Tuesday, August 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Shall I Wear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Are You a Wise Guy Or Girl?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Christian Nation ?

The current political season is getting dirtier, nastier, and weirder than in just about any election season I can remember from the past.  The mudslinging began long ago but now there is even mud that is slung by groups that have names we do not know and those who are paying for the mud are protected behind the mask of nonprofit organizations.  A story on NPR yesterday talked about this dilemma--groups can form nonprofit organizations and have the same protection as churches and groups that do good works but their purpose is simply to put ads in the public media that are bent on saying negative things about others.  It is true that the others that they want to denigrate are running for public office but why can't we have elections where those who want to be elected simply tell us what they will do if we elect them instead of telling us how bad their rival is without ever telling us what they will do if elected?

In the recent run-off election of U.S. Senate in Texas, we were bombarded by political commercials many times in an hour of television broadcasting.  Even my daily dose of Jeopardy was interrupted by dirt filled commercials presented by both candidates for Senate.  I sat with my remote control in my hand while watching television and I muted both candidates' commercials, choosing to know nothing about either rather than be subjected to the venom they wanted to spew about their rival in the race.

The winner of that particular election is no better or worse than the other candidate, in my opinion, but he just managed to survive the attacks of his opponent and rallied his troops around enough to win the run-off.  He still has not won the Senate seat because he does face another opponent from the other political party in the general election in November.  How soon will those negative ads begin that we must mute time and again in order to not feel dirty after listening to them?

There are some in our land who call our country "a Christian nation".  They say we are founded on Christian principles and that our founders wanted our nation to be one wherein the Christian religion would be dominant.  Well, I don't know if I agree with them on that, but they have gotten exactly what they describe.  Christians are the dominant religion in American.  We far outnumber Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and adherents of every other faith tradition in the world.  If you take a survey of persons in America and ask them which, if any, religious tradition they claim as their own, Christianity would be the response of the majority, by a long shot.  If that is true, that we are a predominantly Christian nation, then why don't most people in the USA believe in or live by the principles taught by Jesus Christ himself?

It is not hard to find what Jesus believed or taught.  Just pick up your Bible that Christians are supposed to have handy, many of which have the words of Jesus printed in red so that they are easy to locate, and just read what he said.  The first group of his teachings are in the first gospel of Matthew, early on.  They are grouped together in what we call "The Sermon on the Mount".  It begins with all the "blesseds" and continues several chapters where Jesus tells his followers to love others, even their enemies, and to live in a peaceful, noncombative way, where all people coexist in love and harmony.  Jesus lays out his plan for life in those chapters and even teaches people how to pray, asking forgiveness in the same way that they forgive others.  He tells his followers not to worry, but to trust God in all the things they do.  He says not to judge others but think the best of everyone.

How can a "Christian nation" be one where people take guns into theaters or places of worship and murder others with little regard to who may be hurt?  How can a "Christian nation" allow mean spirited elections to be the order of the day with no controls?  How can such a land be a place where some even persecute and denigrate others in the name of Jesus Christ and think they are doing God's Will?  (I think Jesus may have touched on that topic too.)  If we truly want to be a Christian nation, then should we not try to live by the principles that Jesus taught?  Should we not attempt to think about that "What Would Jesus Do?" idea as we make decisions?  Should we not hold our leaders and those who want to lead us accountable for the way they conduct their election campaigns?  Shouldn't we really live out what we believe Jesus wants us to do in our lives and not just believe them?

I do not have all the answers.  I am very filled with questions of my own.  I am very saddened that we live in a land where human life is so cheap that anyone can murder others with no thought of who they kill and we allow it to happen again and again without taking actions to stop the violence.  I am very saddened that our political process has turned into a mud bath that we must endure because our laws allow it to be so.  I do not know what to do about any of these concerns except to raise the questions and hope that others will also be concerned and that somehow we will jointly live the Golden Rule so that our lives may be better in the future.  As we often say in Christian worship....Christ, have mercy; God, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Thoughts About Summer and Life

I have a love/hate relationship with summer.  I love going places and seeing new people and being in places where I have not gone before or where I have not gone in a long time.  Summer allows that time and space if you can afford to get away and have the time to do so, taking time away from your work schedule.  I would love summer more if I had more time off during the summer but I have to space out my vacation time so I can have vacations throughout the year so I normally do not take much vacation time in the summer.

That being said....I hate summer, especially summers in Texas.  Texas summers begin gently (during most years...overlook the summer of 2011 though which was a scorcher from the first day of June) trying to lull you into thinking that all will be well.  There are moderately hot days but now and then there are rainy days to lower the overall temperature and there are brief respites from the heat with a gentle cooler breeze tempting you into thinking that summer may not be too bad.  July soon comes and the air gets hotter but every day is not exceedingly hot until the end of July approaches.

THEN THERE'S AUGUST.....August is the Monday of Months.  It is the month that we dread with a fear so severe we sometimes wish we could go to sleep and wake up and suddenly it would be September, much like Rip Van Winkle did when he was snoozing up along the Hudson River somewhere.  We would miss all of the oppressive hot days of August, when we must hibernate inside hugging our air conditioners in our offices and homes.  We would miss all the times we go places in our automobiles and park them while we go into a store and then return to drive away scorching our seats on the seat covers and frying our hands on the steering wheels while the air conditioner blasts tepid air into our faces as it tries to bring some cool back into our lives but we know that it will finally be cool just about the time we reach our next destination.

I have dreaded August throughout my entire life.  I dreaded it when I was a child because I knew that August meant that summer was nearly over and we would begin school again soon.  I dreaded it when I became a school teacher for the same reason.  Now that I work in a job that is not dependent on summer for supplying vacation time (because I can take my vacation time anytime I want with the exception of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter...oh well, there are always limitations on us) my reasons for hating August are different.  They do not have to do with the ending of personal freedoms due to the calendar as much as they have to do with the lack of comfort to one's own body.

Summer heat may not last the entire year but it is so hot where we live in Texas that it seems that way.  Our summers begin earlier and last longer than just about anywhere on earth.  We can have a 100 degree day in May as well as October.  It is true that such a day is a unique event, not happening often, but our landscape and climate provides the chance that such will happen.  Summer heat wrings the energy out of a person.  It makes you want to "take to the bed" (as we used to say back home).  On a hot summer day, that may be the most comfortable place to be, actually....lying in bed, the blinds closed, a fan blowing directly upon you, and the air conditioner set to a temperature that will keep you nice and cool.  One cannot live in bed all summer though.....nice idea, but realistically you still must go to the grocery store sometimes, and maybe a few other places....