Finding the Spirit in Our Spiritual Practices

X LABYRINTH ANCIENT SPIRITUAL PRACTICE 2X FOCUSED WALKINGX NATIONAL CHILD WOUNDED WARRIORSX OTHER LABYRINTHS IN HUNTSVILLEX A JOINT NOT FOR PROFITX AN ODD PROPOSALX A PATH FOR HEALINGX NEW TESTAMENT ON SALE TABLEX OUR JOB IS TO BRING PEOPLE TO CHRISTX LISTEN AND MINISTER TO THEIR PAINX FINDING COMMON GROUNDX HOLY SPIRT IS CALLING USSLIDE 1: WELCOME
The Sparx Brothers are back. Our 2009 Vacation Bible School mascots are back to help promote a joint Labyrinth Project between St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the United Church of Huntsville.
SLIDE 2: REMEMBER CAMP EDGE
Remember how much fun we had a Camp Edge. When two churches as cool as St. Stephen’s and United Church get together great things can happen!
SLIDE 3: HOW MUCH FUN WE HAD
When we shared Vacation Bible School with St. Stephens we had a lot of fun. The Sparx Brothers helped us to cooperate to have a water slide, crafts, and learn about Jesus.
SLIDE 4: WE WANT TO DO A LABYRINTH WITH ST. STEPHENS
Now the Sparx Brothers want to help St. Stephens and United Church to get together to build a labyrinth for healing. The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual practice that helps people to focus and pray while they walk. As we walk toward the middle we find ourselves.
SLIDE 5: WE CAN DO IT TOGETHER
The Sparks brothers are named Stephen and United, and when Stephen and United get together miracles can begin to happen!
SLIDE 7: HOLY SPIRIT SHOWED UP ON PENTECOST
Why did the Holy Spirit choose the day of Pentecost to show up? Pentecost was one of the great “festivals” when the people of Israel were supposed to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the great Temple. This was the first of those festivals after Passover, when Jesus had been crucified. Many followers of Jesus from Galilee and rural Judea would have gathered in Jerusalem as well as pilgrims from all over the Diaspora. Note in verses 9-11 the number of different places that were mentioned. At this point in the First Century Jews were already living from Spain to Babylon and beyond. As a matter of fact, the Jewish scholarship in Babylon, part of the Persian Empire was considered to be superior to anything going on in Jerusalem or the Roman Empire. Jews were perhaps the largest most influential minority within both the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. Pentecost was the first opportunity after the Resurrection to have a large crowd in Jerusalem. Timing was important to the Holy Spirit.
SLIDE 8: FEAST OF FIRST FRUITS
Pentecost was a harvest festival of first fruits and in Judaism it had become associated with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai that was remembered as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. According to Talmudic tradition, God not only gave the tablets of the Ten Commandments to Moses, but on the appointed day of Pentecost God spoke to all the people from the Mountain giving the whole law. That is the justification for all of the laws of Deuteronomy, Numbers and Leviticus, as well as the “oral law” (that is the interpretation of the statues in scripture) that was supposedly orally hand down by the Rabbis. In Talmudic tradition Rabbis would say, “I heard from Rabbi so and so, who heard it from Rabbi whosey, who heard it from Rabbi Ben David, who heard it from Moses that . . .” So Pentecost was associated with the Jewish notion of the Holy Spirit.
SLIDE 9: SPIRITUAL PRACTICE – FASTING AND PRAYING ALL NIGHT
Another reason the Holy Spirit might have chosen Pentecost was that the spiritual practice of Pentecost included staying up all night fasting and praying. Fasting for twenty-four hours plus sleep deprivation and prayer can trigger interesting spiritual experiences. Again timing was important for the Holy Spirit. About 9 a.m. with the rush of a great wind, the followers of Jesus gathered in the Upper Room were caught in an ecstatic religious experience. They were changed forever, and the church was born.
