My Faith Looks Up to Thee

August 2, 2015
Bible Text: Deuteronomy 4:1-2 and 6-9 anbd James 1:17-27 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp What does your reflection look like? – James 1:17-27   The letter of James is a short one and is not sent to any one group of people as Paul’s letters are. James is one of the apostles whose Jewish roots are very evident. He is one who wanted to see the new faith remain within the synagogue and be accepted as a new and fuller revelation of the God the people had known throughout their history.  And so his letter is sent to all those who came to faith in Christ as Jews and who are living in what came to be known as the Diaspora or Dispersion.  Many of the people who lived in ancient Palestine had left the area to pursue business interests or for other reasons. They lived all over the ancient world in small communities. They continued to practice their faith even in these remote places.  James wanted to be sure that these communities would ever remain open to receiving new people and he wanted them to present to the community and the world around them a picture of the faith that would draw others to them.   He also knew how important it was for the community’s continued existence that they be reminded of how they were to conduct themselves.  And so the letter of James focuses on remaining true to the tenets of the faith and even more on how that faith is expressed in the community’s life with one another.   In his opening message to the scattered communities, he encourages them to always seek the wisdom of God. The people are not to rely on their own wisdom or strength but to constantly look to God to inform their choices in life and guide them on the path to full life.  Further he reminds all in the community that whatever their status in the society outside the community, they are not to bring that status or hierarchy into the community.  The lowest in the society and the highest in the society are to find that place where both can be honoured and valued.  James believed very strongly that we all stand equal before God and that the prayers of all are heard.  Each person, regardless of their position in society, is an equal in the eyes of God and in the community of faith.  Whatever path the society around may choose to follow, it is for the community of faith to follow the path of God and to uphold each person.  After all, whatever we may amass in this world will ultimately be lost to us but the life we gain in God will be to us an everlasting gain; and that gain is open to all in an equal measure.   First of all he encourages us to be quick to hear. It is often said that we have two ears and two eyes because we are to listen and look more than we are to speak.  Listening to others and watching them is something that is often hard for people. If someone feels that no one is ever listening to them or really seeing them, they can have the tendency to not be willing to share their thoughts or feelings. And if we are concerned that people will dismiss us if we are not constantly sharing, then we will fail to listen and observe others.  What James is seeking for here is for us to learn to listen and observe one another and discover how best to blend our lives in such a way as to respect the life of one another and enable everyone to feel valued in the community; doing this will enable us to be slow or slower to speak for we will be taking the time to consider more carefully what we are to say.  What a blessing it would be if we could ever achieve this!  James knows it will not be easy but he also knows that the communities can splinter and fall apart if we fail to even try.  Of course hand in hand with being slow to speak comes being slow to anger.  Anger often arises from an impulsive reaction to something that is said or done; perhaps it comes from a feeling of frustration with a person or situation; perhaps it is something over which we have no control; but our reaction can have disastrous results not only for us but for others and so often it is difficult to put the words back into our mouths and swallow them.  I want you to note, though, that James does not say that there will not be times of anger or that anger is totally inappropriate at all times; rather, he is saying that it should not be the first reaction we have.  It is his hope that these words of wisdom will save us from putting our feet in our mouths too many times and perhaps save us from tearing our communities apart.   He then goes on to remind the people that we need to be more than just hearers of what God asks of us.  In other words, when we ask for wisdom, when we ask for patience, when we ask for grace and forgiveness, we need to put such things into action.  We can accept all kinds of things in our minds but they must go from our minds to our actions if people are to see that we truly believe in the word of God.   James likens it to looking at our reflection in a mirror.  If we look at our image and then forget what we look like, we are like people who hear the Word of God and then act in a way that totally contradicts it.   But James knows that looking at the law of God like looking in a mirror will never make that law real except that we carry that law of God with us in our mind, heart and spirit just as we carry that image of our face that we see in the mirror.   He closes his message in this chapter by speaking to the people about what he really thinks makes a person religious. What makes a person religious is not how often they attend worship or how much money they can give or what status they have in the community; what makes a person religious is when their whole person reflects the image of God.  It is when the words of God take root and become real. It is when their faith is more than words or ritual but becomes the pattern of their life.  It is when the needs and concerns of the community are heard and responded to.   James identifies two things that he sees as true religion. The first was a great concern because there was no social network to care for widows or orphans. The community had to care for them. The second is as true today as then. It is about how we choose to express our faith in our daily life.  Today how we express our faith may be different in some respects but it remains essentially the same.  We need to look at who we are called to be by God in Christ and then not forget what that looks like as we go into the world as the people of God!

