Saturday, June 2, 2018

Will You Be My Neighbor?

What does it mean to be a neighbor to someone else?  Does it simply mean to live next door to them?  Or across the street?  Or down the block? 

My wife and I recently moved to a new city.  We bought a nice home in a nice quiet neighborhood.  We are on a corner and we have a neighbor directly across the street from us on one side and a neighbor directly across the street from us on the other side, besides houses down the street on both sides.  The neighbor across the street that our house faces immediately came over to introduce herself when she learned we were moving in and even prepared dinner for us on the day the moving truck brought all our belongings.  We asked her to speak to the lawn man she used to ask him if he would mow our lawn right before we moved in and she did.  She has been very helpful and friendly in every way as we have begun our life in this new neighborhood. 

The neighbors directly across the other street have not spoken to us once even when we have been out in our yards at the same time.  I have looked for opportunities to speak to them and even waved at them once, only to be ignored.  I get the feeling that perhaps they are not interested in knowing us as neighbors or friends.  Maybe they are too busy with their lives or their occupations or their children to have time to interact with their neighbors.  Maybe they do not see the importance of knowing those who live around them.  They just seem to rush off to their jobs and return home in the evening and then cloister themselves in their home until the time they go elsewhere, rushing about their business. 

Neighborliness is a trait for some and a skill that is developed for others.  It seems very natural to some people but it seems to be something that is learned by others.  Some people have the gift of gab (such as yours truly) and others seem to be shy and afraid to speak, perhaps thinking they do not know exactly what to say in every circumstance.  Neighborliness may even be cultural in some ways.  Those of us who grew up in the South in the last century were taught to speak to others and be friendly to others.  Some in other regions of our country and in other countries are taught to be wary of strangers and not be vulnerable in case strangers may have ill intentions in mind. 

Perhaps the greatest teacher of the values of neighborliness that many of us knew well in the 20th century was Fred Rogers, the host and director of the children's program, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.  Each day the program aired, Mr. Rogers used it to teach children lessons about the importance of being a good neighbor to others in our world.  He taught them to treat others with respect and to practice kindness and truthfulness as they lived among others.  He introduced them to people who worked in neighborhoods such as the postman, the policeman, or the fireman so that they would know that such persons were helpers in case they needed them.  Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister by training and his program became his pulpit from which he could teach lessons of love and forgiveness without being preachy as some may do in society. 

Some neighborhoods have a yearly celebration called "Night-Out", a kind of block party, where people in neighborhoods get to know one another and share food and friendship together.  Such nights are good opportunities to get to know those who live around us whom we may not know well or at all. 

Otherwise, it often takes a tragedy, such as a disaster to bring together the people who live near each other.  It is a shame but people often respond to one another and their needs when a tornado or hurricane or fire or flood has ruined the lives of many making neighborliness something to be forced upon them so they can all survive.  Thank God that such disasters often bring out the best in people so that they respond to needs and assist others in times of great distress. 

How much better it would be for us all if we would reach out to one another in concern and service BEFORE we have a need to brings us together?  God gave us our lives to be interconnected so that we would be part of the great human family.  Our lives are meant to touch one another and we share with one another the parts of our lives that we feel comfortable sharing.  Greater communication and trust will bring about positive results for us all as we become closer to one another and we work for the common good of all humanity. 

Will you be my neighbor?  Or will you ignore me and act as though I do not exist?  Perhaps that is the question we should all examine in our daily interactions with others. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Preparing a Place for God

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?  Where's Waldo?  Where are you?  All questions that have been asked over the past years and continue to be asked, especially the last question.   It is asked many times by many who are seeking someone in some way.  Where are you?  Where do you belong?  What is it that you are seeking in life that you have not found? 

Do you have a mission in life, something that makes you want to get out of bed each morning?  What is your mission in life, the thing that motivates you to get out and about and do something that gives you a feeling of satisfaction and worth?  The mission we have in life drives us and makes us want to be involved in life and perhaps often to be involved on behalf of others. 

Jesus prayed for his disciples in John's Gospel, chapters 14-16 and he taught them what they needed to know so that they would have a mission and purpose in life that would connect what they had experienced with him during the three years of his ministry.  He wanted them to know that they would not be alone because the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate would be with them to help them in all they would do. 

So, he sent them into the world to accomplish all that they needed to do, with the help of the Holy Spirit to guide them and urge them on, when times became rough, and they would.  They had a mission, to go out into all the world and preach the Gospel and to baptize all who would believe so that they would be part of the great family that would be created.  That family would be called "Christian" because they would attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and to guide others to follow them also. 