SLIDE 10: SPIRITUAL PRACTICES CHANGE OUR BRAINS
What I want to focus upon this morning is how spiritual practices can change our brains and change our lives. The Monday Bible Study began this week discussing the provocative book How God Changes Your Brain. The authors present solid evidence that spiritual practices work to rewire our brains. What I find most compelling for an aging congregation is the experiment that showed that a simple 12 minute a day meditation incorporating sound, movement and breathing improved cognition and memory after only eight weeks of practice. Improved cognition and memory are practical results, and as your pastor I want to encourage all of us to read the book and consider adopting spiritual practices that can improve our health and the functioning of our brains.
SLIDE 11: LABYRINTH – ANCIENT SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
This morning I also want to lift up a project in the making that promises to be an important spiritual practice. Back in September the Rev. Susan Sloan the Rector at St. Stephens Episcopal Church next door approached me with the idea of our two churches working together to build a shared labyrinth. The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual practice that combines meditation and full body movement that dates back over four-thousand years.
SLIDE 12: FOCUSED WALKING
Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School’s Mind/Body Medical Institute has found that focused walking has significant long-term health benefits, including lower blood pressure and breathing rates, reduced incidents of chronic pain, reduction of insomnia, improved fertility, and many other benefits. Regular meditative practice leads to greater powers of concentration and a sense of control and efficiency in one’s life.
SLIDE 13: NATIONAL CHILD ADVOCACY CENTER – AND WOUNDED WARRIORS
The National Child Advocacy Center here in Huntsville has found walking the labyrinth to be a healing exercise for victims of sexual abuse, and the U.S. Army is exploring the use of labyrinths in the treatment of “wounded warriors.”
SLIDE 14: OTHER LABYRINTHS IN HUNTSVILLE
There are other labyrinths in Huntsville, but Susan Sloan’s vision is to establish a labyrinth that is highly visible, like here on Whitesburg Drive, and is also handicapped accessible. None of the other labyrinths in Huntsville can be used by persons with walkers or wheel chairs, or balance issues. A United Church/St. Stephen’s Labyrinth would be a spiritual gift we could offer to our two congregations and to our community at large. Because the labyrinth is so ancient it is not associated with any one faith tradition, and so it is a spiritual practice accessible anyone and everyone even the unchurched — what a gift!
SLIDE 15: A JOINT NOT-FOR-PROFIT
Your Diaconate considered the labyrinth idea in October and reported to the Church Council. Representatives from United Church were appointed to meet with representatives from St. Stephens. Matt Youngkin, Judy Cameron, Greg Kamback and Barry Abston are currently serving from United Church. That joint Labyrinth Team has come to a point where we need the Church Council and Congregation of United Church to give permission to form with St. Stephens a joint not-for profit 501C3 Corporation in order to approach foundations for grants to help cover the costs of constructing a labyrinth. By the way St. Stephens recently received some memorial funds for a labyrinth. The permission needed is not for any particular plan yet, we need the go ahead to form the joint not-for-profit. If our Church Council approves this idea, we will be calling a congregational meeting.
Before I go any further, I think Matt Youngkin, the Chairman of our Property Board and a member of the Labyrinth Team from United Church has an important perspective to bring to this presentation.
SLIDE 16: AN ODD PROPOSAL
Toward the end of last year, an odd proposal came to the Church Council. St Stephen’s, our neighbor to the south, wanted to go in with us on a labyrinth. They are land locked, so most of the structure would be on our property. I, myself, was very skeptical. A committee was being formed to investigate this with St Stephen’s. I wanted to be on it, because I wanted to make sure that church resources were not wasted. We had just had a lengthy renovation campaign that had not raised enough money to fix everything we needed on this church, why should we waste time or money on a labyrinth. During the following months I went from being a naysayer to a supporter of the labyrinth. You look at the team (a Rector, A Pastor, An Architect, A Lawyer, A Grant Writer, A Labyrinth Expert) WOW. We have the team to do this.
