Monday, January 30, 2012

Is Christianity a Belief System or a Way of Life?

Our adults Sunday School Class is studying the book "The Other Jesus" by Greg Garrett.  We are taking it chapter by chapter and discussing each chapter together.  It is a bit like the big theological paper I had to write in seminary that had chapters concerning God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, etc.  We called the paper our "Credo" (I Believe) and the class that required the paper was called Systematic Theology.  The class lasted an entire year and the paper was the culminating assignment and was meant to be a major paper meaning many pages.  We are currently reading and discussing Chapter 6 which is called "Spiritual Practice."  In the beginning of the chapter, Mr. Garrett makes the statement, "For far too many Christians, Christianity is largely affirming a belief in God, and it is lived out through church attendance and adherence to some standard of personal piety.  It is not, surveys have told us, necessarily spiritual, and many who attend church may not even have an authentic experience of God."  (page 55) 

We discussed that section a week ago in our class.  Those present agreed that they knew many people for whom Christianity was just something they had "done" earlier in life and now it had little influence in their lives.  They had either been confirmed as a teenager and had "graduated from church" meaning that they rarely attended church OR they had been "saved" at some point so they have locked in salvation for the rest of their lives and do not need to attend church.  Our text quotes Maya Angelou as saying, in response to such an idea, "Christianity is not something we have accomplished, but something we do."  In other words, our Christian experience should have become a way of life, not just something we say we believe in occasionally. 

Christian Century magazine recently had an article entitled, "Christianity by the Numbers" in which they gave a breakdown of what faith tradition, if any, Americans claim in 2012, according to a recent survey taken by the Gallop Poll.  According to the article (1-25-2012), nearly 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians.  That number lumps together all who say they are Prostestant, Catholic, and Mormon.  An interesting number given in the statistics is that now 15 percent of Americans claim none, atheist, or agnostic as their answer to a faith question.  The findings show that there is a trend in America of an increasing number of persons who do not have a religious identity. 

I sometimes wonder if many of those who are in the "none" category today are persons who once were adherents to a faith tradition but they never fully became incorporated into the idea that religion is not a belief system but it is a way of life.  Living out one's faith is something that persons do each day, not by simply believing in or thinking about faith matters but by practicing what their faith informs them that they should do as they interact with others.  We are challenged by others in our world to put our faith into practice as we encounter others.  Will we respond with mercy instead of judgment when someone in need crosses our path?  Will we listen to what others have to say instead of being quick to give our opinions?  Will we consider the feelings of others and act on their behalf instead of ours?  Will we speak up for those who are oppressed or disenfranchised? 

Christianity is something we "do" every day we live.  We meet others on our journies who make demands upon us.  We respond to them based upon the beliefs we have.  Sometimes we make good decisions and sometimes we make bad ones.  Our faith that we possess enables us to respond in a faithful manner and to repent when we have failed to make the mark.  It also encourages us to want to be with others of similar faith ideas so that we can receive strength for the journey and give strength to others who are traveling on the path. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

Have you ever stopped to think about how many decisions most of us make in one day?  We begin making them as soon as we begin to realize that we are awake once again.  Will I open my eyes or just lay here with them closed and try to sleep longer?  Will I get up?  Will I read the paper or watch television or do both or maybe I will do neither and talk to my spouse while I have coffee?  The decisions are endless.  Some of them are minor and have little effect on our day.  Whether or not we read the paper while having coffee usually does not impact our day, unless we read the obituaries and find our name in there.  Then, we may have to do some serious thinking about that find. 

Decisions are something we live with day to day and we should be pretty good at making them by the time we reach adulthood.  Some people, however, did not receive or develop the necessary skills in order to make good decisions.  For some reason, they were not sufficiently prepared so as to make good decisions and so they became stalled at some level of development and do not fit into society easily.  Consider the shooter who was responsible for killing a dozen or so people and seriously wounding the Congresswoman from Arizona last year.  When it was discovered who he was that had done it, a picture of a young man who was unprepared for life and most likely a bit off balanced developed.  For some reason, he became fixated on issues that drove him to violence.  The decisions he made had severe consequences for himself and those whom he hurt. 

