Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Music to My Ears

Over at RevGalBlogPals, some questions were asked that if answered, will tell you folks a lot about me. So here are the questions and answers:

1) Do you like to sing/listen to others sing? In worship, or on your own (or not at all?)

Yes. Just yes.

2) Did you grow up with music in worship, or come to it later in life? Tell us about it, and how that has changed in your experience.

My parents didn't have the kind of professional training that my kids have, but they are musicians just the same. They've sung in the choir my whole life, and when we came home from church, our conversations would sound more like bad opera than normal conversation. We had a piano, organ, autoharp and recorder, and as technology improved, my dad would always buy the latest recording and playback equipment.

Not much has changed in fifty years. Due to time constraints, I'm not in the choir, but I take vocal and piano lessons from our Music Minister, and I sing at times. My kids sing or play during worship, too, when asked.

3) Some people find worship incomplete without music; others would just as soon not have it. Where do you fall?

I can actually appreciate both. I'd rather have no music than bad music, meaning music that espouses a theology that's diametrically opposed to what I preach and believe. What matters most to me is the spiritual energy in the sanctuary or worship space.

4) Do you prefer traditional music in worship, or contemporary? That can mean many different things!

Yes. Handel, Bach, Jim Strathdee, and so on... Contemporary or classical, doesn't really matter. I love singing the "old favourites" just as much as I love singing contemporary hymns. It's all music to my ears.

5) What's your go-to music ... when you need solace or want to express joy? A video/recording will garner bonus points!

Here's hoping the link turns out properly...

So that's my take on worship in music. I went to a seminary where the music prof stated that the prerequisite for a Master of Divinity should be a Bachelor's degree in music. One of my kids has grown up to be a professional musician, who will be graduating with that B.Mus. in the spring. The eldest is a very talented amateur, who is presently in his first year of M.Div. studies. We have more instruments in our homes and more up-to-date recording equipment than my dad does, and the collection keeps on growing.

The beat goes on, indeed!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Talking About Church With My Daughter and My Mom

I had a long talk on the weekend with my mom and my daughter Allison, aged 22 years. The question was, "Why aren't more young people going to church?" It isn't that they aren't spiritual. Having worked with a number of 20-somethings over the past few years at the theatre, I know that that just isn't true. And some of the materils I read from the local Unitarian congregation got me thinking--they have fifty members, and fifteen children enrolled in their children's program, which is a much higher ratio than any mainline Christian church I've been to in a while. Why are they turning to the Unitarians, and not the churches of their parents and grandparents?

My mom and I noted that many churches are now located in "mature" areas, where few if any young people live. Yet instead of facing reality and serving the surrounging population of seniors, they'd rather moan about how the Sunday School is dwindling. Usually this is accompanied by memories of the "glory days" of the late fifties and early sixties, when the building was full to overflowing with kids.

But not only are fewer people regularly attending church as in those days, there simply aren't as many kids! Large families are not the norm anymore. Schools that were full to overflowing when I was a kid have closed their doors. The baby boom generation is not young anymore--we're now approaching senior citizen status. It provides a tremendous opportunity for the church, but not the one the church seems to be looking for.

Allison remarked that "Christianity has a bad name among 20-somethings." This was the statement we unpacked in the car on the long drive home from her grandparent's house.

First off came the expected comment about how what they read in the bible, what they learn in school and in the world, and what they see their elders actually doing are all at odds with one another. My daughter told me that she had learned the lesson that I'd taught--that the bible must be put in the context it was written in order to understand it, and was never meant to be read as literally as some Christians read it, but that most of her age-mates didn't have that advantage. I got a warm fuzzy from that--apparently, things that I've taught my kids actually stuck, because they actually listen to me and respect what I say!

We talked about how a few vocal conservative evangelical Christians are getting all the publicity. The group that wants to burn the Qur'an is getting a lot of press right now. That group contains fifty people, far less than my liberal United Church family. And most of us would disagree-some of us quite strongly-with what this group is doing. But they get the press, and we remain silent. I've heard a lot about the government reaction to this (thankfully, negative), but there seems to be silence on the part of the mainline churches. My mother asked, "Does this mean we have to make more noise?" and my daughter's immediate answer was, "Yes!"

