Thursday, May 31, 2012

"God, you don't have to talk so loud."

The author and theologian C.S. Lewis once said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains: It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."  You can interpret that statement as you will and judge Lewis as you desire but when one lives with pain for a longer than usual time, one begins to think about what it is that you should be learning from the experience.

I had a stupid accident that was of my own doing in early April.  It was one of those things that forgetful or non-observant or clumsy people do, running into something that I should have seen but did not.  It stunned my body and wrecked my left leg and since that moment I  have not been totally free from pain.  I have been taking all of the over the counter pain medicine that is allowed by doctors since then and only that helps to alleviate the pain somewhat.  I have seen an orthopedic doctor who assured me that I did not break anything and who gave me a shot in the knee of a steroidal medicine that had little effect and have been taking physical therapy twice a week for the last month.  That has given me some relief but there are days, such as this one, when I woke up with pain in my leg and hip and it has not subsided.  It is not as noticeable when I am sitting down but when I begin to walk around the pain shouts at me and demands that I stop it.

I have now seen an assistant to a neurologist with hopes of seeing the actual doctor once I have the required MRI and hope that the result will be some form of treatment that will cure this issue and allow me to return to the once active lifestyle that I enjoyed.  I miss my 2 mile daily walks around town.  I miss riding my bicycle now and then.  I miss being able to get out and enjoy the countryside when we have a time away.  I want all that back and more.

So, what is God shouting at me through this experience?  Perhaps I have obtained just a bit of added compassion and understanding of what others experience who have lived with pain much longer than I have.  Some persons I know who have long term disease live with constant pain.  Some have had this as their plight for years now.  The pain I have experienced in minuscule in comparison to what they suffer daily.  Maybe this has taught me a bit of patience too.  I wanted this to be over quickly.  A week or two of dragging my leg around, taking vast quantities of medicine, and rubbing myself with various lotions was enough for me.  I wanted it over then so I could go on with life but that was not the case for me.  It has been nearly two months now since the accident and I have had to learn to be patient and wait for the answer to come eventually.  I have had to be satisfied with the unknown and think that maybe someday it will be okay.

I think I have also learned that faith in God does not mean that God is going to answer our prayers as we request or when we request it.  I grew up in a faith tradition that quoted the Bible and applied its verses personally to the lives of its adherents.  "Ask anything in my name and it shall be done" was said many times in worship as people would be prayed for.  They believed in instant healings and in instant miracles.  After all, if Jesus could work wonders, "greater works would follow those who believe."  Those ancient words are very true but I think I have learned from this experience that our interpretation of them may not be what was intended originally and the words themselves may hold greater meaning than we can ever imagine in our English translation of the Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic.  The asking part may be the same but the receiving part from our prayers may mean something entirely different than we imagine with our 21st century minds.

God does answer prayer.  The answer we receive may not be the one we seek, however.  We cannot direct God how to answer prayers.  We can only pray for God's will to be done for us even as it is done in Heaven.  "All things work together for good..." was the beginning of the verse that people would quote as they ruminated over what they considered to be unanswered prayers.  They rarely added the rest of the verse that says, "...for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."  (Romans 8:28)  To me this means, that God has an overarching plan for our lives, from the time we are born until we go on to meet God, and everything that happens in life is for our good.  It does not mean that everything that happens to us will be good but it means that we will live and learn and grow through all of our life's experiences and the end result will be a good one for us as we end our earthly lives.

So, God can whisper to me again once I am finished with this learning experience.  I may be a little bit more deaf than I was when I was in my 20s but I still hear fairly well.  God can whisper in that still small voice and I will try to be ready to listen.  I dont need nearly as many shouts as I seem to be getting lately in order to know that God loves me and wants the best for me.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Eggs, Water, and God

Well, we celebrated another Pentecost Sunday this past weekend and it was a wonderful day.  Church attendance was a bit more than the past two weeks so that made me feel good.  People wore red clothing to represent the fire of the Spirit.  Our choir sang a special anthem especially for the special day.  My sermon was all about the wind of the Spirit and how it has blown throughout all time and still blows today.  It was a very satisfying day and worship experience.

