Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Getting Ahead in the World

What is the goal that most people have when they reach adulthood?  The main goal, even before they think about finding a mate or buying a car or a house, is making money.  Most people begin to think about what they will do in life to survive and have all the things that they desire to own.  This part of the decision making process leads them to the next...if I want to have all the things that I desire, then how will I get them?  Choosing a career that will open the doors to buying the things we want is a fundamental part of the process.

When I graduated from high school, I knew that I was going to college.  My father was a construction worker and I had watched him go out into the rain and the drizzle and the fog and the heat to do his job.  He went out early and came home late and most of the time came home really dirty and sweaty.  He had to take a shower as soon as he came home because of how grimy he was.  He endured the terribly hot Texas summers for many years.  One day he told me, "You had better get a good education or you will end up doing what I do for a living."  My dad was not ashamed of what he did to make a living for his family but he thought that his kids could do better than he had done because they had the advantage of educational opportunity that was not available when he was younger.  He had to quit school in the third grade because his family needed him to work on the farm to help raise food because the Great Depression had set in and the poor farmers in Titus County, Texas had to constantly farm in order to survive.  He and his brothers all helped out on the farm until finally the Civilian Conservation Corps came along and picked them up and took them to New Mexico to build state parks and roads and paid them 75 cents a day to work for them.  They sent home most of their earnings to help their family.

So, I knew I was going to college when I was in high school but I had no earthly idea what I wanted to do.  I loved language and learning and studying history and decided to be a history teacher.  I had a teacher named Mr. Puntes who had inspired me and I wanted to be like him in many ways.  I never even thought about how much money school teachers were paid.  I just knew I enjoyed learning about history and wanted to teach it.  I began my college career with a major in history but ran into the language requirement (four semesters of a foreign language in order to teach history in public school?) and soon changed my major to elementary education with a minor in history.  I took 24 hours of history instead of 36 hours but could teach more things meaning I would have more job opportunities.  So, I finished college and got my first teaching job and signed a contract to make the grand sum of $6000 a year for the first year.

I had a friend who graduated from the same college the same year but his major was environmental science.  His first job paid him $12,000 a year.  I learned as time went on that the value of what one did for a living was not based upon what one knew but the value was based upon how society valued that profession.  School teachers have been underpaid in this country and most likely in every country throughout modern history.  Perhaps there was a time in the ancient world when teachers such Greek philosophers were paid well but I imagine European teachers and in other countries have always been paid less than others in the working world.

I once saw a saying about teachers that said something like, "If you can read this, thank a teacher."  The truth of that saying is that everything one knows, one learned it from someone else who taught it.  Highly paid professionals in the health care world benefit from others who taught them their craft.  Even sports stars and those in the film industry learned from others so that they can do what they do.  We know what we know thanks to others who share their knowledge with us.

This week I will share a story from the Bible with my congregation that has Jesus lecturing his disciples about what it means to be the greatest person of all.  Jesus' definition of "great" does not match the definition that most people in today's world hold.  He said, "Whoever wants to first must be last of all and servant of all."  He then called a child to sit with him and said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."  This was remarkable in the ancient world because children were considered to be nuisances and not really worth having around until they had achieved adulthood.  They were just mouths to be fed and trouble to be handled.  Jesus' welcome of children said that those who are the greatest are the ones who invite even the weakest and most troublesome into their presence.  Greatness is achieved, not by what you know, but by how you live among others in our world.

I am glad I was a school teacher for 15+ years.  I never made a huge amount of money but I learned a lot and shared a lot with others that I hope helped them.  Our lives are great when others can remember the kindness we showed them, the patience with which we listened to them, and the wisdom we shared with them.  "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care" is a motto that was said in the teaching field many times when I worked in education.  I think it is a motto of life and living that is valuable regardless of what we do to make a living.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Easy Living

How good do we have it?  What a soft life most of us have, or at least in comparison to that of our parents or grandparents or others who lived in their generations.  Here in Texas, I live in an air conditioned home, drive an air conditioned car, work in an air conditioned office, and really hate to sweat unless I am exercising on purpose and then want to break a sweat to prove I have done enough exercise.  I live in a home that is all electric so when the power goes off I can do nothing except sit and look at the walls and maybe read a book  and hope it does not get too hot until the power comes back on.  Luckily, the water flow continues in the house because it is not dependent on electricity but everything else in the house is.