From the environment, to gay rights, to justice for native peoples, to the authority and place of the bible, the majority of the United Church is actually in step with what most 20-somethings believe, but they don't know it because we don't tell them! We need to speak out, often and loud, in order to say, "This is what we believe, and why, and we're proud to be different!"

The second thing she told me is that our worship rituals are incomprehensible to outsiders. We stand up and sit down in random places, sing songs that have theologies that don't relate to real life. God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and always good. Viewed that way, Haitian earthquakes or flooding in Pakistan are incomprehensible. Since the flooding and the earthquakes are real and verifiable, our views of God must be skewed, they reason. Then we recite randome words like zombies--all together, but not really thinking about what we're saying or why. We need to re-think our worship, and if we decide that it's fine the way it is, we need to do a much better job of orienting new folks to the worship service. And like it or lump it, if an "old favourite" doesn't really reflect what we believe, it's time to change the words or stop singing the hymn. "Onward Christian Soldiers" is no longer in our hymn book. The omission caused much controversy, but given the current climate, I'm glad it's not in there anymore. It doesn't reflect who we are or how we want to be in the world.

I got a vision when she was talking about the incomprehensibility of our service of doing an "alien" worship service--one where the "usual" order of service wasn't followed. Sitting in a circle. Asking questions and inviting discussion instead of preaching. Singing popular songs instead of hymns. Talking in text speak, or about video games. Think on this--we want to invite 20-somethings into our midst, yet most of us don't even speak their language, and most sermons aren't addressed to their concerns. How would it feel to most regular church attendees? I've tried "alternative" services before--ones that invited participation, ones where I used Power Point or drama or storytelling. In general, they were well received, but some folks sat in the back, arms crossed, and most folks agreed that they'd only like it "once in a while." The familiar was far more comfortable, even if they got more out of the alternative. But we didn't discuss at all the concept that the familiar to us isn't familiar at all to those outside our "in-group," and constitutes a barrier.

Of course at some point during the service, we ask for money, and don't give any information about what it's for. Something about the "General Fund," whatever that is, and the "Mission and Service Fund," which sounds a bit more promising, but still really general. Think about this--would you rather pay an extra $100 in taxes, or would you rather donate $100 to the building fund of a local hospital? Even though hospitals in Canada are funded with tax and health care premiums, we'd still rather donate directly than pay extra taxes, because we know where our money is going! So why don't we tell people, on a week-by-week basis, where their money goes?

No wonder the ones that come in don't stay! They don't really understand what's going on, and no-one thinks to teach them, or they believe (often rightly) that we only want them to serve us, and not the other way around. Sometimes it seems that the only things we really want are their bodies in the pews, the contents of their wallets in the offering plates, and their kids enrolled in our Sunday Schools. In support of this statement, I read JNAC report from a United Church which will remain nameless, not to protect the guilty, but because it could be the JNAC of a vast majority of the United Churches I know. The report talked about falling attendance, and aging parishioners. It talked about how "alternative" services had been tried, but with no success, but how the congregation was willing to change if it would pull younger people in. That's hopeful, as far as it goes, but then it spent a lot of time on financials, and how it takes x number of younger givers to replace 1 older giver who has died.

The report admitted that they had only talked to members. There was no indication of any contact with the outside world whatsoever--no statement of how the congregation was involved in local mission or outreach. There was no asking, "How can we meet their needs?" Instead, the only question asked was, "How can they meet our needs?"

I've got news for you folks--the world isn't here to meet our needs. We're here to meet the world's needs. And if we want more people to join us, the first thing we have to do is let them know who we are and what we're really here for.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Letter and the Spirit

Scripture Reading: Luke 13: 10-17

Let me get one thing straight before we get started here: The leader of the synagogue was right. Jesus was breaking the law of the Sabbath, and in the synagogue in the presence of the faithful, no less!

