Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Take a Leap

I always wondered if one was born on February 29 if they only are actually one fourth as old as the rest of us?  I always always wondered if they get a birthday every year or if they only get one every four years?  I guess it is how you look at it.  If one is a literalist about most things, then I suppose you would have to say that anyone whose birthday is on February 29 does not actually have a birthday but once every four years.  If I were that lucky then to have been born on February 29, then I would turn 15 today.  Yea for me!  I may feel 15 but I do not look anything like others who are 15 years old.  15 was not my favorite age either so being 15 for 4 years sounds like something that a Hollywood producer may think up for a good teen movie.  (If any Hollywood producers are reading this, remember that is my pay up!) 

We call this day "Leap Day" because the other three years we just leap by it and do not even know it is there but every four years suddenly it is on the calendar and we have to live that day just like any other day on the calendar.  Leap Day is a good day to reflect on life and think about what your life means to you, about how you live your life and what you may want to do differently.  It is a little like an additional New Years Day thrown in for good measure.  It is a day that does not come around much so it should make us pay attention and think more deeply than usual. 

Last week those of us in religious circles celebrated "Ash Wednesday" which was another "Wake Up Call" to all of us.  It made us think about what it means to wear the name "Christian" and how we live out that name in daily life.  There are a lot of people who are trying to interject religious issues into our thinking these days.  Many of them are politicians but when they speak they also get religious leaders of one kind or another to comment on what they said.  Some of these voices want all of us to live in their prescribed way of living and they even want to be able to dictate for us what we can and cannot do in our private lives.  They use religious issues to bring attention to themselves and lift themselves up as pious persons who could serve as our role models if we would only adopt their way of thinking. 

Is that the "wake up call" we want to hear on Ash Wednesday or Leap Day or any day in fact?  I think that if those very pious persons would stop long enough to look into the Gospel of Matthew, the reading that we often read on Ash Wednesday, they would see that piety in itself is not recommended by the Jesus they love to make claim of.  Jesus tells his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount that they should not pray aloud in public lest others see them and give them praise; they should not let anyone know they are fasting lest anyone should think they are holy by doing it; they should not judge others, so that they will not be judged.  (See Matthew 5-7 for all the verses.)  Jesus was not in favor of religiosity but was in favor of people treating others as they would want to be treated. 

Americans tend to be very independent people.  The vast majority of Americans would not want to live in a theocracy, where religion and religious practices are dictated by the government in charge.  Most Americans I know are in favor of separation of church and state because it allows all of us to be involved with religion as much or as little as we desire without anyone interfering in our lives.  I am a pastor and I would love to have every member of my church present for worship every Sunday of the year.  I am a realist, though, and know that all people do not feel the same way as I do about it so I have to let them be the way they are and hope that they will allow the church to be involved in their lives at some point and be there to help them if they ask for my help.  My church members would not like for me to quiz them about why they did not come to church on any given Sunday but only to care for them and pray that God would help them to live as God would desire for them to live. 

So, take a leap today....think about your own life and what it means to you.  Think about God and what you perceive God to be and do.  Think about your neighbors and what they mean to you and how you may be able to be helpful to them.  Then give thanks that you have the many blessings that you have as you look forward to the future and all it can bring.   

Monday, February 27, 2012

Cross Bearing

There is an old gospel song that many of us have sung in religious circles sometimes in our lives that begins, "Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free, no there's a cross for everyone, and there's a cross for me."  The song reminds the singer that crosses come in many forms in life and each of us have one or more that we must carry in the same way that Jesus carried an actual cross to the place of his death.  Our crosses are not made of wood and metal but they are real to us in the same way that that tool of execution was to Jesus. 

Some of us carry crosses of pain that we cannot seem to lose.  My poor father had a bad back all his life.  He was constantly in pain with it and went to doctors and chiropractors and others whom he hoped would help him find some relief.  It worked at times but many times he simply suffered in pain with his back.  It seems I have inherited his back issues because my back problems seem to be increasing in regularity and severity.  They come and stay more than come and go.  That is minor in comparison to the woes of some persons, however.  Many suffer with the effects of long term illness and they bear that cross throughout their lives. 

Some carry the cross of depression and anxiety.  They do not want to feel sad all the time but it is as if they cannot flip the switch that will bring them relief.  They depend upon doctors and drugs because they do not know any other source that may help them.  They worry about the future and what it may bring for them. 

