Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hide and Seek

How good are you at hiding things that you don't want others to see?  Where do you hide the Christmas gifts that you buy early and then stash until Christmas Eve?  Have you ever hidden something and then forgotten where you put it?  Most of us have done these things.  We put something somewhere with the intention of being able to find it again when we want it but then we forget where we put it.  We think that we will not forget such an easy thing but then find out that it is often harder to locate lost items than we imagined it to be.

Jesus told a parable about some servants who were given some large sums of money to keep until their master returned from a journey.  One servant was given a huge amount, one was given about half of that amount, and one was given a small amount by comparison.  The first two servants invested their master's money and made enough interest that they could double the amount they had been given.  They were given praise by their master upon his return.  The last servant had gotten scared because he thought the master may be hard to please so he buried what he had been given and dug it up to give it back to his master.  The master scolded this servant and told him that he should have done what the other two servants had done.  He was punished for not using what he had been given and his money was given to the servant who had the most.  Jesus concludes the parable with the words, "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." (Matt. 25:29)

What an odd story and what an even stranger meaning that Jesus attaches to it.  We have heard this story preached upon over the years.  It is called the Parable of the Talents.  A talent was a unit of money in the ancient world.  The servants were given various amounts of money and what they did with what they had been given brings about the conclusion and meaning of the parable.

Some ministers have used the word "talent" as used in the story to mean a specific skill or ability as we normally use the word instead of a monetary unit.  I suppose there is a correlation in that whether it is money or skills that we possess, how we use what we have has something to do with how things may turn out for us in the future.  Some people have been blessed with great financial reward, possessing many millions and billions of dollars.  They have so much money that they do not know how to spend it.  Some in this situation have spent their money on very selfish causes amassing much property and living a lifestyle that is very self-centered.  Others who have great wealth decide to bless others with it and begin a life of philanthropic or charitable giving so that others can find relief from disease or have a better life through education.  So, if one has much financial gain, great responsibility for its use comes with it.

Most of us do not have the quandary of what to do with great amounts of money but perhaps we do have special skills or abilities that we have been granted and we are responsible for how those skills, abilities, or talents are used.  Some persons become entertainers, actors, or sports figures and use their skills so that others can see them as positive role models.  Others may become involved in those same professions but they choose to live lives of dishonor or rebellion or excess that leads to their ruin and they are remembered for their problems or challenges rather than for their great talent.

I think that Jesus' meaning attached to the parable indicates that as one uses one's talents or wealth wisely, then greater use of those skills or abilities or resources will come about in life but when one misuses what they have then they will soon find that all they have is vanishing.  I think Jesus told this parable to emphasize the idea that whatever we have in life, we possess because we are to use it wisely to benefit the world around us.  Our wealth is ours to meet our own needs but if we have more than is required for our own use then we should share some of what we have with others through our church or organizations that do good works in the world.  Our skills and abilities are given to us to use for God's glory and to benefit others.  If we do not use what we have been given, then we may find that we no longer have that ability or skill as a result of disuse.

I am recovering from surgery that I had to correct bone spurs that were pressing against nerves in my spine.  I had great pain for months in my left leg and tried not to stand on it or do much exercise with it because of the pain I had experienced.  As a result, I have some muscle atrophy in my left leg and even after the surgery I still have to build up those muscles that had gone unused for so long.  Our lives are much like the muscles in our bodies.  We have to use what we have in service to God and others or risk atrophy of the talents with which we have been blessed.  It is exercise that brings life to those muscles and it is exercise of our talents that brings life to what God has given us so that we may be useful servants to our Creator.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

And to Think That I Saw it on the Railroad Track Next Door

We live in a house that is adjacent to a very active railroad track.  When we first moved in about 8 years ago, we heard all the trains (estimated at about 25 each day) during the day and night.  As time has gone on, we notice them less.  Our congregation did us a great favor this past spring and replaced all the windows in our house.  The house was built in 1970 and these were the original windows that came with the house.  They had begun to be very drafty, rattling when a strong wind came up, and letting air escape from inside the house as well as admitting air from the outside to come in.  In April, a work crew installed all 26 windows in one day, replacing the 42 year old windows with new modern ones that are energy efficient and reduce outside noise a great deal.  Now, there are times when we do not even notice when a train is passing by.

Last Sunday, we had some dinner that my lovely wife had made and were cleaning up the dishes.  I had placed a dish in the sink and looked up just as a train came from the west.  At first I did not recognize what was printed on the engine as it made its way through but it sunk in by the time the 3rd to 4th car passed.  Each car had a sign that read--"Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus."  The circus train was passing through our town!  I excitedly called to my wife for her to look out the windows too and she joined me at the kitchen sink and we watched each car go by.  There were passenger cars with one having a man standing on the little balcony at the end of it.  There were cars hauling freight that the circus needed so as to do its job.  There were long ones with automobiles riding on them.  There were refrigerator cars perhaps hauling food for humans and animals.  There may have been cars containing animals...none were labeled as such but who knows what was in each car.  Each one boldly displayed the label of that famous Circus Company though.  The entire train was made up of cars carrying something necessary for the circus to be presented somewhere down the line where the tracks go.

Once the last car of the circus train passed, my wife and I just stood there for a few seconds and smiled.  To think that what we consider as part of everyday life, and even as a nuisance at times, can bring thoughts of joy and happiness as well.  If we had not taken the time to notice this particular train going by, we would have missed seeing all that the circus had to transport and then translating that knowledge into memories of going to the circus in years past.  It has been many decades since we took our kids to the circus when they were young but we still remember how exciting it was to see all the participants of the circus and to enjoy the special skills they had.  It was thrilling to see the animals, some very exotic ones that we rarely see outside of a zoo, also performing the talents they had been taught.

