Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How Do We Feel When Something Bad Happens to Someone Bad?

Many people know that my favorite movie of all time is "The Wizard of Oz."  I have pretty much memorized the entire movie's dialogue and can sing all the songs in the movie including "Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead".  If you are not obsessed with this movie, then you may not know that the song is sung when the Munchkins come out from wherever they are (another song) and discover that Dorothy's house has dropped on top of the Wicked Witch of the East (not to be confused with her evil sister who will plague Dorothy throughout the movie until the witch meets with her own disaster).  Upon learning of the death of the wicked witch, the Munchkins break into song, "Ding, Dong, the witch is dead!  Which old witch?  The wicked witch.  Ding, Dong, the wicked witch is dead....She's gone where the goblins go, Below, below, yo-ho, Let's open us and sing and ring the bells out, Ding, Dong, the merry-o, sing it high, sing it low, let them know the wicked witch is dead!"  At that point there are great shouts of glee from the little people and they begin to rejoice greatly only to be silenced when the sister of the dead witch, the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, appears in a dark cloud of smoke. 

What great rejoicing there was in the Land of Oz when they learned that the Wicked Witch of the East was dead!  How wonderful to know that someone who has threatened the world and its inhabitants has finally been eliminated!  I wonder if people felt that way when they heard of the death of Adolph Hitler after WWII ended.  I know that people felt that way when Osama ben Ladin was killed earlier this year.  And now, we have the death of the leader of North Korea--Kim Jong Il.  Did we hear strains of "ding, dong...." in our heads at hearing that news?  Did we just up and down and rejoiced and say, "Good riddance" to ourselves? 

It is a mixed reaction for many of us who call ourselves Christians.  We follow a leader who instructed us to "love your enemies" and to "pray for those who despitefully use you."  He told us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.  What does that mean for us when we know that someone who died had never tried to follow Jesus' teachings but had apparently be cruel and maniacal toward his own people?  It is very difficult to mourn the loss of a dictator but the newscast has shown us throngs of North Koreans who are now weeping openly and mournly loudly.  Are they really moved that much by his death or were they threatened into that reaction by their government?  Who is to say...but we still face the quandary...how do we respond to the death or destruction of one who has been a menace to society? 

I hate to admit it but I did feel a bit of glee when I learned that this dictator was gone.  I think I remember thinking, "Good...now maybe those North Koreans will be free to live the way they want to live."  I forgot that he had a son who now will take over the government and we know nothing about him.  Will he be just like his dad or will he have more common sense and practicality in reigning over the country in a benevolent manner?  Time will only tell us that answer but my brief moment of glee was replaced by some serious reflection about how Christians should respond in such a time of this.  I have to admit that I am still torn as to what my answer should be.  As a Christian, I do want to love others as Christ has loved me.  As a person who cares about others, do others I care about include those who are inherently bad or seem to be that way? 

I think that the answer for myself and perhaps others may be found in allowing God to be in control of the situation and not worry about what is the ultimate fate of dictators or evil persons, knowing that in God's timing, all things will be worked out.  There have been many evil persons throughout the history of the world.  Even when Jesus was appearing as the baby in the manger in Bethlehem, there was a tyrant named Herod who did not want him to live because he could not stand the threat of another "ruler" in his country.  So, Herod ordered the murder of all the babies under the age of two to be sure he could stamp out the threat.  Mothers mourned for their lost children and Herod smirked that he had destroyed the new king of the Jews, not knowing that he had been taken to Egypt to find safety.  Herod eventually died and was replaced by his son, who was just about as bad as his dad had been.  It seems the world remains much the same, decade after decade.  Evil fathers often have sons to replace them....

So, singing a song of joy at the death of a tyrant may be a form of release but saying a prayer for those who now find themselves with a new ruler whose actions we cannot guess may be an even better way to bring a wish for peace to the world.  In this time of remembering the birth of the Prince of Peace, the words of another song come to mind, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."  Shalom. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Thinking About Ultimate Things

I went to the dermatologist last week and had a thing removed from my arm.  It was not actually a mole or a wart or anything describable, just the remains of a bump that had appeared and then had come off and then left a small crater of sorts in my skin.  I was not really worried about that at all but the doctor seemed to think it should be investigated so he drew a circle around it with his pen and then deadened the area and carved out a chunk to send to the lab to be diagnosed.  He said he would call me when he received the results.  When I got home from work last Thursday, there was a message on our recorder from the doctor asking me to call him on Monday since they would be closed on Friday through Sunday.  That does not seem like a very practical way of sharing news that could be possibly negative--to tell someone to call you after a long weekend so you can get news of that nature.  Anyway, I did call this morning and found out that the area removed is cancerous, but obviously not a worrisome kind of cancer, as I need to go back to him and have more of that area removed but it can wait until after Christmas.  So, now the waiting and thinking about all the "what-ifs" concerning this situation. 

For some reason, while all this was going on in my head, I began to sing John Denver's song, "Poems, Prayers, and Promises."  In case you don't remember it, it begins, "I've been lately thinking about my life time, all the things I've done and how it's been, and I can't help believing in my own mind, I know I'm gonna hate to see it end..."  Not really a holiday thought but a practical one.  When faced with the reality that one's time on earth but not be forever, then one has to decide how one feels about it.  I like that song because John Denver says more than once, "I have to say it now it's been a good life all in all, it's really fine to have the time to hang around, and lie there by the fire and watch the evening tire...and talk of poems and prayers and promises and things that we believe in, how sweet it is to love someone, how right it is to care, how long it's been since yesterday, and what about tomorrow, and what about our dreams and all the memories we share." 

I am a cancer survivor, not a big major kind of cancer but a melanoma that I had removed from the back of my neck about 15 years ago.  Same kind of thing happened then as is happening now--a mole looked suspect so it was removed and sent off to the lab and the doctor called me and said they needed to remove more so they did and stitched me up and that was the end of that.  So, I have been getting a "mole check" regularly since then and all has been clear up to now.  This was no mole, a sneaky bump that came and went and left a small crater and I figured it was just nothing but obviously it was something.  So, now the final removal of its remains will greet the new year and maybe that will be the end of that. 

But...the "what ifs" will be present all through the rest of the holiday season and into the new year.  What if that isn't the end of it?  What if there is more cancer?  What if this is just the beginning of the end?  I am not a pessimist and I generally think positively about life but when confronted with the possibility that life may end, what is the way to deal with the issue?  There are many people who are dealing with cancer and other dread diseases that are much more serious than what I am dealing with but still there is the concern that this could be more serious than imagined.

I guess I like the John Denver song because it is one of giving thanks for what one has received over the years and being satisfied that life will be enough regardless of length of life.  The simple pleasures are praised and the enjoyment of relationships are the ultimate fulfillment of life.  Perhaps that is what the message of a meaningful life is about--Living each day to the fullest and being thankful for each day of life that we are given. 

I remember when I heard the news about the death of John Denver a few years back.  I was stunned and saddened.  I mourned as if I had lost a personal friend.  I became obsessed for a while to learn more about him and to listen to his music once more, much more than I had been before that.  I had always thought of him as someone that spoke to me because he spoke of what was important to me--ecology, life, friendship, simple pleasures.  John Denver was not a perfect man and maybe he could not even be called a good role model to many, but in his music I found inspiration that spoke to me as he sung.  In his music is the message--make the most of life and enjoy what we do here and tell others how important they are to you.  Maybe that is a gift to give to others at Christmas because it reflects the love of God for all of us in what is important and valuable and worthy. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Messengers of Light

Imagine--if you can--standing in the darkness on a lonely beach early one summer morning, the waves constantly crashing on the shore, with the familiar sound that is both soothing and strange.  As you stand on that sandy beach, you can feel the cool ocean breeze sweeping across your face and through your hair.  As you look out into the darkness of the ocean, staring at the churning water, suddenly a small sliver of orange light meets your eyes on the horizon.  You stare at the orange intently realizing that the sun is beginning to rise in the morning sky. 

As you keep your eyes on the horizon, little by little that orange glow creeps up higher and  higher until suddenly the entire sky seems to be lighted up with the orange and yellow and purple hues of  the morning.  As you look at your surroundings, everything looks different to you.  Where there had only been darkness, you can now see fishing boats on the ocean waves and people moving about on the shore.  The light that illumined the sky had made plain what was hidden.  The morning light had revealed what had been present all the time.

That was the experience our family had when we camped on the beach at the Outer Banks in North Carolina in 1983.  We woke up early purposely to see the sunrise and we joined many others who had done the same.  People actually cheered and clapped and shouted when the sun began to rise over the ocean.  The beautiful sight of the light brightening the sky enthused people as if they were seeing it for the first time.

John the Baptizer stood on the banks of the Jordan River and preached to those who would listen and urged them to repent and be baptized.  John the Gospel Writer spoke of him as the one who was testifying to the light that was coming into the world.  The true light was coming--the world had been waiting for the light to come for countless generations and now the time had come when the promise had been fulfilled. 