I mean, it’s really clear--one of the few laws in human history that was actually written in stone. “Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” Exodus 20, verses 9 and 10. Number four on the top ten laws of all time list. Couldn’t be clearer, really, and here Jesus was, breaking the law, right after teaching about it!

When we read texts like the one from Luke that I just read, all too often we read into it two thousand years of Christian interpretations, not all of them good interpretations. We lose the sense of Jesus as a Jewish teacher teaching to Jews, and see him as a Christian, trying to convert the Jews, or condemn them.
But there were no Christians present that morning. Christianity as a movement was born at Easter, and Easter hadn’t happened yet. There were only Jews and more Jews, and Jesus here was very definitely breaking Jewish law.

Perhaps you’re now thinking, “Maybe this Jewish law was just a little too strict. Maybe it needed breaking.”

The problem with breaking a law is that it can be a slippery slope. When is it okay to speed? Or run a red light? Is it okay at three in the morning, when there are no other cars on the road and no one to see? How about at three in the afternoon, outside a public school? If you leave breaking the law up to people’s discretion, how can you trust that they won’t kill somebody? Instead of posting a speed limit, why not just post a sign that says, “School ahead. Use your discretion!”

Perhaps because what some people consider careful isn’t really careful enough?

It is the same with this law about work on the Sabbath. It’s actually a law that makes very good sense. A Sabbath day is not only a day to connect with God, but a day to recover from the rest of the week, to nurture family and other relationships, a day to meditate and focus on what needs to be done the coming week. It gives even slaves and animals some respite from toil.

As we read through the gospel according to Luke, we get the sense that everywhere Jesus went he was accosted by people wanting to be healed. It was non-stop. And this Sabbath morning, the synagogue seemed to be full of more people wanting to be healed. Jesus needed a day off.

And more than that, as the teacher that day, he was providing an example for every person present.

Preachers know about this. No matter whether the minister wants it or not, no matter even if the congregation realizes it or not, the minister is looked upon as someone who should be providing an example worth following. And most of us do our very best to be a good example.

And here Jesus was, breaking the law!

Of course the leader of the synagogue is going to take action and condemn him! Otherwise, the members of the congregation might go home thinking it’s okay to work on the Sabbath, and pretty soon, the synagogue will be empty because everyone is working. And there will be greater incidences of burn out. And families will fall apart because the parents won’t have time to nurture their relationships with their children and with one another. And people won’t have time to volunteer any more because they’re working.

And none of this is conjecture, either. It has happened, it is happening, because many people refuse to take a day off to commune with themselves, with God, and with each other.

That’s what the synagogue leader was worried about when he was condemning Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, and it’s hardly fair to label him as a villain just because he was upset about Jesus breaking the law.

Let’s fast forward two thousand or so. To last week, to be exact. Last week, a boat called the MV Sun Sea was escorted into port in Vancouver. On board were 492 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, and even before the refugees set foot on land the fur started flying.

Canada has an embassy in Sri Lanka, and Tamils in Sri Lanka can and do apply for immigrant or refugee status from their home country. There’s a process, and a line-up that can take years, and these 492 people decided to skip the line-up, get on a boat, and hope that somebody somewhere would take them in. They tried Malaysia and Australia before making the long voyage north to Vancouver.

They were well stocked, and the ship was fitted out, if not in a comfortable fashion, at least in a livable one. Women and children had separate quarters, sleeping and eating areas were separate, there was adequate food on board, and adequate sanitation. Only one person died on the voyage, and it appears that none of the refugees had TB or any other of the communicable diseases that are notorious for arriving on such ships.

This was a well-planned and financed escape, not a spur-of-the moment voyage into the unknown.

The fear is that the voyage was financed by the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group outlawed as a terrorist faction by both the Sri Lankan and Canadian governments. There is fear that even if the refugees aren’t Tamil Tigers, they’ll be forced to pay money to the Tigers in order to ensure the safety of their families in Canada and Sri Lanka. There is fear that these refugees are just the start of a mass exodus and that soon we’ll be over-run by boats from Sri Lanka. Indeed we know there are more boats following. One has already landed.

