Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peace Beyond Understanding

The Angels sang the song of peace on the night that Jesus was born.  "Peace on Earth, Good will to all" was the message they proclaimed.  When we think about that message, we usually sigh in dismay because we know all too well that peace on earth is very elusive.  Has there ever been peace on earth, either before or since the birth of Christ?  If Jesus truly is the "Prince of Peace" as we claim that Isaiah declares of the Messiah (and Christians claim Jesus as their Messiah), then why has the reign of peace not taken hold in the last 2,000 years since the birth of Christ?  Is world peace truly possible in a literal way or is that idea something that only "dreamers" attempt to consider?

World peace is a lofty goal and one that may be realized at the end of the age or when persons depart this life and go on to the next, but the realization of literal peace on earth depends on the humans who inhabit this planet and the change that can happen in humans when they decide to attempt to enact peace in their own part of the planet.  Perhaps the concept of peace is not meant to be a global concept that happens all at once but maybe it is a personal concept, something that happens within individuals when they achieve an inner peace that is present in all circumstances.  Christians understand this as "a peace that passes understanding" as written in the epistles.  Buddhists may realize this as they achieve enlightenment through meditation and seeking understanding.  Followers of Islam may find peace within their traditions and the teachings of the Qur'aan.  Non-religious people may find peace in nature and harmony that comes about as they seek out truth.

If peace is truly an individual and personal experience, then the message of peace as proclaimed by the angels has to do with peace that comes about by understanding what God's Kingdom is and attempting to live as one who is part of that Kingdom.  Jesus described God's Kingdom in many ways as he taught the crowds who followed him.  Perhaps the greatest and simplest description is found in the Sermon on the Mount in what we call the Beatitudes.  Jesus described those who inhabit God's Kingdom---Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:3-9)  Those are the kinds of folks who make up God's Kingdom and for whom God brings about peace in their lives as they continue to strive to be part of God's reign on earth.

Each time we say the Lord's Prayer, we invoke God by saying, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done."  That short phrase contains the petition that we desire for God's Kingdom to come on earth and for God's will to  be done on earth, "as it is in Heaven".  True and literal peace on earth can only come about as humans would do God's will on earth in the same way that God's will is done in heaven.  How can we know what God's will is for we who inhabit the planet?  Jesus described that also as he told people to love God and love their neighbors even as they love themselves.  Jesus described a world in which people go out of their way to do good deeds for others and to love even those who do not love you back.  The world that Jesus envisioned is one that he never realized during his short life on earth.  He died a cruel and violent death at the hands of religion and government and his words of love were lost on those who would see his life end.

Having inner peace in the midst of the events of a turbulent and violent world may seem hard to achieve for many people.  When people see the daily events in which person after person murders others, when countries threaten to destroy one another, when weapons of war are sought for the sake of personal security, it is hard to imagine anyone not being worried to death by the state of society today.  Those who put their trust in a "higher power", however, often do not worry about threats that society may make against them.  They trust that whatever happens in life, they will be secure because a power greater than themselves is in charge of their lives.  St. Paul expressed this idea in the thought, "Whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord's".  He felt secure because his life was bound up in something greater than himself in which he would put his trust.

John Lennon, of Beatles fame, wrote the song, "Imagine" in which he described a world of peace.  He described a world in which divisions would cease and there would be nothing to fight about.  The world he envisioned was one that would have world harmony as all of humankind worked together.  He said, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one, I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one."  John Lennon may indeed have been a dreamer, but he was not the only one.  The world is filled with people who envision a time when humans can live in peace with one another.  Until that day is realized, connecting with the source of peace within our lives brings a personal peace that few can understand but many desire.

May God's peace be yours in this Holiday Season and into the new year, a year of hope for a greater understanding among humans of what it means to love one another.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Touched By An Angel

Mary, a small town teenager, maybe 13 years old, in an arranged marriage that her family had gotten for her...all of her life ahead of her, promised to an older man named Joseph.  He will take care of her, feed her, clothe her, protect her, so that her father does not have to do those things anymore.  All of life seems to be going according to the plan that her parents had worked out for her.

Then, a surprise entered her life.  An angel, Gabriel, paid her a visit.  Mary was totally shocked, stunned, nonplussed.  Who had ever encountered a heavenly being and lived to tell the story?  The messenger assured her that everything was okay---"Be not afraid" he said with authority.  Then he began to lay out a new plan for Mary's life, one that she had not even contemplated.  Gabriel assured her that she was favored by Yahweh and that she was chosen for a special task that only she could accomplish.  The news was totally unexpected and, well, not entirely welcomed.  After all, her life was just beginning to fall into place and she did not need a major interference as Gabriel described.

"You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

A, that was not part of the plan at all.  First comes love, well maybe first comes an arranged marriage that may turn into love somewhere along the way, and then comes a baby.  It had to work in that order.  Society would not allow Mary to be an unwed mother.  That was punishable by death according to the laws of her people.

"How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Mary asked Gabriel.  Even Mary knew that a man was necessary to cause a baby to be born.  Without Joseph, she thought, nothing would happen to bring about a new life.

Gabriel had an answer for everything, she must have thought..."The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God...For nothing will be impossible with God."

Mary considered what Gabriel had told her.  She must have thought about it for what seemed the longest even though it may have been only a minute or two.  "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  Then---poof--the angel was gone.

Mary, all alone again, sitting in her room, wondering what the future would bring now that God had changed her life plan.  Would Joseph be understanding when it began to be evident that she was expecting the birth of a baby?  Would Joseph still marry her or would her family send her away to stay with relatives until the baby was born?  Would anyone ever believe her when she told her story of the angelic visit?  She had to tell someone so she began the journey to see her relative Elizabeth, much older than she but also expecting a baby that would be born even before her promised child came into the world.  Mary had to tell what she was feeling to someone who would understand, and Elizabeth would surely understand since she was expecting a miracle baby too.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hidden Treasures

We had a scavenger hunt of sorts a few months ago when a long time member asked if we in the office knew where she could find a document that her grandfather had written in German and had given to the church.  Now, our church was founded in 1900 and all of its documents were written German for about the first third of its history.  When a long-time member passes away and I need to look up information in the "big book" in which baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals are recorded, I have to bring out my very small German language skills and try to interpret the writing in the book so I can have this information to use at the funeral.  The document that the member was seeking was a copy of our church constitution that had been hand written in German by her grandfather.  We looked everywhere that we could imagine the document could be but could not find it.  We frantically searched again and again only to come up empty-handed each time we looked.  Finally, one day one of our other members was at the church and heard us telling about this hunt and he casually went into our church library and opened the drawer of a desk that sits in a corner that is rarely used.  Sitting in that drawer was the document that the other member had been seeking.  When we gave it to her, she rejoiced with great joy.  It was as if a long lost family member had returned.  The document she was seeking was a link to her history.  It was the missing jigsaw puzzle piece, without which she could not feel complete.

Today, the member who was searching for the document came to the church again, this time to present to the church a photocopied replica of the original German document.  She intends to give the original to the library/museum of our county where it will be stored and kept safe for future generations to see.  The replica is bound in a nice notebook and has newly crisp pages to take the place of the very worn pages of the original.  I wondered where we should keep this gift to the church and finally decided upon the desk in the church library where we found it in the first place.  So, I went into the library and opened the drawer where the original had been found and as I lay the replica in its place I noticed another book, this one also written in German, laying there.  It is a German choral book, containing musical lines with German titles, only music and no lyrics.  There was also a choral book of Handel's Messiah, missing its cover and looking very worn, dated 1912, perhaps left from an era when the church choir had performed it.  Looking further into the desk, I came upon book after book written in the German language, many of them containing liturgy and services for leaders of the church during the era when this congregation held services in German.  It was a veritable treasure trove of books from the history of this congregation.

I wondered why had these books simply been left in this desk with no one knowing that they were there.  Such books should be in a historical collection somewhere or in a museum or library.  Here they are laying on top of one another, their pages yellowing by the day, part of the history of this congregation and town, seemingly serving no purpose but to deteriorate.  The books were once very important to people, a link to their German heritage they had brought with them from the Old Country.  They had conducted services in German in this church into the 1930s, I have been told, so why shouldn't these books be treated like important links to our congregational past rather than old relics that no longer matter?

It makes me reflect upon life and living and why it is that we often overlook those around us who have a wealth of experience and education.  We often toss them aside like old books and put them in a place where we can know they will be safe and then just forget about them.  When someone asks about them, we say we know they are some place but we have trouble remembering where.  The value of what they know and have experienced is far greater than we can enumerate.

I have the privilege of going to a retirement home once a month to lead a worship service.  The residents there are still very lively and love to sing so we sing a few songs (accapella since the lady who used to play the piano got ill and cannot play any longer), say the Lord's Prayer, I read a passage from the Bible and talk about it for maybe three to five minutes, and then I say goodbye until next month.  You would think I was a rock star or famous personality.  Those who come to the services thank me for coming and tell me they enjoyed it.  I go away feeling much happier than before I arrived.  I often wish I had the opportunity to sit down and hear the life story of each of these wonderful people.  I guess I could do that one day, if I could only make the time.