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light," spoke the prophet Isaiah, "those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them the light has shined."  But he did not stop at just saying that the light was coming.  He also spoke to those who would receive the light.  "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you."  Go and shine the light on others, he meant, so that others too could receive the light of the Lord.

This is the season of light.  This is the season that we share the light with others in our world so that they too can rejoice in the birth of the child who brought light into a world of darkness.  Tell the good news to all you know so that they too will experience the light of the Christ. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Comfort and Joy

Part of the pleasure of the holiday season is hearing and singing familiar songs that we only enjoy during the season.  I often sing Christmas Carols during our hot summers to stay mentally cool but others do not share this talent as I do.  When we sing these songs during the festive holiday season, we feel a kinship with them because they remind us of past holiday seasons that we want to remember.  Many songs are religious in nature but some are just a lot of fun to sing.  Some are a blend of religious meaning and joyful feeling.  One song that is a mixture is "God rest ye merry Gentlemen".  This song is rather exclusivistic in that it invites only one gender to have some rest but perhaps the gentlemen who are needing rest are the ones who are out shopping for their families so that they can enjoy Christmas Day when it comes so perhaps we can grant them some rest as they complete their tasks.  If ladies are involved in this task as we know they are, then maybe we can sing, "God rest ye merry persons" although it does not flow as well musically. 

The song in question has its origin in the British Isles in the 1600s or so.  According to Wikipedia, it was written as a "new song" to compete with some of the old standards that had been around for so long that people had grown very tired of them.  It is mentioned in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol and its singing drives Ebenezer Scrooge a bit batty causing him to say "Bah! Humbug" repeatedly.  The song tells about the birth of the Christ child and how God's great gift benefited the world and its population of sinners.  Each verse concludes with the refrain, "O Tidings of Comfort and Joy, Comfort and Joy..." allowing the singer to reassure all who would hear the song that the birth of Christ brings comfort and joy to the soul. 

We modern sinners need to hear that refrain again and again because we live in a world needing a lot of comfort and joy.  The daily newscasts are harbingers of bad news and we hear so much of it we often wonder if there is any good news to be had.  The repeating of bad news often convinces us that the world in which we live is a bad place to live because of all the bad news.  We need to be reminded that God is still in control and that the world continues to be a good place to live because God blessed it and called it good at its creation and nothing has changed to make it otherwise. 

Words of comfort speak to us to soothe our souls in troubled times.  When we feel abandoned, alone, afraid, we need a shoulder to lean upon and that feeling of comfort arises because someone cares.  We comfort one another when life presents us with challenges that we may not be able to endure alone.  Comfort brings joy as we consider we are not alone in the world. 

Maybe that is the true meaing behind that carol.  Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day, it says, and that proves God's love for us.  We are not alone, God is with us---Emmanuel!  Tidings of comfort and joy are ours because of that good news.  Share the good news with others in our world in this holiday season and all through the year.  God loves us all and gave proved that by becoming like us so God could understand what makes us the way we are.  Thanks be to God. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Endings and Beginnings

Pastors and many who work in churches for a living run on different calendar than most other people.  We begin a new year on the Sunday that follows Thanksgiving most years.  We call it the "First Sunday of Advent" and it begins a new church year.  The years are consecutively labeled with A, B, and C so that each year we have the next part of the cycle.  This year that will begin next Sunday, November 27, is Year B.  The lectionary lessons that are assigned for Year B will begin on this Sunday and continue until next Thanksgiving, 2012.  There are four Sundays in Advent that lead up to Christmas Eve and Day.  Christmas Day comes on a Sunday this year so the Christmas celebration itself will be even bigger than when it comes on a weekday. 

Advent is the New Years celebration of the Church.  We begin a new year and we have four weeks to celebrate it.  It leads up the New Years celebration that the entire world has on January 1 but it is a major event of the Church because it is a time of preparation for the Christ event that we celebrate yearly.  In the same way, that all of us prepare our homes for that holiday company that may visit us on Christmas Day, we prepare our churches and our hearts for the special Christmas celebration. 

In our church, we have a special luncheon on the First Sunday of Advent and we share in the decoration of the church building, working together to make it all happen.  There are banner to be hung, three trees to be erected and decorated, a life size Nativity scene that goes outdoors to be secured and fastened so that the wind will not take it away, two smaller Nativity scenes to be strategically placed, and a multitude of other decorations that are put here and there.  A huge 14 foot tall tree is placed in the front of our sanctuary.  It is not a Christmas tree but it is a Chrismon tree.  Chrismons are decorations that symbolize something from the Christian faith.  Many of them symbolize attributes of Jesus as Messiah, Redeemer, and other names given to him by the Early Church.  The huge tree is lit during our services in Advent and Christmas. 

Advent marks a new beginning and an end to the previous Christian Year.  Last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday, a time when the culture and faith are in competition.  Most churches observe Thanksgiving Sunday, as we did, but some do celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a day to proclaim Jesus Christ as King and Lord of all the world.  I have preached the Christ the King texts in the past but found that most congregations prefer thinking about giving thanks for their blessings rather than trying to understand the cosmic nature of the Christ. 

The First Sunday of Advent always features scripture texts that are rather apocalyptic in nature.  This year Mark 13 which is called the "little apocalypse" is being read.  Jesus' words to his disciples regarding all kinds of gloomy things that will occur when the Son of Man comes in his glory are read ending with his warning, "Keep Awake."  That is the theme of Advent--watching and waiting, being prepared, keeping your eyes opened, looking for the Messiah who is to come.  So, each week we light candles, read scriptures, say prayers emphasizing the theme, our preparation to welcome the Messiah into our lives. 

Christmas Eve is prime time in the Church.  Many people attend church services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day who rarely if ever go to church (except on Easter Sunday, of course).  Christmas seems to bring them back to the church for sentimental reasons or because they were taught that it is expected of them.  Some attend church with their relatives who will be going to church and others may attend simply because they think the season is not complete without it.  We are thankful for any time that people attend church and if Christmas brings people to God's House then let the season be blessed. 

If you do not have a house of worship this year, you may find your life a bit richer by worshiping during Advent and Christmas in the church of your choice.  We in the United Church of Christ welcome all who would come into our church.  Whoever you are and wherever you are on life's journey, you have a home in the United Church of Christ.  There may not be one near you if you live in the South, but God's love can be revealed to you as you seek out the place where you will feel comfortable in worship.  May the God of Peace bless you with all the gifts of this Holy Season found in the face of the little child of Bethlehem. 

Monday, November 14, 2011


I was privileged to go to Russia with a church mission group in the mid-1990s a few years after the Wall had come down and U.S.-Soviet relations had mellowed.  We flew from Dallas to Frankfurt to Moscow and spent a few days there looking around and then got on an Aeroflot (the Russian airlines) flight to Tomsk which is in Siberia.  We stayed for a week at a Russian orphanage doing repair work to the buildings there and making friends with the children and staff.  Everyone was so very nice to us, despite the language barrier.  I learned a few phrases in Russian that I used liberally and had my little Russian guidebook in my hand most of the time to resort to finding an answer if I found myself in a jam.  One word that I learned and used many times was pronounced "Spa-see-bah" and it means "Thank you."  I said it every time someone helped me or gave me something to eat or drink or said something to me that I did not understand.   I figured it was a pretty safe word to say. 

Each morning many of us Texans would arise early since the sun comes up at about 3 a.m. in the summer in Siberia and does not go down until about midnight or 1 a.m.  Many of us could not sleep much so we would be up early and go to a small dining area where we would have some instant coffee.  A nice lady would be there at that time of the morning and pour hot water over our instant coffee and we would add sugar or cream if we desired and would enjoy a few cups as we woke up to begin our day.  The lady would always smile at us and if I said "Spaseebah" to her she would reply "Prezhaltah" (you are welcome) in a cheerful voice.  This went on daily until the last day we were there and as we had our morning coffee and thanked her for it on that last day, her "Prezhaltah" was more weary and strained.  I think she was tired of getting up so early for these Americans--a bit weary in well doing.

Being thankful is something that we often take for granted.  Many times when we say "Thank you" to someone, they reply, "No problem".  I guess that has become the new "You're welcome" to many people.  It may be equivalent to "De nada" in Spanish which loosely translates into "it's nothing".  When we say "no problem" in reply to a "Thank you" we are saying "it was no sacrifice for me to do this for you" or "it caused me no problem to help you."  It is a recognition that what we did to made another say thanks to us was something we do naturally for others or something that is a natural part of our lives.  Doing good deeds for others is an outgrowth of a spirit that seeks to be of service to God and neighbor.  Saying thanks for those deeds is something we do to show our appreciation.  The two work together in harmony. 

The people of Israel were reminded not to forget the source of all their blessings.  They had traveled across the burning desert to reach the Promised Land and once they were settled into life in that land they were to look around them at how good it was and remember the source of all goodness.  We live in a similar place in the United States, a land of bountiful blessings.  We enjoy so many blessings that we often fail to consider the source of all of them.  God has given us the skills, the good health, the opportunities to achieve and succeed and we return thanks to God for all which we have and know that God is the source of all good things.