The refugees jumped the queue, and took matters into their own hands instead of following procedures that are in place to get them here. They also pose a risk to our society that some say is unacceptable.

But today, as two thousand years ago, there’s another side to the story. The law is not the be all and end all that it seems to be, and sometimes risk is necessary in order to ensure justice.

Because our laws today have as their basis the same underlying principle as the Ten Commandments. A few weeks ago, we heard the tale of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law?” Jesus says.

“You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”

That isn’t a Christian interpretation of the law, by the way. It’s a paraphrase of some verses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

Love is the basis of the law--love for God, self, and neighbour.

And what Jesus was showing and telling the congregation that Sabbath was that NO ONE lives strictly in obedience to the letter of the law. We all understand that not only is it impossible to do so, but that if we do so in the face of the distress of our neighbours, friends and families, we are keeping the letter of the law, but violating its spirit. If your donkey is thirsty, you give him a drink, Sabbath or no Sabbath, because it’s the right thing to do.

Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. It’s true, she probably could have waited another day or two, except that then she’d have to stand in line with the rest of the crowd. Being crippled, she’d probably be pushed out of the way. Maybe the disciples would have overlooked her. It’s possible she might have died waiting.

Or maybe Jesus looked at her and thought, “You’ve waited long enough and suffered enough, lady. I’m going to help you right here and now.”

And wasn’t the Sabbath a great day to set her free? Won’t she keep the Sabbath much more closely now, knowing that it’s the day that she was set free!

Jesus understood that the spirit of the law was the whole reason for the law in the first place, and that if you keep to the letter of the law but destroy the spirit, then the law is worse than useless.

And so I return to our Tamil refugees.

I admit right here and now that I have a somewhat personal stake in this. With the permission of a friend of mine, I’m going to tell you a little bit more about why we should treat those refugees with compassion and respect, and allow them to stay in Canada.

I met Darzian on an internet message board for writers that I’ve frequented for many years now. Two years ago, he posted about what life was like for him as a Tamil in Sri Lanka. Like all citizens of our modern world, he had to carry ID. Unlike Canadian ID, though, Darzian’s ID didn’t say he was Sri Lankan. It said he was Tamil.

This automatically gave the police the right to stop and question him, and detain him at whim. If detained, he could have been tortured, or held without trial or bail. Darzian wrote that typical questioning might include where you live (with further questioning if you live in the “wrong” place), where you’re going and why you’re going there, what your occupation or work is…

Can you imagine our police having such power over a segment of our population?

This is part of an “emergency rule” that has been going on for years. The government tells its critics that they only want to weed out the terrorists. To do so, they also put a larger percentage of the Tamil population in internment camps, which they say they will disband as soon as they’ve determined whether or not the residents are members of the Tamil Tigers. The camps are still in place, years after they were set up.

I’m wondering about this time if anyone here is getting a sense of déjà vu? Perhaps those of you who are old enough to remember, or who have studied history, might be hearkening back to the Second World War.

And maybe you’re thinking, “Is it really THAT bad?”

In May 2009 the Sri Lankan government launched an offensive against the Tigers, and tens of thousands of innocent Tamils were slaughtered because the Tigers were using them as human shields. Neither the Tigers nor the government seemed to care that innocent people were being slaughtered.

Yes, it is that bad.

And the situation that the refugees will return to if deported to Sri Lanka is sufficiently severe enough that we need to look beyond the letter of the law to the spirit.

Darzian writes, “I hope that these individuals are not sent back because they will have no life if they are. They will be detained at the Sri Lankan airport and then tortured in jails. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that any Tamils deported from the boat will not see the light of day again.”

I might be inclined to thing that he’s over reacting, except that both our government and the United Nations have cited the Sri Lankan government for human rights abuses, and everything he says has been substantiated as far as is possible by accredited international observers. Maybe we just ought to take the time to listen to and believe my friend.

It is not the spirit or the letter of our law that we EVER deport people, even people who have been convicted of murder, back to a place where they face almost certain torture or death. And these people have not been convicted of any crime--in fact, even those calling for their deportation admit that the majority are almost certainly real refugees and not terrorists.