Valuing those in society who have so much to share with us should be a high priority but many times we, as a society and individuals in it, do not want to be bothered by what is required in order to sit and learn from them.  We have to give up something....our time and maybe even our pride, changing our attitude from one who knows all that is required to one who can gain much insight from others who have experiences that we may not have gained in life.  We are surrounded by hidden treasures daily but often we overlook them simply because we do not see them as such.

May God help us to have our eyes opened so that we will see who and what is important in life.  May God help us to take the time to stop and look and listen to others who may share an insight with us that we would never have any other way besides through our interaction with them.  May God help us to consider the great gifts we have in those around us and never neglect the opportunities that are around us daily.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Watching and Waiting

Have you ever thought about waiting?  I mean, have you ever thought about how waiting is done.  Sometimes waiting is a very boring activity.  Waiting in line at the post office, waiting in traffic when you are trying to get somewhere important, waiting in the doctor's office or in the little room they put you in telling you that the doctor will see you shortly.  Those are all examples of waiting that can bring about impatience.  We are not good waiters when it comes to waiting that seems to waste our time.  I am among the chief of impatient people when I think my time is being wasted by people who cannot seem to recognize the inadequacies of their system.  Waiting that fits into this category is a bane on society, I think.

Then, there is waiting in anticipation of someone or something.  Waiting for company to arrive--waiting that involves looking out windows or preparing the house or cooking a meal--waiting that is being done with a specific purpose or reason in mind.  Waiting for a refund or rebate to come in the mail--checking the mailbox daily in anticipation that soon our waiting will be rewarded.  Waiting for a loved one to come home after being gone for a length of time--such as one who is in the military and has been on duty and now is coming home at last.  That is an entirely different kind of waiting.  It is watchful waiting.

Advent is a season of waiting but it fits into the second category of waiting.  It is watchful waiting that provides us time to reflect upon what this season is actually about and how our lives are affected by it and how it provides opportunities for mission and ministry in our community and around the world.  Advent is not Christmas.  Christmas comes on December 25--until that date we are officially in our waiting mode, a time of expectation and preparation for the event soon to come.

We wait in anticipation of the one who has come, is coming, and will come every day.  Jesus came about 2000 years ago as an infant in a cattle stall.  He lived as a human for about 33 years and then died and went away.  He came as the Holy Spirit to inhabit the world and the lives of humans.  He comes into our hearts and lives daily as we show God's love to all in our world in the ways we know how to do.  Jesus' coming is an ever present reality that occurs again and again.  Our waiting in Advent is for opportunities to experience the coming of Jesus in our lives and in the lives of others.  That happens in multitudes of ways as we share ourselves with those around us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Songs of Thanksgiving

The church I grew up attending sang a little song that said, "Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul; thank you, Lord, for making me whole; thank you, Lord, for giving to me, so great salvation, so rich and free."  After I had married, our family attended a church that knew this song and sang it but they had one more verse that sang also, "Thank you, Lord, for each day that I live; thank you, Lord, for the blessings you give; thank you, Lord, for listening to me; for taking my burdens and setting me free."  The churches found it useful to teach short songs that would get stuck in your brain and you would find yourself singing it later, whether or not you intended to do so.  It obviously worked because I still sing these songs today, many years later.

A more modern song that does the same and serves the same purpose is in our new hymnal at our church.  It was a popular Christian song a decade or two ago and was sung by choirs around Thanksgiving time.  It is simply called, "Give Thanks".  It's words are--"Give thanks with a grateful heart, give thanks to the Holy One, give thanks for he has given Jesus Christ, his son...and now, let the weak say I am strong, let the poor say I am rich, because of what the Lord has done for us."  There are multiple repeats in the song.  In fact, you can make it last as long as you wish because the repeats can be repeated over and over until finally you end simply with, "Give Thanks."

Thanksgiving is not just a single day on the calendar.  It is also a way of life, an attitude, a mental framework to project a positive way of looking at life. is how we orient our lives, how we see our lives as gifts from God and each day as an opportunity to give thanks in the way we live among others.  When we get up each morning and have the energy and strength to do what we desire or need to do, that is a gift from God.  When we have health as a general condition of life, that is a gift from God.  When our lives are generally pleasant and we have the ability to do what many across the globe cannot do as we desire, that is a gift from God.  The blessings we enjoy are abundant and each day's living should be a song of thanksgiving to our Creator.

Give thanks this Thursday as you gather with family and friends around a harvest table and eat the abundance of foods we have in our land.  The give thanks on Friday and Saturday and every day thereafter as you consider the great gifts you have in your lives.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hey, Thanks...

Saying "Thank you" is a natural response to some action that another person does.  It should be automatic, happening when a waiter pours a glass of tea for you or when someone opens a door for you.  When I went to Russia with a mission group back in 1997, we stayed at and worked at an orphanage.  The people there were very friendly and despite the lack of language skills we seemed to communicate what we needed.  Each morning we would be up early since the sun seemingly does not set much in the summer in that part of the world.  We Texans would be in need of coffee so we would walk over to the little dining area and begin to look around hoping that someone would notice us and offer us coffee.  The signal must have worked because a wonderful lady would give us instant coffee and hot water and we would have coffee.  We would sit down and she would bring the things around so we could make the coffee ourselves in our cups.  We had learned how to say "Thank You" in Russian---Spaseeba--so we would say that to the lady when she provided what we needed for our coffee fix.  In return, she would say, "Prezhalta" which (we assumed) meant, "You are welcome".  This happened each day we were there, early in the morning the sleepy eyed woman would help us and we would exchange our greetings.  The last morning of our visit when we went for coffee and said "Thank you" in Russian, she returned our greeting but this time there was a definite sleepy sound in her voice, as if she could barely speak her "Prezhalta" to us.  I think our early rising had gotten to her.  Russians seem to like to sleep in, I think, and we Americans were up way to early for her, we assumed.

Saying Thank You in any language is a great tool to have.  I have learned that if you can say the basic greetings in the language of the country where you are guests, then the people there will be pleased and think that you really do want to try to fit in.  Saying Thank You implies that you appreciate whatever anyone has done for you.  Many times when I make a purchase in a store, the clerk will not say "Thank you" to me after I have given her/him my money.  They just move on to the next customer.  I often just stand there and then say, "You are welcome" before moving on.  It seems that some clerks have not been properly trained in common customer courtesy.  Saying "Thank you" when someone has given you money seems as if it should be natural but perhaps not everyone has been given training in doing this.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that allows us the time to reflect upon our lives and think about the things for which we are thankful.  I object to people calling the holiday "Turkey Day" because it was never intended to be simply a day to eat turkey and watch sports on television.  The holiday was created to give people time to think about their lives and to offer thanks in whatever way they chose as they gathered with family and friends.  Yes, we do have a feast when we celebrate the day but the turkey is not the reason why we gather. It may be the main course but the main event of the day should be saying thanks to our Creator for providing the elements that make the feast possible.  It is also a day to count one's blessings and to say thanks to God for those people who bless our lives.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is uniquely American.  Yes, our Canadian friends also have a Thanksgiving which they celebrate in October, but its meaning is not quite the same as ours.  They give thanks as we do for all the blessings of life but their day is not tied to a specific historical event that reminds them of reasons to be thankful.  The American Thanksgiving conjures up images of Pilgrim hats and Native Americans with feathers sticking out of their hair and a table laden with food so plentiful that the table cannot hold it all.  Most of our Thanksgiving tables are like that, loaded down with so much food that some of it cannot be on the table.  Those food items are symbols of the blessings we have received.  We have been given the physical health and strength to do the work to earn the money so that we can buy the products to make the dishes we eat.  Someone else processed or grew the food and a grocer or stand sold it to us.  We sit at a table that someone else made and eat off of dishes that were provided by someone in a part of the world that may be far away.  Our entire meal is a global gathering of people and places and things from far and wide.

This year, give thanks for the good world that God has given us.  God called it good when it was created and it remains to be so.  Humans have to play a part in making it to remain good but the raw products that are on the earth are good.  We need to be good stewards of those products and use them carefully.  We give thanks for all of God's mercies and pray that God will unite all of humankind as one family in peace and love.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Widow's Walk

There is an architectural feature in homes built in the 1800s or before called a Widow's Walk.  It is a square top to a home that features a small path with rails built to prevent someone from falling.  It was given the name "Widow's Walk" according to popular belief because houses with this feature were often built near seaports or harbors so that women whose husbands had gone out on fishing boats or other sea going vessels could stand at that high point and look out into the distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of their husband's boat returning to safe harbor.  The woman could look out into the distance for as long as she could, held safe by the rails built around the top of the roof.

When Doris and I were in the Maritime Provinces of Canada a year ago, we spent two nights at a bed and breakfast in St. John, New Brunswick.  The B&B is in an old house that dates back to the late 1800s and it has a widow's walk around the roof top of one part of the house.  My wife asked for permission from the owners to be able to go up to the widow's walk so we did a bit of exploring in the public parts of the house and finally reached the upper level.  The door leading to the widow's walk had been locked preventing guests from going outside (most likely for insurance purposes) but you could see out a bit across the way.  My wife had a special interest in learning more about widow's walks because she had read a story in which a woman would look out from one as she waited for her husband to come home.

