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)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?

Does anybody care?  That title question and the one that followed were contained in a pop song popular in the 1970s, I believe.  I think it could have been recorded by Three Dog Night but I could be wrong and if I am it is okay to tell me the group that really recorded the song.  The questions posed in the song, however, are just as true today as they were when the song was recorded.  Yes, they do have to do with whether or not anyone really knows what the literal time of day is AND if anyone really cares what time is it.  The questions have a lot to do, though, with whether or not anyone really cares about anything.

Caring about anything is a matter of priorities.  We all care about what we care about because we think those things are important enough to care about.  We do what we do because we want to do it.  After we stop being children, there are few of us who are ordered about to do things against our will unless we are being held captive in a hospital or prison or some other facility from which we cannot escape.  Otherwise, we generally do what we want to do because we want to do it.  No one forces us to do what we do not want to do.

Yes, we go to work because we have to go to work even when we do not feel like going to work because there are bills to pay and obligations that must be met, but we all know of people who just suddenly decided to stop going to work and fulfilling the obligations because they had enough and would prefer to live on the street or with a kind relative rather than have to do what was required to live the life they were living.  No one forced them to continue their job or keep coming home to the family.  They just gave up the rat race and all there was in it and preferred to be poor and happy being poor.  Maybe they gave up the will to care about it also. 

That is what I mean by people having to care about something in order to do it.  We do things that we would perhaps prefer to not do simply because we recognize the need to do it if we want to continue to have benefits that may be accrued from our doing those things.  We also do not do things because we do not value them, for one reason or the other.  When we really do not care one way or another about something, then whether it happens or not or whether we are involved with it or not is of no concern to us.

The song asks, "Does anyone really know what time is it?" implying that our concept of what time it is may not always be accurate.  We may look at our watch and decide what time it is and someone else may have a watch with a completely different time on it.  The time may be on my watch or the watch belonging to someone else but who is to say whose time is correct, and who is to say that we should even care.   

Caring about the things of life that we do not care about takes a will to do so.  It means that we reach a place in life where our needs or desires are not the only ones that we can care about.  It means that we put others and our faith community ahead of our own pleasures.  It means that we determine in life that life can be broader than what it is for us.  When we decide that life will be what it will be then we will be able to know what time it is for us.  Our lives can be what we want them to be by putting our priorities where they should be. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Doldrums

When I was growing up and still in school, I remember the teacher telling us one day about "the doldrums" which were regions north of the equator where the wind seldom blew, often trapping sailors on sail boats for long periods of time.  The doldrums would cause some of them to go insane and they would jump into the ocean and drown rather than stay on the ship and not be able to go anywhere.  The doldrums were not far from the "Horse Latitudes" which was the same condition but they got their name because the sailors would throw their horses overboard rather than jumping overboard themselves. 

The word "doldrums" got into the English language as a word meaning that one is in a funk and not able to feel anything that would make a person get excited about life.  Sometimes the doldrums come about as a result of the weather.  February and August are months of opposite extremes that produce the doldrums in many people.  Few people enjoy either month, except February has the saving grace of containing Valentine's Day which spices things up while August contains nothing, no holidays, nothing to celebrate unless one has a birthday or anniversary and then you can make your own celebration to observe. 

Our very hot summer is producing the doldrums among many people that I know.  Our fair town is a veritable ghost town once people go home from work or on Sunday afternoons and evenings.  Even Saturday afternoons are near ghost town status as most citizens are indoors not daring to venture too far from home lest they feel the effects of the hot, hot summer. 

Someone actually collected the names of special days that individuals or groups invented for August so that there would be some diversion to take our minds off how much we hate August.  So, today is "Sneak some Zucchini on your neighbor's porch" day.  Sounds like a good idea for many parts of the country but in Texas we have such little water that zucchini and most other plants are not growing.  We would welcome zucchini.  You do not have to sneak up on us with it...just hand it over. 

Tomorrow is Book Lovers Day that encourages you to read a book--a good idea anytime but long lazy summer days invite book reading.  Wednesday is National S'mores Day, a day to make and enjoy smores, perhaps with a friend.  Can you make s'mores indoors without leaving your air conditioning or do you actually have to venture outside to do it?  Since we are under a burn ban and cannot build a campfire outdoors legally, then it may be wise to celebrate s'mores eating over the burner on your electric or gas stove inside. 