Now, this Sunday is called Trinity Sunday and it is the day when the Church considers what it means to believe in the Holy Trinity...God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are strains of Christianity who have chosen not to believe in the Trinity, the Unitarians, for instance, but the vast majority of Christians do hold a belief in the Holy Trinity.  The Church came to that understanding long ago, in the 4th century, when the Council of Nicea hashed out all the ideas concerning what Jesus' human body was made of, what he did while he was on earth, and what happened to him once he left to go back to heaven.  When we say the Nicene Creed in worship, we use those historic words which are more like a formula than inspirational material..."God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father."  One wonders why they thought they had to say it in so many ways but the ancient mind seemed to need such elaboration in order for it to be perfectly clear.  Perhaps our minds need it said more than one way too.

People have tried to explain the doctrine of the Trinity so that others can understand it.  We casually say, "Three in One" to help explain what it means.  Others have compared it to an egg having a shell, a yoke, and a white but being of one substance.  Still other have compared it to the states in which you can find water--liquid, steam, ice--but all three being water.  Some have tried to compare it to humans such as a woman being a daughter, a mother, a grandmother but still being the same person.  Regardless of the comparisons we make, it still remains a mystery, a holy mystery.  We cannot adequately describe it because it is indescribable.

When the Council of Nicea met back in the 300s, they wanted to know exactly what kind of being Jesus was.  Some said he was all flesh and totally human and they denied the miracles of the Bible.  Others said he was totally spirit, only giving the appearance of having a human body but not really human so that all the miracles he did were true and his resurrection was explainable.  The Council hashed it out for a long time and finally came up with the formula that Jesus was "totally human and totally God."  So there....he can be both totally and at the same time.

Belief in the Holy Trinity is historic and doctrinal but not easily understood.  We sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" on this Sunday with the phrase, "God in three persons, blessed trinity" included.   It is easily sung but not easily explained.  Our friend John Wesley used to tell his preachers to "preach it until you believe it" when they encountered doctrinal issues that were hard to explain.  Perhaps that may work for us too.  Don't worry about it, just trust God that it will all work out in the end.  Until then, live life and be happy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Let's All Sing!!!!

A few years ago I saw a program on the Travel Channel about the people of Scandinavia and how they celebrate the Summer Solstice.  In case you don't know that term, that is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and usually comes sometimes between June 20 and 22.  On that day, the people of the Scandinavian countries have festivals that last long into the night because they have daylight for most of the hours of the day and night.  The sun shines almost around the clock on that day so they celebrate and eat and drink and sing....yes, that is right, they sing.  The program showed long tables filled with traditional Scandinavian fare and people sitting side by side lifting their glasses into the air while they sang folk songs and other songs that they all know.  Their voices were loud and strong and they were not ashamed to sing out along with their neighbors.

After seeing that program I wondered why it is that Americans are so hesitant to sing unless they are on American Idol or America's Got Talent or some other reality show that rewards them for their efforts.  Why can't we as a country and as a people simply sing with one another to just enjoy the sound of our singing?  Why do people shush each other when someone begins singing in a public place, acting embarrassed and ashamed because someone decided to sing?

A recent entry in Christian Century magazine reported, "People still sing together in churches and ballparks, but what is absent in 'community-oriented, community building, sometimes spontaneous' singing.  One obstacle is the lack of a common repertoire of songs.  'Since we're out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.'"  I think the author of this short piece hits the nail right on its head.  We as a country rarely sing together.  Even in church when we sing hymns, some people sing along and others just stand there and look around at the ceiling or at others.  They do not even attempt to sing.  I wonder if this is because someone in their lives was critical of their singing or told them that they cannot sing so they stopped trying.

When I was a kid, I would take a bath and sing while in the bathtub.  I loved to sing all manner of things I had heard on television or at school or songs that were part of musical presentations I had heard somewhere.  I may not have known all the words but sung the ones I knew and then added in "la-la-la" for the ones I did not know.  Many times when I got out of the tub all squeaky clean, my dear mother would say, "It sounds like some old cow bawling in there."  She did not appreciate my singing and rarely gave me a compliment for singing.  I think she is in the "embarrassed" category of how persons react to others around them singing.