Widows were people who were dependent upon society in the ancient world because a woman had to have a man to support her or she would be destitute.  Women did not work to earn money and were responsible for all the needs of the home.  Women were considered property of a man, first a father, and then after her married was arranged, a husband.  Women were cared for by a man all their lives until their husband died and, if she was too old to have another husband, a woman was dependent upon the kindness of others in her community to keep her from starving.  Many times a widow would be housed with her relatives because she would have no property due to claims by other relatives upon her husband's house.

The widow in this week's Gospel lesson in Mark is a poor beggar woman.  She is called a widow by Jesus but the Greek word for her indicates that she is a widow and a beggar.  The fact that she has two coins most likely has to do with her good fortune of someone giving those to her while she was begging.  The fact that she would give away those to coins to the Temple treasury is more than astounding.  It is beyond belief.  The beggar woman who needed what those coins could buy to simply live another day gave away her means of sustenance, placing herself solely dependent upon God's grace.

Perhaps that is the greater lesson contained in the story.  Pastors have preached this text over and over again, as will this pastor this Sunday.  The main idea in the sermon has more than not been that if a poor widow woman could put in the offering all she possessed, then we should consider at least giving a greater portion to the ministry that the church can do.  That is not a bad fact, it is a pretty good one.  The better lesson for me to emphasize, however, I think has to do with dependence on God's grace and mercy and living a life that indicates that we cannot survive on our own, regardless of how much money we may have.

Jesus watches the woman put in her two coins just as he has seen many wealthy religious persons put in their offerings and he makes a comparison, saying that she gave out of her want while they gave out of their wealth and that she gave far more than they did.  Her total abandonment of her possessions meant that she placed herself totally in God's care.  The giving of the wealthy persons was not discounted as important by Jesus but he made the point that they still had plenty left over to pay their way so they really did not need God in the same way that the widow did.

When we come to the place that we realize our dependence upon God, we place ourselves squarely in God's care and admit our need for God.  We begin to trust God with our lives and allow God to be in control of our lives in a way that we had not in the past.  We admit that we cannot live unto ourselves but must allow God to be an active part of our lives.  That time comes for many when they face up to a situation that they can do nothing about.  It may be a crisis situation in life that touches them in a way that they cannot fathom how it can be resolved.  Once they admit that to God and tell God that only God can help them, then they are at the place where God's grace can begin to work in their lives in a greater way.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, accepted her role as mother of the one to be the savior of the world.  "Let it be with me according to your will," she said.  After that submission to God's will, she became the one who would be admired and honored by many in the world.  We allow God to use our lives as we give up the claim on the things that we think we have achieved and admit our dependence on God.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nominated for Sainthood

This week is just full of special days.  Halloween is Wednesday and it is celebrated more fully here in central Texas than it was in East Texas.  In fact, Halloween is discouraged in East Texas by those who see it as some manifestation of evil in the world.  Many in that part of the state refer to it as "the devil's birthday" and they want children to ignore it or they have alternative events such as Fall Festivals at which children may dress up as a disciple or a religious figure but no witches or skeletons are allowed.

When I go out for my daily walk around our little central Texas town, I see many houses with impromptu graveyards, ghosts hanging from trees, skeletons wafting the breeze, and bats flying here and there.  On Halloween night itself, parents escort their children around town to gather candy from their neighbors and, as far as I know, there has not been one incident to mar the spooky celebration since I have lived here.  There is a curfew of 10 pm for Halloween night since it falls on a school night but that is mainly to keep any mischief makers in line rather than curb the enjoyment of any child looking for candy.  Even in a town that has a liquor store and a bar, things are pretty quiet on most nights and Halloween is no exception.

Then, the next day is All Saints Day.  Halloween is actually a word that incorporates the words "hallowed" and "evening"--e'en being short for evening.  It began as an evening that attached to All Saints Day and it was believed in the ancient world that the souls of those who had died during the past year would be swept up into heaven (or some other place) on that evening as they were walking the earth in preparation for this event up until it happened.  So, the "spirits" were especially busy on Halloween taking off for their eternal destination.  All Saints Day was a day that people thought about those persons who had taken their journey the night before.  A church service was usually held during which the congregation gave thanks for the lives of those whose spirits made the connection the night before.  The two days fit together well because they both made comment on the same life or after life event.

Some churches have services on All Saints Day.  Our local Catholic church will have one and Episcopalian Churches have them also.  Our church has its celebration that coincides with All Saints Day on the Sunday after All Saints Day.  Since our church as German roots we also call it "Totenfest" which means "Festival of the Dead".  This church has celebrated it using the German word since its beginnings and we refer to the special day with both words.  The customs are the same for both celebrations on Sunday--we read the names of the members who died during the past year, we light a candle in their memory, and ring a bell.  We also name non-members who died during the past year and we ring one last bell after they have all been named.

The word "Saint" has a meaning to some people that we do not attach to it.  Some think that a person who is a "saint" is someone who was perfect.  That is not true at all for our brand of saints.  Saints are people who tried to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ throughout their lives.  They made mistakes but they asked for forgiveness and made the resolve to try not to make the same mistakes again.  We call them "Saints" in the same way that Paul and others in the New Testament referred to the people who made up the churches in the Mediterranean during the beginnings of the Early Church.  Saints were people who were Christians and who were attempting to live as if they were.  They had been baptized and had made vows to try to live lives that would be good lives, treating others as they would like to be treated.

So, on this All Saints Sunday/Totenfest in our church we will remember five of our members who have died since last year at this time.  All of them were people that everyone here knew.  There are four women and one man.  Most of them had lived in this area all their lives.  They were known for foods they baked and music they made, accordion music (polka music).  They lived among us and we knew their names and shared meals with them around tables on many special and not so special days.  They were our next door neighbors.  They were saints.  They belonged to us and we loved them.

So, we nominate them for Sainthood, not because of their perfect lives (because they did not live lives that were perfect) but because of their baptism and place in the Church with all who have faithfully lived and died.  We know that they reside in the place of eternal rest reserved for all the saints who went before them and for all the rest of us who will catch up with them one day in the future.  As one song says, "they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too."  Happy All Saints Day!  May God remind you of all the blessed saints that have touched your lives over the years and may you give thanks for that blessing.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Soundtrack of Our Lives--Part Four (The End)

I can understand why someone wrote the song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."  I began singing it in my mind as we drove across the San Mateo Bridge toward the City by the Bay.  The Bridge we crossed was about 5 miles long and the temperature at its beginning was 20 degrees hotter than at its ending.  It is amazing to drive that short of a distance and to see the thermometer in the car dropping with each mile you drive.  Driving in San Francisco was much easier than I had anticipated (at 2 pm) so we found the place where we would be staying, a nice small apartment that is owned by an equally nice couple, and began to settle in.  The apartment is below the owners' own house and opens to a garden that is a perfect place to relax with a drink so we did.  We sat for a while and enjoyed the quiet of birds chirping and water flowing in fountains as a gentle breeze blew around us.  It was truly an oasis in the city because the freeway we had taken to get there was only a few blocks away but you would have thought it was miles and miles away.  We had earlier bought some sandwiches at a local grocery store and sat on the grass in Balboa Park and eaten them so we felt pretty mellow, just enjoying nature at work in this wonderful place.

The explorer in me began to emerge, though, and I could not sit much longer than an hour or so without needing to get out and go so, having received instructions from our landlady as to how to walk across a pedestrian walkway suspended above I-280, we set out to explore and to find a park she had described that sounded as equally beautiful as her garden backyard.  My wife has a nifty GPS devise that can be used by those walking as well as drivers so we set it to pedestrian mode and began to receive its instructions as to how to find the park that was our goal for the evening.  The GPS must have decided that we needed more exercise due to our large lunch so it sent us way out of our way, up and down those famous San Francisco hills.  We saw the park in the distance, far in the distance, and decided that we preferred to take a street that we been told contained a nice little French cafe and bakery.  So, we put the GPS aside and began to walk down a street with nice houses broken up now and then by a business.  Soon, we were in a business area that had a variety of stores.  We did find the French cafe but after looking at its menu posted in the window we decided that we were not hungry enough for anything substantial.  A organic grocery store with a little sidewalk sitting area called to us and soon we had latte and tea and enjoying people watching for a while.  We walked around the store and looked around and decided it was a mini-Whole Foods Market that had some great looking items but needed few of them except for some milk and juice and cereal for breakfast the next morning.  Taking the sidewalk in front of the store, we soon learned that it was the most direct route from our B&B to the subway station (BART).  If we had taken that street instead of the circuitous route we had taken, thanks to our GPS, we would have been there much sooner, howbeit with much less exercise.