There are many more holidays that can be found at if you want to know what other days you can celebrate to break the monotony of August and get out of the doldrums.  My dear mother used to quote a Bible verse to us in the summer when we were trying to be lazy.  She always quoted the King James Version of the Bible so it went something like, "Whatsoever your hands find to to, do it with all thy might."  While it was encouraging people finding work to do, it also seemed to encourage obsessive behavior.  I personally wanted to be very lazy in August and do very little (which are legitimate August holidays on Aug. 10 and 15).  One can give in to the doldrums now and then as long as it does not become obsessive in itself.  If so, the very idea of the doldrums does not work. 

I plan to read a book tomorrow and perhaps make a personal s'mores if I get the energy but if not I will just celebrate Lazy Day and Relaxation Day this week and end with National Creamsicle Day on Sunday.  Maybe the easiest way of dealing with the doldrums is just to laugh at them, and laugh at August altogether.  If you make enjoyment a part of your day, then the doldrums have nowhere to live and have to just vanish.  Soon, we hope and pray and envision in our dreams, the heat will give way to a cold front and we can all do the dance of joy and forget about what bugged us about August. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Rare, Medium Well, or Well Done?

No, we are not having steak today--the headline of our local paper, the Weimar Mercury, proclaims today, "Weimar Area Bakes in 100-Plus Degrees".  The article that accompanies the story tells the same information that we have been gathering via the newscasts on television, that this July was the hottest ever in Texas and that the drought that we have been suffering with continues.  Our ray of hope called Tropical Storm Don fizzled out last week and only brought about an inch of rain to the far Texas valley, which I am sure they appreciated.  Our beautiful blue Texas skies continue to be blue and cloud free most days.  We all look at the sky and wish for a dark spot to arise only to be disappointed time after time. 

When will the heat end?  When will the drought end?  When will it rain?  These are all questions that many are asking and to be honest, there is no answer to satisfy the questions.  It will rain when it rains and it will be cooler when it happens.  Most likely, it will be September or later when things change because that is when it usually happens in this part of the world.  Cold fronts rarely if ever make it this far south until September at the earliest and most years it is October before we have one that really makes a difference. 

I grew up over near Beaumont, Texas near a small town that some have actually heard me name and we used to have what we called "Blue Northers" that came through in the fall.  Living south of a paper mill that was about 10 miles away, we could smell the change in the air as well as feel it when it happened.  The smell is not pleasant but it was a sign unto us that the air would be turning cooler.  I remember as a boy standing outside our home and looking northward at the dark, gray-blue sky, menacing and a little scary, but still awe-inspiring also.  Sometimes there would be rain to accompany the cold front coming through but sometimes it would simply overtake us, the temperature dropping 20 to 30 degrees in a matter of a few minutes and the smell of the paper mill filling our nostrils.  Most of the time my mother would yell at me to come in the house and I would take my time retreating because I loved to be outside and feel the change happen to me even as it happened to the world around me. 

Ah, what we would give for a blue norther on this day, August 4.  What a miracle it would be indeed.  It would be one to add to the record books just as these hot days are doing on a daily basis when we hear the newscast from the local cities.  Our local paper next week would have a big bold headline, "Weimar Temperatures Drop 20 degrees in 5 minutes--in August!!"  We would talk about it all over town and it would make the news in all the surrounding cities too.  It would refresh our spirits and make us laugh and talk and even sing.  If it were accompanied by rain, who knows--some of us may even dance and sing in the rain because we are so happy. 

Let's admit it....August summer days are not really newsworthy.  Even normal August weather is just ho-hum.  When the impossible seems to happen, though, it is news.  It just so happens that the impossible that we are experiencing is what we dread instead of what we rejoice in happening.  We fear the effects of the weather that are foreboding and speak of lack instead of abundance.  We want it to go away because we cannot bear to think about what it would be like if this was the rule rather than the exception.  What if....Texas was like this every summer?  What if....rain rarely happened where we live and a vast new desert was emerging in a place where there once was green and lush surroundings?  What if....?

