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 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 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.