So, as you gather around your Thanksgiving Table this holiday season, pause and give God thanks for all the many blessings in whatever language you choose to use....Thank you, Gracias, Merci, Danke Schon, Spaseeba...and I am sure God will speak a "You are welcome" to your spirit in return. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Risky Business

Do you love to ride on a roller coaster?  Are you a fan of ferris wheels?  Do you love to take off on a jet and go high in the sky looking down at the clouds below?  Will you walk into a room of strangers with a smile on your face and begin introducing yourself to everyone in the room?  If you said yes to these and other questions, then you may be a risk taker.  That is not a bad thing in itself, although there are some who take foolish risks and pay for them with bad health or even death, but taking risks in themselves is a good thing.  It means that you are willing to make yourself vulnerable in order to obtain a higher good or pleasure. 

John Hershey in Creating Contagious Leadership lists five reasons why you should take risks.  He says that risk taking "improves self-confidence and fosters, self-esteem...lessens mental anguish...promotes growth...teaches us what works...and promotes happiness."  He expands on each of those characteristics but the overall theme is that we as humans learn by taking risks and our learning makes us to be inquisitive and courageous people.  We take risks as soon as we are able to negotiate our environment.  First, we learn to crawl and see where we can go by that method.  Then, we begin to walk and take steps that often lead to falling down.  Then, we may decide to ride a bike or a skateboard and end up with some bruises or scrapes.  We learn from those experiences, however, and often become wiser and better at what we do because we were willing to risk doing them. 

Many people do not believe this about me but I am basically a very shy person.  I was so shy as a child that I would not talk to my friends if I saw them in public outside of school.  I definitely would not talk to strangers and would hide if I saw someone coming that I did not know.  I was very shy until I was in high school and then I made myself do something that shy people shudder if they have to do.  I took public speaking as a class in high school where I had to write speeches and stand up before a group and give the speeches.  Shy people faint or run away at the very thought of public speaking but I forced myself to do it and today people try to shut me up instead.  That led me to join the drama club at school and I actually became an actor in plays and worked behind the scenes to produce them. 

Risk taking is something we as humans do so that we can learn about ourselves and our environment.  Risk taking is something we do in the Church because we want to see it grow and expand to include everyone possible.  There is a parable in Matthew that we will study this Sunday during worship.  It is a very old parable of Jesus about 3 servants who were given three amounts of money by their master when he went on a journey.  He gave one servant 5 talents (1 talent was a sum of money worth 15 years wages), and another servant 2 talents, and another servant 1 talent.  He said they should keep the money and return it to him when he returned from his journey.  Two servants invested the money and doubled it so that when he came back they returned 10 talents and 4 talents to him and they were praised.  The servant with only 1 talent, though, dug a hole and hid it and returned it to the master.  That servant was criticized for hiding the money and giving back only what he had been given instead of investing it.

The parable is a bit harsh to the outward appearance.  After all, the servant with 1 talent did not lose the money he had been given and gave it all back, but the master wanted the interest that he could make off his money and he was pleased with the creativeness of the other two servants.  What the parable says to us today is that we all possess lot of things that could be invested in the Kingdom of God--time, talent, treasure OR prayers, presence, gifts, and service (two ways of saying the same thing).  We often hoard or hide or keep for ourselves what we have instead of sharing it, lest we lose what we have.  We are often afraid to take a risk and give of ourselves because we are not sure of what the future may bring.  The master praised the two servants because they were willing to risk what they were stewards of in order to gain more to return to the master.  They took a huge risk and it paid off.  The other servant was so afraid of what could happen that he was paralyzed with fear and took no action.  That is what he was scolded for.

Many times we do nothing because we are unsure of the result.  We may not ask someone for a date because they could say no.  We may not join a club because we do not know its members.  We may not ask for a raise because the boss could say no.  We may not begin a new hobby because we could fail at it.  There are so many possibilities in the world but if we never try, we will never know if we can do them or not.  I think the parable is saying to us--"Go out on a limb...that is where the fruit is."  (That is an old saying, I really did not make it up.)  When we invest ourselves in God's Kingdom, we will find that the Kingdom of God expands to bring in all whom we may reach out to embrace.  God's Kingdom includes and envelopes all and we are the ambassadors whose arms reach out in love and service to be sure that such good news is spread everywhere.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Hope Shall Bloom

My wife and I made a trip to the city of New Orleans at the end of last week.  We flew this time, which is incredibly better than driving since one can fly from Houston to New Orleans in just 45 minutes compared to a 6-8 hour drive from our house to the city.  We were there before you knew it and it did not cost a lot to fly as we found bargain fares on Southwest Airlines at just $49 each way per person.  We did have to fly at 6 a.m. in order to get this great fare but I have been wondering if I can stay up all night now as I once could and found out that I can.  So, we left our house after seeing the 10:00 news and drove to the edge of Houston and stopped and had coffee and a bite to eat and then drove on to the airport.  We were sitting there waiting about 2 a.m. and were told that security did not open until 4 a.m. so we had a couple hours to enjoy the airport.  I was fairly wired from the coffee but my wife fell asleep soon and I watched the people who work in the airport cleaning and mopping and sweeping.  Pretty soon we made it through security and went to the gate to sit for about another hour.   We got on board and arrived just before 7 a.m. so we had an entire day ahead of us in New Orleans.  We found some breakfast and a place to park the rental car and began walking down by the Mississippi River and went to an IMAX movie about the lions in Africa (King of Beasts has two wives and five kids and has to fend off a challenger...now you don't have to read the book). 

We decided to walk around the French Quarter a bit and looked in some shops and then had lunch at a great place at the corner of Decatur and Toulouse---oyster po boys, yum!  Then the lack of sleep began to set in so we found the car and began the search for our hotel.  Easy enough to find and check in and then a good nap was in order.  Dinner followed and then more sleep and the next day gave us more adventures.

Our purpose for going to New Orleans was not just to have a getaway, although that worked itself in too.  We went there to attend the closing worship service for the Hope Shall Bloom disaster relief ministries that the United Church of Christ had been doing in the New Orleans area since Hurricane Katrina had hit in 2005.  The service was held on Saturday afternoon at St. Paul's United Church of Christ in New Orleans.  People from across the US had come for this service, partly because many of them had volunteered in service over the past six years to help rebuild the homes of persons who had nearly lost all they had in the flood.  Some of these volunteers had come and given a week or more of their time, had paid all their own expenses to do the dirty work required, and had returned to their homes with a deep sense of satisfaction that it was all worth the effort.  They had slept in church halls, showered in make-shift showers, eaten food prepared by other volunteers, and done all this with little complaint.  These volunteers and the pastor who had given up his parish to lead this effort were honored with standing ovations at the service.  The leadership of the UCC was represented at the service and a litany was read that gave praise to God for all that had been accomplished. 

The theme of the disaster recovery effort for the past six years was "Hope Shall Bloom".  It reflects the scripture from Isaiah 35 that says that when the redeemed of the Lord returned to Zion, "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom..."  Hope would re-emerge in places where the dry wastelands had been.  The people of New Orleans had been overwhelmed by what must have seemed impossible circumstances.  Many had given up on them and declared the city to be a place of desolation and death.  The volunteers and leaders who gave of themselves became symbols of hope to those who were without hope.  Their efforts and optimism became the strength they needed to continue to live. 

Hope Shall Bloom can be our motto of life also when we place optimism in the forefront of our lives.  When we think positively about life instead of letting negatives rule our lives then we foster a positive outlook for all to observe.  The motto is very demonstrative...Hope SHALL bloom....it looks forward to the future even in the absence of proof that better days are coming.  We are in a cycle of negativity in our country at the present time.  Embracing a positive way of life and a positive attitude about life will make us to be people of hope and that hope will encourage others to also have hope.  Hope Shall Bloom in our lives and the lives of others as we continue to spread the message of hope to all with whom we share life. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Decision Time

The older I get, the more I am inclined to become more impatient with people who will not make a decision.  Some of us make a decision and live with its consequences but there are others who will not make a decision at all, even over fairly trivial matters.  Have you ever noticed that if a group wants to go to dinner together, that it is very hard to reach a consensus as to where to dine?  That is because many people do not want to choose a restaurant lest it be a bad experience for one or more persons in the group.  No one wants to be the one who chose the restaurant and people in the future will make remarks about how bad it was to dine there. 

Some people do not want to choose a meal in a restaurant very quickly either.  They peruse the menu and look it over again and again, perhaps wanting to be sure that what they order will actually taste good to them and not being stuck with a fairly inedible entree.  I am not that way at all.  I give the menu a glance and when my eyes focus on something that looks like it would taste good, I choose it.  I do not continue to look it over but just settle on the first thing that looks like it would be good.  I actually do consider the healthy options nowadays over the obviously fattening one (nothing with Alfredo sauce on it, give me a healthy marinara sauce instead) but all things being equal I am not a very fussy eater. 