Some carry the cross of contention and family issues and sources of grief and pain that only they can know.  We cannot begin to understand the problems of others.  Many times, they suffer silently because they cannot share their deepest needs with anyone because they believe that no one can truly understand what they feel.  They may feel alone in the wilderness of despair, needing to feel the warmth of human companionship but also afraid to get too close lest they be hurt by others. 

We carry our crosses throughout our lives and many times we think that we carry them alone, and we may indeed do so.  Giving up the right to do it alone, though, allows God and others to be active in our lives and may bring about some relief that we seek.  When we trust others to know what is truly in our hearts, we open the door to healing that may come through self-revelation.  When we truly seek God with all our hearts, we will find God close by.  We have all been hurt in life and many times we hold close to us the feelings of pain that we have experienced.  As we open ourselves up to healing by God's Spirit and through the ministry of our friends and neighbors, we may find that our crosses do not have to be carried all alone. 

I write this as a pastor but I also write as one who has been hurt by life and living.  I have experienced the pain that is common to all of us by trusting others and being involved with others in life only to find that they may betray your trust.   We can keep all of these needs to ourselves and suffer in silence but we can also open ourselves up to others who can help us and to God as we pray and seek God's presence to be real in our lives. 

"The word 'courage' comes from coeur, which means 'heart".  To have courage is to listen to our heart, to speak from our heart, and to act from our heart...Courage starts in small corners...It is courageous to think well of other people and be grateful to them...It is courageous to reach out to a poor person, to spend time with a troubled child, to participate in action to prevent war and violence."  (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Preparing a Place for God

Today's blog entry uses thoughts from the book, "Lent and Easter Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen", edited by Judy Bauer (Liguori Press, 2005).

Henri Nouwen said in "Bread for the Journey"--Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the time and space where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God's guidance.  Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God--a time and a place where God's gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to." 

Discipline....not a word we generally like especially when we are the ones receiving discipline at the hands of another.  Usually it brings up a negative connotation wherein we suffer in some way.  Discipline that is self imposed may not be any more pleasant to consider but when we have a goal that we are working toward that act of discipline may be worth the sacrifice.  When my wife and I first married, we dreamed of owing a home but we were fresh out of college and making very little as first year school teachers and we knew realistically that it would be many years down the road before we could afford to buy a home.  We settled for apartment life or renting a house because we knew it was our only option.  Another teacher and her husband (who was not a teacher and made more money) were about our ages but they decided to sacrifice a more lavish lifestyle and bank her entire paycheck each month so that they could save for the down payment for a house.  Each month they lived on his earnings and they banked what she earned.  At the end of that year, they decided they had enough money to pay the down payment on a house and began to look at houses for possible purchase.  Soon, they bought that house and began the happy life of home least mostly happy. 

We did not have the discipline to do such a thing.  We did not live a lavish lifestyle but we enjoyed eating out occasionally and travel and we did both of those.  The other couple rarely ate in a restaurant and they went no where except locally but they decided it was worth it in order to own a  home sooner.  They had the discipline it took to make their dreams come true. 

Spiritual discipline is like that also.  If we decide that the goal we set is worth the sacrifice we may have to make then sticking to our plan may be worth the effort.  I always give up something for Lent, not because someone tells me I have to do so but because I want to show myself that I am able to do this and to stick to it.  I do not tell anyone what I gave up because I don't want to draw attention to that idea but I have been forced to tell others about it when offered something that I chose not to eat during Lent.  Having the discipline to resist that food you enjoy because you think it will bring about a positive result in your life over the course of Lent is the reason for giving up a food.  It does not make you better than anyone else but it makes you a better person for having the personal discipline to do so. 

Perhaps it also makes us think about other areas of life that we could change by having discipline in those areas.  We create time and space in our lives to fulfill these ideas and perhaps that is what Nouwen was talking about in his book.  We create boundaries for ourselves and keep that time open for God's guidance in our lives.  We allow God to be present to us even as we create that boundary for ourselves.  We make a place for God in our lives even as that young couple made the sacrifice so that they could see their goals become reality sooner.  Perhaps six weeks is just enough to influence for continuing positive change in our lives after Lent is over. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Endings and Beginnings

Most people who live and work in this world do not keep time with the church calendar.  Most let the calendar that society uses guide their lives.  When you work in the profession that I work in, though, one also uses the Church Year as a calendar because it directs us as to what we do in the church.  Mainline churches generally use what is called the "lectionary" to assist us in planning worship.  We also use the "Christian Year" as a way to prepare for major events in the life of the church (Christmas and Easter) and to help us plan what we will do during the rest of the year.  The Christian Year begins on the First Sunday of Advent (usually the Sunday following Thanksgiving or somewhere close to it) and works its way through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and then a very long season called either "after Pentecost" or "Ordinary Time" depending upon one's view of what non-special time should mean. 