After a very nice night's sleep with an open window looking out over the garden and morning coffee in bed, we rose and had breakfast and then set out for the BART station.  Since we had gone by it the night before, we found it easily and got our tickets as easily and soon were on the train bound for the Embarcadero stop.  We emerged from the subway station with banks and other financial institutions around us and found our way  to the Ferry Terminal Marketplace, a huge hall with many small stores mostly selling food items.  We laughed at one shop that advertised it had, "Salty Pig Parts."  There was a cheese shop, where we would later return and buy some really great cheese (Cowgirl Creamery) and some salami to go with the sourdough bread we bought, and a Peet's Coffee where we bought two coffee drinks and sat outside on a bench to bask in the sunshine and look at the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.  There was an affectionate sea bird modeling for us whose photo I took just before he took off toward the sea.

We walked along the Embarcadero way toward Fisherman's Wharf intending to have lunch down there when we decided we did not have enough time to go all that way and still get back to where we were to meet our tour of the city at 2 pm.  We saw a diner car, the kind that they have in the northeast US where you can get some really great food, called Fog City Diner, and decided to stop in there for lunch.  It is adjacent to a park where people were making all kinds of music.  The food was delicious and both of us ordered the same item and enjoyed it tremendously.

We were directly on the trolley line so we waited for a while and caught a very full trolley to take us back to where we began so we could catch a van that would take us to a bus that would give us a tour of San Francisco for 2 1/2 hours.  I had bought our tickets online before we left home in order to save on them so we were picked up and delivered to the tour station and soon were on board a comfortable bus that drove us all around the city.  The driver was either Italian or Hispanic and did not have a complete grasp of the English language so it was a bit like listening to Ricky Ricardo describing what we were seeing but I could catch enough of it to understand and sometimes would translate for our other passengers, two of which were German/Italian people from Switzerland who expected some form of translation devise to help them understand but it was not provided.  We saw Fisherman's Wharf, a very busy place, and the huge park where there is an outdoor amphitheater where musical productions are held, as well as the houses called Painted Ladies that are Victorian houses in many colors.  The houses were featured in the opening of the 1970s-80s era TV show, "Full House" along with the park across the street from it.  We also drove through the Haight-Ashbury part of town that still looks about as wild as it did in the 60s.  We concluded our tour near Fisherman's Wharf where we walked around a while.

The best thing we discovered in Fisherman's Wharf was the Boudin Bread Company, that has been making sourdough bread in San Francisco since the city was founded and even survived the Great Fire of 1909.  We took the tour and read the history and chatted with a docent and sampled the bread before buying some to take back to our place with us.  Bread in hand, we walked along till we could catch the trolley again to take us to the Ferry Terminal Building once again to purchase our cheese and salami and then catch the BART train back to our B&B.  Once there we had a delicious authentic San Francisco meal sitting in the tiny kitchen in our apartment near the garden.  Peace and rest at last.

The last part of our trip was to Yosemite National Park.  We collected Bo and Bushy the next day and continued our trip.  We drove to the house we had rented which is just north of Mariposa, CA which is the western gateway to Yosemite.  Mariposa has a lot more businesses for a town that is not much more in population than Weimar, Texas but I suppose that is because of its connection to Yosemite.  It has a fairly large supermarket where we bought supplies to take to the house we were renting.  For three days we enjoyed the house and had a cook out, toured the area, even going to see one of my wife's cousins that lives in Fresno, and spending one day in Yosemite National Park.  I liked Yosemite a lot but it is quite popular with Californians and is crowded no matter the day you visit.  We encountered road construction quite often as we drove in the area and had to sit and wait many times, making it not as enjoyable as it could have been. The roads have to be fixed sometimes, though, so why complain?

The trip ended as it began, with a 3 day drive, across the deserts of California and Arizona, the vast wastelands of New Mexico and west Texas, and finally back home.  We drove over 5700 miles and paid a high of $4.95 a gallon for gasoline the last day before we left California (near Palm Springs).  It was a great trip and I would love to do it again.  This one was the sampler since we had never been to California or Oregon.  We enjoyed what we saw and did and found people out west as friendly as people back home.

The End....of the story of our travels for now....Who knows?  It may come up again someday.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Soundtrack of Our Lives---Part Three

The house we rented near Bend, Oregon was really large, sleeping 10 easily, with an upstairs that we hardly used and two bedrooms downstairs.  It had a really nice kitchen in which we prepared many meals and a large living room with a wood stove for heat in case it was needed, which it wasn't, although the morning temperatures were in the 30s on all the days we were there.  Our two dogs, Bo and Bushy, had another playmate as our daughter brought her dog, Kiwi, which is our grand dog.  Kiwi is a Lhasa Apse, white with long flowing hair.  When she is laying very still, she looks like a little girl when you look down upon her.  Laura and Michael and Kiwi were with us there for four nights.  We explored the area together, going out to Paulina Falls and hiking the path to the overlook and then down to the floor of the forest where the falls lands.  We went into Bend and had drinks and snacks at the Deschutes Brewery which is the oldest microbrewery in Bend.  We drove down to Crater Lake and looked at it from every possible angle before returning and having a special dinner for Michael to celebrate his birthday (which is actually yesterday as I write this but we were not going to be with him so we wanted to celebrate early.)  Michael was very good at getting a fire to start in the outdoor fire pit and we cooked hot dogs and s'mores one night and sat outside and admired the stars above us.  After four days, we had to tell them goodbye as they left to return to their home in Washington state.

Doris and I and Bo and Bushy then set out for San Francisco.  It was quite a drive from Bend to the Bay Area so we broke it up with an overnight stay in Redding, CA.  We drove from Bend to the quaint town of Sisters and then over MacKensie Pass, which has a large volcanic field as you approach the summit from the east and a massive forest as you drive down the western side.  There were huge black boulders of volcanic rock everywhere and no trees on the eastern side.  There were trees everywhere on the western side, forming a canopy of trees over the highway.  The MacKensie River flows through the area between MacKensie Pass and the city of Eugene.  It is wide in most places and flows adjacent to the highway.  We drove through the scenic farmlands with produce stands here and there.  Doris took naps off and on as we drove along and I listened to NPR to stay focused on the highway.  I could have taken a nap too but someone had to drive and it seemed like I was nominated.

When we reached Eugene, we got on I-5 going south toward Redding.  We still had a lot of Oregon to go through and quite a bit of California before our destination.  We had not had lunch but kept putting off finding a picnic spot, thinking none were to our liking when we looked at them while driving down the interstate.  We finally got off at a gas station to fill up again, our last time in Oregon.  That is another thing about Oregon which is very odd.  They do not allow you to put in your own gas.  They and New Jersey (I was told by a gas attendant) are the only states in the union that forbid drivers from putting gas in their own cars.  Each time we bought gas in Oregon a gas attendant would come out and take my credit card and stick it in the gas pump (as I do many times each month) and then put the gas in the car and then give me my receipt that the pump printed out.  One time they actually washed the windshield as they did back in the 60s but most of the time that is all they did for us.  I never knew why they have that law in Oregon.  Is it because they do not trust their citizens to put gas in their cars?  Is it because people need jobs and that creates jobs in places where they are none in other states?  Is it because someone sued the state of Oregon over an accident at a gas station so they decided no one could pump their own gas?  I do not know but it feels very strange to allow another person to fool around with my car when I can do what they do just as well as they can.

We reached Redding just after dark and were ready for rest.  There is not anything very special about Redding although you can go to Lassen Volcanic National Park from there, according to signs we saw.  We did not, but we did pass Mt. Shasta again and I took some really great pictures of it just before sunset, giving it a rather pinkish glow.  We started out again for San Francisco the next morning and passed large groves of trees on which olives and pistachio nuts grew.  They must grow more nuts in California than anywhere in the world.  We saw massive groves of nut trees of many kinds.  We saw huge groves of olive trees too.  How great it is that California has such a great climate and fertile fields.  They really do supply the nation with much of its produce.

We passed Sacramento and took the highway that led to San Jose (Do you know the way to San Jose?  We do...the GPS led us right there.)  We did not go all the way to San Jose though because we were going instead to a little town called Sunol where a place called "Happiness Country Kennels"exists.  We had called ahead and made reservations for Bo and Bushy to spend two nights there while we toured San Francisco.  The webpage for the place looked great and I talked to a person on the phone from home before we left and they sounded nice but how do you know if a place is reputable just by talking on the phone?  Giving up our dogs to these strangers was a matter of trust.  So, we found Sunol and the kennel and took our little ones in there.  Bushy is never fond of going to the kennel and she begins to shake uncontrollably when she enters the door.  Bo just looks around here and there as if to size up the joint.  The woman behind the desk was all business, which bothered Doris.  She shushed us when we were telling her about our dogs and that made Doris a bit peeved.  I told Doris later that it was a cultural difference.  Texans tend to talk on and on and Californians are not as loquacious as we are.  Anyway, we soon left our canine cargo in the care of the kennel staff after taking them back and inspecting their quarters.  It was all clean and neat and the people receiving them seemed very caring.  So, Bushy and Bo were locked away in their little home away from home for two days and we were off to explore the City by the Bay.

Okay, I cannot finish it now, so look for more to come.    