In the church that I pastor we have a saying, "God is still speaking."  We usually want to think about God speaking to us in the good and pleasant events of life but what if God speaks to humans through every part of life?  Can God speak to us through a drought?  Can God speak to us through extremely hot weather?  What is God saying to us when we experience parts of life that we would rather avoid?  What does God say to you when you are hot and thirsty?  What if God is still speaking to you and to me in this time and place, even when we wish things were different than they are?  What would God's message to you and me be? 

Monday, August 1, 2011

A New Month But What a Month

Years ago I saw a cartoon of our friend Garfield who said "February is the Monday of months" meaning that it is a month that people dread coming because of the darkness of it and the extreme cold that it brings with it in some parts of the world.  I guess if you live in the South as we do, then February is not as extreme as in the other parts of the U.S. but if I were to compare a month with what most of us think of Monday, I would pick August instead.  It is the Monday of the months to me.

I have never especially enjoyed or liked August.  Yes, I know that many people have a birthday in August (including my dear old Dad who now celebrates his birthday every August 17 in heaven) and some have wedding anniversaries in August and maybe some even take vacations in August so they look forward to it all year long.  August in Texas, however, is the long, hot month that we must survive if we want to feel the cool air of autumn that may come later in September.  August was always the most boring month too when I was growing up because school would begin late in the month and we could not stray too far from home since we had to prepare for school to begin.  So, long hot summer days were spent wishing it were not August and dreading the beginning of school which would come along soon enough.

I no longer attend school and have to prepare for it and do not have children or grandchildren who must be in preparation mode for school so August is simply a month to endure while we wait for September to arrive.  I wish I could find something pleasant to report about August but I have to tell you that I am part of the August-haters club.  I simply wish it did not exist and we could just go from July straight to September and bring in autumn one month sooner.  Maybe it is not August that I hate but the heat of summer.  Perhaps if I lived in the cool Rocky Mountains or along the coast of Washington state where the temperatures in the summer are moderate or even pleasant, then I would welcome long lazy August days so I could enjoy every moment of them.  I may just have to move to one of those places when I retire from work and enjoy all that the residents of those places seem to have to enjoy in August.  For now, though, it is a matter of simple endurance.  Can I hang on through the month and come out on the other side of it to bring September to reality? 

What a very sad outlook on life is that, huh?  Shouldn't we enjoy every day as a gift and treasure every moment?  I guess I really do but I like to be comfortable when I am enjoying and treasuring and not baking in the oven we call Texas.  If I had the freedom to escape the Texas heat and run away to one of those forementioned places, perhaps I would feel great about the August state of mind I would have.  I know that I can do nothing about the current circumstances though so what can I do to try to enjoy August in Texas while I wait for September to come (and not waste 1/12 of my life every year)?  Perhaps I can try to echo the words of the writer who said, "I have learned to be content in whatever state I find myself in."  When he said "state" he did not mean what I want it to me.  I could learn to be content in another state that is more comfortable than in my current one, for sure.  I think he meant, to be content in whatever circumstances one finds oneself in.  That takes a lot of courage and commitment because we most often do not want our circumstances if they are not to our liking.  We want them to be different and now. 

Finding contentment is an internal exercise and not dependent upon the circumstances surrounding oneself.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis for his part in the plot to overthrow the Third Reich.  He was imprisoned and finally hung along with others.  During the time of his imprisonment he wrote some of the most meaningful and inspirational writings of his pastoral career.  Despite his confinement and the threat of his death, he found the inner strength to share his thoughts that are resources to modern Christians today.  Perhaps he saw his circumstances as being things he had no control over and gave ultimate control to the One in whose hands he knew he belonged.  When we attempt to be in control of our lives, we will only find exasperation but when we yield control to a power higher than ourselves, we will find the freedom we have always searched for. 

August will always be August and I will not enjoy the heat that comes with it as long as I live in Texas.  Since I am in Texas for the foreseeable future, and who knows maybe the rest of my life, I guess I should learn to "live with it" and maybe even "enjoy it" in some way.  Perhaps August could be a blessing to me instead of the curse that I see in it when my line of vision is changed.  I have many blessings that exist regardless of the month on the calendar.  Considering them instead of what I want changed may make all the difference.