Just as the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years jumped the line and was healed on the Sabbath, these refugees today are asking to be let in now, instead of being processed in order.

And Jesus answered that perhaps she had a right to do so, because she‘d waited so long. Our refugees have dealt with the same sort of problems.

Darzian’s father came to Canada four years before he and his mother and sister did. He came first, as the men on the MV Sun Sea did, to get established--to find a job and a place where the family could all live together. Then the remaining family members applied to come to Canada, sponsored by Darzian’s father. It took 1 ½ years. Given the situation in Sri Lanka, that would have been 1 ½ years of constant danger. Eventually, Darzian had to get out--being male, he was possibly subjected to greater scrutiny by the authorities. In addition, he was ready to go to university, and that’s something he couldn’t do in Sri Lanka. He obtained a student visa for Malaysia, and spent one semester there.

One Friday about a year ago, Darzian’s mother got a call telling her to present her passport, her daughter’s passport, and her son’s passport at the embassy on Monday morning. Missing that deadline would have meant months more of waiting, and Darzian was in the middle of nowhere in Malaysia.

They did it. Darzian wrapped up his life in Malaysia in less than a day, and on that Monday morning they were at the embassy with their passports.

That wasn’t quite the end of the harassment, though. Even at the airport, with passports and visas in order, they were detained and questioned.

It took over 1 ½ years even though they had a family member in Canada with a job and a home who would take responsibility for them. Imagine how long it would take, how many hurdles would have to be jumped, if he hadn’t had a father already here. The refugees on that boat are desperate. They don’t want anything particularly special--they only want the chances that we’ve been given by virtue of our residence in Canada.

The ability to leave home and walk down the sidewalk without fear of being arrested for no reason. The chance to travel on public transit without fear of the vehicle exploding. (These are Darzian’s own reflections, not mine.)

In Darzian’s case, the freedom to pursue higher education, with the goal of becoming a doctor.

I invited Darzian and his family to join us here this morning, but he wrote back that he and his family were going to be enjoying another freedom many of us take for granted.

He and his family, far from being a drain on the welfare system that some critics believe refugees to be, have worked hard, and they bought a house. In Toronto. This weekend is their moving day.

When someone jumps out of line, as the crippled woman and the refugees did, our first reaction is to behave exactly as the leader of the synagogue did. “Get back in line! Obey the law!”

But if we enforce the laws without thinking about the reasons behind them, we run the risk of destroying the very things the laws were meant to protect--peace, freedom, and sanctity of person. We run the risk of condemning others to being less than God has called them to be, simply because we are afraid.

And we become, like the leader of the synagogue, a hypocrite who would condemn others for breaking a law that he himself did not keep.

For there is not a person here this morning in this sanctuary who cannot trace their presence on this continent to immigrants or refugees. Even the ancestors of the Native Canadians migrated here thousands of years ago. Human beings are not native to North America.

Each and every migrant came in search of the same thing that the refugees on board the MV Sun Sea are seeking--prosperity for themselves and their children, and freedom from oppression. We are not different from the people who came on that boat. We’ve just been here longer. It would be hypocritical of us to suggest that the Tamils go back to their own country.

An automatic appeal to the rules won’t work in this case, or in other cases where people are so desperate as to risk their lives and take a long, uncertain sea voyage rather than stay in their countries of origin. We need to look at each person as an individual in need, just as Jesus did with the crippled woman, and treat them according to that need, and not our convenience.

And we need to view the boatloads of people arriving on our shores as a wake-up call. If we have peace and freedom and prosperity here in Canada, but do nothing to aid poorer and less fortunate countries in their search for the same things, then the boats will keep coming. We can’t stop the boats by treating the migrants on the MV Sun Sea harshly or by turning them away, any more than Jesus could have stopped the line ups of desperate people needing to be healed by ignoring the crippled woman.

We can only stop the boats by making the voyage unnecessary.


Preached at Trinity United Church, Guelph, Ontario on August 22, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Being Cheerful

I went to the grocery store today to get a few things, and found what I wanted without much trouble, including a bag of apples that was reduced in price.