SLIDE 17: A PATH FOR HEALING – VISIBLE ADVERTISEMENT
We hammered out a mission statement for building and maintaining a path for healing…but what I saw was much more. You see, I am Selfish. I see what this could bring to the church — visible advertisement, a chance for our church to recruit new members. I gave an impassioned speech at our last meeting. While I wanted this to be a path for healing, I saw the primary purpose for this project as trying to bring people to our church. I pointed out that most of mainline Christian denominations were in decline. I am bothered that other than a few of our original members, that no one within a mile of this church or travelling Whitesburg drive daily knows what we are or what we are about. When I was growing up, within a mile of this church we had the Neuschaffers, Rices, Babunovics, Greens, and Heamans — ALL CORE members, Core Families. Now those families have grown up. The children moved away or married and moved on — a natural progression. But what other families have we found? We are down to a one room school house in Sunday school. Bob liked my speech. He asked me to write it up and give it to him to present today. But something still bothered me. I knew I was missing something.
SLIDE 18: A NEW TESTAMENT WAS LEFT SITTING ON THE SALE TABLE – AND I SHOULD HAVE BEEN GIVING THEM AWAY
Then I got busy with the logistics of the church Yard Sale. — a successful one. We made over 2000 dollars. During take down, as we boxed things up for Breaking Free Mission, something caught my eye. A New Testament Bible was sitting on one of our sale tables. Something didn’t seem right. That image, plagued my thoughts for hours after the Yard Sale. That combined with my allergies, kept me awake most of the night leading into Mother’s Day. On Mother’s day morning, an hour before I stood in the pulpit and thanked the participants for a successful Yard Sale…do you know what I was doing? I was having a Tim Tebow moment. I realized I had had the big game, and had come up short. I missed the goal. I had missed the point. I had public in our church. Within these walls, and I tried to sell them a bible. I had an opportunity to follow the great commission, and I, Well I Did Nothing! I should not have been selling bibles. I should have been giving them away.
SLIDE 19: OUR JOB TO BRING PEOPLE TO CHRIST
You see, as property chair, I have been more concerned about “doing my job” and maintaining the property, meeting yearly goals, that I had missed my reason for coming to church — missed the mandate that I have been given as a Christian. The early church was not concerned about property (and our early venture in the armory and motel was no different). We were concerned about spreading the word of God. As property chair, I’d fallen lax. We have a committee or board for everything. WE even have a discipleship board — really, a board for discipleship? Do I need to give an “I am Spartacus” speech here? Zig has told me a thousand times. It’s our job to bring them in, It’s y’alls job to keep them. I disagree. It is our job, our mandate, to bring those hungry for the word to Christ. I believe if we do that the people will come. We can orient them and mentor them. But our job as Christians is not to orient new members. Our job is not within the comfort of these beautiful walls. Our job is in the community ministering and bringing people to Christ. I want to judge the success of the next Yard Sale by how many bibles I give away not dollars I take in.
SLIDE 20: LISTEN AND MINISTER TO THEIR PAIN
I have grown comfortable in these walls with all of you my Brothers and Sisters — too comfortable. I pray for you at prayer time, eat comfort food with you…and tell you I’ll see you next Sunday. We need this labyrinth project. We are looking for some common ground (literally) with St Stephens. Sure, we have done Foodline, Meals on wheels, and a pastor’s exchange with Phillips CME. We have shown that we can work with other Christians, if the timeframe or circumstances are limited. But this is greater. This is an opportunity for our two churches to work the great commission together — a chance to lure the unchurched to our doorstep, to a level playing field. Where they can see us and know that we don’t have 3 heads or handle snakes, where they can tell us about the pain of their daily lives, and we can listen, and if given the opportunity share our faith.
SLIDE 21: FINDING COMMON GROUND
We need this labyrinth, to lure the unchurched to us, and to lure us away from the comfort of these beautiful walls. The motto of the UCC is: “That They Shall All Be One.” Our church forefathers did something wonderful – different denominations finding common ground. We need to know that as Christians we have more in common, that the great commission is more important than denominational and ritualistic differences. We have an opportunity to do this with our Christian Brothers and Sisters from St Stephens.
SLIDE 22: THE HOLY SPIRIT IS CALLING US
The Holy Spirit is indeed moving through this labyrinth project, enticing us, prodding us, pushing us to reach beyond the walls of the Church in order to listen to unchurched people and minister to their pain. Listen to Matt, and hear the Holy Spirit calling us to the great Commission to share Christ with others.

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