Choosing clothing is a similar story.  Some people try on shoe after shoe and cannot decide on a pair to buy.  Some folks go to the fitting room again and again, trying on article after article of clothing and not being able to make a decision.  I do not shop unless I need a definite item (I don't shop for fun--I don't even know what that means) and go to the place where I can find the item I need and buy it.  When I finish finding that one item, I am ready to go home or go eat.  I will go on shopping trips with the family if they will allow me to sit on benches in the mall or the outlet mall and do people watching.  It is much more fun to sit and stare than to stand and wait. 

The people that God called out of Egypt and named them after their ancestor Israel (Jacob) had finally reached the Promised Land.  Moses was dead and Joshua had led them across the Jordan River and through the land of the Amorites and now Joshua was about to die too so he gathered them all together at Shechem and gave them his big goodbye speech and covenant ceremony.  He told them that they had to make a decision.  They had to choose whether they would serve Yahweh the God of Israel or the gods they had known in Egypt or the gods of the Amorites.  They were not given a "none of the above" option.  They had to choose, make a decision, come to a conclusion.  He told them their options and then told them they had to consider it carefully because if they promised to serve Yahweh and then did not fulfill the vow they made, then Yahweh could be difficult. 

The people were insistent that they would serve Yahweh only and not turn back to idols but Joshua did not want a maybe, he wanted a resounding "YES!"  They again promised that they would serve Yahweh and this time he accepted their word but he gave them a stern warning and said that a big stone that he set up for all to see was a witness to their words and actions so they better be serious.  The stone would testify against them if they did not keep their word (they believed in such things in their day).  So, the people affirmed, "We will serve the LORD" and that was that. 

As Joshua talked to them about the decision they had to make, he told them, "As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."  Joshua had already decided and he had lived his life in service to Yahweh so now that he was an older guy, his trust was in Yahweh and no idol tempted him to do otherwise.  He wanted the people of Israel to be just as confident in the decision they would make on that day at Shechem. 

Some decisions we make in life do not have long lasting consequences.  If we choose a bad meal, then in about four hours or so we can correct that and choose something good for us.  If we buy an article of clothing that is ugly, we can donate it to Goodwill and start again.  If we suggest a restaurant that turns out to be a dud to a group, then people may talk about that decision and even have a laugh at our expense but we may choose a good one someday and they will forgive us.  Other decisions have serious and long lasting consequences.  If the mate we choose to marry suddenly exhibits flaws that make us have second thoughts, then we may have to develop creative coping skills to stay in that marriage.  If the house we buy, suddenly has structural or plumbing problems, then we may have to spend some money on house repairs that we did not bargain for.  If we do not take care of our health through healthy diet and exercise habits, then we may be locating physicians and hospitals to help us in correcting our negative lifestyle choices. 

The faith decisions we make also have long lasting consequences.  Many in our world have little need or regard for faith in their lives.  They made the decision at some point that organized religion did not have to be part of their lives.  They may have even once belonged to a church or other house of worship but allowed life to overtake them and the vows of faithfulness to that institution became non-important.  The decision to "go it alone" without the company of a faith community became comfortable to them and now they rarely think about renewing the vows they made in the past.  It is very sad to most pastors to be called to assist a family at a time of crisis, such as a hospitalization or death of a loved one, and learn that the persons have no faith community upon which to call at such times.  They may even be members of a church but have not attended worship or activities there for such a long time that few currently active members know them.  The faith community would love to be in ministry to all persons in their time of need but when persons have made the decision to be absent from the faith community, then their lack of connectedness is revealed at such times. 

Joshua wanted the People called Israel to understand the decision they were about to make.  Their actions would carry long lasting consequences.  God wants modern people to be just as clear about the way they order their lives.  Deciding to worship the idols that modern society presents to us daily brings about separation from the very source that can give us strength in our time of need.  It is when we are connected to the source of our energy that we are able to survive the storms that we must all endure. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!!!!

There, I said it.  I said, "Happy Halloween!" not "Happy Harvest Day" or "Happy Reformation Day" or "Happy Non-Offensive Autumn Day" as some may prefer.  Actually, I now live in a part of our state where saying Happy Halloween is okay.  It was not always so when I lived in East Texas.  Many there would say Happy Halloween and perhaps decorate their homes with appropriate holiday symbols but for some that tradition was totally verboten.  There is a religious strain in that part of the world that connects and connotes Halloween with something sinister or even evil.  Some churches and their leaders have taught their followers for decades this teaching that Halloween must be avoided at all cost to keep themselves pure.  That thinking filtered into the public school system to the place where teachers could not have their children color pages with ghosts or witches or black cats lest they bring on the wrath of the religious adherents of such thinking.  It got to the place where it was ridiculous.  Those who wishes to participate in Halloween traditions did so in an almost stealthy and secretive manner.  "Pssst, there will be a Halloween Party at the Smith's house tonight.  Pass it on!" 

To those who would make something evil out of this holiday that strictly means that children get to dress up in costumes and eat candy, I say simply--"Poppycock!"  There, I have said that stern rebuke!  Halloween is no more sinister than my great grandmother's fruitcake.  Yes, it may be something that some would avoid and let them do so, but do not forbid Halloween or fruitcake to those of us who wish to partake of it.  Halloween has ancient origins that have something to do with the idea that once a year the spirits of those who recently departed would connect with those on earth.  It was a belief that persons on earth may have their loved ones who died in the last year with them a bit longer and that one this special night they may feel their presence.  Persons began dressing up in costumes to remind themselves of the departed ones and it soon evolved into just a night of merriment and for children into a night where treats were handed out as they paraded in their costumes.  The trick part of "trick or treat" really came about as silly pranksters did fairly harmless practical jokes and especially if they did not get a treat they liked.  Today, that same tradition exists and when I see children come to our well lit porch to receive some candy, it is fun to see what clever costumes they have. 

I went through my neighborhood when I was growing up usually dressed as a hobo or a ghost because we had to use home made costumes most of the time.  We would take a large grocery bag with us and I would collect enough candy before returning home to last until Thanksgiving.  Few if any people ever said anything about the holiday being something evil.  Some years my aunt and uncle would have a Halloween Party at their house and we would go and bob for apples or put our hands in spaghetti (to resemble a brain) or feel of grapes in a bowl (eyeballs) and we would laugh and tell spooky stories and listen to scary records.  We would be home by 9 pm or so and get ready for bed and go to school the next day.  It was just a time of fun for children and their parents. 

There is plenty of evil in the world and we dont have to wait for Halloween to find it.  You can read about it in the paper daily or hear about it on the newscast on television.  It has nothing to do with dressing up in costumes or giving out candy.  Evil surrounds us because of the greed and lusts of humankind as it always has been.  People do evil acts out of these evil feelings and attitudes.  Halloween is a sacred day, a day of fun, but also a day to remember all those who have gone ahead of us to their Eternal Reward.  Tomorrow is All Saints Day when we remember these dear Saints.  In our church, we will celebrate that special day next Sunday in the German festival of the Dead--Totenfest. 

Happy Halloween to all, even to those who live in East Texas! 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sliding Into Home Plate

I love metaphors.  They make our language unique and colorful.  They help us to imagine what it may be like to be someplace else or do other things we wish we could do.  They help us to describe things to others that we may not be able to describe otherwise. 

We had a funeral today at our church where we said goodbye to an 88 year old man.  He had lived in Houston where he worked for many years but when he retired he and his wife moved to the country, as many people often do.  They bought a piece of property in our area and built a nice house on it.  This man had a love for softball.  No, not baseball, but softball and girl's softball teams.  He acted as trainer and coach for 100 or more girls over the years teaching them the intricacies of throwing a softball and hitting one.  He had been in the Navy in World War II and had worked as an electrician during his working years but it was his mentoring of girls on softball teams that drew the most attention from those attending the funeral today.  A group of girls from the local high school came dressed in their uniforms and sat together with their coach.  The school superintendent came as well.  A banker, the city manager, the county commissioner, and other officials attended the service. 

One woman read a tribute to this man that told a lot of facts about his life.  As the tribute came to a close, she inserted a metaphor that described him being in heaven and on a softball team with two other relatives who had preceded him in death.  She imagined him hitting a ball into the outfield and running the bases and then sliding into home plate with the base judge calling him "Safe!" as he slid in and touched the plate.  "Safe at home at last", she ended.  I have heard many metaphors used at funerals to imagine what the deceased must be doing in heaven including fishing and playing pool, but I think I like this one the best, and especially the statement that ended it---"Safe at home, at last."

That is probably what we all would like to hear when it is our time to cross the plate.  I compared this man to Nicodemus in the Gospel of John who came to see Jesus by night and learned from him and then just disappears after that chapter, only to reappear one time later and then in the final chapters as he assists Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus' dead body.  Nicodemus was a quiet man, a secret disciple who never proclaimed his faith openly for everyone to hear but simply did the good work that he could as it needed to be done without calling attention to himself.  That sounds like faith in action, a faith that James recommends and Matthew has Jesus talk about in the Parable in chapter 25.  Doing good work is an outgrowth of faith, something one does because they have faith, and the faith they have may be known only to themselves. 