The railroad track beside my house is a lot like our lives are on a daily basis.  It is always there and there are trains going down that track every day, many times a day.  We usually do not stop and see what is being carried down the tracks because we assume we have seen it before many times.  We do not stop and look because our inner selves tell us that it will be the same as we have seen before so why bother.  Every now and then we are surprised by what we see going down tracks, as we were with the circus train, and when that happens it reminds us of how close to us the world passes by daily.

I live in a small town of just over 2000 persons.  The town is open and alive during the day but by dark, it is mostly silent with its residents hibernating at home or gone to the larger cities which are only 1 1/2 hrs away. Most of the time there is little excitement to be had in our town but now and then something big happens.  When we take the time to look and listen to our lives, we may see "something big" happening even in the smallest of things, something that astounds us as we reflect upon it.  It may not announce its hugeness to us in some way that makes us take notice but we may suddenly "wake up" and see with our eyes what we normally do not see.

Take the time to see what is in your world today.  Notice the people and the animals and the cars going by.  Notice the smiles on faces in your world.  Notice those who cannot smile because pain is part of their daily existence.  Notice the great diversity that exists even in a town where we may all know one another or we think we do.  Notice what you normally do not notice and then think about what you notice.  Then, tell yourself that you will do this on a regular basis.  I think if you do, then you will be changed by the very act of simply noticing what is around you.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rules for Runaways

Have you ever wanted to run away from home?  As children or teenagers, many of us perhaps had that feeling now and then.  Some did not, but many of us wanted to escape something and considered just running away and beginning again.  Some people have done just that.  There was a story in the news last year about a young woman who attended Texas A&M University that had disappeared.  She had been home for a visit and was supposed to return to the college campus but she suddenly vanished.  A search went out for her but no one could find her.  Everyone assumed she was dead.  The young woman had actually run away from home.  She had moved to Kentucky and got a job working at a Sam's Club Store.  She used her real name and social security number but the authorities were never able to track her down.  Finally, a tip led authorities to where she was living in Kentucky.  She and her mother had had an argument over her grades and the young woman decided to just quit school and disappear and start life over.  I guess she did not think that anyone cared about her but her mother did not give up.  She continued to search for her long lost daughter until she had been found.

The parable that we call "The Prodigal Son" from Luke 15 is very familiar to most of us.  It is about a son who decides that he is bored with his present life so she asks his father to give him all that is coming to him and he leaves determined to start a new life elsewhere.  The father gives him his inheritance and watches him as he vanishes into the distance.  The father most likely thought that he would never see his son again.  The son went into a "far country" and wasted his money on "riotous living" (according to the King James Version) which means he had a never ending party.  The only thing he did not think about was that when his money ran out, so would his friends.  Everyone loved him when he could provide the party, but when he was a loser, no one wanted to be around him.

So, the runaway found work...feeding pigs, which was not a good job for a good Jewish boy but it was honest work.  One day when he was watching those pigs slurping up the food he had brought them, he decided to "go back home".  Technically, he had no home because he had given up all his rights when he asked his father to give him everything he had coming to him.  The boy decided to just ask his father for work, to make him a slave and let him at least have a place to sleep and some decent food to eat.  So, as the sun was setting in the west he made his way slowly back to where he used to live.

You would think that his father would have given up on the boy by now but he would stand out near the road each evening as the sun was beginning to set in hopes that he would see that familiar figure coming over the horizon.  He had almost given up hope but suddenly on that day he saw that figure he was looking for, illuminated by the setting sun, coming down the road toward him.  The father did a thing that good Jewish men of his time would never do....he ran...he lifted up his long robe and ran toward that wayward son.  The boy must have been very surprised to see his distinguished dad running down the road toward him but he had time to ask for a job doing what all the other slaves would do that worked for his dad.

Before the boy could say anything else, the father grabbed him and held him and gave him the tightest hug he had ever received.  He ordered his servants to bring a robe to replace his worn out rags, a ring that indicates his place in the family, and to begin a lavish party that would celebrate the return of the son whom he figured was dead by now.  He could not believe his eyes and hugged his son again and again.  The son sheepishly followed his father into the house and love was the order of the day.

Now, we know there is more to the story because there is another son who was not too happy for the return of his brother but we will stop at this point because we do not want to spoil the mood.  The father in this story is filled with joy because he thought his youngest son had died and now he was alive and returned to the safety of his home.  Just like the shepherd who searched for his sheep until it was found; and just like the woman who searched for her lost coin until it was located; the father in this parable did not give up until the son he thought he had lost had been found.  The father in this story seems a lot like God, the Heavenly Father.  A parent who never lost hope that the wayward child would come home.

Runaways leave for many reasons...boredom, conflict, anger, despair...but when they have sorted out things they usually go home.  They fear the worst when they get the courage to return.  The know they do not deserve anything but they hope that redemption and forgiveness await them when they get enough courage to ring the bell or knock on the door.  Who knows what will happen when finally the runaway is met at the door of the home he/she left?

Forgiveness is the greatest gift that we can give anyone.  It speaks of acceptance and tolerance and overlooking faults.  It is not easy but it is essential.  It is offered to others who do not deserve it.  It is offered to others who have no right to receive it.  It is offered to others because we too have received forgiveness and acceptance from a God who gave it freely even when we were not worthy of it.  Who do you need to forgive today?  Who has run away from your life in the past through anger and conflict?   Who has been in the far country much too long and the reward of reunion with them would be the salve for your soul?  What will it take for you to speak words of forgiveness and love to them?  It may be much too much for you to offer, at least within your own power, but if you ask God for strength and courage it can happen, even for you and for them.

"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way..." (Isaiah 53:6)