This past Sunday was the last "Sunday after Epiphany" and this next Sunday is the "First Sunday in Lent".  This is a week of transition, moving from the season of light to the season of solemn reflection.  We were sharing stories during worship that had to do with Jesus' ministry and how that ministry illuminated others so that they could see the light of God reflected in the life of Jesus.  Now, we begin the journey that will take Jesus to the cross that will culminate in Good Friday and lead into the season of Easter.  The Season of Lent begins this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday, not a very jolly or celebrative service but one that confronts us with our mortality and our need for repentance.  Those who attend are marked with a mark of ashes on their foreheads in the sign of the cross as they hear the words, "Repent, and believe the Gospel".  Then, for 40 days (not counting Sundays) they dedicate themselves to a Lenten discipline of their choosing if they desire.  They may give up a certain food that they like or they may devote themselves to a spiritual practice that they normally do not participate in, such as spiritual reading or prayer. 

Transitions are a natural part of life.  People are born and people die.  Jobs begin and retirement comes.  People move from one place to another.  Transitions happen because change is a natural part of life.  Lent helps us to reflect upon our lives and what we want to be like in life.  Lent gives us the change to begin again once more.  We had that reminder in the culture on New Years Day when many people made resolutions and promised themselves to be better in some way.  Lent is another beginning time, offering us the opportunity to begin again spiritually.  Lent offers us our time in the desert that we need to reflect upon our lives and our relationship with God. 

To quote a Christian song from the 1970s, "A new beginning is just beginning, a breakthrough, a winning...a new beginning is just beginning to take hold in my life."  Begin again, one more time, and see what your outlook and your life will feel like when Easter dawns on you in six more weeks. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day, 2012

"Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (I Corinthians 13:4-7)

I read those words many times when I officiate at a wedding.  I look at the young (and not so young) lovers standing in front of me, their eyes glazed over, sweat most likely dripping down somewhere, and wonder if they actually have a clue as to what they are getting themselves into at this wedding.  A wedding is a romantic event for many and reality has little to do with it.  It is something we do because it is traditional.  The parts of the wedding ceremony themselves were originally civil agreements between a father and a man who wanted to take the daughter of the father away from him.  The daughter often had to have a "dowry", money or possessions that would guarantee that the man who was taking the daughter as his wife was getting a good deal from the transaction.  The language we use in weddings is civil language from a time when women were treated as possessions and she was "given" by a father to a man who would feed and clothe her so that the father no longer had to provide for her.  That is why she had to bring something into the marriage so that the man who would be responsible for her would have something tangible to begin this new agreement. 

"Who gives this woman to be married to this man?" was once the question asked at the beginning of a wedding.  We no longer ask that question.  Instead, we ask who presents the woman.  We changed it when the church decided that the original question treated the woman as a piece of property.  We also used to ask the woman to say she would "obey" the man as part of the vows.  We dropped that about the same time as when we decided she was not property of anyone and did not necessarily have to obey her husband.  Women became persons with equal rights and the ceremony we have today reflects that idea.  Husband and Wife are partners in this marriage proposition and we now try to express that idea. 

Paul's words to the church at Corinth were not originally written for a wedding.  They were written to a contentious group of people at a city at the crossroads of the ancient world.  People of many varied backgrounds lived together and the early church there was made up of this mixture of folks--slave and free, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, Jews and Gentiles--and Paul wanted them to treat each other as equals, an idea that was not widespread in the ancient world.  The idea that one would love another person that was a casual acquaintance or a church member was a new one too.  You may have loved your spouse, although arranged marriage was more the rule than the exception, but loving others outside of a marriage was not something many people talked about.  Paul's letter to the church expanded the idea of love to include everyone in your circle of acquaintances, and especially those in the church to whom the letter is written.  So, Paul defined love for them and named all the attributes of what made love real. 

What a tall order it is to love others if we truly think that Paul's definition is relevant for our lives.  Being patient and kind is not always easy, especially where certain persons are concerned.  The list of does and don't continues so as to make it clear that truly loving others means that one gives up the right to have things as one desires and gives in to the needs of others.  Love does what is best for the others in life and allows them to have the benefit of the doubt.  Love is a tough sell when one really wants to take Paul's words literally. 