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Soundtrack of Our Lives--Part Two

So, with Big Sur behind us, we drove on into the night to Sacramento and then the next day to Bend, Oregon where we met our daughter and son-in-law and granddog, Kiwi, for four days of fun together.  On the way there we had to stop off in Redding, California, to pick up hamburgers for our daughter and son-in-law from a burger chain called, "In and Out Burger" which they have in California but not in many other places.  (They are moving into Texas, I was told by the man at the counter when I ordered the burgers, so look for them in the big cities of Texas soon.)  Doris and I had two burgers ourselves and ate them at the really nice covered patio provided.  They were dog friendly so Bo and Bushy also joined us there and we enjoyed the food and sat on the patio as the comfortable northern California breezes blew around us.

Back on the road, we continued toward Bend, passing Mt. Shasta, one of the volcanic mountains of the region, and turning off I-5 at the town of Weed.  Yes, there is a Weed, California.  They even sell t-shirts that say, "I Like Weed" on them.  I was very tempted to buy one to wear around town but thought the better of it since I would not want to embarrass any of my parishioners.  We took the road that would take us directly to Bend and began our trek, stopping to change drivers at a rest area.  There we encountered one of those quandaries that many of us do as we travel.  An old grey custom van, rather beat up looking, was parked near the end of the vehicles in the lot. A woman was sitting on a bench at the rest area so that other travelers would have to pass her in order to get to the rest rooms.  She held a sign that said, "I need money.  Hungry and broke" or something like that.  I really got a bit peeved by her placement and as we took the dogs out of the car to walk them, I walked way around her so I did not have to pass her way.  I noticed a placard giving a phone number to call to report any suspicious activity at the rest area so I actually called it and reported her.  Now, I know I am supposed to be very sympathetic to the needs of all human beings but the rather cynical part of me took over and soon there was a California Highway Patrolman coming into the parking lot of the rest area.  He must have thought I was the culprit who called this in because he walked directly toward me and asked me if I did.  I gave him the information and admitted calling and he thanked me and began walking toward the woman.  By that time, we were finished with our business at the rest area so we got into the car and continued our drive toward Bend.  Now, before you judge me harshly for being unsympathetic toward this beggar, later on after we stopped for gas in the edge of Oregon, we passed another rest area and the same old van that was at the one in California was there.  You could not miss its distinctive appearance.  We guessed they must have left the rest area after we did and then passed us when we stopped for gas.

Oregon is a beautiful state but it has some quirks that were hard to figure out.  One is that the speed limit on their non-freeways is never more than 55 mph.  Coming from Texas, where you can drive 75 on Hwy 71 between Columbus and El Campo, it was hard to keep the needle right at 55.  Doris and I both would drive between 60 and 65 and we were regularly passed by cars with Oregon license plates.  We did not want to bring home a souvenir from Oregon that would require us mailing in some money once we got home so we tried to at least keep it under 70.  Oregonians did not do as well; most of them sped by us driving 75-80 or higher.  We reached Bend around 4-5 pm and found the house that we were renting for four nights and followed the directions given to us to get in--Look for a lock box, put in the code, and retrieve the key to enter.  So, I followed the directions to the letter and put in the key to turn it and the key quickly broke off in the lock, giving me the large end.  I could fish the skinny part out of the lock but there was no way to enter the house.  I had been given the phone number of a woman who was supposed to be the caretaker for the house but after repeated tries of calling it and still could not get an answer, I did not know what else to do except break a window to enter.  Doris advised against such action, and probably wisely, so instead we headed for the public library.

We found the library which was just a few miles away and entered wanting to use a public computer and noticed that the library closed at 6 pm.  The time was 5:55 pm.  So, we asked the library person to allow us to use a computer and explained our plight and she sympathetically said, "Sure, you can use a computer until 6 pm when the library closes."  I signed on and began typing as fast as I could, writing an email to the man from whom we were going to rent the house.  We found the house on a website called Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) from which we had rented several houses before.  The man and his family lives in Georgia but they have this vacation home in Oregon and rent it via the internet.  I began to type an email to the man and was nearly through when I heard a voice say, "The library is now closed" at which time the computer simply turned off.  No warning or chance to save one's were just finished.  The librarian sweetly came by to swoosh all who were at computers out of the library and we were out in the cold (actually not very cold) once again.

I remembered that we had brought our laptop computer but wondered if the library had wifi so that we could use it so we got it out and sat at a bench outside the library and got it going and sure enough there was a signal from the library to use.  Not knowing how long the signal may be available, I went to the mail site again and began typing a letter to the owner of the cabin once again.  This time I pushed send and off it went.  We found a local gas station/store and used their facilities and as we were driving back toward the cabin my cell phone began to ring.  I did not recognize the number but picked it up and the owner of the cabin was calling me.  He apologized for what had happened and said he was trying to get in touch with the caretaker and she would call me soon.  Then, he said he was calling from Bangladesh.  He was on a business trip there and was just leaving the place where he was staying when my email dropped into his IPhone.  Wow--how amazing is that?  Here we were in Oregon and he was calling from the other side of the world to tell us that he was trying to call a person in Oregon to try to help us.  Modern technology---we sometimes laugh at it and discount it but sometimes it is very amazing.

So, we went back to the house and waited around and soon a car drove up with a friendly young man in it who profusely apologized for our situation (turned out the key had broken before).  He opened the door and let us in and our Oregon adventure had begun.

Look for Part Three on a computer screen near you soon.....  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Soundtrack of Our Lives- Part One

You know I have songs stuck in my happens all the time and I usually can't get rid of them for a long time, and then a new song takes the place of the old song and so it goes.  We just returned from a two week vacation, a driving vacation to California and Oregon, and I had songs ruminating in my brain all along the way while we drove across the prairies and deserts and mountain passes of the West.  We loaded up our car with our luggage and our two dogs, Bo and Bushy, and all of their gear (they bring along as much stuff as our kids used to bring..gosh) and set out on our journey near the end of September.  We drove to Fort Stockton, Texas the first day and rested overnight before continuing on the next day to Phoenix.  ("By the time I get to Phoenix..." was the song in my head that day but I only sang it aloud one time.  I was thinking it a lot though.)  We drove across the prairies and badlands of New Mexico and Arizona, seeing the vast wastelands and open countryside, amazed at how much open land there is with fences near the roadsides but nothing on it.  If we could move many of those people in our most crowded cities to this vacant land, how much elbow room would they have?  Of course, why would they want to live out there in the nothingness unless someone put in some modern conveniences to lure them there?

We passed through Tucson easily and arrived in Phoenix just in time for the evening rush hour.  We learned that Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time like the rest of us so they are on the same time schedule as California during DST days.  So, they were two hours behind Texas and we gained two hours in one day of travel.  We fought the rush hour traffic in Phoenix and arrived at our hotel about 6 pm and after taking care of the needs of our furry traveling companions, I found the local El Pollo Loco that was next door to our hotel and brought back a bag of Mexican food to the hotel and we rested again.

The next day we got on the road with Ventura, California as our destination.  Ventura is on the west coast just northwest of Los Angeles.  It has that cool, comfortable coastal climate so we wanted to reach it that day and enjoy that cool air before heading northward.  One has to cross the desert between Phoenix and Los Angeles so we drove as fast as we could (speed limit plus 5) and saw lots of saguaros and Joshua Trees and other cacti that we did not name until finally we reached Indio, California, the first town you come to as you emerge from the desert.  We drove on and spotted Palm Springs, Thousand Palms, Palm Desert, and Desert Springs (a theme emerges it seems) until finally needing gas we stopped in Riverside and paid the first of our $4 plus per gallon fees for fuel ($4.23--which made me gasp but I got over it because the price only went up from there.)  We had lunch in Riverside and then got back on the road, bound for the LA area.

"LA is a great big freeway, put a hundred down and buy a car...." That sound began to pour out of me as I began to fight the famous LA traffic.  To be honest, I had great fear about driving around LA.  I had always heard it was the most terrible place to drive in the world and you wanted to avoid it at all costs.  We got our friendly GPS lady to take us just north of downtown LA so we could pass through Pasadena and Hollywood and other places whose names I had only heard but I had never been there.  Surprisingly, we made it okay driving through the LA area.  I found out that they drive just like the folks in Houston and Austin.  They drive faster than the speed limit, cut off other drivers, and weave in and out of the traffic so I did the same and much to the surprise of my wife who was holding on for dear life, we saw the Ventura Freeway and soon arrived in cool, comfy Ventura.

Ventura was the first city in California that I really liked.  I was so surprised by it.  It was definitely cooler than where we had come from and felt really great (high 60s).  It is an agricultural area and had fields with pumpkins in them.  We had dinner at a little casual seafood place where we ordered fish and chips and ate them at a picnic table outdoors fighting the cool wind and the sea gulls that had gathered to help us out.  The fish and chips were good but there were so many of them that we could not finish them off so we got a box of fish to take with us (the gulls got some of the fries) and then walked over to the seawall to see the Pacific Ocean in action.  The wind was a bit high so the waves were too and they came crashing onto the shore, just like in the movies.  The Pacific Ocean seemed rather threatening that day but I bet on a sunny day with low wind it would seem very welcoming.