People make decisions early in life that will chart the direction their lives will take.  Some decide that education beyond high school is not important or some even drop out of high school thinking that it is not worth the effort.  That decision places them in a class or category where they will not qualify for jobs that pay much more than minimum wage.  Education is often the key to success in life and not having the desire or drive to receive a quality education may result in a lifestyle that one wishes one could change but it does not happen easily. 

Decisions are very important to our lives.  What we eat, how much we exercise, what we do with our free time...all of these and more impact what our lives may be like in the future.  It is never too late to make better decisions or to turn our lives around.  That is a basic tenet of the Christian faith.  When we begin Lent in another four weeks, those who choose to receive the ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday may hear the words, "Repent, and believe the Gospel."  Those two phrases guide our thoughts during Lent even as they should for our entire lives.  Repent means to turn around, to do things differently.  Each time we decide to eat healthy instead of eating junk food we have repented of our old habits.  Each time we decide to take a walk instead of sitting and watching television we are repenting of our old ways and turning to new ways.  Believing the Gospel simply means to believe the Good News (what the word "Gospel" literally means) that Jesus Christ can bring new life even in the midst of old or destructive ways.  Believing that Jesus is the Life does not mean belief in something in the Great means that we can have a new life today.  We can start over regardless of how long we have been stuck in our ways. 

Making Good Decisions is a daily process that begins each day when we open our eyes and begin to enter conciousness again.  That process continues as long as we live.  That is what it means to be truly human and that is what God intended for our lives and our living. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Blessed to be a Blessing

Last Friday when I went to check to see if we had any mail, there was a large white box on our porch besides the mail that was in the box.  The box came from a church in Seattle that I had never had any communication with.  I brought it into the house and began to open it.  There was a letter on the top of an assortment of books, a CD, and a children's book.  The letter addressed me as "Dear friends in ministry" and the let me know that the contents of the box was being sent to me as a gift from the "Turner Legacy Committee" of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle.  The letter stated that this was a gift and nothing was expected back from me...except the ordination vows that I had made to myself. 

The contents of the box were books written by Reverend Dale Emerson Turner who had been pastor of the University Congregational Church in Seattle for many years.  Rev. Turner also served as religion columnist for The Seattle Times for twenty years.  He was a spokesperson for Progressive Christianity and spoke up for civil rights, opposition to war, and the empowerment of women and minorities in ministry.  He was an advocate for the creation of the United Church of Christ in 1957.  Rev. Turner passed away in 2006 at the age of 88 and left funds as part of his legacy to bless others in the ministry with the writings that he had completed during his lifetime. 

When I read the letter, I was moved with emotion.  I was humbled by the fact that of all the UCC ministers in the USA, I was chosen to be a recipient of this gift.  I was also reminded of the connection that we often forget that binds together those of us who feel called to the task and joy of ministry.  We often forget that there are many of us who share this calling and God uses each of us in a unique way to work in this world and bless and challenge others who need to hear God's voice.  I have only begun to explore the writings of Rev. Turner but I am looking forward to seeing and hearing via CD what he would say to me as he reminds me of what ordained ministry means. 

Most Sundays in our church we share a part of the service called "The Call to Offering" in which we remind all of us present why we need to participate in the offering about to be collected.  Many Sundays, the message contained in the Call is one that reminds us that we have been blessed by God with many good gifts.  Those gifts are not ours to hoard but they are ours to share with others.  We are blessed to be a blessing to others in our world who may not be as fortunate as we are.  We are given so many blessings that we cannot number them and we are called to pass them on so that the world will be a better place because of us. 

I am truly thankful for the generosity of the Turner Legacy Committee and mystified by how my name and address came their way so that they could share these gifts with me.  I will try to emulate their gift and share what I learn from the wisdom of this partner in ministry with others who need encouragement and someone to speak for them when their voice cannot be heard.  Perhaps that is the greatest gift we can give listen to what they have to say and to respond as we are able so that God's blessings will be spread throughout the earth.   

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Joy of Music

This Sunday we are going to dedicate our new hymnals for our congregation during our Sunday worship service.  A very generous family made a gift large enough to buy enough hymnals for our congregation.  We appreciate their generosity and are thankful that they gave enough so that we could buy enough hymnals to replace all of our other ones.  The last hymnals were bought in 1991 so they have been used for about 21 years and were not in terrible condition.  The publication date of that hymnal, though, was 1979 and there have been so many great hymns written since then and many that have been included in hymnals that many denominations have adopted or printed since then. 