Preparing for Battle

July 26, 2015
Bible Text: Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:60-69 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp   The passage of Scripture from Ephesians 6 is one of the most cited passages in all of Paul’s writings. It portrays an image that would make great sense to the people of his day – even more than in our own time.   The world in which Paul lived was one in which a military presence was always evident. Unlike our world in Canada, you could go nowhere without seeing at least one soldier in full armour with sword and shield.  Many of you have probably visited or know someone who has visited a country in the world today where that reality still exists.  And while the soldier in full armour and carrying weapons is often seen as a sign of trouble and aggression, it can also be a source of great comfort in a troubled place.   At the time of writing the letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul was a prisoner being transported to Rome for his trial before the Emperor.  He was constantly under guard and would daily be seeing at least one soldier in full uniform prepared for battle.  In his mind he would have remembered and seen soldiers entering battle and probably witnessed how the soldiers’ weapons enabled them to defend themselves against the attacks of their enemy.   And so Paul – as so often he does – finds in the images and situations of his life, examples that he can pull from daily life to encourage and support those who have come to faith in God through Christ.  And while that image may not be a constant presence in our daily life, we can still relate well enough to it as we have no doubt read this passage or heard it many times.   The first thing we can notice about this passage, though, is that Paul uses the image not so that we will don armour like a soldier or arm ourselves as if to fight a human foe.  Paul does not see other humans as the enemy of our faith and life in Christ.  While certainly it may appear that those who seek us harm are very human, Paul would assert that it is forces beyond the human that are at work here. All of the words Paul uses to explain these forces are for him ways in which to acknowledge that there are spirits and demons present in the world whose whole reason for being is to disrupt our life with God and cause us to turn away from God.  As the Celts acknowledged, evil exists in the world and seeks to pull us away from finding and hearing the heartbeat of God in our life. Evil forces seek to cloud our vision, dull our hearing and generally convince us that God is not real and that His love and grace are not as deep and embracing of our human condition.  Our struggles in mind, body and spirit can cause us to lose faith or to doubt the reality of God.  We can become convinced that God is either dead or is no longer interested in our well-being.   Paul sees these things as attacks of the devil, of the evil forces in the world.  However we may think of that which is opposed to God’s hope and vision for this life, we certainly know that there are times when our minds cause us to doubt and to question. There are times when we can be convinced that belief in God and the wisdom of God are not real.  In those times of struggle – and without a doubt they will come – Paul knows that the people need support.  They certainly need the support of one another and so he encourages them to gather together for prayer, worship and to share their concerns and fears as well as their joys and hopes.   But there are going to be times when we will be in a place where there aren’t others around. There will be times when we will be on our own.  How are we to protect ourselves in mind and spirit from the attacks on us that can cause us to doubt our decision to live for God? Paul encourages us to think of the soldier.  The soldier needs to protect himself from the harm that the enemy would bring upon him.  To do so requires him to have certain equipment.  He needs a breastplate – a special piece of armour to protect the vital areas of his body. He needs a helmet to protect his head for without a head the body cannot survive. He needs a shield to deflect the arrows and blows of other weapons. He needs protection on his feet to ensure that he maintains a solid footing. But he also needs a weapon to strike back against the aggression that he faces.   But Paul does not suggest that we become soldiers like the Roman soldiers. He does not suggest that we should annihilate those who seek to destroy our faith in God through physical violence.  He suggests that we prepare for the battle of life by adopting and adapting the imagery of the soldier to ensure that we are prepared to stand firm against any and all attacks on our faith and life.   Before we can even put on the armour, we need to ensure that we are able to support our life in Christ and so we use a belt to surround our body with the truth of God. It will hold us firm and enable us to move in the world with a freedom. Then we don the breastplate of righteousness.  This is our protection in our most vital areas for this reminds us that it is through Christ Himself that God brings us that perfect peace and forgiveness of sin.  The breastplate wards off thoughts that would disturb that peace and sense of forgiveness. With the sandals on our feet, we are encouraged to step forward in faith assured that we need not fear where we go.  We wear the helmet of salvation by which we consciously remember that God has placed His hand upon us and blessed us. Through our Lord Jesus Christ we have been granted forgiveness of our sins – not only those past but those present and those future.   Now we take up those things which will enable us to ward off attack and meet the challenges of this life.  The shield represents our faith.  It deflects the attacks upon us.  In the days of the Roman Empire, the most common fear was that of the flaming arrows.  The Roman shields were designed in such a way as to best be able to deflect and extinguish those arrows.  The people would see this as an encouragement to know that whatever was directed at them that their faith could provide a shield and protection.  Finally they could take up the sword – the sword of the Word of God.     The Word of God would be their constant companion.  The words of God would be like a sword for they would become their defence and their hope.   Perhaps our daily lives are not so much a battle as those of the Christians in the early days of the church; but we do not know what the future holds.  But let us ever remember that preparation and vigilance are needed even in the most innocuous of times and places.  It is when we fail to remember the past that we find ourselves unprepared for the future.   In closing his letter, Paul writes these words and I am quoting them to you today as we depart from this place to live in God’s world:   Peace be to all the [people of God], and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying. (Ephesians 6:23-24)

BREAD OF LIFE

July 19, 2015
Bible Text: Ephesians 5:15-20 and John 5:51-58 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp It comes as no surprise to me that there are probably some among you who find today’s passage from John to be quite puzzling.  How on earth are we to make sense of the words of Jesus? This passage in which Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life is the end of a long narrative in chapter six of John’s gospel that begins with the feeding of the five. Jesus then seems to disappear only to reappear on the other side of the lake. When the people find him, they wonder how they managed to not see him cross the lake. But to their surprise Jesus instead says to them that they have been looking for him because they were all fed through the miracle of the loaves. Then Jesus encourages them to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. They are to work for the food that never spoils. But they still are focused on the physical miracle and so the challenge to believe in Jesus who has been sent by God the Father does not hold truth for them. They are still seeking a sign. They remembered the manna that God sent which provided food for the people as they passed through the wilderness. In their minds, bread from heaven was still a physical sustenance. And even if Jesus was indeed the new manna, the new bread from heaven for that generation, they still could not imagine that Jesus was the one sent by God from heaven for he was known to be the son of Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth; and as no good thing ever was considered to be capable of coming from Nazareth, the idea that Jesus could indeed be the bread of heaven seemed implausible. Even more so was Jesus’ assertion that this bread of life was his flesh and that his blood. Bread and water are two of the most common of staples for so many people in the world. And while water shortages are a reality for many the idea that we can substitute some other liquid for water does not have a lot of support. Of all the liquids that we have available to us, even if water is the primary ingredient, there really is no beverage that does a body better than water. Water is the only beverage we are encouraged to drink 8 glasses of each day and it is the one beverage that we are so careful about ensuring it is safe and tastes refreshing. When it comes to bread we have far more choice but we choose to find the most nutritious bread to consume. In fact bread and water are probably the two elements which we use for the sustenance of our physical selves that we can’t imagine being without and that we take great care to savor. When the people of Israel were thirsty, God provided water from a rock. When there was no source of food, God provided manna that appeared with the morning dew. Provision for the physical had always been at the heart of the Jewish experience of God and