I chose a regular check-out with an honest-to-goodness-real-living-and-breathing cashier instead of the self check-out, because that reduced bag of apples would have meant that I'd have had to call for a cashier anyhow. And the real cashier had a grocery bagger.

So I got into line, and the cashier rung up the person ahead of me, and the bagger bagged her goods, and I got to the front of the line with my groceries, and...

The phone rang. And the cashier talked for two or three minutes with the person on the other end. And the bagger ran off to help another customer. And I was left standing, unable to do anything at all, while the cashier talked to whoever was on the other end of the phone.

Most of us, in that position, would be a tad impatient. Our self-talk would go something like, "Why did they put this lady on cash, if they're only going to take up her time talking to her on the phone." (Actual transcriptions from my thoughts, really. It was apparent she was talking to another employee about how to do something.) Or, "Where did that bagger go? How's he going to help me if he's off helping someone else?" (Another actual transcription...) Or, "Why did I choose this line-up? I always make the wrong decision when it comes to choosing line-ups!" (Yet again...)

And then I overheard another employee wish my bagger (who had returned)a happy birthday, and he cheerfully responded that he'd had his birthday off last year, and didn't need it off again. And the cashier got off the phone and apologized saying that there had been a problem with her log-in number. And I realized that I had a choice.

I could say, "Poor me! They wasted my time with their trivial matters!" and be grumpy.

Or I could choose to be cheerful, and let it slide. I chose the latter.

When the bagger had difficulty getting my groceries into the bag, it became apparent to me that while eternally cheerful, he clearly had a disability. I helped him bag, and showed him how he might manage to fit all of the heavy stuff into a bag like mine without crushing the light stuff.

And my groceries bagged, I wished him a cheerful happy birthday, and moved on. As I was leaving, an announcement came on the PA system wishing this particular employee a happy birthday. He'd gone ahead of me, because he was taking his break, and he turned around and looked right at me with a big smile on his face, and raised his hands in the air. I smiled and cheered back.

My cheerfulness made his day, I'm sure. But more importantly, it made mine.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Another Look At Miracles

Scriptures: Exodus 3 & 4, Luke 5:1-11

I am the child of a scientific culture in the modern era.

When I was very young, I watched on television as a human being walked on the moon. The moon is not made of green cheese.

When I went to see the doctor, the doctor poked needles in me, vaccinating me against viruses that caused disease. Illnesses were the result of infection, or of our own body cells going haywire. Illness and disease are not caused by evil spirits, or witches’ spells, or the wrath of God.

I am the child of a scientific culture in a modern era, and despite the fact that I have read many, many fantasy novels, I do not believe in magic. In the words of Mr. Dursley, a character in the Harry Potter novels, “There is no such thing as magic!”

I am also a Christian, raised as a member of the Untied Church of Canada, by parents who have attended church their whole lives. I received a bible for Christmas when I was seven years old. I still have that bible. I still read it.

And in it, I read stories of miracles that many have interpreted in ways that to me speak of magic. “Put your nets down in deep water,” Jesus says. “But we’ve fished all night and found nothing!” Simon replies. But they do as Jesus says, and of course the fish are there--so many that they almost sink the boats!

Water into wine, loaves and fishes, blind men seeing and lame men walking, snakes and rivers of blood and who knows what else--the bible is full of stories of things that look like magic, and the scientific child in me finds it hard to believe.

So the scientists in our world, who want to believe as much as anybody else, go searching for the causes behind the so-called miracles in the bible. The “blood” in the water may have been iron deposits. One only needs to look at the scum I clear out of my tub on a regular basis to realize that’s not so far-fetched. The fish were always there--maybe Simon and friends just hadn’t put their nets in the right spot. Or maybe they swam up when Jesus was talking. The lame person might have had the capability to walk all the time, but not the courage. The blind person? Scientists have discovered a type of blindness that’s caused not by any defect in the eyes, but by a person’s mind--they believe they can’t see, and so they can’t!

And so we demystify the miracles, and Jesus becomes at once more believable, and less like God. Our scientific minds are satisfied, but spiritually, we’re left empty. The miracles aren’t miracles after all.