The next day was our day to drive up Hwy 1, the Big Sur Highway.  We started out on Hwy 101 (a rock group from the 70s-80s had that name but I did not know any song of theirs to sing) and passed through Santa Barbera, which is a beautiful city with mountains to the east and ocean to the west and vineyards everywhere (I would love to return there someday) and soon saw the turnoff to Solvang so we turned east fore about five miles until we reached the picturesque Danish village.  Solvang is the Fredericksburg of California, except much larger.  Many buildings have facades that look Scandinavian since Solvang was settled by Danish pioneers who went west long ago and since they did not find gold they found tourism instead.  One can enjoy Danish pastries and coffee at a sidewalk cafe and stroll the streets looking in the shop windows and that is exactly what we did, walking our two dogs, who got admiring glances from passersby.  They were very good until another dog approached, and Bo, who never went to Obedience School, would jump at his leash and want to attack it.  We had to pick him up and calm him down and tell him that we were okay and he did not need to protect us at that moment.  He got so mad at other dogs who dared to pass by him.  We did not drink the coffee but we did buy pastries and ate them in the car as we left Solvang and headed toward Morro Bay.

Morro Bay is home to a huge rock, which is more like a really large hill, that sits hear the bay in the town of Morro Bay.  Scuba Divers and surfers in wet suits were jumping into the waters and soon emerging to wash themselves at the changing station adjacent to the walking path that we took from the parking area to the rock and back.  The rock is the center of attention in the town and has been a landmark to pioneers and travelers for centuries.  We walked the nice boardwalk there, letting Bo and Bushy use up some more energy and then got back in the car, bound for Big Sur.  The two main roads 101 and 1 divided soon and we were on the Big Sur Highway, going north toward San Francisco.  We took Hwy 1 and soon were on a two lane road with many stops for road construction and learned that once you are on the road you cannot get off of it until it ends nearly 100 miles later.

Big Sur has been in our vocabulary and public knowledge for a long time.  I had seen pictures of the waves crashing on the rocks down below all of my life.  I had heard its name through the years and expected it to be a tremendous sensory experience.  I guess I set myself up for disappointment.  It was not what I expected at all.  Perhaps that is because as one goes north and looks over at the ocean, there is a well constructed wall in many places that was built to prevent southbound drivers from falling into the ocean.  It does its job well because not once did I see anyone falling into the ocean on our trip but I also rarely saw waves crashing onto the rocks below because the well constructed wall prevents northbound drivers from seeing the ocean below except in the far distance where it is not doing anything except being the smooth ocean it usually is out in the distance.  So, the Big Sur Highway became this never ending series of curves and hills with occasional road construction thrown in that would not end until you emerged from it at Carmel By The Sea which was off of it.  I think if we had driven northward first on another highway and then had returned on Big Sur Highway we would have enjoyed it more.  Also if we had planned to spend a night along its way at a motel or campground and really explored the area we may have had a better time on it.  Our next trip there we will know what to do.

This ends part one of the journal of the journey.  Look for the next installment soon for the journey has only begun.  Much greater things are in store....

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Getting Ahead in the World

What is the goal that most people have when they reach adulthood?  The main goal, even before they think about finding a mate or buying a car or a house, is making money.  Most people begin to think about what they will do in life to survive and have all the things that they desire to own.  This part of the decision making process leads them to the next...if I want to have all the things that I desire, then how will I get them?  Choosing a career that will open the doors to buying the things we want is a fundamental part of the process.

When I graduated from high school, I knew that I was going to college.  My father was a construction worker and I had watched him go out into the rain and the drizzle and the fog and the heat to do his job.  He went out early and came home late and most of the time came home really dirty and sweaty.  He had to take a shower as soon as he came home because of how grimy he was.  He endured the terribly hot Texas summers for many years.  One day he told me, "You had better get a good education or you will end up doing what I do for a living."  My dad was not ashamed of what he did to make a living for his family but he thought that his kids could do better than he had done because they had the advantage of educational opportunity that was not available when he was younger.  He had to quit school in the third grade because his family needed him to work on the farm to help raise food because the Great Depression had set in and the poor farmers in Titus County, Texas had to constantly farm in order to survive.  He and his brothers all helped out on the farm until finally the Civilian Conservation Corps came along and picked them up and took them to New Mexico to build state parks and roads and paid them 75 cents a day to work for them.  They sent home most of their earnings to help their family.

So, I knew I was going to college when I was in high school but I had no earthly idea what I wanted to do.  I loved language and learning and studying history and decided to be a history teacher.  I had a teacher named Mr. Puntes who had inspired me and I wanted to be like him in many ways.  I never even thought about how much money school teachers were paid.  I just knew I enjoyed learning about history and wanted to teach it.  I began my college career with a major in history but ran into the language requirement (four semesters of a foreign language in order to teach history in public school?) and soon changed my major to elementary education with a minor in history.  I took 24 hours of history instead of 36 hours but could teach more things meaning I would have more job opportunities.  So, I finished college and got my first teaching job and signed a contract to make the grand sum of $6000 a year for the first year.

I had a friend who graduated from the same college the same year but his major was environmental science.  His first job paid him $12,000 a year.  I learned as time went on that the value of what one did for a living was not based upon what one knew but the value was based upon how society valued that profession.  School teachers have been underpaid in this country and most likely in every country throughout modern history.  Perhaps there was a time in the ancient world when teachers such Greek philosophers were paid well but I imagine European teachers and in other countries have always been paid less than others in the working world.

I once saw a saying about teachers that said something like, "If you can read this, thank a teacher."  The truth of that saying is that everything one knows, one learned it from someone else who taught it.  Highly paid professionals in the health care world benefit from others who taught them their craft.  Even sports stars and those in the film industry learned from others so that they can do what they do.  We know what we know thanks to others who share their knowledge with us.

This week I will share a story from the Bible with my congregation that has Jesus lecturing his disciples about what it means to be the greatest person of all.  Jesus' definition of "great" does not match the definition that most people in today's world hold.  He said, "Whoever wants to first must be last of all and servant of all."  He then called a child to sit with him and said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."  This was remarkable in the ancient world because children were considered to be nuisances and not really worth having around until they had achieved adulthood.  They were just mouths to be fed and trouble to be handled.  Jesus' welcome of children said that those who are the greatest are the ones who invite even the weakest and most troublesome into their presence.  Greatness is achieved, not by what you know, but by how you live among others in our world.

I am glad I was a school teacher for 15+ years.  I never made a huge amount of money but I learned a lot and shared a lot with others that I hope helped them.  Our lives are great when others can remember the kindness we showed them, the patience with which we listened to them, and the wisdom we shared with them.  "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" is a motto that was said in the teaching field many times when I worked in education.  I think it is a motto of life and living that is valuable regardless of what we do to make a living.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Easy Living

How good do we have it?  What a soft life most of us have, or at least in comparison to that of our parents or grandparents or others who lived in their generations.  Here in Texas, I live in an air conditioned home, drive an air conditioned car, work in an air conditioned office, and really hate to sweat unless I am exercising on purpose and then want to break a sweat to prove I have done enough exercise.  I live in a home that is all electric so when the power goes off I can do nothing except sit and look at the walls and maybe read a book  and hope it does not get too hot until the power comes back on.  Luckily, the water flow continues in the house because it is not dependent on electricity but everything else in the house is.

I have been very spoiled, my wife likes to tell me, because I grew up in a family that had air conditioning since I was 6 years old.  I have never known the unairconditioned life.  My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a home that has never had air conditioning.  Her family lived in a farm house built in the 1940s by her parents and grandparents and other relatives.  They all pitched in and built the house as a family project and the house today remains much as it was when it was built in the 40s.   There is no air conditioning and you could not add it because the wiring is not able to support it.  My wife grew up on a farm where they grew much of what they ate and she and her sisters helped to grow and pick the crops and sometimes sell them at a farmers market.  I was spoiled, again she says, because I rarely had to pick crops.  We grew crops just because we wanted to, not because our economic lives depended on it.  My dad had a job that paid him well enough that he could buy all the food we needed.  If we did not grow something, we still had plenty of food to eat, thanks to the local grocery store.

So, I guess you can say that I did have it pretty easy when I was a child growing up in the 1960s.  My challenges began when I graduated from high school and went to college and then went to college some more and began sorting out life.  Independence brings with it the challenge of supporting oneself and ones' family by grabbing ones' own bootstraps and becoming what one would become in order to live and enjoy what life offers.  The life I have now is partially due to the education that I acquired and the motivation to obtain that education, knowing that if I did not get a good education, then (as my dad told me) I would have to work out in the unairconditioned world around me (as he did).  I love air conditioning too much to do that.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  (8:34)  What does it mean for 21st century Christians to "deny themselves"?  How do persons "take up their cross"?  For me personally, a somewhat middle-aged North American man, to deny myself does not require me to turn off my air conditioning or to do without electricity.  Instead, it speaks to me each time I have to decide whether I feel like going to the nursing home to see members who live there.  Will I go and put myself in that place where they live, leaving behind (at least for a portion of an hour) the world in which I exist or will I find an excuse to use so as not to have to fulfill my calling to that task?  The need to "deny myself" happens to each of us when we decide to act on behalf of another rather than doing what we would want to do as comfortable North Americans.