This man whom we buried today was a lot like my own father, I imagine.  Neither really cared much for organized religion or went to church often but both made sure they helped those who needed help and both tried to live out an understanding of faith in action, loving God by loving their neighbor as best they understood how that could be done.  Both liked the game of baseball and how it was played but did not play it themselves.  By the grace of God, both of them have crossed home plate and have been declared "Safe" by the only authority that really matters.  God grant them rest for their souls and peace in God's Kingdom. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

95 Theses 95

A week from today is Halloween Day!  It is also Reformation Day!  So, since both days fall on the same day, one can dress up to look like Martin Luther or Philip Melancthon and see if people can guess who you are!  You may not get a lot of candy but you may get some raised eyebrows.  Even Luther and his buddy PM got raised eyebrows in their day because they challenged the status quo.  They did not believe everything that came down the religious pike of their day and they stood their ground even in the face of excommunication from the church.  (In their day the teaching from The Church was that there was not salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church so to be excommunicated meant eternal damnation.)  Even when Luther was faced with bodily harm or death, he still refused to recant his beliefs.  He posted his list of objections to the teachings of the Church of his day on the church of the castle at Wittenberg which is where the public notices would have been posted.  This was the equivalent of writing an email and pushing reply all in his day.  Everyone who was anyone who could read would read what was posted on the church door and spread the word.  It took a while but eventually it created a firestorm of controversy, so severe that Luther had to leave the priesthood and hide out to save his life. 

The main objection that Luther had to the teachings of the day had to do with the idea that was being pushed by the Church hierarchy that one could buy relief from Purgatory for dead relatives.  This was called "indulgences" and when one bought an indulgence for a specific dead person, that person would be given less time in Purgatory.  Luther thought this idea was insane, much less not scriptural, and he began to teach that one could not buy one's way out of Purgatory and one could not buy one's salvation.  In fact, he challenged the very basis of works over faith to insure salvation.  Soon, Luther was teaching that salvation came about by faith alone (thanks to Paul's letter to the Romans) and that average citizens could understand the Bible for themselves (once they could read and actually had a Bible to read).  Soon his followers were shouting, "Solo Scriptura!  Solo Fidelis!" 

When my wife and I were in Germany two years ago, we rode from the train from Leipzig to Wittenberg to visit the places where Luther had lived and worked.  We went to Wittenberg Castle Church and saw the door where now the 95 are enshrined in metal on the door and there is a list of them inside the church in both German and English so that everyone can read them.  We were there at noon when a short service was being held and a short organ concert was given.  The church contains several stained glass windows and paintings dedicated to Martin Luther.  In front of a bookstore on the main street is a large, life size cut out of Martin Luther with whom I had my photo taken.  He is still very prominent in the memory of many Germans and revered as a saint-like figure to them.  In fact, they are preparing for a grand celebration of his nailing the theses to the door, the 500th anniversary to be celebrated in 2017. 

Martin Luther's example to modern persons of religious faith is his belief that each of us can read the scriptures and understand what they say and that we do not need a religious person to tell us what it means.  Yes, we can enlist teachers to help us in our understanding or we can take classes to aid us in our quest, but in the final analysis it is what we believe to be true that matters.  Luther also gave us the idea of the "Priesthood of All Believers" as an inheritance.  That means that each of us is a priest in our own right and can understand the meaning of the scriptures as we seek ultimate truth.  We can understand what the Scriptures say to us individually because the Holy Spirit will grant understanding to us.

So, Happy Halloween and Happy Reformation Day!  Enjoy and celebrate and give thanks for a monk who would give up his right to be a monk and a priest so that all could know that they were priests in following their belief in the God who cannot be bought but can be approached through faith alone. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Looking Into the Future

"On Jordan's stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye, to Canaan's fair and happy land, where my possessions lie....I am bound for the promised land, I am bound for the promised land, O who will come and go with me, I am bound for the promised land."  (African-American Spiritual)

This week's lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is located in the last chapter of the book of Deuteronomy.  Moses is standing on Mount Pisgah which is also connected to Mount Nebo.  God is allowing him to look into the Promised Land, across the River Jordan to all of the land that has been promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He sees the land that will be given to the people of the Twelve Tribes.  It is the land of milk and honey, the land of many waters, a land of goodness that was described to him by the God who has led him to this point, a God that Moses has conversed with as "one friend talks to another".  Moses is 120 years old and is about to die but he is not going into the Promised Land.  He will die before getting there.

What must Moses have been thinking as he looked across the vast plains before him?  What must the view have been like for him?  What feelings must he have had as he sees the place that he will never explore?  Perhaps he was feeling a bit melancholy or sad, having led the people called Israel from slavery in Egypt across the desert until they finally arrived at the place where they would find their home.  Perhaps he was feeling tired, having walked so many miles and climbed many mountains and now needing rest.  Perhaps he just sat down on a rock and rested and let out a sigh of relief that his own journey was almost finished. 

Moses was lauded by the writers of Deuteronomy as being a prophet like no other.  There would never be another one such as Moses.  Even today Moses is held in great honor by followers of Judaism.  The great acts of God in freeing the people of Israel from slavery and Moses' part in bringing this about is held up as the ultimate against which other acts are measured.  It was God's mighty act of freedom of redemption that formed Israel into who they would become throughout their history. 

I love to be on a high place and see the surrouding countryside below me.  I have been to the Rocky Mountains and the Ozark Mountains and even the Alps in Europe.  In all those places, when I have come upon a place where I could stop and look out over the countryside below me, I have been in awe of the great beauty that I have seen as my eyes have scanned all I could see.  I remember one lookout in Germany when my wife and I were there two years ago.  We were staying in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany and had taken an all day drive to explore the countryside.  Suddenly, we came upon a scenic overlook.  We parked the car and got out and began to look at the area below us.  Little farms dotted the countryside.  Small roads ran through the area and among the many trees.  Cattle and goats and sheep were grazing here and there.  We stood there for several minutes just admiring what we saw and wishing that we could look at the scene forever.  How peaceful and tranquil it seemed!

Moses looked at a place that those who had followed him for those years would soon inhabit but he would not be going with them.  He was looking into the future that they would possess.  We do that all the time in our churches if we attempt to plan for the future.  We try to visualize what it may be like in the future, perhaps by a certain year, and then do long range planning to try to have goals to aim for as we attempt to do ministry into the future.  Sometimes the goals are easily attained but there are other ones for which we must carefully plan and perhaps even save money or raise funds for so that they can be accomplished.  It is necessary, though, to have goals for the future or we will be like the children of Israel wandering in the desert for those forty years, not making much progress and going in circles. 

"Without a vision, the people perish" so says the proverb.  That is true in our personal lives as well as in the organizations to which we belong.  Where will you be in ten years?  in twenty years?  What will you be doing?  What are your hopes for the future?  How will you bring them about?  Churches and individuals must answer those questions if they want to have direction for their lives and groups.  We are always on the edge, on the cusp of the future.  We must learn to have eyes of faith that will look into the years to come and see what we can only see by visualizing what can be and planning to achieve it. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Liquid Blessings!

The rain we have been waiting for, praying for, hoping for finally arrived yesterday.  We were blessed with between 2 and 4 inches of rain, depending on whose rain guage you ask about.  The rain was wide spread and lasted all morning and into early afternoon.  The rain formed puddles here and there where we have not seen them in many months. 

People came to church yesterday with big smiles on their faces.   The rain was the main topic of conversation as we gathered.  We included it in the announcement time and in prayer time, offering a prayer of thanksgiving for it.  Perhaps we all needed to express our feelings of joy in community.  Maybe we needed to say what we were feeling to know that others were happy too.

There is an old saying that farmers must have made up long ago--"You don't miss the milk until the cow goes dry."  It is quaint and perhaps funny but it makes some sense too.  We as humans tend to think that everything will rock along as it always has through all the years and it is only when something is missing that we realize our dependence on what we no longer have. 

We all know that we need rain.  We need it for many reasons because we use water so much in our daily lives.  We need water in order to work and live and enjoy our surroundings.  Water is life, as it has been said, and life is dependent on there being clean water when we need it.  When it is in short supply and restrictions on water usage are enacted, we begin to feel desparate.  When water begins to fall from the sky, then we feel relief and hope.  Maybe things will be okay, after all. 

