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31/05/2015

Cherishing the Desert

Below is a sermon I gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel on 31st May 2015. The word 'sermon' originally meant 'discourse' or 'conversation'. I try to approach sermons in this way, rather than a speech to reflect my apparent enlightenment - which I can assure you, I do not believe I have above any other human being. I struggle to find meaning just as much as the next person.

The service featured 1 Kings 19 - 'The Lord Speaks to Elijah' - alongside an extract from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran - 'On Time'. I also used a video clip from Youtube, 'A Day in the Desert' to challenge the perceptions we often have on deserts, both literal and metaphorical.

~

Friends, we are a week since Pentecost, eight weeks since Easter and five months since Advent. As Protestants, we now have a relatively long wait until the next major events on calendar – with All Souls, Harvest and the chapel’s anniversary all five months away. And for those football fans amongst us, may I add we have another seventy days until the new football season.

We also have arguably good reasons to become distracted, as each day’s sunset arrives later, the weather hopefully grows warmer and we look out of our windows at the plants and birds busying themselves with life. In some ways, this time of year, for many, sees our very sense of being becoming lighter.

As a result, we are now potentially a ‘quiet spell’ in terms of our spiritual lives – a quiet spell that might be took for ‘emptiness’ or ‘dryness’.

Maybe, just maybe, we should close our churches until the autumn? As the famous 2008 atheist bus campaign advised, ‘There's probably no God... now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

Of course life isn't like that and the big flaw in this message, as writer Francis Spufford points out in his book “Unapologetic”, is not the proposition around God but the proposition that atheism equates with undisrupted enjoyment. As Francis Spufford notes, human life is essentially cocktail of emotions, whether we feel God is actively present in our lives or not. Enjoyment is really just one emotional experience in a kaleidoscope of experiences. Life is a series of peaks, troughs and flat, humdrum, seemingly uneventful moments.

It is important to remind ourselves at this point that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be in a spiritually quiet place. Such times can act as a way of testing and of preparation, as a way of refining and consolidating our faith.

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It is worth considering that every major figurehead in the Bible went through a desert time. This includes Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Paul. Similarly, the story of Lao Tzu (Loud Zoo), author of the Tao Te Ching, involves him journeying away from Chinese civilization and into the wilderness. We could also look to the story of Gautama Buddha for another example. Scripture tells us that being in a place where we are waiting, wanting, praying, examining, reflecting etc., is often the ploughing of the ground for future strength. Then, after this time is completed, the thing that we have been prepared for comes upon us.

I am particularly struck by the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was a fire and brimstone prophet, quite literally so, having taken on the oppressive priesthood who worshipped the idol Baal, declaring them evil and burning down their shrines. With a price on his head, the legend goes that Elijah fled into the wilderness, sleeping under the trees and in caves. Elijah became isolated and defeated in his own spirit. During this time we are told,

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

This in many ways runs in contrast to the story of Pentecost with God appearing as not as a rushing wind but as a small, searching voice after a period of great activity. It was only in the quiet that God’s whisper could be heard.

~



It is also perhaps worth considering that during the summer period of 2003, the United Church of Christ, a liberal American denomination, was using these quieter months to formulate an initiative which came to be known as the, ‘God is still speaking…’ campaign. The initiative started off as a challenge given to church leader Ray Burford to go away and reflect on a new marketing campaign.

This proclamation - ‘God is still speaking…’ - was credited by its creator, Ron Burford, to the unlikely inspiration of Gracie Allen, the late Californian radio and television star, who rose to fame working alongside her husband George Burns as a comedy duo. The couple married in 1926 and spent their lives together raising two adopted children along the way. Gracie passed away in 1964 at the age of 69. After Gracie’s passing, her George is said to have found among her papers a letter left for him. The letter concluded with the line, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” She wanted him to keep living through his emptiness; she wanted him to know much more was to come. Ron Burford happened upon this detail during his period of reflection, and in turn he felt it sparked him to bring forth what became eventually known within the United Church of Christ as the ‘Stillspeaking’ movement.

Not just a tagline, Burford used this moment of inspiration to use ‘God is still speaking…’ within the United Church of Christ as a mantra for why they were here in the first place, and in turn, a drive to increase the capacity of churches at grassroots level, not just the minister but entire congregations, to increase their capacity as liberal Christians to be to be messengers, welcomers and activists - to be evangelicals.

So in this sense the times of spiritual quietude might not just be limited to personal introspection for the individual Christian, but as time for collective reflection on the future for entire churches.

~

As a further observation, around eighteen months ago I moved house and last spring I busily set about our garden. The garden was tired and overgrown - the old gentleman we bought the property off openly admitting it was his late wife’s passion and since her death, he had done the bare minimum.

Anyway, what started as a chore has become something of a hobby and a learning curve – with one of the big lessons I have learnt along the way being the benefits of planting late Autumn. This seemed, to me at least as a novice gardener, to go against common sense – after all, plants need warm sun right? But by planting them ahead of a dormant, cold season, the experts advise this will allow the plant time to quietly put down roots.

And they were right, as we have marched on into spring and summer this year; the shrubs planted just ahead of winter are now showing great vigour, greater vigour even than those planted last spring.

So there are parallels with the natural world - parallels with the universe - to be found in understanding and reconciling ourselves with the peaks and troughs, the loud and quiet times.

~

Finally, if we are to accept the quiet, is there anything we can practically do during these times? I suppose if we were literalists, we would all be either finding a desert or maybe even placing ourselves knee deep in the nearest soil based on what I’ve said so far!

However, we can look to the Christian tradition – as well as Biblical stories – to find examples. A book I have long cherished is Richard Foster’s ‘Celebration of Discipline’ which acts as a summary and guide to disciplines found across the church universal.

Foster speaks of four inward disciplines – prayer, fasting, meditation and study. He also speaks of four outward disciplines – simplicity, solitude, submission and service. And finally, he speaks of a further four corporate disciplines – confession, worship, guidance and celebration.

Ultimately, these all offer different courses for different horses and I would say, as a side note, it is this diversity of Christian approaches to the uncovering spiritual truths that gives our faith its strength. Yet the key word in all of this is ‘discipline’ – discipline as in staying the course, placing trust in a method, holding firm to our foundations.

Friends, the months ahead may well become quiet but don’t mistake the desert’s quietness for emptiness or dryness - the coming months offer the opportunity for your faith to be renewed, your character improved, your walk strengthened, in preparation for the tasks ahead that God is calling you to encounter.

God is still speaking; never place a full stop where God has placed a comma.

Amen