Jesus prayed that God would protect them as they went into the world to accomplish the mission.  The word "protect" does not mean to prevent them from encountering danger or harm, because they all died martyr's deaths eventually.  The word means to help them to feel the assurance of the Holy Spirit and to be equipped for every circumstance by the Spirit's presence.  We modern readers understand the word "protect" as the same as "prevent" but in actuality the word speaks to protecting us from despair or giving up.  We are protected from our own frail weakness that would cause us to turn from the mission we have been given as we seek the strength that the Holy Spirit can supply. 

Jesus also prayed that his followers would be sanctified by the Spirit.  This word is one that speaks to holiness that comes about as followers of Christ become closer to God by the interceding of the Spirit in their lives.  As disciples of Jesus Christ seek to live in a way that more closely resembles the way of Jesus Christ, then their lives are transformed by the working of the Holy Spirit within them.  They become "perfected" in love as they live and grow in the way led by Christ. 

Jesus set the goals for his followers.  They are goals that are life-long and will not be completed in this life.  They are goals that are accomplished one day at a time, as people find strength through the Spirit and minister to the lives of others who are seeking to walk in the way that leads to new life through Christ.  As we all follow those goals set before us, we prepare a place within us for the Holy Spirit's presence that will lead us through life to what God would reveal to us as we enter eternal life. 

"What we will become has not been revealed to us, but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we will see him as he is.  Those who have this hope purify themselves even as Christ is pure."  (I John 3:2-3)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Do You KNOW God? Does God KNOW You?

What does it mean to really know someone?  Some of us have been married for many decades to the same person and sometimes we think we may not really truly know them at all.  Some of us have friends that we have had for decades and we think we know everything about them that there is to know and suddenly they say or do something that totally surprises us.  To know someone is to be in their company on many occasions and to be open to them totally and unconditionally so that they feel comfortable being themselves and revealing their true selves and inner feelings to you.

When we truly get to know someone, we practice what is called "self-revelation" in which we reveal ourselves to them in ways that we may not do with others that we know in a more casual relationship.  When I was a school counselor I went to a counseling workshop once where we learned about a model called "Johari's Window".  It was a drawing of a window with 4 panes of glass in it, a bit like windows in older homes may have had.  In each pane of glass there was a description of the way we relate to one another.  "Known to self and to others" was one label.  "Not known to self but known to others" was another label.  Then, "Not known to self or others"  The final one was "Known to self but not to others". 

The model was created by two men named Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955.  They named it Johari's Window by combing their first names.  In the description of the meaning of the model, they say that we most often live in the area of "known to self but not to others", keeping our innermost thoughts to ourselves and revealing little about ourselves except to those whom we know we can trust with what we tell them.  When we open the part of the window that says "known to self and to others" and make it wider so that others know more about us, then the other windows become smaller, inviting greater intimacy and love into our lives. 

We rarely share our deepest feelings with others because we do not have a level of trust with them that would allow this intimate sharing of ideas and feelings.  It is only when we feel completely loved and accepted that we feel we can really open up and let others know who we truly are and know that we do not have to be afraid of their reaction.  They will accept us just as we are. 

God speaks to the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah with a word of forgiveness of grace.  God tells them that he will write a "new covenant" on their hearts to take the place of the former covenant that he made with their ancestors before they left the bondage of slavery in Egypt.  God says he tried to be their "husband" but they would not let him and instead turned to idolatry and failed to keep the commandments.  These to whom God is speaking are exiles, slaves in the land of Babylonia, who have been crying out to God for release.  God has brought about a miracle for them as Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and has released the slaves to return to their homeland, Israel.  Soon, they will be walking the long road home and beginning the rebuilding of the Temple and the wall around Jerusalem under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah. 

God wants these exiles to have a new understanding of the faith they have inherited from their ancestors.  It was a strange and mysterious faith, with God residing in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, not to be approached except by the High Priest once a week for forgiveness of their sins.  Now God wants to know them intimately.  God will write his covenant on their hearts and they will all know God.  No one will have to ask where God can be found because God will be found in the hearts and spirits of each person. 

This is not only a new covenant for Israel and its people but it is a new understanding of the God of Israel.  This understanding is of a God who cares, who has compassion on them, and who forgives and forgets the sin they had committed.  God says that God will no longer remember their sin but will "give them a heart to know that Yahweh is Lord and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart."  (24:7)

God is putting trust into this band of exiles that once they settle into life in Israel once again, then the knowledge of Yahweh will fill all the earth and they will truly know who this God is and will want to serve and love God. 

