Pallm Sunday 2010 - Curb Your Enthusiasm!

1.      Do you wear a cross?  Why?
2.      Would you wear a hat with a cross on it?
3.      Would you carry a sign saying, “Jesus is Lord!” at a parade?
4.      How do you feel about applause in church?
5.      What is the most excited you have ever been about religion or God?
6.      How does your excitement about matters of faith compare to other enthusiasms, say sports?
7.      How do you get a stone to shout?

1.      How much planning is there for a good party?
2.      How many hours do you suppose go into getting ready for a worship service?
3.      Would you rather your religious experiences be planned or spontaneous?  Why?
4.      What kind of religious experience is best unplanned?
5.      Can we plan too much?  Do we?

Luke 19:29-40
29When (Jesus) had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

text notes:
The word mathetes means "learner, pupil, disciple".  The same Greek work is used both for the two disciples who collect the colt for Jesus, and the "multitude of the disciples"

(c) William H. Levering 2009

March 21, 2010 - Our Prayer

Our Prayer

Last week we talked about private prayer and what goes on in our heads in prayer.  Today we are going to talk about prayers that we share,  that is, the talking to God we do together.  For some people who aren't normally reflective, public prayers may be the only kind of prayer in their lives.

What goes on then, when we pray together?  Whether you are listening to me pray for us or whether we are praying together, there are often some similar things going on.  Some good, some distracting.

We analyze

Most people are independent cusses.  When the prayers aren't coming from our own spirits, we tend to hold them at arm's length a bit.  Prayers that originate outside of us could be based on things we don't agree with or use language we frankly don't understand.  It's not really that we are judging each other, although I won't rule out that possibility,  It's more that there are ways of talking and thinking that are different than the interior discourse we have with ourselves, and so seems at least strange.

The human mind is normally associative.  When I say the word 'dog,' it is nearly impossible for you not to bring to mind a complex puddle of pictures or names or experiences that is uniquely yours.

So let me ease our fears about this.  There is no prayer I utter or lead that I expect mindless, unreflective participation with.  Even public prayers that have migrated into our personal devotional life have a rich association that will be different for each of us. So don't worry if your experience of public prayers still seem unusually focused on yourself.

That being said, one of the main purposes of us praying together is to gain a broader perspective.  God has chosen to relate to us not only as individuals, but mostly as a people.  The very prayers we speak and the bible we read is brought to us by the agency of the church.   God is revealed in the forms of creation, and for the consciousness of human beings, that means the forms of culture and language and experience. 

Although it is a common idea that people can be spiritual without being religious, it is rarely possible to understand and integrate complex holy experiences without a language or a symbolic context provided by a religious community.  Even though there are plenty of numbers of things in the world, it is difficult to imagine someone understanding mathematics without schools.   In short, while God is everywhere, we need each other to be able to understand or even articulate what this might mean.

If we were spiritual geniuses, we could go out on the golf course on Sunday morning and not need any help in coping with our sojourns in the rough or our shots out of bounds.  We would make a point of calling around before we went out so that we would know about the conditions of the people around us for prayer.  We would bring a bible with us to help us in the creation of deeper prayers.  We would gather our foursome on the eighteenth green and share prayers of thanksgiving and intercession for the people who took care of the course.  Gosh.  It would be easier to come to church.

Our common prayers are our primal attempt to develop our corporate relationship with God.  It is important enough that the prayer books of our denominations are some of our most cherished religious touchstones.  It is important enough that the disciples asked Jesus how they should do it and he taught them.

Prayer brings us to a common perspective and an emotional connection that can keep the community in balance and help us to keep our role in the scheme of things straight.  This common perspective usually involves our corporate need for humility in the face of our failures as a people, our thanksgiving for the blessings shared, and our desires for wholeness.

The emotional connection sensitizes us to the joys and pains around us and generates a sense of mutual care and the urgency for forgiveness. 

Corporate prayer can save us from ourselves and reinforce that we are all in this together.  We can hang together in prayer or be stuck with our own hang ups. 