Those starry-eyed lovers stand stiffly in front of the officiant of the wedding ceremony, waiting to hear the words, "You may kiss the bride" so that they can be announced to those present and go down the aisle to the reception to follow.  Most likely, they will remember little of what was said or done in the marriage ceremony.  They will truly learn about love in the years that follow if they try to put part of Paul's recipe for loving into practice in their lives.  The vows used often say it as well as Paul said it..."for richer, for poorer;for better, for worse; in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish"--in all those situations, loving another person in the best and worst of times is what truly makes a marriage work. 

Happy Valentines Day to all of you loving people and to all of you who want to be loving people.  Love does conquer all when it is truly at the center of our lives.  Love is really what has to do with it all. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

I Will Always Love You

Valentine's Day is tomorrow!!!!  Love, love, love!!!  Lots of candy, cards, flowers, dinners out, special gifts that say "I love you" to someone special in our lives.  Is that what Valentine's Day means to you?  Can you remember a very special or meaningful Valentine's Day?  I remember February 14, 1958 because it came a blizzard on that day in Vidor, Texas.  I was in the second grade at the time and all of us who were in Bessie Taylor's class were preparing for our party.  We were so excited because it was Valentine's Day and because it was snowing, something that rarely happens in that part of Texas.  As the day went on, the snow came down more and more and finally the school officials decided to dismiss school early so that the school buses could get the students home before the messy weather got too serious.  So, instead of having our class party at school as usually happens, the teacher gave us our Valentine's bags and our cookies and sent us to the buses to go home.  When I got home, I sat down in front of the heater in our living room and opened the bag of Valentine's cards and looked them over while eating my cookies.  It was a solitary experience but one that many of my classmates had too.  It is funny...but I remember that day more than many other Valentine's Days that have come and gone over the years because it was out of the ordinary.  Something special happened that made the day memorable. 

My wife and I have celebrated Valentine's Day in many ways over the years.  We used to go out to dinner on that special day but decided after a while that all the restaurants are so crowded that it is hard to find a place to have dinner without a long wait so I began cooking a gourmet meal for the two of us.  We would light candles and use our best china and silverware and play some special music and have a romantic dinner for two at home.  Most years the chef would prepare something a bit more extravagant than usual such as steak and shrimp or chicken cordon bleu with accompanying side dishes and dessert to make it very enjoyable.  When our children were small, they would be included in the meal too but as they got older they had their own agendas and many times did not join us.  Today, they have their own sweethearts to spend this special day with. 

It is interesting how days such as Valentine's Day becomes part of our yearly ritual.  It is only one day on the calendar and it is not even a national holiday or one that you can be gone from work on unless you take a personal day or are sick that day.  It is a day that honors a man from long ago who, according to legend, was in prison and those who loved him so much would send messages to him by carrier pigeon letting him know that they loved him and were praying for him.  His name was Valentine and he lived in the Roman Empire during the era when being a Christian was risky business.  He became a "saint" in the Christian world because of his martydom and enduring witness of faith even in the face of persecution.  People who knew him actually expressed their love to him in written messages but his name became attached to the special day. 

Today we write notes of love to others on Valentine's Day to let them know that we continue to hold them in our hearts.  The notes may say "Hallmark" on the back or we may create them ourselves but the sentiment is the same.  We choose a card because of the words that are contained in it and often the words are said in a way that we wish we could say them.  Many people keep their cards for years to come and may look at them in later life and reflect upon them.  The words may say what is in our hearts but our actions speak even louder than the words, not just in gifts we give that may accompany the cards but in acts of kindness and love we perform throughout the year because of the love of God that lives in us. 

"See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are...let us love not in words or speech but in truth and action."  (I John 3:1,18)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Spiritual But Not Religious

I subscribe to a journal designed to give ministers ideas for preaching.  I received the latest copy this week and was looking it over when I came across an article by the name of this blog entry by William H. Willimon, who is a minister in the United Methodist Church.  Rev. Willimon was dean of the chapel at Duke University for many years before being elevated to Bishop status a few years back.  Now he is stationed in Alabama serving them as their leader.  He writes articles for publication often and most of the time I find his writings to be helpful. 

