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.