thankfulness for such a provision had ever remained a part of the ritual of the people from the earliest days through the temple period into the exile and right through the time of the restoration and even during the Roman occupation. The challenge that came with Jesus was showing the people that God was not only making provision for physical daily sustenance but that he was making provision for spiritual sustenance. Furthermore, this spiritual sustenance was not just for the duration of this physical time on this planet but it was a sustenance that would take them into a life with God that would have no end. For this bread and water were not just elements from the earth to nourish a present physical need and then be released back to the earth to be drawn forth again; this bread and water were physical in that they could be touched and pondered but spiritual in that they were symbols to draw us into a deeper and more lasting relationship with God. The bread of heaven that Jesus brings to earth is in fact his body for he embodies within him the words and works of God. Symbolically, as we listen to the words of Jesus, as we follow his footsteps, as we study his encounters with people, we ingest the bread of life. It probably never really occurs to us in terms of our relationship to God, but when we learn lessons in school or at home, we are eating life lessons. We are ingesting truths which will guide us through this life. Jesus’ desire for us to share in his flesh as the bread from heaven is for us to understand that we need to ingest the truth of what that God means. Through this ingestion we digest and process in our minds, hearts and spirits what it truly means to be the people of God. Through this we develop our spirits as they are nourished by the words of God in Christ. As the bread of the soil nourishes our physical beings, so the bread of heaven nourishes our spiritual beings. Both are needed for us to live a complete life. And just as water energizes our physical bodies and restores our organs to their full capacity, so the blood of Jesus, the water of eternal life energize our spirits and restore us to that full and lasting relationship with God for which we were created. Jesus describes his flesh as being real food and his blood as being real drink for that which come from God and is given to us for the nourishment of our souls is that which finds our very center, the core of our being and fills a spot in us that no earthly food or drink could ever reach. And the gift of the body and blood of Jesus which we remember when we share in the Lord’s Supper is a tangible reminder to us that God has shared with us a truth that is meant to not only sustain us for as many years as this body may give us but to carry us forward into the future that God assures us is waiting for those who are prepared to eat the bread of heaven and drink the Is this a great mystery? Of course it is but not necessarily one that is like an abyss but rather one that is fantastic and compelling. John is speaking to us not about rules and regulations, moral codes and traditions; rather, he is speaking to us about the essence of life, about the ultimate purpose and destiny of life. He is speaking to us once again about our relationship with God, one that encourages us to listen for and discover for ourselves the Is it a strange thing to imagine eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood? Of course. But to think of deepening our relationship with God by absorbing his words and ways and lapping up his truth so as to be filled with his grace, forgiveness and love, that is a whole other thing. And that is what Jesus is seeking for us to understand! Eat of his body and drink of his blood knowing that through this you are being filled with the knowledge of God, a knowledge that will remain with you both now and forevermore.
Bible Text: Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Two Ways of Listening   As we come to the end of this exploration of Celtic spirituality, it has become clear that the path chosen by the early Celtic church was not unbiblical; rather, it was not the path adopted by the dominant church tradition.  The dominant tradition preferred to base its theology and spirituality on the tradition of St. Peter and the authority which was conferred on Peter by Christ Himself. The theology and spirituality of the Celtic church had taken its lead from St. John.  Both paths were valid and biblical but in its push to reveal a united faith, the people of that time chose to see the issue as needing to be decided one way or the other. A little more understanding of each other’s position might have led to a different outcome.  And so while the battle in 664 for the hearts and minds of the people came down to a decision for Peter or for John, we in this day and age can recognize the strengths and contributions of each stream and so find a place for both of them as we live our lives today.   It is interesting to note that many of the mystical traditions of the Church followed the path of St. John. John was seen as the ultimate guide to the inner self.  It is also interesting to note that John Scotus, whom I spoke of in an earlier talk, believed that there was room for both ways.  He got in trouble for daring to promote the Celtic way. But he saw John as representing the way of contemplation while Peter the way of faithful action.  It is interesting to note that Pelagius never advised people to only a contemplative way of approaching God. He firmly believed that it should issue forth in action. But the emphasis on the interior life and seeking for God within and in creation rather than in the heavens and in the holy places alone is what got him into trouble.  Balance between the contemplative and the active is what we should all be seeking for.   The strength of the John tradition is that it produces a spirituality that sees God in the whole of life and regards all things as inter-related.  John’s way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the Light of life wherever it is to be found. It is a tradition that is not bound by four walls for the sanctuary of God is to be found within the whole of creation.   The strength of the Peter tradition is precisely that it has four walls.  It enshrines the light of truth within the Church and its traditions and sacraments. It is a rock, a place of security and shelter, especially in the midst of stormy change.  It allows us to turn with faith to the familiar house of prayer where others before us have found truth and guidance.   And so to hold these two traditions together enables us to celebrate the sacraments and remember the traditions and teachings of the faith while allowing for the fact that the love and grace of God are not just for those who know God but for every person and every form of life because God is with and in all that has life.   Even our own experiences in life have taught us that there are times when we have found God in the light of the morning or evening or the freshness of the wind.  Sometimes we need the solitude of a hill to be still and attentive to God while at other times we find the time of communal worship, the celebration of the sacraments, the hymns and prayers a comfort. There is room for both the contemplative and the action, for the individual and the communal.   Another difference between the two ways of listening is when it comes to sin. To John’s way of thinking, God’s goodness is at the heart of each one of us. In repenting of sin, we are not turning away in order to be someone else, but re-turning to our true selves, made in the loveliness and goodness of the image of God. It is a recognition that we have been created in the image of God to be holy as he is holy but that that goodness has been covered over. We need to peel back the layers to reveal again that light that is at heart of our own beings. To Peter’s way of seeing, we are ever capable of sin and are to be warned against this tendency in ourselves and others.  Eventually this led to the Augustine belief that the essential goodness in us was totally erased with Adam’s fall.  Here we need to find a balance where we believe and hope in our God-given goodness on the one hand and yet wise and alert to our sinful leanings.   But how can we do this?  From the John tradition we hear the emphasis on the new commandment from Jesus: “love one another just as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)  To John change will come through love. John’s spirituality is guided above all else by a sense of the welling up of love from life’s deepest springs, the place of God’s abiding.  In the Peter tradition, great confidence is placed in the outward strength and rightness of the law.  It is important to note that we need both perspectives.  Otherwise, our faith will be either a vague, unproductive enthusiasm for the sacredness of all life or a joyless moral dutifulness.   And so while the focus of this series has been on the lost Celtic spirituality and the tradition of St. John, let us remember that we can learn from the many different ways of approaching God that have been followed by people over the centuries.   In closing I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Philip Newell and his work to helping us delve more deeply into this ancient way of listening for the heartbeat of God.  Perhaps for some of us this has met a longing within our hearts for a way that made sense to us but that we hadn’t heard expressed before.  Perhaps our awareness of this neglected tradition will assist us in the future to go beyond these four walls and to become a place where people can step into and out of daily life and be reminded that the cathedral of God is the whole of creation.  Perhaps then we will see and others will come to see that God can be found in the whole of life for that is where his heartbeat is and as we listen, we too may hear that heartbeat within us.