This article examines the thinking of people who will wear the label "spiritual" but who refuse to wear the label "religious".  Many of these people claim to have a spiritual side of them (as many humans do) but they do not find the need to be attached to a religious organization of any kind.  Some have been wounded by the Church and shy away from any organization that has religious roots.  Some enjoy the independence of having no obligations to churches or religious institutions but still want to reflect upon religious matters without having to name them as such.  Such persons can make the rules that they want to live by without any interference from religious authorities but still enter into conversation with those who may claim an allegiance to religious groups. 

Willimon quotes Karl Barth, a German theologian of the early 20th century, as believing that "we know humanity only on the basis of what we know of God in Jesus Christ."  Willimon then adds, "Spirituality gets it the other way around, beginning with human subjectivity and asking what we can know of God based upon what we know of but our latest effort to fashion a God more congenial to how our God ought to look if God were worthy of worship by people like us."  (Journal for Preachers, Lent, 2012, p.11) 

I think that Willimon has found the center of the reasoning behind why people will call themselves "spiritual" but refuse to be connected to a religious organization, a church perhaps.  They want to design their lives according to their wishes and not be bothered by others describing for them what they think a faithful Christian existence should look like.  Some persons in this category even inhabit our church rosters, being members in name only on church rolls but rarely if ever attending church services or functions.  They have a historical connection to a church but when pressed about being involved in religious circles, they respond with their "spiritual but not religious" moniker or bring out the more common, "You don't have to go to Church to be a Christian."  Such persons may have an idea of what they think that Christian life is about but have chosen to separate themselves from the institution that teaches the principles of the Christian faith. 

I have had Sundays when our family was on vacation when we did not attend church services.  We had a lazy morning, had coffee, read the paper, went for a walk...experienced Sunday as millions of people do each week.  It feels good for one Sunday, perhaps is even desirable to do now and then, but something still feels as if it is missing.  Maybe it is because I have been involved in church all my life and it is ingrained in me.  Maybe it is because I have worked in the church as a pastor for 20 years.  Maybe it is just in my DNA...who knows?  I do know that being part of a Christian community is important to me because that last word connects me to the first.  Community is important regardless of who we are...Christian community surrounds us with love and fellowship and comfort and care when we need those things the most.  Being part of a faith community, however we want to define it, is an essential element in many of our lives.  It binds us to others who share similar experiences as we share and it defines us as people who need to be part of something much larger than we are alone. 

God bless all those whose life journey makes them define themselves as "spiritual but not religious."  God help them, though, to become acquainted with others who share their philosophy so that their journey is not a solitary one.  Belief in a higher power is important to many.  Belief in community is important to most.  Belief in the power of many working together is how life operates.  Without it, few things could be accomplished. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Flying Like an Eagle

The Old Testament Lesson for yesterday was from Isaiah 40:21-31 that concludes with..."They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength.  They shall mount up with wings like eagles."  That image of an eagle being high up on a mountain or hill with the wind lifting it up so that it can soar high above the landscape brings us comfort, relief, and hope in times of distress.  We often feel like every creature that crawls on the ground rather than anything that can soar above the earth.  We are often weighted down by life's struggles and we don't know where to find help when we feel depressed and disillusioned. 

The story behind Isaiah 40 is one of good news being given to people who were oppressed.  The people called Israel were being held in captivity by their oppressors, the Babylonians.  Those who had been taken into captivity were not the same ones who would leave because time had passed and the one's receiving Isaiah's message were a new generation.  They needed to be reminded of who Yahweh was and how their struggle was still important to God.  The message of hope to them was that as they lived into the hope that they could have in God, they would receive strength for their journey. 

The word "wait" in verse 31 of Isaiah 40 is an active verb.  It is not simply sitting and waiting for God to act but it is waiting with hope and anticipation of what God may do on our behalf.  It is hopeful trust that God will work out all things for our good and as we put our trust in God we receive renewed energy to give us strength. 

A number of years ago there was a popular song called "Wind Beneath My Wings".  It was sung from one person to another telling them that they were the one who gave them strength in their time of need.  The strength they gave was compared to wind beneath the wings of a bird so that the bird could soar high above the troubles of life.  The song was very inspirational and touched many who heard it because they could think about people in their lives who had blessed them in many ways.  The message from Isaiah is the message of this song, also.  God is the wind beneath the wings of those who seek God's strength.  God will lift them up so that their energy will be renewed and their spirit will be revived.  When they think they cannot go on one day longer, they will find strength from a miraculous source.