This rainfall will keep us happy for a short while but soon we will be saying we need rain again.  I suppose that is true.  We need rain to fall on a regular basis to replenish what we use, to water our crops, and feed our cattle.  We need rain to make our lawns green and to make our plants grow in our yards.  We need rain to fall often and in just the right amounts so that we can know that God still cares for us as God's caretakers of the earth.  Perhaps expressing those feelings to God now and then is a positive way of expressing trust in the God who does love and care for humankind more than we can ever know. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Idols of Our Own Making

This week we have that great story about the people of Israel making that golden calf while Moses is up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments from God.  You remember that scene in the movie version.  Moses is on the mountain having a long conversation with God.  God takes a tablet of stone and begins to carve out the Ten Commandments on it, making each one come alive with fire as if the stone is in a smelter.  With the hot stone tucked in his arm, Moses begins his trek down the mountain when suddenly he begins to hear the noise of a huge party going on down below.  The people of Israel got tired of waiting for him to return so they decided to make an idol of gold, using the jewelry and other valuables they had stolen from Egypt as they made their way out of town.  Moses' brother Aaron melted down those golden pieces and formed this calf so they would have a god to worship since they were unsure of the God that Moses was chatting with up on the mountain.  The movie version has a great scene in which Moses sees the frivolity and debauchery going on down below him and gets so angry that he throws down the tablet that has the Ten Commandments printed on them and suddenly an earthquake happens and the earth swallows up a great portion of the revelers. 

The Biblical version is not quite as spectacular as the movie version.  Certainly there is lightning and thunder and smoke on the mountain and Moses does get angry at the people and smash the stone containing the Ten Commandments.  An earthquake does not happen though; instead, Moses takes the idol made of gold and they grind it down into powder and he makes the people drink water containing the gold for punishment.  Then God sends a plague on them.  So, idolatry does not pay, they learn.  Being patient and waiting for Moses is the right choice and maybe they will  make that choice the next time Moses takes off up the mountain, which happens soon because Moses has to get a copy of the Ten Commandments again.  This time, God makes Moses do the writing as Moses must have had a lesson or two to learn also, maybe one about controlling his anger. 

I love this story because it is so dramatic and high-action.  It is also very human.  It points to the idea that humans will have idols to worship even when they know that there is only one true God whom we should worship.  Few if any of us create actual idols made of stone or glass or substances found in the earth.  We think of ourselves as much more intelligent than that.  No, our idols are some of our own making that we have formed based upon the way we live our lives.  Our idols have evolved out of the persons that we have become and what we consider to be important in life. 

When I was growing up, the preacher at our church would preach for a while and then he would say, "Okay, now I've stopped preaching and gone to meddling."  So, if you think that what I begin to say now is meddling then you can leave this webpage and go back to Facebook or whereever you were before you began reading this. 

Idols of our own making evolve out of our lives and what we began to see as important to life as we became older and wiser (in our minds).  They may involve our jobs or our families or even things we may consider to be sacred to our lives.  Perhaps we put in so much time on our jobs that we have little time left for anything else.  Sure, we have to be industrious and give our best to our occupations but when we let that be the center of our lives and decide that working longer and making more money is what life is about, then perhaps our jobs have become our idols.  Maybe our leisure time has become our idol.  If we center our lives around what will be the next thing we do to have fun or what party will we attend next, then even pleasure can become an idol.  Even something that is good for us, such as exercise, can become an idol.  If we decide that we have to run the 5 minute mile (if that is possible) or we have to play tennis better than anyone we know and we will practice until our bodies can no longer take it, then maybe even that pursuit has become an idol. 

I work in the religion business so I think that going to church is an activity that everyone should be engaged in.  I want people to be in church as often as they possibly can and I think that going to church should be a regular part of one's life.  However, even going to church can become an idol if one is doing it for the wrong reasons.  I grew up in a church where we had church services four times a week, and I went to all of those services.  We also had activities that were not services on other days of the week and I was expected to be at those too.  Sometimes I went to them because of guilt or expectations of others and not because I truly wanted to be there.  Sometimes I even resented being there and wished I were elsewhere.  Religion was an addiction to some of the folks who were involved in that church and it was an idol to them because they worshiped church rather than the God who should have been at the center of life. 

Moderation and balance are two words that help us to avoid creating idols in our lives.  We all need work but we all need rest too.  Even pastors need vacations and should take them so as to preserve the energy they have for ministry in the future.  People need exercise but they also need sleep and should get both in their lives.  People need good wholesome, healthy foods and they need to live in a way that will promote good health for their bodies.  Moderation in life will bring us contentment because our strivings for things we think we want will cease and we will live in joy. 

So, you dont have to make an idol that looks like a Kon-Tiki statue or a golden calf.  An idol may suddenly sneak up on you and say, "Gotcha" and you will be surprised because you invited it in long before and did not notice that it would take over if you let it.  Life a life of moderation and contentment and worship the God who loves you more than you will ever know. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rain, Renewal, and Reason

How long has it been since we have had a rainy day that lasted all day long in Texas?  Hmmmm, it has been so long that I cannot recall such a day.  I remember one about three years ago.  It happened in April and we were visiting my mother and having a picnic at a park because her sister from Florida was visiting her.  My brother and his family were there as were my cousin and her family.  Our daughter did not go with us but she was at our house keeping watch over our animals.  About mid-day, she called us and told us to be careful coming home because there was a huge thunderstorm happening and the streets were already flooding in Houston and in the Weimar area.  We would have to travel  home through Houston so she wanted to be sure we knew that a big storm was going on even though it was not currently raining where the picnic was happening over toward the Louisiana state line.  We finished with the picnic and began our drive home, which usually takes about 3 hrs to complete.  When we were just about in the Houston vicinity, suddenly the rain began falling so hard that we could barely see in front of our car.  It rained just like that all the way through Houston, with cars slowing down to about 40 mph, and then all the way home, 75 miles west of Houston.  It rained off and on all the rest of the day and into the night.  The rain total after all ended was over 14 inches of rain in one day. 

We encountered a similar situation in Boston just a few weeks ago when we were ready to fly home from our vacation we had in the northeast.  It was raining so hard that I could barely see in front of the rental car we were driving so we made our way to the airport and turned in the car so we would not be at risk of an accident in it.  We had to sit for 3 hours in the airport waiting for our flight but we were glad to be out of that car and the traffic that was creeping through that rain.  I asked my wife that day, "How long has it been since we had a rainy day like this back home?"  I guess the answer would be three years ago.  Of course, I have a short memory, we may have had a huge rainy day 2 years ago but I cannot remember. 

There are signs on churches and businesses all over Texas urging people to pray for rain.  Our illustrious governor organized a huge prayer rally in the big stadium in Houston this past summer and prayed for rain and it is drier now than it was before he and his buddies prayed.  We have prayed for rain as have countless other churches and the sky still is as beautiful every day as it has been for many months now.  I had one person ask me why God does not grant our request for rain since we are praying so much for rain and the only answer I could come up with is, "I don't know."  That seems to be a reasonable answer in the face of insurmountable issues. 

I think the lack of rain goes into the same category with questions about why God allows evil to happen to good people or why God cannot prevent huge tragedies from occuring or why God cannot stop a tornado from hitting a town and killing countless people or why God cannot stop a wildfire from burning up over a thousand homes.  Doesn't God love us anymore?  Can't God hear any longer?  Has God become immune to our pleas and does not care any longer what happens to us? 

I think that God's love is as real as it has ever been and that God is not involved in bringing about any thing that could do us harm.  That is not the kind of God that I believe in.  I do believe that God allows humans to make choices freely and that our choices come with consequences.  When we make choices, we choose the consequences that go along with the choices.  Rain is part of the creation that God put in place when the world began.  God has not cancelled that out, obviously, because there are people in the northeast US who cannot turn the rain off.  They wish they could pump some of it down south where we are and share it with us.  God did not arrange for El Nino or La Nina to be part of the natural order--it just happens.  We do not know why it happens but it does and we have to live with it.  When the cycle changes that is now in place, the rain will come again and we will be happy once more. 

One thing that many people do not consider, however, is what we humans have been doing to the planet that may be having an effect on the weather patterns.  We are pumping lots of things into our environment that may have an effect on the sky and the clouds and the weather.  We drive millions of cars and run millions of air conditioners and have paved over many places where grass once grew and cut down many trees that once stood and who knows if all that could have an effect on our climate.  I know that there are politicians who do not believe in global warming for whatever reason and I am not writing this to convince anyone to believe or disbelieve that idea but I do think that we humans have changed the planet so much in the last 100 years that it looks very different than it did before that time period.  Maybe weather responds to what we do to the earth since the earth is a living organism and we are living beings on it. 

We can make changes to modify our negative actions such as driving less or running the air conditioner less or planting grass and trees once we have rainfall again.  We can try to look upon this planet as our home and not pollute and destroy it.  We are stewards and caretakers of the planet and we are in charge of it but we are the ones to decide what will be its future.  As we decide for the earth, we also decide for ourselves and for future generations.  We can pray for rain all we want and God is listening and cares but if we do something to prevent rain from falling, God cannot reverse what we humans have done to make things the way they are.  Perhaps God wants us to be the ones to bring about positive change so that the earth will be the place that God intended it to be. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


When I was a teacher, I often had children come to me complaining that other children were "copying" them.  No, they were not concerned about people cheating or copying their work.  They were annoyed because others were playing that game that children will play where they repeat everything that someone else says or do actions that others do.  The person who is being "copied" often yells at them and tells them not to copy them which is exactly what the copycat says back to them.  That annoyance sometimes resulted in fighting between children so we had to put a stop to it immediately. 