Taking us the cross is another matter.  It happens as we continue to live the Christian life as well as we know how and to act and speak and do as we think Christians would rather than in a selfish or unloving manner.  It happens as we pattern our lives after the Christ of the Gospels who choose to give of himself in every way rather than to take the easy way out.  Taking up the cross is a daily event.  Sometimes it takes deliberation but most of the time it is a natural reaction in life that happens because it is something we do because it is part of what it means to live the life of a Christian.  Taking up the cross is expressed each time Christians act as they think Christ would act while living among other human beings.

Is the life of a Christian easy?  Is the decision to be a Christian easy?  It may be in North America where Christianity is the dominant religion.  In fact, in most churches, we make it very easy for persons to become Christians and to become part of a local church.  We do not require a lot out of them.  Most churches simply ask people if they will be loyal to a local church and support it.  Some churches define being loyal as supporting the church with your "time, talent, and treasure" or giving your "prayers, presence, gifts, and service" but even those terms are rarely defined.  What part of  your treasure should you give in order to be considered loyal?  How often should you pray?  How much time is required?  We leave it up to the individual to make those decisions and answer those questions, as we should.  If the method of becoming a Christian is easy, then is the Christian life expected to also be an easy one?  Many people think so and think that when hard times befall them, then something has gone awry.  Perhaps at that moment is when they need to consider if it is the time to deny oneself and pick up the cross and follow.  The challenges of life may be the cross we all bear as we attempt to negotiate this life and what is demanded of us daily.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Just Who is This Jesus Anyway?

Jesus Christ lived about 2000 years ago and we still cannot figure out just who or what he was.  Christians and non-Christians alike debate his humanity versus his Godness.  The Early Church and those who followed them hashed out the various doctrines about the Trinity and each member of it and when they came to Jesus they even wanted to know what his body was made of and what he was like when he walked the earth.  Some thought that he was only human when he was on earth.  Others thought that he was only God, almost walking on a cloud.  They debated and argued and hashed it out until finally they came up with what we call "The Nicene Creed" in 325 C.E.  In it they finally declared that Jesus was "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father..."  They also decided that he was "fully human and fully divine."  I don't know how that works but they needed the assurance that even if Jesus looked like a human being, he had the divine spark working within him.

People have asked questions about Jesus through the centuries, questions concerning his childhood, his life as a young adult, his entrance into ministry.  People have wanted to know "at what point did Jesus discover who he was?"  Did Jesus know from the time he was born that he was the Messiah or did it gradually grow on him as he lived among humans and learned what humans were--the good, the bad, and the ugly?  Was Jesus just a regular kid, kicking rocks and wrestling around with his friends?  Did Jesus socialize with other young adults in his town or was he more of a loner?  Was Jesus shy as a teenager or was he the center of attention wherever he went?  Was his baptism the first time that he recognized his divine nature when the Holy Spirit descended upon him or had he known that he was "different" for many years?

Some of the ancients tried to decipher answers to these and other questions about Jesus through reading books about Jesus that never made it into the Bible.  Those "nonbiblical gospels" relate stories about Jesus that were so different from the stories in the four Gospels of our Bible that the compilers of the Bible canon could not include them.  The boy Jesus who could walk on mud puddles or make a mud bird come alive did not seem to be in the same category with the adult miracle working Jesus.  The sayings attributed to Jesus in some of the books do not seem to reflect the same thinking that is included in the Gospel record we have.

We still would like to know if Jesus' humanness dictated to him what he did more than did his godliness or if all things about Jesus were equal especially when we consider stories such as the one we have in this week's Gospel lesson from Mark.  The story is about a Gentile woman coming to see Jesus when he was in Tyre asking Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus was trying to get some rest so maybe she woke him up from a nap and he was fussy but when she bowed low and made her request, Jesus basically insulted her saying, "It is not right to give the bread for the children to the dogs."  People today may not mind if you compare them to their Yorkie or Schnauzer or Great Dane but in the ancient world, dogs were not our lovable household pets.  They were more like buzzards, looking for dead animals or people to devour.  They were considered nasty, unclean beasts that people would chase away and of which people were afraid.

The woman whose daughter was ill did not let Jesus' insult to her made her run away.  Instead, she replied, "Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table."  Jesus must have felt reprimanded by this woman who crossed two social barriers to get to him (women were not to approach men, Gentiles and Jews did not speak to one another).  He told her to go home knowing that her daughter was well--and she was.

So, could the Jesus whom we consider to be sinless, faultless, "God from God" learn something from another human being that he needed to learn?  Could the human Jesus in his humanity, in the moment when his tired, weary body was speaking to him have said something less than loving to another human being and then learn from what he had done by way of a Gentile woman?

If Jesus was truly human and one who "was tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15c), then is it not possible that Jesus was a human being with human feelings and emotions, and with a body that got tired and weary and had aches and pains, as we do?  If such a Jesus was human in this way, then he could learn from other human beings, and I think stories such as this show us that part of Jesus that we need to consider.

As Christians we affirm the divinity of Christ, but we also have to affirm that Jesus had flesh and blood and bones and was biologically as we are.  Jesus had the help of the divine in what he did when he walked the earth but if he did not experience what other humans experience in every way, then how could God truly understand what it meant to be human?

I love television programs where characters are placed outside of their natural elements.  The Beverly Hillbillies had mountain folk who found themselves in the richness of Beverly Hills, California and did not know how to live in that place.  The aliens on Third Rock from the Sun were constantly learning what it meant to be human and to feel human.  The smart guys on The Big Bang Theory are always trying to decipher relationships without using a computer to assist them.

Jesus was not in his heavenly element when he roamed the earth.  He was just like you and me, just one of the gang trying to sort out what life was about.  Certainly he was special, divine, much more than the average human, but when he was murdered by the Roman government, his death proved just how human he was, blood dripping down that mechanism of cruelty to which he was attached.  He had pain like any other human being and knew what it felt like for a human to suffer because he suffered greatly.  Maybe that was the last lesson he could learn from others on the planet---humans sometimes insult and hurt each other in ways that cannot be described.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Do As I Do...or As I Say...?

There is a song that is included in the musical, "My Fair Lady" where Eliza Doolittle sings to her teacher, Henry Higgins, that begins with "Words, words, words!"  Then she begins to sing, "Don't talk of stars burning above, if you're in love, show me!"  The remainder of the lyrics to the song, "Show Me" talks about how much people say but how little they put into action.  The entire musical had been about words, about how Higgins could teach Eliza to speak as a proper English lady should.  Many times the words she spoke were used to deceive others into thinking that she was a proper lady rather than the "gutter snipe" that Higgins believed her to be.  When she pulled off the ultimate deception aided by Higgins and company, they celebrated while she become depressed thinking that she would be thrown back into the life she had left to be part of the great experiment that Higgins did with Eliza as guinea pig.  The song, "Show Me" comes at the end when she has become totally exasperated by the conceited teacher she had fallen in love with.

How much power do words have?  How much do most of us allow them to shape us or cause us to become what the words say we are?  In this current political election cycle, some use the word "conservative" as a badge of honor while the word "liberal" is made a term of derision.  In some circles it is exactly the opposite. Do we become what the words say we are when we hear the words that some use to describe us often enough?

There is a term that is used to describe people who become what others say they will become--"self-fulfilling prophecy".  The term means that when you predict that someone will become a certain way in life and that person hears your prediction enough times, then he/she will become as you predicted.  It is not that you had the gift of prophecy in making your prediction.  It is that the one you were talking about heard what you said enough times, that they became convinced that they were as you said.

Children often mirror the things that adults say about them.  Most of us have seen the plaque or picture that contain the short discourse called, "Children Learn What They Live".  It was written by Dorothy Law Nolte in 1972.  In case you don't recall it, it begins..."If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.  If children live with hostility, they learn to fight..."  The writer continues to list both good and bad attributes of humans and makes the point that children become what the adults in their lives model for them.  The lives adults live around children teaches them how to live.  Positive, loving lives help to develop the same kind of children.  Negative, destructive lives teach those values also.

The epistle writer James makes the point in the first chapter of his writing, "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers, who deceive themselves.  For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like." (James 1:22-24).  Doers of the word are people who attempt to put into practice the words that they have considered constructive in life.  In modern language, "they walk the walk, not just talk the talk."  Doers are people who demonstrate through daily living what they sincerely believe is important in life.  If they believe that people should be kind and forgiving and loving, then they attempt to live that out in the way they treat others.

A professor of mine in seminary said that when he lived in a large city that had a subway train, he often used it for transportation.  When the train was above ground, you could look out the windows and see all the views in the city and surrounding area.  When the train went underground, though, when you looked at the window all you saw was your own reflection.  He said that when one looks at the "word" (what one believes to be important in life) then you see yourself reflected in those beliefs.

