ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 10, 2016
Isaiah 55: 6 – 11; Luke 10: 38 – 42
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
A couple weeks ago I was in my office when I heard the uproar of excited voices. I checked the time. It was 3:30 p.m. I smiled as I realized it was the sound of school letting out for the summer. Summer break is one of the best times in a child’s life. Taking a break is something that is encouraged in our culture. We have vacations and stay-cations that give us a pause from the routines of work and life. We have coffee breaks, lunch breaks and, for some, cigarette breaks. Great breaks may include an afternoon at the spa or on a golf course. Chocolate bars promise us the joy of a break. And when someone irritates us, we say, “Give me a break”.
Back in June I put out a box and invited you to submit questions for sermons. You could ask about a particular practice of the Church, or about a tenet of our faith or you could ask for clarification about a particular scripture. One of those questions was, “What does the word ‘Selah’ mean when it is used in the Psalms?” The short answer is: no one is 100% sure of what it means, which made me feel better. It’s a word used in many Psalms and in the book of Habakkuk. By the way it’s used most scholars agree it signals a break of some sort, either a silent pause or because we know that many Psalms were sung, it may indicate a musical interlude. But this is a word that holds more significance than “take a break” or “deep breath now” or “the drum solo goes here”. It’s not simply a break to refresh or entertain. Since the Psalms were used in worship, it’s a break in the lyrics so the congregation can take a moment to digest, absorb and reflect on what has just been said. It’s a moment of contemplative prayer in the middle of the hymn, which is also a form of prayer.
That may seem strange if we think of prayer as a time when we talk and God listens or a time when we bring to God the needs of ourselves and others so God can fix them. One form of prayer is conversation with God and in good conversation every party takes turns speaking and listening. During conversation we consider what the other person is saying and we respond thoughtfully. In prayer there are times when we need to pour out our souls to God, but it’s also wise to listen because God’s “thoughts are not [our] thoughts, neither are [our] ways [God’s] ways” (Isaiah 55: 8). When we read the Psalms we notice that at some points the Psalm writer (or Psalmist) is speaking and at other times, God is speaking. The Psalms have remained a part of worship for 3000 years because they invite us to join in these thoughts and prayers. The writer’s words and feelings become ours. The little word Selah provides us with an opportunity to listen, to consider the presence of God in our own experiences and to examine our hearts and minds.
More than a prayer in the middle of a Psalm, Selah is a spiritual practice. Throughout scripture we find people who paused to be with God, listen to God’s will and contemplate God’s love. Moses went up Mt. Sinai where he encountered God in the burning bush. Elijah sat on a mountain side. David prayed. Peter withdrew to a rooftop. Jesus’ mother Mary was continually “pondering” the unfolding of Jesus’ life. Jesus himself was constantly “going apart to pray”; we’re given the details of his Selah in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke recorded a well-known story of someone pausing to be with God. Jesus attended a dinner party in the home of Martha. Martha was running around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to make dinner for her guests while her useless sister Mary inappropriately joined the men in the living room and was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching and exploring her soul. Martha got overwhelmed with her tasks and fed up with Mary’s new age hippie act and insisted that Jesus put an end to it by telling Mary to get off the floor, set the table and make some hummus. Jesus sympathized with Martha’s stress level but made her own it, “Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things” (Luke 10: 41). Rather than supporting Martha’s over-functioning and her pity party, Jesus affirmed Mary, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (vs. 42). We aren’t told how Martha reacted but we can imagine Jesus’ words felt to her like a slap in the face. If Martha did what Mary was doing it wouldn’t be much of a dinner party and Jesus would go home hungry.
Most people relate to Martha. We’re do-ers. We identify ourselves by what we do. We value being productive. We like to contribute to the well-being of others or help “the cause”. We express our love through what we do. We also live very busy lives. There is always something to do. One more place to go. One more responsibility. One more deadline. One more person relying on us. Life is fast-paced and full. We imagine it’ll slow down when the kids are gone or we retire. It doesn’t. As do-ers there’s always something more to do. Getting older doesn’t slow us down – we’re still doing for family, church, the community and friends. Even illness doesn’t slow the pace – then we’re busy going to appointments at the busy offices of busy doctors. And when our energy lags, Netflix will always provide us with something to do. Indeed we’re “careful and troubled about many things.” It’s hard to find time to “choose the better part”. When we do, our times with God often become one more task on our to-do list – a task that seems irrelevant in light of everything else we must accomplish. The practice of Selah begins when we shift our thinking so prayer is not a task to be done but an experience to be lived, and Jesus is not a tool to be used but a Love to be enjoyed. Being with God is its own motive – it takes us away from “many things” so we may be blessed with the one thing we really need.