I love to sing and I will sing just about anywhere and for any reason.  Sometimes I sing an answer to a question I was asked just to see how someone will react.  I sing show tunes, songs I have heard on the radio, songs old and new, even songs that I really don't know but can make up words to go along with the tune.  I think singing is something that enlivens one's spirit and helps lift your spirit if you are feeling a bit down.  I sometimes wish people would just break out into song now and then and make the world a really happy place in which to live.

Singing is something that everyone can do, even those who think that they cannot "carry a tune in a bucket."  Many people do not sing because they think they sing badly.  They think that people would laugh at them if they tried to sing around others.  I have heard only one person sing that I thought should have been silenced and even I did not tell him to hush.  I left that up to grumpy people present when he sang who said, "Never do that again!"  I am all for singing...even for grumpy people.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Suddenly There's a Sermon

I really like the new Sherlock Holmes series on PBS that is produced by the BBC and stars British actors.  It is in its second season and is set in the modern world in London.  Sherlock uses modern technology such as cell phones and computers to assist him in solving crimes in addition to his sharp intuition and genius mind.  He is always confronted by his nemesis, Moriarty, who is evil incarnate and will stop at nothing to destroy Sherlock Holmes.

Last night was the final episode of the season.  In it, Moriarty created another identity for himself and enlisted the help of other evil persons to assist him in convincing others that Sherlock Holmes was a fraud.  The police try to arrest Sherlock and he escapes to the roof of a building where he meets up with Moriarty.  They are poised on the edge of the roof where it seems one of them will fall to their death, surely.  As I watched that scene unfold, suddenly I began to see the temptation of Christ played out between those two characters.  Holmes was the Christ figure trying to defeat Satan, as he did in the wilderness at his temptation.  Moriarty threw one problem after another at Sherlock and he would come up with the answer to defeat his evil plan.

Suddenly, though, Moriarty reveals that he has hired three assassins to kill three of Holmes' closest friends.  The only way he can save his friends is for he himself to jump off the building and commit suicide.  If he does not jump by a certain time, then those three friends will die.  Holmes thinks he has it all figured out and can get Moriarty to cancel his plan and suddenly Moriarty kills himself with a gun.  Holmes is left with no way out except to jump off the building in order to save his friends.  Again, he becomes the Christ figure who gives the ultimate so as to save those who are helpless.

The episode ended with two of Holmes' friends at the cemetery gathered at the grave of Sherlock Holmes.  They were venting their feelings about him and asking why he had to die.  Very much like the followers of Jesus gathered at the tomb, they talk about Holmes and how much he meant to them.  Watson is left alone at the graveside and he begins to talk to Holmes and tell him how much he meant to him.   He asks him to do one more miracle for him and to not be dead.  As Watson begins to walk away from the graveside, Holmes is seen standing in the shadows to the side.  Is he dead or has he been resurrected from the dead by some greater power than what the viewer could see?  We will know more next season when the new episodes are made.

Perhaps it is just pastors and theological students who see such things in the media when it is not intentionally intended.  This time, though, it seemed so apparent that the life of Christ was being imitated in the art form being presented to the viewer.  Holmes is not Christ like most of the time in the episodes that have been made. He is selfish and controlling and uses others to get what he wants.  This time, though, he is self-sacrificing and gives up all he has, his very life, so as to save others who do not even know that their lives are in danger.  He gives up his life so that others can be saved and, perhaps, finds resurrection as a result.  As they used to say in seminary, that will preach.

Life is full of examples that are straight out of the scriptures.  Art imitates life in just the same way that life imitates art.  We see the Word come alive in the lives of people around us and in the ways that they live out their lives so as to bless the lives of others.  We see normal ordinary people do extraordinary things now and then so that others will benefit.  When they do, they think little of their acts of kindness or bravery.  They are simply doing what humans do...being the love of God to others who need to know it in their own lives.