Words do have a power of their own.  What we think about others shapes our view of them.  The words we use to describe others have the power to lift them up or put them down.  God help us to live lives that demonstrate what we truly believe and not just talk about them and then live in away that does not mirror our actions.  Looking at ourselves in light of what we truly believe in life brings about lives of truth and wholeness.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Shall I Wear?

Most of us own so many articles of clothing that we have to look at the clothes in our closet and ask ourselves, "What will I wear today?"  We are very fortunate.  There are people who live in some places in the world who do not ask that question when they begin to get dressed.  There choices are very limited.  They may own only two pieces of each type of clothing, just enough to have a spare when one needs to be washed.

I was fortunate to go on a mission trip back in 1997 with a team to Siberia.  We flew from Dallas to Frankfurt and then to Moscow and spent a few days there and then got on board the Russian airlines Aeroflot for a four hour trip to Tomsk.  A nice group of Russian people met us at the airport and picked us up in a little van and drove us through the birch forests to an orphanage where we were to stay and work for a week.  Our group got settled in and enjoyed a "welcoming dinner" provided by our hosts and the next day, we were up very early to begin our work of painting and doing minor repairs here and there.  It was the work that brought us to that orphanage but our real task was to build relations with the Russians we met and to spread peace through the lives we lived among them.

A little boy, perhaps 8 years old, named Cola became my buddy for that week.  He spoke no English and I spoke only about 6 words of Russian that I had learned from a Russian-English dictionary I had brought along.  We communicated by my talking louder than usual in English (doesn't that help them understand you?) and waving my hands about to demonstrate what I wanted to say to him.  Cola met me each morning after breakfast and followed me around.  Sometimes he would reach out and hold my hand and we would walk and talk and not know what the other was saying.  One day we were supposed to paint the outside of a building.  Some of us gathered and had our brushes and paint and were all ready to begin work when Cola showed up.  He waved his hand in an up and down motion to tell me that he wanted to paint too.  I shook my head to say "No" and said in English loudly, "You will get paint all over your shirt".  I had noticed by then that Cola wore the same shirt every day.  He was dressed with all the clothes he needed but he always wore the same shirt.  I was so afraid that if he got paint on his clothing from helping us, the rather stern looking matron who administered the orphanage may punish him so I didn't want him to have that happen.  Cola stood and watched us paint and looked ready to jump in and help at any moment but I could not put his shirt in danger of damage.  I did not know if he had another one to take its place.

We stayed at the orphanage for a week and had many experiences.  We visited a Russian Orthodox church for a special service.  We took a long van trip to another town to see the sights.  We were treated like visiting royalty by our guides and translators.  At the end of our week, they hosted a farewell party for us.  We had a dinner complete with lots of champagne and vodka and then the children sang and danced in some traditional costumes.  As we ended our time together, along came Cola and took me by the hand.  Suddenly I had this giant lump in my throat because I knew I had to say good-bye to this new friend I had made over a course of a week.  Why would a foreigner like me become attached to a little boy who could not speak my language over the course of a week?  How puzzling was that?  As I told Cola goodbye and gave him a hug, I began to cry as did most of our team members as we had to say goodbye to the friends we had made at this place we had never gone to before.  Tears were shed on both sides of the airport the next day as we boarded our Aeroflot plane bound for St. Petersburg.

We Americans brought a lot of clothes with us.  Many of us returned with far less clothes because we gave away most of them to the people at the orphanage.  We left there wearing our two or three changes we had to keep us till we got home but gave the guides and translators and people working at the orphanage all the clothing we could spare.  We had so much and they had so little in comparison.  It was the least we could do.

St. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus in chapter 6 describing how Christians should dress as they fight against the evil in the world around them.  Paul envisioned a Roman soldier dressed in all of his armor to protect him in battle.  Paul thought of the world in the first century Roman Empire as a very dangerous place and that Christians were doing daily battle against the forces of evil in the world.  To be prepared to live in that world, Paul said, Christians had to be suited up with all they needed to survive.  Take on the "whole armor of God" he said, and in that inventory was the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Paul also told them to wear shoes that would make them ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

How ironic that Paul used a metaphor of war to say one would proclaim the gospel of peace at the same time.  Paul's vision of what was needed to be prepared in this world says that Christians need to use all they have at their disposal to stand up against the forces that they may encounter in the world.  There is evil in the world and we see it at work each day as we read the newspaper and see the broadcasts on television and computers.  We may feel overwhelmed at time by all of the violence and confusion at work in our world.  Evil abounds but it cannot conquer the forces of good, and Christians represent those forces equally at work in the world.

What we did as Americans going to work among the people of Russia in the 90s was to spread the gospel of peace among them.  I was asked to preach during the service we had on the Sunday when we were there.  I preached to Americans and Russians and children gathered for that service.  I preached in English as a translator said my words again in the language of the people there.  I cannot remember exactly what I preached but I know it was something about people living in peace together.  This was only 8 years after the fall of the wall that had separated our countries.  Both groups were a bit wary of each other and we did not know what to think about being around our former Cold War "enemies".  We needed to speak words of peace to each other and say that we believed that we could live together as friends even though our governments promoted war-like ideas.

Paul wanted the new Christians at Ephesus to know that even though they were surrounded by people whom they may be unsure of and not know whether to trust them, they were to spread the gospel of peace and live as people prepared to stand firm in their day but also to share what they had experienced as messengers of peace.

Paul described himself as an "ambassador".  He represented the Kingdom of God and lived in an alien land that did not see the world as he did.  We are all ambassadors of Christ in the world around us.  We live as people who belong to a heavenly kingdom even though we hold citizenship in an earthly one.  We had dual citizenship, you may say, keeping our feet firmly planted on earth but our spirits united with the one who enlivens and enriches us.  We are to speak on behalf of the kingdom we represent and let them know that our kingdom is one of peace and love and grace.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Are You a Wise Guy Or Girl?

Wisdom....hmmm, where does it come from?  What's it all about? What does it mean to be wise?  Solomon was supposed to be the greatest king of all in the Old Testament story of the leaders of Israel.  According to a story in I Kings, he could ask God for anything he wanted and God would grant his wish and, wisely, he asked God to give him wisdom so that he could be a good leader.  There are not that many stories about his wisdom but there is one that is quite familiar where two women came to see him to have a dispute settled.  It seems that the two women lived together and both of them had babies at the same time.  One night when a tragic accident happened and one baby died, the two women came to Solomon and asked him to decide which woman was the real mother of the baby.  Solomon, in all of his wisdom, asked for a sword to be brought out so that the baby could be divided so that each woman could have half.  The real mother screamed and said to let the other one have it while the other insisted on killing the baby.  By that reaction, Solomon knew who the real mother was.  She would rather have the other woman have the baby than to have it die.

We normally do not have such life or death decisions to have to make but we all need wisdom in order to live and work and do what is required of us in modern life.  We are confronted with situations that offer us choices to make.  We are given opportunities to invest our money in different places.  We may be asked to do things for friends or acquaintances that we have to put some thought into.  Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions and to reflect upon life in such a way that we know the path ahead.

How does one become wise?  Can one simply ask God to be granted wisdom and then it happens, as it seems it did with Solomon?  Is wisdom something that one gains as one lives in the world and makes decisions, learning from each one?  Some of the wisest people I know are the oldest people I know also.  Perhaps that speaks to that last question.  Simply living long enough may make one wise because one has had to make many decisions and wisdom has come about due to the many situations in which one finds oneself.  There are very wise young persons, though.  How did they become so wise at an early age?  Perhaps wisdom can be a gift, that some persons are just gifted in the area of wisdom and decision making.  Perhaps that helps to explain why some people become wealthy at a young age, making wise decisions regarding finances or technology or innovations for society.  Wisdom may be theirs even though they have not lived a great number of years.

The psalmist said, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have good understanding." (Ps. 111:10)  Fear here does not mean being afraid.  It means having great respect or to hold in awe.  Those who include God in their lives and keep God a conscious presence in their lives seem to have the ability to navigate life in such a way that things seem to work out for them, not always, but as a general rule.

Our lives are like a flow chart.  You have seen those devices that help people to make decisions.  They contain boxes and lines connecting them.  They ask a question and depending upon the answer one moves in one of two directions that lead to another box.  Then, another question is there and one must answer it in order to go to another box and this is repeated over and over.  We begin life and when we are old enough to begin to make decisions on our own, the decision we make brings about a consequence based on the decision.  Then, that consequence offers choices and we have to make another decision.  Throughout our lives, we are shaped by the decisions we make.  The wisdom we gain by making those decisions guides our lives and leads us into paths we take, much like the lines drawn on the flow chart.

Some people make decisions early in life that they regret later.  I know one person who decided to quit college only three courses short of a degree.  He made that decision because of the influence of another person.  He regretted making that decision again and again but never returned to college to fulfill the dream he had.  That decision made it impossible to qualify for jobs that the degree would have opened the door for.  His life is nothing like what it may have been if he had completed the task he had begun.  Others dropped out of high school and that put them at a level in society that they never thought would happen.  Decisions we make guide our lives as we live them.

God, grant us wisdom to make decisions that would guide us into the way you would have us to go.  When we are confused or perplexed, grant us your peace as we continue to trust you.  Amen.