We decided to buy the "Chalice Hymnal" that is published by the printing house of the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church).  It contains most of the hymns with which we are familiar and has many new ones for us to learn.  We have been singing out of these hymnals since early December and most of the congregation seems pleased with this choice of hymnals.  Last Sunday our service ended with the hymn "Here I Am, Lord" which is a favorite in many church settings.  This Sunday we will conclude singing, "Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore" which is another meaningful hymn.  Both of these are new to our congregation, although we have sung them a couple times each since I have been pastor here, borrowing them from other hymnals that contain them. 

Some congregations have decided not to even use hymnals at all, relying solely on words flashed on screens or power point presentations presented by professional companies.  That method of presentation is fine for many congregations but this one that is 111 years old and has German Lutheran roots is not ready for looking at a screen or the wall while they are signing.  They want to hold a book in their hands and look at the words and some even want to look at the musical score that goes with the words.  They are "old school" when it comes to singing.  They cannot be something they are not and must be true to their convictions.  I respect that and affirm the history and tradition that continues to inform our worship. 

Many congregations strive to be "everything for everybody", wanting to see if new members will come if they find the worship appealing and similar to what they may hear in the culture.  They think that if people come to church and hear the beat that they hear in places in their community that are nonreligious then maybe they will relate to it better.  One of the most recent studies of modern worshipers says that the opposite is actually true.  Many people yearn for the tradition that they remember from their childhood because it gives them a feeling of connection with spiritual things that they sensed in the past.  When they hold a hymnal and sing familiar words or hear familiar readings or prayers, they are filled with a sense of nostalgia that connects them to the Other because it connects their feelings as well as their intellect.  Many people long for their connection because the rest of their lives feels so disconnected. 

I often find myself singing songs from the church of my childhood that I left long ago, not because I really like those songs or agree with the theology presented in them but for some reason they connect me to my spiritual roots that I continue to find relevant.  I have changed a great deal since finding my new church home and leaving behind the church of my childhood but the music still connects with me in some way.  I may begin singing a song that I suddenly find distasteful because of the message it contains but the tune will not stop.  Music has great power and it reminds us of the lessons we learned in our youth if we had some grace shown to us through the singing of it.  There is meaning to be found in the song if the song connects with our spirits.  Perhaps one of the old songs that comes to my mind now and then says it best, "God gave the song." 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Active Listening

Do you ever do what I do sometimes?  Try to listen to someone who is talking to you but all the time be thinking about something else and when they finish what they are saying, just shake your head, and say "Uh-huh"?  I do not always realize that I am doing that but every once in a while my wife will catch me at it.  She will ask me what she just said and I will realize that I have no idea so I just make up something on the spot that is so outrageous that it is like admitting that I have no clue what she said.  We usually have a big laugh about it and then she repeats what she said and I do tune in and listen that time. 

We all are guilty at times of not really listening to others for whatever reason.  We may be really busy, or preoccupied with some other matter, or distracted by something in the environment such as a television or radio, or we may be just zoned out or weary at that moment.  We often do not give adequate attention to the people in our lives who are the most important to us.  We overlook their ideas and needs because we are too busy thinking about our own lives and plans. 

Now and then we play this game at our house (not intentionally, but it just seems to happen) where one of us names something that we think we should do and the other repeats exactly what the first person said as if it is their idea.  You may have done the same thing.  It goes something like this.  "Hey, do you know what we should do...we should go get a pizza."  "No, I have a better idea.  I think we should go get a pizza."  Usually the first person whacks the other one on the arm or other body part and then we go get a pizza.  That demonstrates how caught up we are in our own world, though, that we often neglect to really listen to other people.

Samuel was just a little boy when he went to live in the temple with Eli, the prophet, and his two wild sons.  (See I Samuel 1-3 for more details).  One night he was trying to go to sleep when he thought he heard Eli call his name.  He jumped out of bed and ran to where Eli was trying to go to sleep, asking what he wanted, and Eli told him to go back to bed.  That happened 3 times before Eli finally caught on and decided that it was the LORD that was calling Samuel's name.  Eli told Samuel to respond if he heard it again with, "Speak, for your servant is listening."  Sure enough, God spoke to Samuel again and this time Samuel listened well.  God gave Samuel a task to complete, not a very pleasant thing to do--to share bad news with Eli about things to come, but Samuel had to do what God had asked him to do. 