There was once a shy young woman who had never really got into religion.  Her parents didn't go.  Her aunt tried to encourage her. The woman was married by a justice of the peace and had a baby.  The experience of having a child exhausted her and exhilarated her to such an extent that she was able to recognize that something was missing in her life.  Even though she had a great baby and a fabulous husband, she was still feeling. . . alone. She started coming to church but found the words strange and had no reference or understanding for most of them.  She was shy and didn't want to let on that parts of church were simply crazy to her.  The words about the life we share in God eventually meant something to her when someone brought over a plate of cookies.  The prayers about love made sense when someone called her up when she was having a bad day.  One Sunday she said the Lord’s prayer in church and all of a sudden she heard something completely different.  She heard not a devotional prayer she could say at bedtime, like ‘Now I lay me down to sleep,” but a prayer that was all about the people around her.  She wasn’t alone anymore.  She heard our prayer.

Our father, in heaven
Our common creator and nurturer, above all ambiguity and compromise.  You who made all of us in your image and called us good.

Hallowed is your name
Holy is your very identity. May we together respect every representation of you.

Your kingdom come.
May your plan for all people, your kingdom, arrive.  We long for a day in which all people are secure and have justice.  We work for laws and governments that embody your caring for your people and your justice.

Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
May your complete vision for all creation be fulfilled through us.  Beyond just a kingdom, may your will for all of earth: its creatures and its plants, its substance and its nature, be acted out in our lives as it is in your mind.

Give us today our daily bread
Not only meet our individual needs, but give to all of us the daily sustenance that relieves our anxieties about the future.

Forgive us our sins
As a church, as a nation, as a family, in all our groupings, we have conspired to be selfish.  Forgive us for the shortsighted wars we have waged against other groups.  Forgive our judgments against others, our fear mongering.  Forgive us for punishing individuals for the sins of our culture. 

As we forgive those who sin against us
Our prejudices and our fears cause us to respond with thoughtless defensiveness.  Nations and forces have wounded us as a people.  Help us to embody graciousness and help a new day arrive.              

Save us from the time of trial
We know that we are frail as a group as well as individuals.  Corporations and cities often do the easiest thing rather than the best thing.  We wish we never had to face the challenges that will come, but ask that you would save us when they do.

And deliver us from evil.
Save us from the evil one.  Rescue us from the Evil that is aloneness, that hides in secret lonely places.  Deliver us from the evil one that is selfishness.  Save me from myself.

For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours now and forever.
              It is not all about me.

March 14, 2010 - The Phenomenology of Prayer

The Phenomenology of Prayer

A CBS news poll reported that about 59% of Americans pray regularly. There may be some situational factors, however. A study by Brandies University in 2008 found that 90% of people who visit hospitals pray. In general, though, from the many polls taken on the issue in the last decades, it appears that about half the people around us pray every day.

The pollster Gallup says that men, white people, young people and those making over 50K a year don't pray quite as much as women, non-whites, the older, and the poor. Prayer is more practiced by those not in power.

People pray far more than they go to church. With all this praying going on, you would think we would talk about it more. But we don't. Prayer is such a personal thing, that most people and many preachers feel that it's sacred ground. And it is. But we still can grow and learn by talking about it.

This morning I'd like to talk about personal prayer, and next week, we'll think about public prayers.

Folks have discussed what to pray for and perhaps even how to pray. Preachers have reviewed the prayers of the Bible and Jesus' prayers. What I would like to do though, is talk about the most basic experience we have of prayer. Phenomenology is a fancy word for experience.

Personal prayer happens inside our heads. Whether it has mostly emotional or discursive content, it still goes on in our skulls. We may at some point whisper or sing a little prayer, but for the most part, personal prayer is an invisible, unmeasurable experience that happens in our minds. Since we don't talk about it much, we might imagine that the same sorts of things are going on in the heads of people around us when they pray. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Many people use words 'spoken' in their heads to relate to God.

Words to ask for help (Gallup: 42%)

Familiar word prayers (Gallup: 19%)
  lord’s prayer, now I lay me down to sleep,
  23rd psalm as prayer

Word talk like with a friend ("what a friend . . .") (84%)
   share feelings: gratitude, mad, sad, glad, fear

Words questions like a teacher
  How should I deal with my son?

But words can be a problem sometimes

Words are culturally based

Mark Twain (end of “The War Prayer”) “For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, fill the hearts of the enemy with helpless fear and grief. Break their spirits, blast their hopes, and blight their lives. All this we ask in the spirit of Love, of Him Who is the source of Love. Amen.”

Questions often frame answers –
“Should I buy a expensive jacket or a really expensive jacket?”
Which two days of the week should I beat my wife?
How can I get away with what I really want to do?

Words lead us to expect word answers from God.

