Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Reflections

Today is Memorial Day, May 30, 2011.  Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the summer in the same way that Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer.  Both holidays were rather vague in the home in which I grew up.  We rarely did anything of any importance on those days.  We mainly ate breakfast, watched television, sat or laid around the house, took a nap perhaps, grilled meat and ate lunch, and pretty much wasted the day.  There may have been years when we took a trip over one of those holidays but I hardly remember them if we did. 

One year I remember we went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas over a holiday weekend and went to see the Great Passion Play.  My parents never made hotel reservations and would always just show up at a motel and then argue about whether or not they would pay the asking price for a room.  If they decided that the price was too high, then we drove on to another motel.  My mother always went to the desk and asked how much the room was, then if she thought the price was okay she would come to the car and tell my father.  If he thought the price was okay also, then my mother would get the key to the room and go inspect it to be sure it was clean and suited for our family of five.  Then, she would go in and fill out the registration card and then we would drive up to the room and unload and begin exploring the room and motel.  We three kids always wanted there to be a pool but most times my parents chose to stay at what was called a "tourist court" which was a family operated small motel that had places to pull one's car in beside the room one had rented.  Some of those establishments had small playgrounds for children of the swingset variety but most did not have swimming pools.  So, we children would play on the playground and walk the premises to explore it and then return to the room to be bored until it was time to do something else.  Sometimes the tourist court rooms also provided a kitchenette in which my mother could prepare a meal adding to her traveling pleasure. 

When we went to see the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas over that holiday weekend which was either Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend, my parents once again did not make hotel reservations and instead decided to stop at a tourist court and find a place to spend the night.  This time the plan did not work out well because there was either a convention in town or more people wanted to see the Great Passion Play than we had counted on and every motel of any kind, including non-tourist court motels, were full.  My dad decided that we should see the Great Passion Play since we had traveled from southeast Texas to Eureka Springs in a long drive and my mother would not be satisfied until she saw her savior nailed to the cross and hopefully risen again, or at least an actor portraying her savior.  So, we saw the Great Passion Play which began near sunset and went on into the night past the bedtime of children and when it was over and my dad had negotiated all the traffic amid many horn honkings and impatience of the many drivers, we began to drive west toward Fort Smith.

Time drifted on and children fell asleep and we roused now and then when my father stopped the car at a motel for my mother to go in to see if they had a room available only for her to return shaking her head and the car began moving again.  This went on for a few hours until finally we found a room in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which is a fairly good distance from Eureka Springs and a non-tourist court motel at a higher than usual price was found when the clock said 2:00 a.m. or so.  I remember very little about that night except sleeping in the back seat between my brother and sister and then going groggily into the night into the hotel room that we would only sleep in before beginning our trip back to southeast Texas the next day. 

That trip and others like it both with my parents and then once I had become a parent convinced me to always make hotel reservations before going anywhere that requires an overnights stay.  Today I rarely travel anywhere, both at home and abroad, without having the reservations lined up months in advance.  I may not always know where I am going but I always know where I will sleep when I get there. 

Memorial Day should not be a weekend to take a marathon trip of 700 miles one way and then return over the course of three days.  It should be more relaxed and restful, so that the spirit as well as the body has time to reflect upon why we have the holiday at all.  Memorial Day began as Decoration Day soon after the Civil War so that people could remember those who had died during that terrible, tragic chapter in our nation's history.  Both sides of that conflict had many, many young people who gave their lives for what they considered to be a noble cause.  Today, the Civil War stands as the only war in our history where we Americans killed one another over our differences of ideas.  Today, we mourn the loss of many brave young and older men and women who have given their lives in service to their country and who have lost their lives in their efforts in service.  We honor them because they did something that many of us have never done and we would rather not do.  We live freely because of their sacrifice and we pause on this one day each year to remember and give thanks and reflect, in whatever way we chose. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Unknown God