I love it when suddenly I see a sermon in the world around me.  I love it because it is as if God is shouting out what I knew all the time from what I have grasped so far in my many years on this earth.  As we like to say in the United Church of Christ, "God is still speaking."  And God is speaking in so many ways that we have to pay close attention or we may miss some of what God has to say.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Unity and Diversity

Have you ever noticed how diverse the natural world is?  There is not just one kind of bird or fish or dog or cat but there are myriad kind of all of these.  So it is with people also.  We may look alike in some way.  Most of us have similar features when it comes to the number of eyes, ears, noses, hands, feet that we have.  Skin color comes in several basic colors but with a huge array of hues and shades of those colors.  We may even speak the same language but we speak it with a distinct accent and tone of voice.  Diversity seems to the rule of life and what makes people divide into different groups so as to find others who share their distinctive attributes, qualities, or views.

The Christian Community is divided into many groups also even as we strive to live out Jesus' directive to his disciples "that they may all be one" (John 17:21a)  The last time I saw a copy of the Handbook of American Denominations, I believe that there were about 250 different Christian denominations.  When you take out the largest church groups such as Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, that still leaves way over 200 different denominations that exist in the USA.  There are over 50 different church groups that use the words "Church of God" somewhere in their names.  How can we as Christians even hope to live up to Jesus' desire that we "may all be one" when we are such a divided family?

Finding common ground in a family of diverse views and ideas concerning everything under the sun is a huge undertaking.  It is difficult sometimes even within our own families of origin.  I grew up in a family where my mother was the official religious spokesperson.  She was the religious leader of our family because my dad never belonged to a church and did not attend church.  I guess I can remember him going to church maybe five times during his entire life and those were for very special occasions.  My mother became the one who demanded that her children attend church and be present every time the church doors were open so we were far more active in church than the average church member.  When we kids became adults, we all went on different paths when it came to church membership and participation.  My older brother continues to attend the church of our upbringing and eventually became a pastor in that denomination.  My younger sister decided that if dad could be absent from church then she would too so she dropped out of church and did not attend regularly till the day she died eight years ago.  My wife and I found a mainline church that we found comfortable and we joined it and became active and I eventually became a pastor in it.  When we would have family gatherings with all of us present, we soon found that we could not talk about religion or politics because we had such diverse views on both subjects.  My dad became the referee and when either of those topics came up, he would silence everyone by saying, "How about those Cowboys?"  We knew that the conversation was over and sports would instead take its place.

We who share the name Christian as part of our identity have the same problem at times with others in the Christian family.  We want to strive to love and embrace one another but there are times when we have to change the subject because the current discussion is bringing division and ill feelings with it.  Even within denominations in the Christian family there are deep rifts that need healing because people do not share the same views on social issues that threaten to divide them.  The United Methodist Church resulted from the merger of The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South that had divided before the Civil War over the issue of slavery.  It took over a century for them to find the grace to merge once more in 1968 when they also included the Evangelical United Brethren in their fellowship.  Now, that same church faces great challenges because they cannot agree on a social issue that threatens to divide them into two or more churches once again.

Christians have attempted to find words to live by throughout the ages that would give them strength in their times of trial.  It has been said in various ways, but perhaps the motto that seems to help the most in these times of diverse views may be "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity."  In other words, there are things we need to agree upon as Christians that are fundamental to our faith.  Some of these things are theological ideas that the church has hammered out at church councils over the ages, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the meaning of the sacraments, but even there we tend to disagree over those meanings depending upon the group to which you belong.  Some things are not that essential to our faith but are things that we have our own ideas about and when those and let live, seems to be the best rule of life.  We do not all have to agree upon everything and we can have the freedom to disagree at times.  In all things, though, we need to strive to love one another even when we cannot agree on all we discuss.

God is always with us and I think that God wants us to strive to live as God's Children, loving each other and trying to get along as best we can.  We have a common faith but it is expressed in so many ways that we must allow each person within our faith tradition to hold to the views that each person would own.  The love that we have will unite us, though, as we strive to think the best of our neighbors even when their views stir up feelings that we do not want to own.  God will give us unity if we will seek God and pray for peace in our lives and in our world.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In the World But Not of It

How do you live in an environment and not be part of it?  How does one exist in a place without adopting the surrounding values and lifestyles?  That question has been considered by Christians since the first century as they tried to live as they considered Christians should live within the confines of the Roman Empire.