Words are insufficient: sometimes "there are no words"
times of crisis, overwhelming trauma

Other people have less defined mental actions –
'sighs too deep for words'

bring to mind images
       faces – family,
        enemy – praying is reorienting our feelings of fear
holy or natural places – chapel at fowler
relax control - giving up in middle of the night
an awareness of presence
   Rudolph Otto’s – numinous experience
   Martin Buber’s I Thou – the (w)holy other
   attitude of consciousness – a constant suspicion that we are not the center of things, that a benevolent     presence has a desire that is in play. This is praying too.

Pray without ceasing now possible

March 8, 2010 - Hungering for God

Nehemiah 9:1-3

Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. They stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth part of the day, and for another fourth they made confession and worshipped the Lord their God. 

Acts 13:1-3

 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler,* and Saul. 2While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ 3Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

Hungering for God – Dr. Bill Levering

I know a man I met when I was pastor at another church.  He is a big man with a big heart.  A man who loves food, loves to eat.

This man I know is constantly trying to lose weight. And it's a real battle.  When he was growing up, there wasn't always enough food, so he learned to eat fast.  When he was growing up, food was how affection was expressed and shared.  When he was in high school, he played football and bigger was better.  All throughout his life he saw thousands and thousands of commercials begging him to eat salty, fatty, sweet foods.  For just pennies more, he could get a bigger burger, more fries, and a bigger Coke.  It didn't make sense not to.

He thinks about food: his last meal, his next meal.  He wants cookies and salty crunchy things all the time.

He has a rubber band around a part of his stomach so he can't eat as much.  He feels physically full almost right away when he eats.  But he is still hungry, surrounded by food. While he lost some weight at first, it's not going away any more.   He is the reaching Tantalus, unable to be satisfied.  He is Sisyphus, rolling the rock of daily dieting.  He is Prometheus bound to his own body, his organs regenerating while he is tortured.

He feels guilty and deprived all at once.  He has self-pity and determination, all at once.  He wants control and satisfaction, all at once.  He wants to resist his cake and eat it too.  And so his spirit is split.  He serves two masters, obeys two voices.

He is all of us.

This is a problem of the modern age, but not unique to the modern age.  Imagine how folks thought about food when they had to hunt and gather every morsel.  Imagine generations wondering.  How much was in the pot?  How much would they get?

What is new for us is the messages of self indulgence we hear constantly.  Jaron Lanier in a recent Harpers article called The Serfdom of Crowds, suggests that the driving force of most new ventures in America will be advertising.  The internet already is completely shaped by advertising.  Advertising shapes our future information.  Even now it brings us television, it comes in the mail, we read it in the newspapers.  It is the false God telling us we can have whatever we want:  "Take, eat!"

We have never needed the idea of fasting more than we do today.  However, it will be harder now than it ever has been.

The chorus of self-indulgence is loud and shrill.  "You deserve a break today!"  "Have it your way!"  "Tastes great - less filling."  Richard Foster, author of the famous Celebration of Discipline, writes in the very first paragraph of the book, "The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem."

The idea of waiting a few hours to eat is outrageous when our culture sells immediate action: ("Do it now!") and immediate gratification.  Food can't be fast enough now, being measured in seconds rather than minutes at most fast food restaurants.  Cooking is now heating, and eating is now a crude shoveling without grace or community.

It is curious that fasting hasn't become more popular when there is good research that says fasting will lower blood pressure, relieve diabetes and sleep apnea, and make you live significantly longer.  It is simply out of sight.  Which celebrities fast?  What legislation encourages it?  What public service announcement touts it?  It is a cultural heresy to deny an urge.

Here is the bottom line:  some of the things we want, we shouldn't get.  So fasting is a practice and practice.  It is a practice that itself can make us healthier and it is practice for the other desires that can destroy our spirits:  the need for approval, the desperate reaching for power or control, the thirsting for booze, the lust for fame, the fearful grabbing of security.  Saying 'no' to ourselves about anything is increasingly difficult, whether is it turning off the TV, pushing back, or making time for God.

I'll bet some of you who give up things for lent get mixed reactions from people.  "Why are you doing that??"  It's downright un-American not to consume as much as you can.  Our continuous rise in consuming was only halted for a moment because of the monumental greed of folks in the investment community.

To remind us of the realities of limited resources and to steel us for the fact that the world does not revolve around our whims, we limit our intake, we budget, we pace ourselves, we hold back, we fast, hungering for God.  Foster writes, "Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way.  It is a means of God's grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer."