Why do you think about God in the way you do?  Perhaps you do not think about God at all.  Some people rarely if ever think about God.  They learned from someone in their lives that either God does not exist or God does not care about human beings.  Perhaps you have an image of what God is like in your mind based upon what someone told you in the past.  Maybe God is a big man sitting in a large chair looking down upon the earth from the heavens above keeping watch in case someone slips up so he can send a lightning bolt where and when it is needed.  I grew up with that image of God that the church of my childhood helped me form and it has taken me several decades to rid myself of that picture in my mind.  Perhaps you were lucky enough for someone to compare God with the Good Shepherd that Jesus talks about in the Gospels- a shepherd who carries the lambs while the mother sheep walks by his side into the place where green grass is plentiful and a stream of pure water flows by.  What a peaceful image of God that is!

The ancient people in the Roman Empire were immersed in the religious thinking of the Greeks.  They believed the stories that we call Greek Mythology and they had temples dedicated to the various gods and goddesses of the tales.  Paul encountered deep thinkers on the Aeropagus, a hill overlooking Athens, and noticed as he made his way to that hill that there were many temples to the various deities and one to "the unknown god" to be sure that they had not missed one of the plethora of gods.  These Greeks would meet on the hill and discuss whatever would be the topic of the day.  Anyone was free to address them but that one had to risk the reaction of the group to what was said.

Paul began to tell them about "the unknown god" that he knew, the God of Israel made real to him in the person of Jesus Christ.  He told them about the God of creation and all that God had provided for humankind and concluded with the idea that God had worked finally by raising a man from the dead.  To this idea, the crowd divided into two camps--one that scoffed at his thinking and another that said they would hear him on another day.  Paul's sermon to them challenged their thinking about what kind of deity he worshiped and if the deities they enshrined were the same as the one he described. 

The unknown god is still alive and well in the hearts and minds of many today.  They want to believe that such a god exists but they cannot seem to wrap their minds around it and explain it in terms that they can convince themselves concerning it.  The idea that a God who is invisible and has all the attributes that we religious folk ascribe to it is beyond their comprehension.  It may even appear as foolishness to them.  On the surface level, they are right about that.  It is foolishness to those who want to rationalize it or explain it in scientific terms.  It cannot be explained.  Paul wrote to the church at Corinth concerning this and said that "to us who are being saved it is the power of God."  (I Cor. 1:18).  This implies that belief in a God such as the one that many of us believe exists requires more than explanation--it requires faith. 

Many people have been wounded by organized religion.  They at one time put their trust in the system that taught them about God but someone in that system used or misused religion to bring harm rather than good to persons within their care.  They may now describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" so as to explain that they still do believe in something beyond themselves but they no longer need a religious dogma to define it.  They long to experience something transcendental, something extraordinary, but cannot seem to reach out beyond themselves to embrace what has been defined by others from the past regarding the trancendental.  They are still seeking "the unknown god" even if they do not realize it. 

Many of us were taught by others in our lives that our concept of God was to be a limited and limiting one, that one had to fit into a certain, prescribed box or set of ideas in order for that God to love us or to be pleased with us.  The set of ideas were crafted by people who interpreted the Bible so as to provide evidence to make their set of ideas seem to be authoritative for our lives.  Some of the ideas were valid by any interpretation of scripture but others were projected as biblical while they were actually a reflection of the thinking of a certain person or group of persons.  Our image of God was reshaped by life and experience and we shed earlier ideas that had been taught to us and adopted new ones that we felt more comfortable including in our lives. 