When one wears the name "Christian" as part of one's identity, does it mean that one has to be different than others around them?  Does it mean that such a person must refrain from doing what others do or going where others go or living as other live who may not be Christians?  That is a personal question and one that each person must answer for him/her self.  One who is truly a Christian and is trying to live in a manner that they feel is acceptable to Christ will attempt to monitor one's actions so as to be consistent with what they perceive is a Christian lifestyle.

There are things that automatically set off an alarm in one's mind that are considered to be "non-Christian" behaviors.  Anything that harms others...violence, slander, malicious rumors....are things that Christians are warned about in the Bible.  Obeying the Commandments...both the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Commandments given by Jesus in the New Testament are things that Christians should always strive to have as part of their lives.  Some things seem pretty clear, based upon Scripture.  Others are not as easy to define.

Some things that are prohibitions of specific churches or denominations may not be bad in themselves but were defined as such during specific moments in history.  During the Temperance Movement in the USA in the late 1800s to early 1900s, drinking alcohol was labeled as a "sin" by many religious groups.  This belief is not biblical, even though some did proof-texting to make persons believe it as so, but was a reflection of the times in this country when the use of alcohol was out of control by some so religious leaders decided a ban on its usage was necessary for the good of all.  This led to the constitutional amendment authorizing Prohibition in the USA.  That was hailed by many religious groups as the answer to the problem but it turned out that those who wanted alcohol could still get it but had to break the law in order to do so, bringing major crime issues with it.  The end of Prohibition ended the grip of organized crime over the issue and gave people the choice of making up their own minds in regard to whether or not they would drink.

I live in a town with both a liquor store and a tavern and our town seems to be a pretty safe place to live.  Rarely if ever is it reported that a problem has arisen in our town because of the presence of either of these institutions.  People choose whether or not to go to either of them and they don't bother others with their choices.

Jesus gave a clear commandment that seems to trump all others....Love God will all of your being and love your neighbor as yourself.  If we all could live by that commandment, then all other issues would be resolved.  Christians and all who bear any other name would fulfill all that is necessary simply by trying to love God and love the neighbors God has given them.

The writer of I John 5:4b says it this way, "And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith."  Faith gives persons the internal courage to decide what is right or wrong and to live as they feel God would have them live.  Faith informs our lives and assists us in making good choices.  Faith enables us to find strength for our journey both in our devotional life and in being part of a community of faith where we encourage and help one another.  Faith is the victory that overcomes the world because we believe that we are not on this journey alone but we are fellow travelers with others.

Come along on the journey and live with others who are on the same road that you travel.  You will find strength for your journey and courage to live each day in an authentic way.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Post-Easter Funk

It happens every year about this time.  I don't know why it should surprise me.  After having a record attendance in worship in Easter Sunday, the Sundays following Easter have a skeleton crew in attendance.  The  four Sundays following Easter so far have had dismal attendance numbers and it always makes me wonder what is going on with people on those weeks.  Does coming to church on Easter Sunday with the masses give people the impression that it is that way all the time and they will have to negotiate the parking lot to find a parking place and squeeze into a pew each time they come?  Do they dread the crowds so they stay away just in case the place should be full and they may encounter large numbers of worshipers?  Maybe spring fever has set in and people just want to be outdoors in nature at the lake or the park rather than spending one hour in a more formal and structured setting.

Church attendance is a very personal matter.  No one can persuade, convince, or even apply enough guilt to get someone to attend church services unless they really want to do so.  It has to be at the heart of who they are to want to be with God's people in worship.  They have to have a desire to go with the expectation that going will make them a better person than they would be if they did not go.

When I was growing up, I had two opposite and extreme role models in my life when it came to church attendance.  My father never went to church.  He did not see a need to do so and he would stay home and grill or cook the meat for our Sunday dinner while we were gone.  He would read the paper and enjoy his couple hours of quiet time with no one else around and greet us with a meal nearly ready to be eaten when we returned.  He was a good person who did many good things for others, as was testified about him at his funeral four years ago.  My mother was a religious addict.  She went to church every time the doors were open, literally, and dragged her three children with her.  I was required to go to church 3-4 times a week for all of my growing up experience, even missing football games on Fridays during high school years because our church chose to have "Youth Service" on Friday nights in competition with our football games.  My mother continues to be involved in church activities and services every day she can and it is an important part of her life.