Bible Text: Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-13 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality   Last time we were learning about the attempt of Alexander Scott to reintroduce to the Presbyterian Church in Scotland a way of seeing God’s presence as embracing all of creation. His radical notion that God’s love and grace were for all people was not welcomed by the established church at that time. However, there was a younger Scottish minister who had been influenced by Scott and the novels of George MacDonald.  His name was Norman MacLeod (1812-1872). In 1843 there was a split in the Church of Scotland. While MacLeod remained with the established church, he began to have a profound influence on the direction of its spirituality and theology. In a real sense, he reawakened within the Scottish church that ancient Celtic spirituality and presented it in such a way that people began to accept it as a path for the modern church.  The Celtic trait of seeking God’s presence in the whole of life and not just within the Church and its traditions led to a relaxing of the Sabbath laws in the Church and enabled places of beauty and nature to be opened on Sundays allowing families to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in the parks and gardens on what was - for most people - their only day off work.  When the Church allowed the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to open on Sundays, it was a sign that the Church was beginning to acknowledge that God could be found and worshipped beyond the four walls of the church. The people were once again allowed to listen for the heartbeat of God in the whole of life.   But as much as Norman MacLeod was a key figure in the rediscovery of this ancient way of seeing, it was Norman’s grandson, George Fielden MacLeod (1895-1991) who found a way to get the Church to see that it was not a matter of either/or but rather two ways of seeing and finding God in life.  MacLeod emphasized that we are in touch with God every moment that we live, “for the simple reason that God is life: not religious life, nor Church life, but the whole of life….God is the Life of life.” (Newell, p. 76)  Spiritual awareness, then, is not about becoming aware of God in a setting created by human hands but rather it is about being aware of God in the midst of the change and movement and flow of life, in the rising of the morning sun, in the work and relationships of daily life, in the interior life of the soul, in times of rest and sleep, and even dreaming.  God is at the heart of all life. We don’t have to try to reach God through acts of devotion, for God is closer to us than our very breath. “We have been given union with God whether we like it or not,” MacLeod said, “Our flesh is his flesh, and we cannot jump out of our skins.” (Newell, p. 76)   MacLeod was both a Celtic mystic and a Presbyterian minister.  He was more concerned that people understand themselves to be Christian than Presbyterian and he encouraged people to not take too seriously the religious boundaries by which we so often define ourselves.  After all, God is the Life of the world, not merely some religious aspect of it.  When it came to his understanding of spirituality, he warned against believing that becoming more spiritual led a person away from the world. Rather, it was meant for us to go more deeply into life, to find God at the heart of life and to liberate God’s goodness within us and in our relationships, both individually and collectively.  “It is the primacy of God as Now that we must recover in Christian mysticism,” said MacLeod. (Newell, p. 80)  Our innumerable ‘nows’ as we go through our day are our points of contact with God. (Newell, p. 80)   But while MacLeod emphasized a spirituality of awareness, a looking and listening in the midst of every moment of life, he also believed in setting aside time for formal private and communal prayer.  He also firmly believed that God is not found apart from the stresses of life but within them. Our time of prayer need not be seen as an escape from the pressures of life but rather our conversation with the God who is there in the midst of life where life is lived.   But he also had a vision to re-establish that ancient Celtic community of Iona and so in 1938 he gathered together a group of craftsmen and began to restore the old monastic buildings and begin a community dedicated to the discipline of prayer, rebuilding justice and re-establishing the foundations for peace.   MacLeod brought into the mainstream of the Church a way of seeing that had never died out. Repressed for centuries, it continued to be sought for by the people who descended from that early Celtic community. Through this way of seeing, the essential goodness of creation is affirmed and the image of God is firmly visible in all humanity. Yet there is a keen awareness within this way of seeing that there is evil in the world and that the believer must be aware and vigilant.  As vibrant as creation is with God’s life, there are forces of darkness that would bind us. We need the saving grace of God to liberate us in order that we might once again discover the essential goodness of our creation.  The Celtic spirituality also reminds us that the spiritual realm is closer than we may think. Heaven and earth are connected in ways that are invisible and yet very visible.   MacLeod’s plea for the modern day Church was for a recovery of the vision that would free us, individually and collectively, to see both the heights and depths of the mystery in which we live, the glory within us and in the matter of creation as well as the darkness, which, close and imprisoning, threatens each life.  MacLeod saw danger in separating the secular from the sacred.  When we do that, we make our faith an appendage to our life rather than life itself.  Our salvation in Christ is not just for that part of us that makes time for God; our salvation in Christ is for every part of our life.   When MacLeod passed away at the age of 96, the final prayer read at his funeral was this one composed by MacLeod himself: Be thou, triune God, in the midst of us as we give thanks for those who have gone from the sight of earthly eyes. They, in thy nearer presence, still worship with us in the mystery of the one family in heaven and on earth… If it be thy holy will, tell them how much we love them, and how we miss them, and how we long for the day when we shall meet with them again…. Strengthen us to go on in loving service of all thy children. Thus shall we have communion with thee, and, in thee, with our beloved ones. Thus shall we come to know within ourselves that there is no death and that only a veil divides, thin as gossamer. (Newell, p. 93) His prayer was written in the conviction of the closeness of the saints, and his belief that death is not a departing from life but a returning to its Heart.   Next week will be the conclusion of this series.    