In scripture, fasting is used when important moments are faced, and when big problems are encountered, and in the regular observances of the day of atonement, Yom Kippur.  In the Old Testament passage, the people are reestablishing their homeland and temple.  In the New Testament, Jesus runs into a tough healing case and tells the disciples that it requires extraordinary measures:  fasting as well as prayer.

In practice, fasting is going without food, usually during daylight hours.  Using common sense and God's desire for our wholeness, this is obviously not for people with frail health or eating disorders.  It is however, a spiritual tool most of us should consider.  Jesus gave guidelines on not getting dramatic about our fasts, presuming that we were doing it.

Fasting is good for our humility and our self-discipline.  It increases the focus of intercessory prayer, helps in decision making, and concentration.  It gives us a sense of solidarity with the poor, and can be a revelation of our bad habits.

I’m not really here to urge you to fast, that is a personal decision.  I am here to call our attention to how difficult and idea this is.  We have become self-indulgent as a people.  We have developed a way of life that measures all things by comfort and security.  Sacrifice is reserved for war or for our personal futures.

We speak about the bounty and expansive wonder of God’s wishes for us and use symbols of feasts and banquets and streets of gold.  These are symbols of a deep joy not to be confused with the idea that God wants to satisfy our every whim of pleasure.  We don’t jam big hunks of muffins into our mouths at the Lord ’s Table.  We take laughably small bits of bread and juice.  We meter not God, but own desires.  In denying ourselves, we make room for God.


Ok.  here's  a start from WebMD:

Fasting Diets

Most religions use periods of fasting as a means of demonstrating faith or penitence, and an opportunity for spiritual reflection. Fasting has also historically been a means to express political views and a form of protest.

Though it may not be the most practical -- or safest -- diet, some people use fasting as a way to lose weight or to cleanse the body of toxins, although experts say our bodies are perfectly equipped with organs that already do the job. How fasting is used for weight loss varies by diet. Some fasting diets involve drinking nothing but water or eating only raw foods for a period of one or more days, while others restrict food on alternate days. Certain fasting diets only allow liquids like water, juice, or tea, while others dramatically cut calories but do not eliminate food altogether.

Does Fasting Help You Lose Weight?

When you fast, your body is forced to dip into energy stores to get the fuel it needs to keep going, so you will lose weight. The big question is how long you will keep that weight off. Because food was often scarce for our ancestors, our bodies have been genetically programmed to combat the effects of fasting. When you eat less food, your metabolism slows down to conserve energy. Then, when you go back to your usual diet, your lowered metabolism may cause you to store more energy, meaning that you will probably gain back the weight you lost and possibly even put on more weight when eating the same calories you did before the fast.
As you fast, your body will adjust by reducing your appetite, so you will initially feel less hungry. But once you have stopped fasting, your appetite hormones will kick back into gear and you may actually feel hungrier and be more likely to binge.

Research has shown that fasting on alternate days can help people lose weight, but not for long. In one study, people who followed an alternate-day fasting diet shed weight, even when they ate all they wanted on the non-fasting days. However, they could not maintain the weight loss over time.

Can Fasting Detoxify the Body?

Some fasting diets claim that they can cleanse the body of impurities. However, there is no evidence that fasting detoxifies your body, or that your body even needs to be detoxified. It is naturally designed to remove toxins through the skin (by sweating), liver, colon, and kidneys.

Could Fasting Help You Live Longer?

Studies of fasting in both rodents and humans appear to indicate a connection between calorie restriction and longevity. In one study of overweight men and women, a calorie-restricted diet improved markers of aging, such as insulin level and body temperature.

Fasting might also improve longevity by delaying the onset of age-related diseases including Alzheimer's, heart disease, and diabetes. One study showed that skipping meals once a month, as members of the Mormon religious group do, reduces the risk of clogged arteries (the build-up of plaque that can lead to heart attacks and strokes). However, it is not clear from this research whether fasting alone or the Mormons' generally healthier lifestyle (they also abstain from coffee, alcohol, and smoking) is responsible for the improved heart health.

Researchers do not yet know whether the effects of fasting translate into an actual increase in lifespan, because they have not followed people for long enough periods of time.

A fabulous outline on fasting in the Old Testament by Mark Copeland.

1.  What is the longest you have gone without eating?  Why did you do it?
2. What happens when you are hungry?
3.  Is it good to control your appetites?  Why?
4. Wouldn't you like a brownie sundae right now?

(c) William H. Levering 2010