Adults sometimes copy others, many times not even realizing that they are doing so.  When one is around another person for an extended period of time, some people often find themselves repeating words that the other person says often or saying the words in the style that the person uses when they talk.  Many people pick up the accent of the region in which they live.  They can often be identified by the accent they have that others in the area use. 

When I lived in East Texas, people in that region of Texas had a distinctive way of saying certain words.  Sometimes a long I sound would replace a short a sound OR an aaa sound would replace a long Y sound.  The people in East Texas do not notice that they say their words in the distinctive way that they do, but once you have been removed from East Texas you may notice it when you return there.  When I have traveled in other parts of the country, some people will tell me that they knew I was from Texas because of the accent I have. 

This Sunday we will be looking at the book of Philippians during the sermon, specifically chapter two.  Paul is writing to the church at Philippi, urging them to be more like Christ.  He quotes from what many believe is an ancient hymn of the church, a hymn to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  It tells what Jesus did that makes him worthy to be worshipped as God, Lord, and Savior.  "...though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."  (Philippians 2:6-8)  Paul was telling his readers/listeners that Jesus had every right to claim the benefits of being God when he came to the earth but gave all that up so that he could live a life that other humans lived and could identify with the human condition, even the most dreadful fate that humans during that time period could suffer. 

Paul encourages the Church to imitate the humility that Christ exhibited and to strive to serve others even as Christ served all as a slave to all.  Christ's full obedience to all that humans would suffer gave him the right to be exalted so that all humanity would recognize his sacrifice and obedience someday.  Paul tells them to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12) so that they would lead lives pleasing to God. 

People who are Christians tend to live similar lives and exhibit characteristics that are similar in many ways.  They do not always agree on all the details but most sincere Christians desire for peace to reign and for justice to prevail.  They want the poor to be helped and the stranger to be befriended.  They want life in general to be good for all persons.  They want discrimination to end and equality to be the way of life.  We may not agree on social mores at times but we tend to agree on social issues that will bring about a knowledge of God's love in the world around us. 

"Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind..." (2:2b)  In other words, copy the good things you see in life as you live among one another.  Encourage one another to do good works and to think about good things.  And the God of peace will be among you.  Amen. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Looking Beyond Ourselves

Last Sunday we had the opportunity to see the new movie "The Help" that is currently playing in theaters.  It is based upon the book of the same name that has been on the bestseller list for the past two years or so.  Our church book group had read the book together and discussed it and I was anxious to see how closely it followed the book.  The producers of the film did an excellent job of translating the book into movie form.  The actors chosen to play the characters seem to fit the written description well.  It was a very entertaining and at times heartwarming movie.

In case you are not familiar with the book or the movie, it is about the 1960s era in Jackson, Mississippi.  A young woman named Skeeter decides to write a book about the lives of the black maids who help to raise the children of white families.  This was during the era in our country when black persons had to use separate restroom facilities, had to drink from separate water fountains, had to eat in separate restaurant rooms, and had to attend movies using the balconies rather than the main floor.  The Civil Rights movement had not been achieved and the movie briefly mentioned the death of Medgar Evers and the beginnings of the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King.  It also mentions the death of President John F. Kennedy with a scene of the family watching the funeral on television.

Skeeter is connected to a group of young socialite women headed by a cynical and mean spirited woman need Hilley.  This woman is promoting a plan she wants imposed upon citizens of Mississippi that would require anyone with a black maid to build a separate restroom for them as she does not want black persons to use the same restroom that she uses.  She believes that white people can receive diseases from touching black people or using the same restrooms that they use so she is very enthusiastic about her plan and wants others to join her crusade.  This is all going on at the same time that Skeeter is interviewing black maids so that she can write a book about their lives. 

The movie focuses on these two women and the crusades in their lives which push them in opposite directions resulting in the dissolution of their friendship.  Neither can see life from the point of view of the other because their individual interests become the central focus in their lives.  The character Hilley reminds me of Jonah from the book of the Bible by the same name.  Jonah is told by God to go preach to the people of Ninevah because God planned to destroy their city and God wanted to give them the opportunity to repent before this happened to them.  Jonah hated the people of Ninevah because they were the enemies of the people of Israel.  He did not want them to repent.  He wanted them to be destroyed. 

Jonah finally reached Ninevah (despite a side trip to Tarshish and spending a night in the stomach of a fish) and did what God asked him to do with the result he expected--the people of Ninevah repented of their sins and God decided not to destroy them after all.  Jonah's reaction to this news was that he went out of town and found a big bush to sit under and pout because his enemies were not destroyed after all.  The plant soon died and Jonah mourned for it because it was gone.  God has the last line in the book of Jonah because here is what he said about Jonah's actions: "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned for Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"  (Jonah 4:10-11)

God was challenging Jonah's attitudes about life.  He could be concerned about a plant that provided him some shade but he could not be bothered to care about thousands of people who may have died.  Jonah had a deep prejudice against the Ninevites based upon their history with his people, the Israelites.  He would have been pleased for them to have been wiped off the globe.  After all, his people were God's people and they were the enemies of God's People.  Obviously, though, God had other people than just the Israelites.  God must have loved the Ninevites also or God would not have decided to give them a chance to repent in the face of their destruction.

In the era from 1860 to 1960, it was okay to many people to treat persons of color as less than full humans because some in society decided that was the approved system of behavior.  That system was challenged by those who did not approve of that sanctioned way of living and finally in the courts of the USA and equal civil rights were guaranteed by law for persons of color as well as others.  Today, that way of life seems so far in the past.  Some persons who did not live in that era may even think that such a story such as The Help must have been fabricated.  It does not take one long to look at society today,  however, to see other examples of how humans continue to mistreat other human beings based upon a characteristic or trait that they find unacceptable.  It may not be based on color now; it may be based upon ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, status of citizenship, or other factors of one's choosing.  We as a society continue to have a long way to go to reach the place where we treat others with equal respect regardless of who they may be.  The question continues to be not if discrimination will be imposed upon some but who will society choose to level its discrimination at next?

Skeeter chose to look at her black neighbors in the Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s as equals.  Something in her life equipped her to do this.  Her friends who were involved in the social scene of society were not as well equipped and chose to continue the system that looked upon persons of color as inferior and perhaps even dangerous.  The Civil Rights movement upset their comfortable social system and their lifestyles that were a century old and more.  The end result for Skeeter was that she had to leave her home of origin and venture out into the world where people lived who shared her common ideas.  You may say she was ahead of the times in which she lived.  You may say that she was misplaced or that she outgrew her past.  In any case, you may also say that her life included attributes that others in her hometown did not seem to have, those of compassion, mercy, and grace.           

Monday, September 12, 2011

Forgive and Forget?

Today is September 12, 2011.  Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the attacks that happened on September 11, 2001.  It was hard not to know that this anniversary was being marked.  There were special programs on television revisiting those terrible days when we did not truly understand what was going on in our world.  There were special dedications of monuments to the victims who died in those attacks.  The day was a solemn one, as it should have been, even though life went on with football games and other sports activities that normally are held on a Sunday in our country. 

We had a church service that remembered and reflected upon our lives and our country and what all this may mean to us.  We had special music and celebrated Holy Communion together.  The attendance at the service was a bit more than usual and that was heart warming.  The sermon centered on a passage from Romans where the Early Church was told to love their neighbors and in so doing they would fulfill all the commandments because "love can do no wrong to a neighbor."  We talked a bit about forgiveness and how some people are able to forgive and go on with their lives but some are not able to do so because they have been wounded so badly. 

It brings to mind the question, "Is it always possible to forgive and forget?"  Can we forgive despite not being able to forget or does the remembrance of the pain we have require forgiveness to be granted by us repeatedly as we recall the pain?  Will we eventually move on and think about the circumstances surrounding the pain less and less and eventually be able to truly forgive and forget?  Perhaps human nature and our biological makeup causes us to be more or less able to truly forgive others.  Some persons are blessed with "forgiving spirits" and over look wrongs more easily than others.  Some persons' natures lend those persons to be pained more deeply and they are often the ones who are less about to forgive others.

Forgiveness is at the very heart of the Christian message.  The teachings of Jesus and Paul require forgiveness of those who wear the name Christian and, without it, one cannot truly call oneself a Christian.  Yesterday, we read the passage from Matthew where Peter asks Jesus how many times must he forgive someone and Peter boldly names 7 as a generous number of times to forgive another person.  Jesus replies that 7 is not enough and in fact one must forgive either 77 times or 490 times (depending on the version of the Bible you read).  The idea is that 7 may be a generous number of times to grant forgiveness to someone but God requires an extravagant response by Christ's followers because they have received such an extravagant amount of forgiveness from God.