One would think that I would never have chosen to be a minister after being subjected to the intrusion of the church into my life as it was in my youth.  As some have said, I had enough church to last me for a lifetime after all the times I went when I was growing up.  I did not choose to become a minister though.  I was called to fulfill that role in life so my being in ministry is something that I do because of that calling.  It is an important part of my life that has little to do with the church of my childhood and youth.  It is what God wants me to do to be of service to other human beings.

If it were left up to me, I would want every one of my church members to be present for worship every Sunday of the year.  I would want them to be active and involved in the church and striving to live out their Christian faith in mission and service.  I had to decide long ago that whether they are in church to worship on Sunday or not has little to do with me.  It is their life and they have to decide what is important in life.  I continue to hope that the majority of our members will want to be present on a regular basis and will continue to encourage them to do this but when the numbers get low, as they do after Easter and in the summer, we continue to offer opportunities for worship and mission and involvement in the life of the church and pray that God will convince those who need to be here to join us.  We are co-workers with God and plant the seeds where we can and allow God to bring about the harvest in God's own time and way.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Taking It in Context

Have you ever heard a story that shocked or astounded you?  Perhaps the story concerned someone from another culture and, at first, you understood the story in one way that brought about a reaction of anger or surprise or bewilderment...but then, as you began to understand the culture or setting out of which the story emerged, you began to understand it differently, and your reaction turned to one of acceptance or at least non-reactionary.

Understanding the Bible is like that.  If one only reads the literal words contained in a passage in the Bible and they do not take the time to ask questions of the passage concerning its origin, geographic and cultural setting, the circumstances that may have surrounded it writing, and the time of its writing, then one may form an idea of the meaning of the passage based solely upon the words it contains rather than truly understanding what makes the passage what it is.

So much understanding has been grasped by students of the Bible during the past century as archaeological discoveries have been made in the Middle East and as ancient manuscripts have been translated and interpreted.  The result has been innumerable commentaries and writings that help to explain why various passages in Scripture are the way they are on face value.  For centuries there were beliefs about the Bible that people held that were just commonly accepted to be true.  For example, people thought that David wrote all of the Psalms and that Solomon wrote all of the Proverbs in the books of those two names because that had been the common wisdom passed down through the generations by religious persons.  Those same persons gave Moses credit for writing the first five books of the Old Testament even though in the last one, the death of Moses is recorded.  Biblical schools emerged in the 1900s that completed enough research to declare that these presuppositions were not true.  It really does not matter who the authors of these writings are if we believe that what is written within them is most important.

There has also been a belief within Christianity for the past few hundred years that the Old Testament contains prophecies specifically about Jesus within it as far back as the book of Genesis.  Proof-texting (using a specific Biblical passage to prove your point) has been used to take individual verses that have nothing to say about the coming of a Messiah and to apply them to lists of Messianic predictions.  For example, Genesis 3:15 is often quoted as proof that Jesus would be born to a woman when the passage actually explains why humans are afraid of snakes.  One has to make a real stretch to apply that truth to a prediction of the birth of Jesus.  There are many others in this same category that come from Hebrew Scripture that some in fundamentalist Christian circles would use to promote their own causes.

The point of all this is that the Bible does have something to say to humanity but learning all we can about the author of the writing, the time when it was written and what was going on in the world at that time, where it originated, and what may have led to its writing helps to clarify the purpose behind its writing and what it may have meant to the specific audience that it was sent to.  As one of my seminary professors often said, "Remember that you are reading someone else's mail when you read one of the Epistles."   That statement is true of all of the Bible.  It was written to benefit others who lived in the Mediterranean world in ancient days.  We happen to be the recipients of their knowledge and hold it as our own to read and reflect upon.  We need to use wisdom and common sense in our interpretation and try not to use it for a purpose that it was not intended for.