Bible Text: Job 38: 1-11 and Mark 4:35-41 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality As we discovered last week, the Celtic spirituality had gone into hiding. It had been suppressed for a number of centuries and yet had survived. Its survival was given hope by the work of Alexander Carmichael. Yet in spite of this, it continued to be discouraged. In reflecting on what took place, it is interesting to note that those who first brought the Christian faith to the Celts did so in such a way as to incorporate and enliven the faith already present in the people. Their methods were enlightened and led the people to a deep and lasting relationship with God.   Around the same time as Carmichael was collecting the prayers of an increasingly dispersed tradition in the Western Isles, another Scot, George MacDonald (1824-1905), was finding a new channel of expression for this ancient stream of spirituality and communicating it in the form of short stories and novels. MacDonald had been reared on the old Celtic stories and legends of the Western Isles and these shaped the spirituality that he expressed through his fictional works. His writing was meant for those who could see with the eyes of a child and his works of the imagination strove to recover the inner faculty of sight whereby God may be seen within us, among us and in all the things of creation.   MacDonald owed much of his spirituality of the imagination to a so-called ‘heretic’ named Alexander John Scott (1805-66).  Scott was guided in his theology by John Scotus whom we learned of in an earlier message.  Scott’s belief that God’s love is in and for all people was in sharp contrast to the prevailing Calvinist doctrine which saw God as separate from the creation and God’s redemptive love as exclusively for those elected by God to receive the grace of light. Scott saw God as immediately present in the whole of life. He maintained that “everywhere we can find the ladder that connects heaven and earth, God and humanity, with the angels of the eternal light ascending and descending upon it.” (Newell, p. 62) This image is picked up by MacDonald in his stories and also by C. S. Lewis in the Narnian wardrobe.   Scott, who grew up in the Western Isles, discovered that the people looked for God in the whole of life. He described them as listening for God in all things. “In their inmost being,” he said, “they knew a type of communion with the uncreated at the heart of creation.” (Newell, p. 63)  They perceived the interweaving of the spiritual and the material, of heaven and earth, time and eternity. “Always,” said Scott, “there is the greatness that lies within and beneath the common. Everywhere…we can glimpse signs of the presence of God’s life in and among us, for God is the Being on which all being rests.” (Newell, p. 63)   Scott ran afoul of the established Church and was stripped of his ordination because he maintained that the love of God was not limited to the Church and the elect but that the love of God was for all for Christ is the Life of the world.  Scott also took issue with the perception that ordained ministers had a greater presence of God’s Spirit within them than the rest of humanity. He also criticized the Church’s Sabbatarianism. He didn’t disagree that there should be a day of rest but he firmly believed that the Sabbath was not the only holy day – but rather that the whole of life is sacred, every day, every hour, every moment.   God’s life is like the heartbeat at the centre of life, pulsating within, sustaining all that is.  God is forever communicating his life and love in and through the outward forms of creation.  For Scott, the emphasis of Christ that we become like children is evidence to him that we are to recover the inner faculties we were born with and use them to glimpse the presence of the Spirit of God in the creation.  He believed that we need to regain our innate childlike way of seeing that becomes increasingly obscured by neglect throughout our lives.  The gift of the imagination – which in a child is still uninhibited – allows creation to be a lens through which we may fleetingly bring into focus aspects of the eternal.  In a real sense, this way of looking at things forces us to re-examine the materialism that has increasingly gripped our Western society and caused a growing spiritual insensitivity whereby life has come to be seen more and more in limited material terms.  Value and meaning has shifted from the internal to the external.   But lest we believe that the Celtic spirituality is a romantic perspective on creation – one that sees the world in an idyllic way – we need to remember that while maintaining the goodness of creation, the Celts knew that there were forces of evil present in the world. They knew that they needed to discern with inner sight what the essence of God in creation is and therefore what is truest and most unshakeable in life.  They knew that as we listen to hear God’s living Word to us in the Scriptures, we will also hear words of human failure and violence.  When we explore creation, we will perceive suffering and cruelty at one level, but deeper still we will perceive that grace and boundless creativity of God. Evil was described as a snake coiled up in the grass of our lives, ready to spring up and tempt us to violence of heart and action. Any spirituality must take account of the evil in and around us and provide ways of growing in spite of it.   But their recognition of evil and its attempts to stop us from finding that light of God gave the Celts hope for they firmly believed that the darkness cannot overcome God’s essential light. It was even believed that Satan would one day repent and be restored to his original role of angel of light. The spirituality of the old Celtic church had begun to find new life and expression.  It led to much social reform in Scotland and is probably to be found behind much of the ecological awareness in the world today.   Another theme that continued to bubble up from the old Celtic church was the belief that at the heart of all things there is a unity of the person in God. Distinctions of male and female, race and colour disappear. With it came a freedom to use either male or female images to describe God.  A mother’s heart could be imagined at the heart of God – God’s love perceived as that of a father. In fact, the feminine became a rich symbol of the One who gives birth to life, and who nurtures and watches over creation like a mother her child.   The end of the 19th century began a major revival of the old Celtic spirituality in the Scottish church. It began to free itself from much of its enclosed Calvinism and opened itself up again to life and to the world.  Next time – on July 5 – we will explore the next phase of the revival and the re-emergence of the community of Iona.