Not many are inclined to live in a convent, monastery or desert to sit at Jesus’ feet 24/7. But all of us can practice Selah. We can find times, places and ways to pause and listen to God. At any time in the day we can savour a few moments to reflect on what Holy Spirit is saying to us. We can even build into the structure of our busy days moments, not “to do” but to be in the presence of God. We make Selah a part of our spiritual observance whenever we begin or end our day with a devotional time of scripture reading and prayer. We’re also free to set aside other moments of our day to read, reflect and pray or to simply be with God. Having specific times marked out can help us to do that, which is the reason Nuns observe the Divine Office, praying and singing at particular intervals each day. Sometimes it helps to have a particular place where we go to do that, a particular way to sit or stand, or a set pattern of reading. Fasting is also a form of Selah. We pause from eating for a meal or a day. As we do, our act of discipline and hunger draw us back to God, helping us to remember our many blessings. Repentance is another a form of Selah. Through Isaiah we are called to “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord” (Isaiah 55: 6 & 7). Looking at our wicked ways and our unrighteous thoughts is not enjoyable. We don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people. Perhaps we live such busy lives to avoid looking at our own souls or to prove to ourselves that we’re good people or to avoid feeling shame. Repentance usually grows out of a time of honest reflection. While repentance isn’t a pleasant break, it is “the break that refreshes”. Isaiah assured us that when we return to God, he will “have mercy on [us]… he will abundantly pardon.” (vs. 7) We practice Selah whenever we do the things that help us to step aside, out of the flow of activity that makes us human-doings and reconnect with ourselves as human beings. God knows how important that is for us. When we look at the 10 Commandments we notice the first 3 are about our relationship with God – we’re to have no other gods; we’re not to create or worship idols; we’re not use God’s name in a dis-honouring way. The fourth commandment is Selah: we are to remember the 7th day and set it apart for God. The Sabbath is often thought of in a legalistic way – one is to refrain from working on the Sabbath. I once worked with a gentile girl who rented a basement apartment from a devout Jewish couple. Because they wanted to avoid working on the Sabbath, they’d ask Beth to come upstairs so she could turn up the heat, turn on the microwave or walk the dog so they could have their needs met without working. The Sabbath is more than an extended coffee break; it’s a form of Selah. For the Jewish people the Sabbath begins on Friday after sunset as they pause to remember God’s gift of deliverance to their ancestors with a family ritual and meal. They wake in the morning reminded life is a good gift from God not something they create through their own labour. The rest of Saturday is spent reflecting on God’s blessings, praying and celebrating life. As Christians we celebrate on the first day of the week – Sunday, because it’s the day Jesus resurrected which is God’s greatest act of deliverance for humanity. Sunday is our day of Selah. Beginning with worship we recall, relive and reflect on God’s grace to us. After each sermon we pause for a reflective prayer – a Selah. And our whole day can be Selah as we choose activities and places that help us to consciously live in the presence of God.
To help us discover the activities and places that are particular to us, St. Ignatius of Loyola suggested we end our days with an “Examen of Consciousness”: we examine our day to become conscious of where, when and why we felt close to God and of where, when and why we felt removed from God. In his thinking the sign of being close to God was a deep inner peace (consolation), while the sign of being distant from God was a discordant, unsettled spirit (desolation). In popular language we “sense a disturbance in the force”. Journalling these moment each day we eventually will notice patterns. We can then deliberately seek out the places, times and experiences that bring us close to God. These are the things that open a window of Selah for you. For me, one of those times is when I go kayaking early in the morning when the day is new, the lake is still, and there is only myself and Jesus. Is there a time, place or activity that is Selah for you? If you like, please share that with those at your table – you may make a suggestion that becomes part of someone else’s practice.
For our reflective prayer today I thought it would be fitting to end with reading Psalm 46 which has 3 Selah. I’d ask you to listen and Joan will play a musical interlude for you to pause and reflect on what you’ve heard.