God has written God's covenant on our hearts also.  God has forgiven our sins and cast them as far as the east is from the west.  God has desired a relationship with each human being and wants all humans to come to God and know that God accepts them as they are.  God's covenant is one of love and grace that is greater than anything we can imagine.  The more we trust God with the deepest desires of our hearts and the most inner thoughts of our minds, the more we can be sure that God accepts us for who we are and loves us just as we are. 

God is the Creator and created us for life and goodness.  We are made in God's image and God knows us better than we know ourselves.  God's covenant is written on our hearts and God's Spirit lives within us.  As we open ourselves up to God's love and leading, God will direct us into how we can find greater happiness in life. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Take Up Your Cross and Follow

Lent is here and there is much talk of service and devotion and walking with Jesus through the Lenten experience.  We followed Jesus from his baptism, dripping wet after hearing loving words from God's own voice, to the wilderness, led by the Spirit, accompanied by wild animals, cared for by angels, to the place where he began his life of service and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near.  Jesus told those who were listening to "repent, and believe the Good News". 

It's funny....I said those same words to those who attended our Ash Wednesday Service a week ago.  As they came down the aisle, I put my thumb in the ashes and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and said, "Repent, and believe the Gospel."  The words "Gospel" and "good news" come from the same Greek word from which comes the word "evangelize".  Believe the good news and tell others the same good news that you have believed. 

So, now week two of Lent is here and this week we see Jesus teaching and telling people that they have to "deny themselves" and "take up their cross" and "follow me".  Jesus' words are not as appealing to us as simply believing or repenting.  We think we can do that fairly easily as we ask God to forgive our sins and we attend worship services and hear what is preached.  The themes for this week though imply that we have something that we like or do that we should put aside (deny yourself) and that there is something like a cross that may be in our lives that we should affirm or avow if we are to truly follow Christ. 

I wonder what first century Christians thought about these words when they heard them.  After all, Mark's Gospel is believed to be the first Gospel written and was being read aloud in house churches before the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE.  Those early Christians could literally see the signs around them of the days to come when they would flee to the countryside lest they be murdered by the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem.  They may have witnessed many times the crosses by the sides of the roads leading into the city where those convicted of crimes against Rome hung in agony till they died.  Hearing the words of Jesus read that encouraged his followers to "take up their cross" may have seemed puzzling or even threatening to them.  How does one accomplish this and still live to tell the story of Jesus to those who would hear him?  After all that is what believing and telling the good news is about. 

Modern Christians have to think about these words and how they apply to them also.  Denying yourself, as it pertains to Lent, may make us think it means not to have that piece of Coconut Cream Pie that we crave or to pass on seconds when we think we are still hungry.  This is denying oneself, when we do not have or enjoy something that we can reasonably allow ourselves to have in order to prove to oneself that we have the will power or fortitude to do so.  But, denying oneself also has to do with giving devotion to a higher power, a heavenly kingdom instead of an earthly one.  When one denies ones humanity in favor of citizenship in God's Kingdom, then one disallows what it means to have attachments to earthly things.  The word "attachments" is important here because things in themselves are not an issue for us.  It is the attachment we have to what we own that separates us from our true purpose in Jesus Christ. 

Taking up a cross is a bit more problematic for Christians, though.  We all live with crosses of one kind or the other.  We have health issues, job related complaints, family discord, emotional distress to deal with in our lives so those are all crosses we must bear constantly.  Bearing them or taking them up, however, means that we do not complain about them but we instead seem them as fruitful or beneficial to our lives. 

"I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place,  I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face, Content to let the world go by, to know now gain or loss, my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross."  (Beneath the Cross of Jesus, stanza 3, words by Elizabeth Clephane)

Taking up the cross implies that we bear the cross and accept it as a part of our lives rather than trying to rid ourselves of it.  Living with constant pain is a cross many are called to bear.  They would rather not have it in their lives and they try to cope with it thanks to modern medications that can relieve pain.  Accepting that pain is inevitable is taking up the cross.  That does not mean that we stop taking the medication.  It just means that we admit that we may suffer pain as we continue to live in this broken world.  The shadow of the cross brings us a place to contemplate what life is about and what suffering means to each of us in light of the cross being a part of our lives. 