Bible Text: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-10, 14-17 and Mark 4: 26-34 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Last time I spoke to you about the people who succeeded Pelagius and for whom the Celtic way of seeing the world made sense. I spoke to you of St. Ninian and how he organized the church in a way that reflected more of the Eastern Church tradition rather than the Western Church. I reflected on the great hymns of St. Patrick whose sense of God in all of creation created a world view in which God and our faith could not be separated from any aspect of our life. Then I spoke to you of John Scotus the Irishman who saw in the Celtic way an important contribution to the wider faith community and sought to bring that contribution into the mainstream of the church.   While he wasn’t successful in that, the Celts doggedly refused to give up on the path that had guided their ancestors through life and had kept them firmly rooted in God and in Jesus Christ. Even when the last old Celtic monastic bastion on Iona had been converted to a more Roman structure and the worship and life of the community altered, Culdee chapels continued to dot the landscape of the outer reaches of Scotland. The Culdees were Celtic monks in the eremitic tradition – namely, people chose to live a relatively secluded prayer-focused life. They banded together in loosely structured monastic clusters and continued to teach and lead the people in the ways that they had come to love and cherish.  And while visible signs of the Celtic spirituality disappeared from public view, it found its home among the people of the Western Isles. In the middle of the 19th century, a young civil servant named Alexander Carmichael began to record the prayers that had been passed down for centuries in the oral tradition of the Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland.   While outwardly the people were part of the modern parish system, in their daily life they continued to pray the prayers handed down to them through the generations.  These prayers were usually sung or chanted and were recited as a rhythmic accompaniment to the people’s daily routine – at the rising of the sun and its setting, at the kindling of a fire in the morning and its covering at night. These prayers were used in the most ordinary contexts of daily life and not within the four walls of a church on Sunday. Carmichael detected in many of them a liturgical character and tone and came to believe that they had come down from the tradition of the old Celtic Church – the chanting being reminiscent of its ancient music.  Evidently the people could not be convinced to let these prayers fade away. They had been taught that the light of God was in them and that the goodness of creation was all around them and that heaven and earth were bound together. If you have ever traveled to the western isles, you know how conscious you need to be of the sky, the sea and all that surrounds you.   The prayers that Carmichael collected are known as the Carmina Gadelica which means the songs and poems of the Gaels. These poems celebrate the goodness of creation. Even though they knew that the elements could be harsh, they believed that the grace of God was to be found in a love for all the elements that surrounded them.  They even believed that the grace of healing was contained within the creation. They viewed the life of God as being deep within creation as well as being distinct from it. For them God is present in the elements but God is not the creation. They understood that there is a distinction between the Creator and the creation, between the Source of life and living things. And while they didn’t confuse the Creator and the creation, they held a great reverence for creation while not defying it.  One of the customs of the people was for men to take off their cap to the sun in the morning and for women to bend their knee to the moon at night. As an old woman at Barra explained it: It is a matter for thankfulness, the golden-bright sun of virtues giving us warmth and light by day, and the white moon of the seasons giving us guidance and leading by night. It was noted that many of the prayers moved like the shuttle on a loom, between the physical and the spiritual giving thanks for the material gift of light while at the same time being aware of the spiritual light of God within creation. (Listening for the Heartbeat of God, p. 44)   God is present at the heart of creation, God is the heartbeat of life but God is also close. There is a personal immediacy of God to us, a closeness not only of God but of the whole host of heaven, enfolding the Earth and its people with love. But this is no sentimental piety. There exists in these prayers a readiness to give and receive warm affection for Christ, the saints and angels. The saints and angels were real to the people and viewed as being present throughout life. They are regarded as messengers of God’s everlasting love for us.   Remember that I told you about the Celtic belief that the image of God can be seen in newborns? Well they also practised what is known as the birth baptism. Three drops of water would be placed on the child’s forehead to acknowledge that the image of the God of life had been born into the world. They would still have the child baptized in the church but it could take months for a priest to come to the more remote parts.   The Celtic belief that we have the light of God within us and that we are to pray for that light to shine through all that clouds and covers it over remained strong. They looked for God’s grace in their life to enable them to become more loving, wiser, more like Christ; but they never denied their need to be protected from evil. They were very aware of the existence of evil and the need constantly to guard against it.   The more formal repression of the old spirituality began in the 16th century with the Reformation. Along with this went the suppression of the Gaelic tongue which was still widely spoken in the Western Isles and the highlands. Its suppression bears resemblance to the manner in which our own indigenous peoples saw the suppression of their language and culture. As people shared with Carmichael, they often preferred to do it in the quiet of the night or they would follow him to the next village to avoid any suspicion that they were speaking of the forbidden ways.   Philip Newell, the author of the book on which these messages are based wonders what was it that the establishment so feared in this stream of spirituality? Was it in part that people of such a spirituality could not be neatly controlled or confined within the narrow bounds of religion and order as defined by the established Church and society of the day?   In the end what really caused the old ways to die the most was the Highland Clearances of the first half of the 19th century. With no central place to be able to keep the tradition strong, the scattering of the clans and the families gradually led to fewer and fewer people remembering and following that old path. Carmichael’s work captured what would soon have been lost to the dust of history. But because of his work, the beauty of that old way of seeing found a new life and enables to not only know how they viewed the world and their faith in God but be able to choose that path for ourselves.   One last thing to share today and that is their perspective on death. All through their life they sought for the light of God as they listened for the heartbeat of God in all things. But death was a place of dark sorrow that was difficult to cross. But while the light seemed to fade, they believed that the angels of God would guide them over to a goodness of unimaginable glory. But rather than seeing this goodness as unrelated to the present world, they saw it as a continuation of the goodness experienced here in creation and in the earth’s cycles of seasons. To them it was a return to the very heart of the seasons, to the Source of all creation, a returning to the One who is the heart of all life. I will end with a prayer which was said at the deathbed of a loved one that speaks of the depth of hope found in this tradition and speaks not just to the one who is facing death at that moment, but to the people as a whole and to all of creation: Thou goest home this night to thy home of winter, To thy home of autumn, of spring, and of summer; Thou goest home this night to thy perpetual home, To thine eternal bed, to thine eternal slumber…… The great sleep of Jesus, the surpassing sleep of Jesus, The sleep of Jesus’ wound, the sleep of Jesus’ grief, The young sleep of Jesus, the restoring sleep of Jesus, The sleep of the kiss of Jesus of peace and of glory…… The shade of death lies upon thy face, beloved, But the Jesus of grace has His hand round about thee; In nearness to the Trinity farewell to thy pains, Christ stands before thee and peace is in His mind. Sleep, O sleep in the calm of all calm, Sleep, O sleep in the guidance of guidance, Sleep, O sleep in the love of all loves; Sleep, O beloved, in the Lord of life, Sleep, O beloved, in the God of life!    