It was on a Sunday not too long ago, as our minister was reading the story from Luke that I just read to you, that I realized where the true miracles were in these stories, and was able to see more clearly how God has acted in them and throughout history.

Has anyone here tried to change something in their lives? Perhaps you’ve tried to give up smoking, or drinking, or eating food that’s bad for you. Perhaps you wanted to become a nicer person, and speak more kindly and gently to others.

If you’re anything like me and the other human beings I know, you’ve fallen down quite a few times. Relapsed. Sworn at someone when they cut you off on the freeway. Took that one drink at a party because everyone else was doing it. Ate at McDonald’s because you were in a hurry, and nothing else was around. You fell down.

And maybe, if you’re like me, there were times when you were about to give up. “It’s too hard!” we say. “I can’t do it alone!” And someone comes along, and encourages you with a kind word, or maybe even a harsh one. Someone cooks you dinner, or takes the drink away and gives you a soda, or sits with you while your friends go out for a smoke, and a miracle happens. You have the courage to continue your struggle. That person, sent by God, has inspired you to do what you have to do to make yourself a better person.

And that Sunday morning in church, I realized that the miracle in this story had nothing to do with the fish. The fishermen had given up, and Jesus encouraged them to cast out their nets one more time.

Such a simple thing. The fish were there, but the fishermen wouldn’t have caught them without that encouragement.

And Moses. Excuses by the dozen, that guy.

I can’t do it!

Do it!

I can’t!

You will!

Oh, all right God! You’re more stubborn than I am. I’ll do it, but you’ll see! It won’t turn out right!

And a miracle happens--inspired and upheld by God, it does turn out right. The slaves escape, the blind see, the lame walk, the fishermen catch fish, and everyone has enough to eat.

I find that view of miracles infinitely more inspiring than any belief in magic. Because I know that magic isn’t real, and closing your eyes and chanting spells won’t solve any of the world’s problems. But if you believe in miracles, if you RELY on them and on God, miracles will happen.

I have many friends I’ve met on the internet and nowhere else. I have a friend named Pam, who at the age of 22, was in a motorcycle accident, and lost her right leg. From then until just recently, she’s been in a wheelchair. At the end of this March, she walked. Since October, she’s been posting on a message board about the new computer-assisted knee she was going to get for an artificial leg. The knee uses the computer to compensate for changes in elevation automatically--one of the things our brain does without us even knowing that keeps us (usually) from falling over. But with no flesh leg, no nerve pathways between the brain and the foot, an artificial leg can’t do that. Pam’s new computer assisted knee can do that.

It’s science, not magic. It’s also a miracle--a miracle that Pam believed it could happen and maintained her optimism through good times and bad. A miracle that when the technician who was handling her case suddenly quit, an new guy came took the case who was even better than the first guy. A miracle that scientists have persevered and discovered enough about the mind and how it works, and computers and how they work, that they could put this together to help my friend Pam.

Miracles like that occur every day, in every nation. To watch men walk on the moon, or to watch the Berlin Wall finally come down, or to hear about the end of Apartheid in South Africa--these were all miracles that occurred in my lifetime.

To watch the miracle of a healthy baby being born, when the mother has all sorts of health problems, to have a child with a disability make a huge leap in development, or even just to watch the ordinary unfolding of human life--these are all miracles.

All too often, we pray for magic. We want our debts to magically disappear, our health to magically be restored, our grandchildren to magically be better behaved and more attentive to us.

Let’s pray instead for miracles. To be inspired by the living God to work towards health and wealth and happiness for ourselves and others. To find joy in our lives everyday, no matter how bad the circumstances. To bring joy to others everyday, no matter how ill and grumpy we may be.

There is no such thing as magic. But there are such things as miracles. Let us go out and receive miracles, do miracles, be miracles. In the name of the miracle who was the Christ. Amen.

Preached at various retirement homes, July 2010

Edited to add: This is what I'm talking about when I talk about miracles. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/dean_kamen_previews_a_new_prosthetic_arm.html