I have heard people remark, "I may forgive but I will never forget."  That response somehow makes me wonder if that person truly does strive to forgive or if forgiveness is just a concept of a word that they want to embrace but they cannot truly understand how to enact that in their lives.  Forgiveness is not always easy, and when we have been wounded deeply, it is not done quickly either.  Forgiveness may take years, even decades, to truly be accomplished in our lives.  We just passed the ten year mark in the life of our country and perhaps we are receiving some healing but there is still much more that can be done in our lives as we strive to love our neighbors as ourselves in response to God's own extravagant love toward us. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

The End

That is what you see when you finish a book or watch a movie.  They suddenly stop.  Sometimes there is a satisfactory conclusion, one that is to our liking and sometimes we almost cry out, "No! Don't end this way!"  I remember seeing a movie called "Under the Same Moon".  It was the story of a woman who left Mexico to come the US to work.  She was an illegal alien and took many risks to get to the US so that she could send money back to her parents who were taking care of her elementary age son.  The boy began missing his mother and decided that he would go the US himself and find his mother.  He had her address on an envelope from a letter she had sent him so he started out on the long journey of crossing the border illegally and falling into the company of some not so good company.  He looked up at the full moon in the sky many times and imagined that his mother was looking at it too.  Finally, he reached California where his mother lived and began his search.  It took him a long time and then, by chance he located her.  The two of them stood on opposite sides of a busy street on corners looking at each other.  Would he wait for the light to change or rush into the street endangering himself?  And then the movie ended.  I literally said aloud, "NO!" 

I will never know what happened to that boy or his mother.  Perhaps that left the door open for a sequel to be made someday.  The book of Revelation in the Bible ends in such a manner but we have a satisfactory ending.  The story is told of the Christians in seven churches who are being persecuted by the Roman Empire and its ruler, Domitian.  God tries to deal with him to convince him to stop the madness he is visiting on the Church but he is convinced that he is a god and wants everyone to worship him instead of the God of Israel so he continues to murder Christians who refuse to worship him.  God brings about plauge after plague onto the Roman Empire (sounds a bit like the story of Pharoah in Exodus, doesn't it?) until finally all of Babylon (the name for Rome in Revelation) comes crashing down in defeat.  The saints in heaven rejoice and those who gave their lives in martydom are welcomed into Paradise.  John describes what that looks like for them and their new life is filled with joy forever. 

The central theme of Revelation is trust in God, faithfulness even in time of trial.  John urges his listeners to stay true to God and not give up because they will conquer if they continue to be true to what God has revealed to them.  That theme speaks to us in our day also because we are tempted to give up when we think our prayers are not answered.  We lose hope in the face of adverse circumstances.  We live in a world that seems to be out of control so we wonder how we will manage in such an environment. 

People who live in our part of Texas are genuinely worried about the lack of rain.  We look at our brilliant blue skies day after day, many times cloudless, and wonder when we will see rain falling again.  Our days are long and hot and the water we have is drying up before our eyes.  When will it rain again? We are beginning to wonder if it will ever rain again for us.  It does not matter that the Governor called a big prayer rally in Houston and prayed for rain.  Still, no rain has fallen.  It does not matter that a local church had a 24 hour prayer chain for rain recently--still no rain.  We may even wonder what do we have to do to make it rain.  What can WE do?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question there.  Maybe we do not have to do anything except trust God to provide for us as God will.  Maybe the lack of rain has little to do with what we can do but more to do with our faith in God and how we will sustain it in the face of adverse conditions.  Can we continue to trust God when we do not see results from our prayers?  Can we continue to know that God will provide when one of the necessities of life seems to be disappearing?  Will God allow us to go without water and not be able to meet our basic needs? 

There have been many times over the course of human history when humans have been affected by adverse circumstances.  In all of the times, humans have survived by trust and courage and the strength of the human spirit.  God has enabled humans with intellect and courage so that they can assist one another in times of adversity.  Our need is real but the circumstances are not as dire as we may imagine if we begin to work together creatively to search for an answer.  Perhaps God wants us to stop wasting water in the many myriad ways that humans waste this precious commodity.  Perhaps we are to think about conservation and better ways of living rather than how we can have enough water to live as we are accustomed to living.  Our modern lifestyle has convinced us that we must live in a certain fashion to be comfortable but we may need to reconsider what it means to live with the resources we have at our disposal. 

When the Christians in the first century began to lose hope, John described for them a scene of beauty and plenty that would be theirs if they continued to trust and persevere.  His message to them is also the message for us--God is still in control.  Don't give up but continue to trust, even in the face of challenges, and we will see the outcome that will be revealed to us in the future. 

"For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."  (Jeremiah 29:11)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Heaven Can Wait...or can it?

There is an old, old story about a Sunday School teacher who was talking about God with her class of preschool children.  She was talking about what it means to know God and how God will take people to heaven someday.  She asked the class how many of the children wanted to go to heaven.  All the boys and girls raised their hands except for one small boy.  The teacher looked at him with a puzzled expression and said, "Johnny, you don't want to go to heaven when you die?"  Johnny smiled and answered, "Sure, I want to go to heaven when I die.  I thought you were getting a group up to go now." 

That is similar to the sentiment shared in the old country song, "Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die."  Going to heaven sounds like a good idea (especially in contrast with what some teach is the opposite of going to heaven).  Living in Paradise for eternity (and that's a long, long time) would be great, and especially if the version of heaven was what is contained in the book of Revelation.  A new heaven and a new earth, a river of life with trees that grow a different fruit for each month of the year, no nighttime ever because God shines eternal light everywhere, no sadness or tears because God has erased all of that, and no pain, sickness, or death.  Heaven is what the word implies...eternal bliss!

Everyone has a different idea of what they think heaven is like.  A recent program on television featured interviews with persons who had end of life experiences.  They had died for a short time and then returned to life.  All those who were interviewed had some similarities in their stories....seeing their bodies below them as they drifted off in space somewhere, a feeling of peace and contentment and no fear, being greeted by persons they had known in life who had died before they did.  The stories were not exactly the same though because some people saw others who had gone before them and they saw them as they were when they last saw them....old, missing fingers, still wrinkled, which seems to go against the grain of perfection and newness of life that many of us assumed would be involved in being in heaven.  In some instances, the persons they saw informed them that they could not stay in heaven but had to return to earth.  One woman who claimed to be an athiest and does not believe in heaven saw her uncle talking to her even though she did not think he was in heaven.  He just told her to turn around and go back because she had work to complete in life. 

Some people experienced the stereotypical heavenly experience...gates of gold, angels singing, clouds...while others saw it as an everyday street scene or pastoral country scene with no heavenly adornments.  The interviewer talked with scientists who are doing experiments with people who have had these experiences to try to determine if there is a chemical in the brain that channels what we dream or experience that makes such experiences so particular to each person.  They were even doing research comparing the athiest brain with the highly religious brain and the research seemed to indicate that there is a great difference in certain parts of the brain depending on one's religious views or experiences. 

We have been studying the book of Revelation for the past six weeks at our church and this Sunday will be the seventh and last sermon taken from that book.  Seven is God's perfect number in Revelation so it is quite appropriate that we are concluding the series this week.  God forbid that we should have stopped after six sermons, that would have been a little risky (with the problem with the number 6 that keeps cropping up in Revelation).  This week the sermon is entitled, "Victory and New Creation" because it centers on the final three chapters and the vision of the new heaven and new earth and what awaits those persecuted saints from the time of John in the First Century.  They had suffered greatly at the hands of their Roman oppressors so they deserved a grand view of the heavenly place that they would inhabit.  After they had been tortured and many had given their lives for refusing to worship the Emperor, they would find themselves in a paradise with no worries that would last forever. 

That heavenly vision is part of our culture and faith tradition also.  Most Christians have a very literal understanding of what heaven is about taken from John's Revelation.  Songs of every genre have described it as lush and extravagant and everlasting...paradise indeed.  Perhaps we need that comfort as much as the first century Christians did because our suffering may not be on the same order as theirs but our suffering is for us as serious as theirs was to them.  When one has seen someone suffer many months due to cancer or heart disease or Alzheimers Disease or any other modern plague, they have witnessed suffering firsthand and felt helpless in its face.  Just as the early Christians witnessed their friends and neighbors being executed by the Roman government and could do nothing to prevent it, we also witness life and death played out around us and we are helpless to do anything.  Maybe it is that helplessness and lack of control that makes us wish for something much better as a reward for our suffering.  Life is wonderful most of the time but the segments that are miserable cry out for relief.

Heaven represents for us what nothing else can....peace, contentment, a lack of anxiety and fear, no striving to make life to be what we want it to be....relief from all that causes us pain.  Heaven is somewhere in our future but some also believe it can be in our present as we attempt to live in such a way that we strive to empty ourselves of what plagues us and allow peace from a source greater than ourselves to fill us. 

"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things...and the God of peace will be with you."  (Philippians 4: 8, 9b)