Bible Text: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 & Romans 8:22 - 27 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality   Last week we began exploring the Celtic spirituality by focusing on the concept of the goodness of creation. This meant not only that the created order at the time of Adam and Eve was good but that every thing created since that time is also inherently good. We discovered that the Celts believed that the light of God dwelt within all humanity and that sin and evil obscured that light. As we recognize our sin and seek to overcome it through the grace of God, we can come to a place where we can begin to see within us the heart with which we were created. We can begin to listen for the heartbeat of God as we listen for the beating of our own heart and spirit.  Of course we know that few of us choose to live as hermits and we also know that discovering this light of God within us and staying on the path revealed by God in Christ is not easy. And so we are encouraged to find a soul friend who is not necessarily the minister or religious leader. We need to seek for a person to whom we can open our inner self. Today in our journey we will examine some of the ideas of other leaders of this Celtic spirituality – namely St. Ninian and St. Patrick.  The collapse of the Roman Empire led to a period of about 200 years during which the Celtic church was even more isolated from its Roman cousin.  Those who rose to lead the church in this time organized the community’s life in a different way. Instead of modelling the community on the Roman town and diocesan structure, he chose the Eastern monastic model which he felt was more suited to the Celtic people who were mostly rural and tribal. A cluster of monks would live in a settlement and their residence would serve as a centre of Christian life and prayer, as well as education and mission.  The monks would then go out from these places to encounter the people. The people would also come but there was no on hierarchy and authority except the authority of the Word of God and the call to live life according to the wisdom of God revealed through the ages and finally in Jesus Christ. The church at this time developed even more the familiar theme of the goodness of creation and a sense of the company of heaven being present among us here on earth.  In the prayers and art of the church there is an intertwining of the spiritual and material, heaven and earth, time and eternity. The Celtic church was not afraid to reach out and grasp for the strength of God and to seek for the energies of the elements of creation to be present with them.  Life was not some isolated event lived without connection to the world around us as well as the world above us.  The words of this hymn capture that reality: I bind unto myself today the virtues of the star-lit heaven; the glorious sun’s life-giving ray; the whiteness of the moon at evening; the flashing of the lightning free; the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks; the stable earth; the deep salt sea around the old eternal rocks. As for the emphasis on the closeness of the company of heaven among us on earth we need look no further than that very famous hymn St. Patrick’s Breastplate where we find these words: Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. And so for the Celtic church, Mary is not seen as the Queen of Heaven but as a country girl in touch with the concerns and delights of daily life; Peter is ever the fisherman whose knowledge of the sea continues to guide and guard all who work in the boats; and Christ is regarded not as a distant regal King but more as the Chief of the tribe, known to his people and close to them.  The Christ who is above them in the brightness of the morning sun is the Christ who is beneath them in the dark fertility of the earth. The Christ who is with his people in the quiet calm of a windless sea is with them too in the midst of the wild wintry storm. The Christ who is within, at the very centre of their soul, is the Christ who is to be looked for in friend and stranger, Christ at the heart of all life. In the wisdom of those early missionaries to the Celts, the gospel was permitted to work its mystery of transformation in the life and culture of the people; and so, the gospel was seen as fulfilling rather than destroying the old Celtic mythologies. The strong relationship that the people felt to the creation around them was deepened by their faith in Jesus Christ. The missionaries brought a greater depth of meaning to everything the Celtic people had known and held dear. The people found in the Christian faith a freedom to become more truly themselves. The Celtic church embraced the vision of St. John who saw God as the light of the world. This led them to look for the grace of God within as well as beyond creation. It led them to listen for the heartbeat of God within all things – ourselves, one another and the whole of creation. Their expressed desire to hold together the revelation of God in creation and the revelation of God in the Bible brought them to the practice of listening for the living Word of God in nature as well as in the Scriptures. And even though the Celtic church’s spirituality was not officially sanctioned by the Pope from the 7th century onward, it continued to exist in an unofficial way.  As clear evidence that so much of the Celtic beliefs had not disappeared from the spiritual life of the people, we find a 9th century Irish philosopher who taught that Christ moves among us in two shoes, as it were, one shoe being that of creation, the other that of the Scriptures, and he stressed the need to be as alert and attentive to Christ moving among us in creation as we are to the voice of Christ in the Scriptures.  John Scotus Eriugena whose name means John the Irishman from Ireland was not a monk or a priest. But he saw in the Celtic spirituality a vision and a way of seeing God that the world needed to know. He spread the message far and wide and whole many rejected it, many more found it to contain truth. He understood St. John to be an observer of the inmost truth and believed that John had listened within and heard the Word of God through whom all things are made; and that Word is at the heart of life. And so for John Scotus, God is in all things and all things are created not out of nothing but out of the essence of God. As with the leaders of the Celtic church who had proceeded him, John believed that the light of God was at the heart of every person. But he also believed that sin covered it up so that the light could not be seen by us. And so the grace of God revealed through Christ is the gift of God that heals our inner sight and allows our eyes to be opened once again to the goodness that is deep within us. John believed that there is a unity and simplicity of God that underlies the multiplicity and complexity of the outward life. Thu grace of Christ restores us to our original simplicity.  He believed that everything that is divided will be reunited, whether the division be between heaven and earth, male and female, visible or invisible. He stressed that at the heart of life to which we are to be restored, there is neither a male nor a female reality for the image of God is neither male nor female. These are distinctions at the surface of life but not at its heart. And while we may speak of male and female attributes when it comes to God, there is a unity in God that transcends these attributes and leads us to see God as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Wisdom. It is interesting to note that even though many condemned the spirituality of the Celtic Church, much of its thought was picked up by Christian mystics such as Meister Elkhart among others.  For those who have sought to follow a spiritual path to explore their inner heart through contemplation or retreat, the Celtic path has been their guide. On June 14th, we will explore listening for God in all things.                