There are very few things about God that people absolutely must believe but the few things are important.  First, God is love and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Second, we should love others because God loves us.  Third, God loves us the way we are and accepts us for who we are and if God does that for us, we should strive to do that for others.  (See I John for more information.)  As St. Paul said to the crowd gathered on the hill in Athens..."what you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you," and modern day persons can find in this image of God one that loves and cares for all of humanity, even those who are not sure what kind of God this one is. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Fresh Start

It is amazing what a little vacation time will do for a person.  I had not had time away since last December so I was ready for some vacation time.  Pastors live a pretty busy life as it is but then add in Lent and Easter and four funerals and a wedding or two and it can be pretty draining.  So, with Easter in the near past, my wife and I set out on a driving trip to the western US.  We began in the rain in Austin, giving our congregation reason to rejoice (not because we were leaving town, I hope, but because of the drought we have been suffering through for a long time), driving through rain that was so heavy that we had to slow our car down considerably in Austin.  We took the route west that took us through Lampasas, Brownwood, Abilene, Sweetwater, Lubbock, and then to Amarillo, stopping to spend the night there.  After a delicious dinner, a good night's sleep, and a filling breakfast, we set out the next morning for Albuquerque and a wonderful B&B where we would stay three nights.  The great plains west of Amarillo gave way to open country with little on it but shrub brush and an occasional cow or two.  The vast open prairie surrounded us and I gave a big sigh as we drove for a few hours toward our destination for the day.  I could feel the tension releasing and the anxiety of daily living giving way to pleasant conversation.

We reached Albuquerque before noon so we decided to begin the tourism in earnest with a visit to the Sandia Tram that takes you from ground level to the top of Sandia Peak.  It is billed as the longest tram in the world with its final span being over two miles.  The guide told us that only the tram in Chamonix, France was longer or higher in its span and that one had a glass bottom so that you could see the ground below your feet as you swooped over the countryside.  Luckily, ours had a normal bottom so you could only see your feet and those of the other passengers.  We reached the top where we looked across the plains between Sandia Peak and the mountains to the west where Albuquerque sits.  Again, I gave a huge sigh and gazed across that beautiful scenery below, thankful for the beauty of the earth and the coolness of the breeze across my face.

We had a great picnic lunch in a desert-like park not too far from the tram and then drove to our B&B to begin our stay for three nights there.  This was our second time to stay at this one and the innkeepers greeted us like we were old friends.  Our stay there was wonderful with bountiful breakfasts provided each day to get our day started as we explored Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  Then we drove north to Glen Haven, Colorado, just outside of Estes Park, where we stayed for three nights in a housekeeping cabin, spending time doing short hikes, looking around, shopping, and cooking for ourselves.  We visited with our son and then began the two day drive home, feeling much more relaxed then when we had left a week before.

I am always puzzled by people who say they never go anywhere for vacation.  I always tell my congregation that I am a much better pastor when I return from vacation than when I left for it.  I need time away now and then to recharge my spiritual and emotional batteries.  I think it was Jesus who told his disciples to "come away to a quiet place" for a while.  He knew the need for spiritual renewal and that it sometimes can only come by taking a break from the routine and life as we know it regularly.  I truly need time away, away from the schedule I keep and the commits I have taken on as a pastor.  I have to take a break now and then or I will not be able to function as I should.  I know some people who take a week's vacation and then will just stay home for that week.  They are much better at that than I am.  The phone continues to ring and people continue to have demands on my time when I am at home.  I consider myself on call 24 hours a day and 7 days a week so my congregation can call on me anytime and I will be there for them.  That is the life of a pastor.  So, when I go on vacation, I leave all that behind and I am physically and emotionally transported to another time and place.

The sighs I mentioned happen to me often when I am away.  It is as if something in my spirit gives a big sigh of relief and I can actually feel the stress leaving my body.  I can begin to really relax and be the silly self that I usually am when I am free from worry.  We all need to provide for ourselves time away and to take that time away regularly so we can be the people we know that we need to be when we are in ministry to others.  We are all called upon to serve others continually.  We get that fresh start we need and renewed energy by taking time for ourselves regularly. 

New Blog Address

Hello to all who have been reading or following my blog in the past that was located at the United Church of Christ website.  They are discontinuing the offer to have a blog with them so I had to find a new blog address.  This is the place where you can find "Weimar Wanderings" if you had been reading it at the other location.  I will continue to blog about church or religious matters or life in general at this address so I hope you will continue the journey with me.  I look forward to hearing from you.  Many blessings on this first day of the week.