God calls us throughout our lives to complete tasks.  The tasks may be pleasant ones or they may be ones we dread but they need to be done anywhere.  We are often the messengers who have to carry the message on behalf of God.  The messages may be ones of comfort or joy, to reassure others that God's presence is with them and that things will be okay if they continue to trust God.  The messages may be warnings that someone may be involved in things that they must treat carefully or act cautiously.  The messages may be ideas to share with others to get them to think about what God's will would be in their lives.  God must have human messengers to talk to humans because humans understand each other and can often be influential in the lives of one another. 

Samuel became a major prophet for the people of Israel because he was willing to speak on behalf of God during times of transition in Israel.  The people wanted a king like other nations surrounding them and Samuel did not think that was wise but heard God's voice telling him to let them have their way because they had to learn what would happen when they made their decision about the future.  God allows us the free will in our lives to make decisions.  Sometimes they lead us into paths of peace and contentment but sometimes they cause us great consternation and concern too.  The choices are ours to make but God will give us guidance and instruction if we will learn to listen to God. 

Listening to God is an active process in life.  We have to talk to God and allow God to speak to us in our spirits, through our consciences, through others, and through the world around us and all it involves.  When we take the time to listen, God will speak to us and direct us the way that we should live. 

"The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps."  Proverbs 16:9 (NRSV)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Giving God the Credit and the Blame

Isn't it amazing how humans have to have someone to blame when things go wrong and at times to thank when things go right?  In our society recently we have had both situations and people have proclaimed that God is to thank for certain things (such as football plays that miraculously save a game) or that God is to blame for (automobile accidents that claim a life).  I suppose that it is easy to just fall back on giving God the credit or the blame for things that cannot be explained because it has been worked into our vocabulary by insurance companies and others that describe these as "acts of God".  When a tree falls on your car and causes you damage, it is an act of God, they say.  When a tornado comes out of nowhere and rips your house apart, that is also an act of God, they say.  When a certain quarterback on a certain team makes a play that is hard to explain, some also call that an act of God.  I would think that if God has a sense of humor, and I think that God does, then God is sitting back and laughing at the human race for describing such incredible acts as acts of God. 

God may explain such things as simply as that when the weather works as it does at times, warm air rushing to meet cold air, then tornadoes happen.  When trees begin to get old or sick and a huge wind blows, then a tree may fall and if your car happens to be nearby, then that tree may fall on your car.  When people drive in an irresponsible manner then someone may get hurt or die, even if someone else is the one doing the irresponsible driving.  If two football players have practiced most of their lives at their crafts, then isn't there a great proportion of the time that perhaps their practice may pay off and other players may not be able to prevent them from succeeding? 

Why do people need a supernatural explanation for everything is not readily explainable?  Why can't it be that sometimes things just happen as they do, that the laws of the universe that were set to work at creation are working and most of the time they work as they should and things good and bad may happen as a result?  Now, humans do interfere or interact with the laws of creation and perhaps they are to blame for things going awry at times.  People drive the cars and throw the footballs and build the houses and park the cars near trees.  People use the gas and burn the products that causes the pollution that make the atmosphere different that causes weather changes.  So, people do have an effect upon the good creation that God began.  But....God is not just waiting in the heavens to assist a football player to make a good play or to cause a car to crash so that the driver can go to heaven.  At least, not the God I believe in.....

I think that God loves all of us as much as we can be loved and God would never cause us to have pain.  God wants to help us to live so we don't experience pain but we have to learn how to live if we are not going to have the suffering in our lives that we experience.  We often suffer because of our actions or the actions of others and when life falls down around us, we suffer because we internalize the pain.  We care about the suffering and we have pain as humans do. 

Our Buddhist friends teach that when humans let go of what is troubling them, they can be free from pain.  They attempt through meditation to let go and make their lives as pain free as possible.  Christians can do the same thing by allowing God to be in control of their lives and not attempt to solve all the problems they may encounter.  Christians can also meditate and begin to free themselves from what plagues them so that their lives will be more fulfilled.  Think about the good things of life and try not to dwell on negatives and life will be richer and less stressful.  Allow others to assist you when you need help and try not to carry your load alone.  Allow God to be in control of life and enjoy the life that God would give you.