and wait for God to pass by. As he waits a great wind comes up splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces; there’s an earthquake, and a fire, but the LORD wasn’t in any of them; but then there was a sound of sheer silence or a gentle whisper. And that’s when God appears. Elijah needs to silence the loud voices in his head, the sounds of catastrophe, that are telling him that he’s failed, that all his efforts on Mt Carmel were wasted; that there’s no-one left to teach the people about Yahweh. God says he has it all under control. Ahab and Jezebel will be dealt with. A new set of rulers will be put in place. He has 7000 faithful servants in Israel waiting to lead a cleansing of the nation.  

You can understand Elijah’s feelings can’t you. The external circumstances seem hopeless. Ahab and Jezebel are still firmly in control. So Elijah feels powerless – just as you and I might in the present circumstances. How can you and I manage to remain calm, to concentrate on the good things we experience when so much bad stuff is happening? Well that’s where today’s second spiritual discipline might help.

Memorisation.

Our second reading today was from the middle of Psalm 119, a psalm full of praise to God for his laws and precepts. Let me refresh your memory: “98Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me. 99I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation… 103How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 104Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. 105Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:98-105 NRSV).

Can you see the connection there between wisdom and knowing God’s law? Now I don’t think he just means the 10 commandments. He means all that God has given us in his word. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 reminds his readers that the story of the Exodus is given to us to warn us, as an example of how to live, or how not to live.

God’s word is given to us to guide us into the paths of righteousness; it’s a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.  

In Luke 24 we have two accounts of the risen Jesus meeting his disciples, the two on the road to Emmaus and then all the disciples as a group in the upper room and on each occasion he opens their minds to all that the Scriptures had taught about him. Well we too can ask Jesus to open our minds to what we need to know from his word.  

You know in our modern connected world the need to remember stuff has reduced enormously. All my login codes and passwords these days are stored in an app on my computer and on all my devices. My knowledge of history is boundless because I carry Google with me wherever I go. If I can’t remember where I’ve seen that actor before, I just look up IMDB. The cookbooks in the cupboard are mostly redundant because it’s almost all there in cyberspace.

But what isn’t there is the shaping of my life, of my character. No-one’s made an app for that yet. What I need is to have God’s word so embedded in my thought processes that I know almost instinctively the right path to take. But how is that going to happen?

I guess the first thing that needs to happen is we need to read his word. And we need to read it regularly. We need to meditate on it. We need to read for understanding. That is to think about what it means for me today. We need to read it enough that it stays with us. We’ve called this section Memorisation and it may be that something as simple as memorising key passages of scripture is where we start. It was one of the things we did at Sunday school when I was growing up. We’d be quizzed each week on the memory verse we’d been given the week before. We used to do it with our kids club at St Tom’s when I was there. Some of you may have done it too. Simple verses like “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” “This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent  his son to be the propitiation for our sins.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

The point of this isn’t to tick off a list and think how clever you are, even if that is what we may have thought in Sunday school - when we got it right; no the point is to have God’s word etched into our brain, shaping our lives.

Another idea is what I’ve done a number of times over the past 40 years, when I’ve set myself to read through the whole bible in a year. We did it with a connect group one year which was a great exercise for all of us. At one stage I bought a set of Bible Society CDs with the whole Bible read by Ron Haddrick, an ABC presenter, which I used to listen to in the car - remember when we used to drive places? - and I also listened to them at the gym. That’s a great way of blocking out the pain!

What I’ve discovered almost every time is that I’ll come across something that I hadn’t noticed before, sometimes an incident that I might have overlooked, sometimes a connection between one chapter and another that hadn’t been apparent when I’d just been reading a single chapter at a time. But more importantly, every time I did it what I understood about God was deepened and strengthened.

For some of you there may also be the opportunity to do some theological study; perhaps one of the online courses that Ridley provides. At St Michael’s, where I normally go, they’ve just finished an online series from Ridley on the Psalms, which has been really well received by a good number of people. Or it might be something that comes out of the Peter Corney Training Centre here. We have a night coming up when Andy Judd will talk to us about the book of Joshua. That’s a great opportunity for all of us to learn more about God’s plan of salvation.

Finally , remember what we heard from the beginning of our Psalm reading today “97Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.” To take a passage of Scripture in the morning and to think about what you read there during the rest of the day is going to shape your mind in a very helpful way, isn’t it?

Going back to where we started, I guess one major difference between a Buddhist version of mindfulness and a Christian version is this: instead of emptying our minds we want to fill our minds, not with clutter but with the knowledge of God who has revealed himself to us in his word, so we can know that word enough that it comes back to us when we need it; so when we stop to open our minds to him, his words are there to lead us in paths of righteousness.

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