Bible Text: Acts 1:1-11 and 1 John 5:9-13 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Listening for the Goodness While there has always been a recognized orthodoxy in the church with those ways of thinking that run contrary to it being discredited, it remains for us in our time to examine the controversies of the previous generations and decide for ourselves whether or not such thinking was indeed heretical and dangerous to a proper interpretation of the word of God or whether it was a politically motivated attempt to control the spiritual journey of the people.   Many of us trace our roots to the British Isles with many of us laying claim to that heritage now recognized in song, art and poetry as Celtic. And while we may well recognize that the Celts were a spiritual people before the arrival of Christianity, there may be still questions in our minds as to the nature of that spirituality and whether or not it could find a legitimate expression within the Christian faith.   While there were signs that the Christian faith had been introduced to the Celtic people as early as the third century, it was not until the fourth century that what has come to be viewed as a distinctive Celtic spirituality emerged. One of the first prominent Celtic theologians was a man named Pelagius. Many people believed that Pelagius was teaching that we are capable of saving ourselves and that we do not rely on the redeeming grace of God. Since most of the writings of Pelagius have not survived, it is difficult to give a fair assessment of his thought. He is most often viewed through the eyes of his two greatest critics, Augustine of Hippo and Jerome.   Pelagius grew up in a different world from Augustine or Jerome and his spirituality grew out of his experience of God in what was a far more wild part of the world.  The isolation of the British church – due to its position at the far edge of the Roman Empire – contributed to a number of things which did not sit well with Augustine who was more closely tied to Rome and the central seat of the faith. In everything from hair-style to diet and even physical appearance, there was much to criticize. Certainly it could be argued that it was inappropriate to adopt or carry on some of the pre-Christian practices but over the centuries we have discovered that such things can help to bridge the gap between the pre-Christian experience of God and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  For many cultures their spirituality found a natural connection to the Christian message and so enabled people to embrace the faith and find a deeper meaning to their life.   Many people actually found the teachings and thoughts of Pelagius to be deeply spiritual but his appearance caused others to find reasons to discredit him.  The whole emphasis that is in the church today on spiritual direction and finding a spiritual director or guide is a feature of the Celtic church where people were encouraged to find what was called an anamchara or soul friend. But Pelagius did not expect this person to be the priest or religious leader. For him, the soul friend needed to be someone to whom you could open your inner self, ‘hiding nothing’, he says, ‘revealing everything’ in order to know and further explore what is in one’s own heart.  Each of us would do well to find such a person. Another typical mark of the Celtic spirituality which Pelagius emphasized was a strong sense of the goodness of creation in which the life of God can be glimpsed.  He believed that narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth. Every movement of the animals, the birds, insects, and fish – all revealed to him the presence and the spirit of God. This was not animism – a belief that the actual object was God but rather that as part of creation given life by God, the spirit of God dwelt there as it did throughout creation. He saw beauty and goodness in all creation. Not sure if mosquitoes and black flies were in his world and whether he would have been as positive about God’s presence in them.  They are a challenge! Because Pelagius saw God as present within all that has life, he understood Jesus’ command to love our neighbour to mean not only our human neighbours but all life. He ran himself into trouble because he sought to widen the circle and challenge the people to not live their lives strictly in response to a set of beliefs or doctrines but to live a life of wisdom. They were encouraged to love all people, friends and enemies alike, and do good in return for evil. For him Jesus was the embodiment of all wisdom and humility and was the perfection of the wisdom by which we are to be guided in life. For Pelagius, doctrines may help to explain mysteries, Scripture records for us the teaching and example of Jesus and the early church, but it is how we respond with our heart and actions that truly matter. For him, to believe in Christ was no sign of true faith or spiritual growth; it was how that belief translated into a life seeking to follow the example of Christ. Many people came to believe that he was suggesting that we did not need to believe in Jesus or his atoning sacrifice but rather he was encouraging us to go beyond simple belief or doctrine to embrace the message of Christ in such a way as to grow in likeness to him. Never did he believe that we could become perfect but he believed that we needed to strive to that perfection. To restrain from doing wrong deeds is of little good if we are not prepared to also do good deeds. Pelagius also firmly held that every child is conceived and born in the image of God.  He believed that the newborn contains the original, unsullied goodness of creation and humanity’s essential blessedness. For him in the birth of a child God was giving birth to his image on earth. While many believed that Pelagius denied the presence of evil and its power over the human person, rather Pelagius believed that the image and goodness of God was at the heart of humanity and that wrongdoing and evil obscured or covered it over. The light of God is at the heart of every person waiting to be liberated. Our redemption in Christ becomes for us a setting free, a releasing of what we essentially are. What Pelagius emphasized and sought for people to come to appreciate was the dignity of our human nature.  He believed that our deepest desires are for God even though other desires obscure our true heart. He never claimed that we could not do that which is evil but he would allow us to believe that we could be forced to do it by a fault in our nature. He strongly believed in our freedom to choose the good and sought for people to have the confidence to know that this was God’s hope and desire. He never denied the centrality of God’s grace but rather saw it as the strength that enables us to choose the good and do it. Evil, he says, is like a fog that blinds is to our true selves. Pelagius looked for the good not only in the people within the Church but to those outside. When we meet good, kind and just people outside the church, where do these qualities come from? For Pelagius it is a sign that their essential nature is good and that nature is a gift of God. Rather than the world being opposed to the Church, Pelagius sees the Church as an integral part of the world given the key to unlock the essential nature of all creation. Our own acknowledgement of God in Christ is to be viewed as a liberation of our spirit to discover the essential goodness that our creation has granted us. The question for Pelagius is not how do we institutionalize this goodness but rather how do we help others to discover that essential goodness within them. For Pelagius, the gift of the gospel is that we are ‘instructed by the grace of Christ’, encouraged and shown the goodness of God that is within us. Philip Newell, the author whose work is the basis for this series writes the following: If we believe that at birth we lack the image of God and are essentially sinful, what are the implications for our spirituality? Does it mean that there is no vital connection between true spirituality and the sort of purity, simplicity, innocence and goodness of an infant? If we deny that God is at the very heart of life, are we essentially without God, without original goodness in our mothers’ wombs, so that our spirituality does not grow out of what God has planted within us? Is spirituality alien to our original nature, or does grace nurture our innate goodness? What about our relationship with the rest of humanity? If we regard others as lacking essential goodness because they are outside the Church’s sacramental ministry, does that mean that our spirituality has nothing to learn from other faiths and from the virtues that, as Pelagius reminds us, can be observed in our neighbours, many of whom are not members of the Christian church? (Listening for the Heartbeat of God, pp. 21-22) We do not know how Pelagius responded to his harsh treatment at the hands of the institutional church but we do know how he chose to live his life and express his faith. He wrote: ‘Wisdom consists in listening to the commandments of God, and obeying them. A person who has heard that God commands people to be generous, and then shares what he has with the poor, is truly wise. A person who has heard that God commands people to forgive…. and then reaches out in love to his persecutors, is truly wise’ (Carmina Gadelica III, p. 207)