Follow Jesus, he says, and if we can truthfully deny our attachment to the world and its possessions, not do without them, just deny that we must have them even when we possess them, and we can affirm that the cross we may bear may be part of our lives always, then we may follow Jesus on the road to the cross because that is what a life lived through him and in him leads to.  His cross became his reality when he denied his attachment to this life and his affirming of the pain that accompanied the cross.  Jesus' words sound hard and challenging, and they may be, but followers of Jesus find peace in the knowledge that their lives are buried in his life, death, and resurrection and what lies ahead for us is eternal joy. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Where Do You Find Your Source of Strength?

"In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed..." (Mark 1:35)

This week's Gospel lesson finds Jesus and his disciples very involved in ministry--healing those who were ill, curing diseases, casting out demons, being surrounded by needy people, right and left.  Jesus' humanness left him tired from all the demands on his time and talents and he needed rest and renewal.  So, Jesus went out to a deserted place alone to pray.  Jesus needed a time of solitude to recharge his batteries after so many drained him of all the strength he seemed to have. 

Our lives are usually a mixture of busyness and quiet time.  We need both in our lives.  Some of us need one or the other more than others do but all of us need times to be away from the demands on our time and our talents so we can recharge our physical, emotional, and spiritual batteries. 

I love to travel and going to different places, meeting new people, seeing new things brings me new energy.  When I seem to feel the most weary, if I can get away for a while I seem to find new energy and vitality. 

Jesus went alone to a deserted place to pray.  He needed both facets of that...being alone in a place by himself and to pray.  Jesus could have just gone to a place and been alone.  But he needed to talk to God too.  He received the strength to continue his ministry among the masses of hurting and sick people and he received that strength by talking to God and receiving new direction and guidance for life. 

We too need times to receive new strength--emotional, physical, spiritual strength.  We need to talk to God and allow God to minister to us and to bring us new life as we try to be in ministry to others around us.  We are not enough in ourselves.  We need God to give us what we need so we can pass it on to others who are also in need. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Prepare the Way of the Lord

"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God..." begins the 40th chapter of Isaiah and the opening lines sung in Handel's Messiah.  Comfort is what we all need in this season that is supposed to bring us joy and happiness.  Comfort is what we need when we see the world around go trying to go to hell in a hand basket.  Comfort is necessary and needful to help us keep our sanity in a crazy, violent world.  We all need a little Christmas to be interjected into our lives so we can live in a way that will bring us peace. 

The people that Isaiah was speaking to in chapter 40 were people in captivity, in Babylonia, people whose ancestors had been taken hostage many years before and they were living there against their will.  Some had decided to make the best of a bad situation and had intermarried with the Babylonians creating the people called Samaritans in the New Testament.  Others, though, had heard the tales of Zion and wept for their homeland, a land that many of them had never seen since they were the children and grandchildren of the original people taken to Babylonia.  They wanted to be free and to be able to go home to live as they desired. 

Finally, the day of liberation came with Cyrus, King of Persia, who conquered the Babylonians and when the dust settled he told the Jews to go home.  It was not that he was so kind and benevolent as it was that he did not want to feed and care for a group of foreigners who did not belong in the land he now had to manage.  So, they were told to return to their homeland and begin to rebuild it so they could live there. 

That is the point of Isaiah 40 where the prophet speaks the word of comfort to his people.  They would receive comfort as they began to make their way to the Promised Land once more, a land where their ancestors once had built a Temple to their God Yahweh, a land where they had walls surrounding the city of Jerusalem, a land filled with good things as they planted and watered and harvested their crops.  So, Isaiah spoke God's Word to them to tell them that all would be well for them as they made their way to go home.

"Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low..." Even the landscape would change (metaphorically) so that their way would be easier to travel.  God would be with them to protect and care for them as a strong warrior and as a shepherd caring for the lambs.  They would find comfort in the renewal of their spirits along the waterways of the Jordan as they made their way home. 

Those are the tidings of comfort and joy we need to hear in our busy world also.  We need to hear words of comfort and joy as we work and do what we want to do in life amid the noise of the tumult and the cry of the sword from rumors of war on almost a daily basis.  We need to hear words of comfort as we learn of wildfires and hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes that can strike at any time, sending us into a spin and wondering what to do.  We need to hear that God is in control and we do not have to worry because our lives belong to God and whatever happens in life God will be there with us and for us. 

We need to share this good news with others also.  Many have no source of comfort in their lives.  They feel alone and abandoned by society.  We need to let others know that God is on their side and God wants to bring comfort and peace to them even in the time of turmoil and pain. 

Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight his paths.  Know that God goes before you and others to show you the path that is the best one for you.  As we face the future we can do so without fear because knowing whose we are is as important as knowing who we are.  We belong to God and God knows the future, both for us and for all of humanity.  The earth is the Lord's and all that dwell in it.  Praise God!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"My Lord, What a Morning!"

A yearning to be free accompanies the feeling of the status quo and the dissatisfaction that is part of the human experience.  Humans want to be free to do what they desire to do.  They do not want an authority figure to stand over them and tell them what they must do.  They want to make up their own minds on matters. 

Such was the plight of the people of Israel at several junctures in their history.  They entered Egypt as guests of the Pharaoh due to the influence of Joseph who was elevated to a position of power in the government by Pharaoh himself.  Joseph welcomed his brothers and father and all the people of Israel so they could escape the ravages of famine and hunger.  They were fed and kept by the people of Egypt as long as Joseph was alive.  Joseph died and soon a new Pharaoh arose "who did not know Joseph."  Suddenly, the people of Israel were no longer seen as guests but as threats so they were put to work as slaves.  They were made to work long and hard to bring about the many building projects that Pharaoh envisioned for the land of Egypt. 

The people of Israel cried out to the god of their ancestors whom they had heard about in tales handed down by many generations.  They did not know this god but they hoped he would be the source of their deliverance.  And so it was that a man who was named Moses arose and God used Moses to set the slaves free from their bondage with many miracles and signs. 

So, the people of Israel were out on their own in the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It was a rocky and tenuous existence because repeatedly they were threatened by others in the land who saw them as a threat to their own safety and welfare.  The people of Israel became a warring people constantly in battle to protect their land and interests. 

Then, one day the Babylonians invaded their land and destroyed their temple, murdered many people, and took a portion of the population as slaves once again to serve them in their land far away from the land that God had promised Abraham.  The land of Israel lay in ruins and the people who were not killed were held hostage against their will.  Some intermarried with the Babylonians and found a place to begin a family, content to be there.  Others, however, mourned for the loss of their land, their heritage, their freedom.  They cried out to God, as their ancestors in Egypt had done, asking for God to intervene on their behalf. 

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil--to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!"  (Isaiah 64:1-2)  Isaiah speaks on behalf of these captives and pleads with God to act justly so that the captives may be set free.  Isaiah remembers the times of old when the God of Israel had done mighty things on behalf of God's People Israel.  Isaiah wonders aloud if the reason for what has happened to Israel is not connected to the sinfulness of the people.  He ends his plea with a reminder to God that Israel is God's People and they belong to God.

People who are enslaved often cry out for relief to whoever will listen.  "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down..."  Hurting people want help from a source of help and want their situations to be resolved quickly.  The people of Israel did it when they were in Egypt.  They did it again when they were in Babylonia.  They did it again when Rome ruled over Jerusalem and finally destroyed the city and its inhabitants in A.D. 70.  They were dispersed into all the surrounding nations to live a life of wanderers until finally they had a homeland once again established in 1948. 

This cry for freedom was part of the African-American experience as well as they suffered as slaves centuries.  They too cried out for God to come to their relief and saw that relief coming through a cosmic event that would destroy their enemies and literally wake the dead.  They saw passages such as Mark 13 as speaking to their own plight in life.  A song arose from among them that spoke to their belief that God would work supernaturally for them---"My Lord, what a morning...when the stars fall from the sky."  The stars would fall, the sun would refuse to shine, and the moon would turn to blood on the great and terrible day of their deliverance. 

It must have seemed to some that all those things happened when the War Between the States finally brought about freedom for the enslaved ones on the many plantations of the South.  When the dust cleared and the bodies were buried, the slaves were set free to live as second class Americans until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was finally passed.  The road to freedom has been a long one for those former slaves but it still continues daily as civil rights must be claimed in the face of racism which seems it will not die, even in the land of the brave and the home of the free. 

People who are enslaved still cry out for freedom and people see the Day of the Lord as a sign of hope that things can be better than they are now.  God is Still Speaking and God's promise of deliverance has not been cancelled.  God is still working to bring about change even in the midst of new that confounds us daily.  O that God would tear open the heavens and come down to straighten out the evils of our day and to bring about the change that is needed.  Until then, God has people who work with God and for God to do God's Will on earth even as it is done in heaven.  If you believe that you are one of those people, then do not give up and do not lose hope. God is still using those who will be God's hands and feet to bring about justice and equity on the earth for those who cry for freedom.