I have been very spoiled, my wife likes to tell me, because I grew up in a family that had air conditioning since I was 6 years old.  I have never known the unairconditioned life.  My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a home that has never had air conditioning.  Her family lived in a farm house built in the 1940s by her parents and grandparents and other relatives.  They all pitched in and built the house as a family project and the house today remains much as it was when it was built in the 40s.   There is no air conditioning and you could not add it because the wiring is not able to support it.  My wife grew up on a farm where they grew much of what they ate and she and her sisters helped to grow and pick the crops and sometimes sell them at a farmers market.  I was spoiled, again she says, because I rarely had to pick crops.  We grew crops just because we wanted to, not because our economic lives depended on it.  My dad had a job that paid him well enough that he could buy all the food we needed.  If we did not grow something, we still had plenty of food to eat, thanks to the local grocery store.

So, I guess you can say that I did have it pretty easy when I was a child growing up in the 1960s.  My challenges began when I graduated from high school and went to college and then went to college some more and began sorting out life.  Independence brings with it the challenge of supporting oneself and ones' family by grabbing ones' own bootstraps and becoming what one would become in order to live and enjoy what life offers.  The life I have now is partially due to the education that I acquired and the motivation to obtain that education, knowing that if I did not get a good education, then (as my dad told me) I would have to work out in the unairconditioned world around me (as he did).  I love air conditioning too much to do that.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  (8:34)  What does it mean for 21st century Christians to "deny themselves"?  How do persons "take up their cross"?  For me personally, a somewhat middle-aged North American man, to deny myself does not require me to turn off my air conditioning or to do without electricity.  Instead, it speaks to me each time I have to decide whether I feel like going to the nursing home to see members who live there.  Will I go and put myself in that place where they live, leaving behind (at least for a portion of an hour) the world in which I exist or will I find an excuse to use so as not to have to fulfill my calling to that task?  The need to "deny myself" happens to each of us when we decide to act on behalf of another rather than doing what we would want to do as comfortable North Americans.

Taking us the cross is another matter.  It happens as we continue to live the Christian life as well as we know how and to act and speak and do as we think Christians would rather than in a selfish or unloving manner.  It happens as we pattern our lives after the Christ of the Gospels who choose to give of himself in every way rather than to take the easy way out.  Taking up the cross is a daily event.  Sometimes it takes deliberation but most of the time it is a natural reaction in life that happens because it is something we do because it is part of what it means to live the life of a Christian.  Taking up the cross is expressed each time Christians act as they think Christ would act while living among other human beings.

Is the life of a Christian easy?  Is the decision to be a Christian easy?  It may be in North America where Christianity is the dominant religion.  In fact, in most churches, we make it very easy for persons to become Christians and to become part of a local church.  We do not require a lot out of them.  Most churches simply ask people if they will be loyal to a local church and support it.  Some churches define being loyal as supporting the church with your "time, talent, and treasure" or giving your "prayers, presence, gifts, and service" but even those terms are rarely defined.  What part of  your treasure should you give in order to be considered loyal?  How often should you pray?  How much time is required?  We leave it up to the individual to make those decisions and answer those questions, as we should.  If the method of becoming a Christian is easy, then is the Christian life expected to also be an easy one?  Many people think so and think that when hard times befall them, then something has gone awry.  Perhaps at that moment is when they need to consider if it is the time to deny oneself and pick up the cross and follow.  The challenges of life may be the cross we all bear as we attempt to negotiate this life and what is demanded of us daily.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Just Who is This Jesus Anyway?

Jesus Christ lived about 2000 years ago and we still cannot figure out just who or what he was.  Christians and non-Christians alike debate his humanity versus his Godness.  The Early Church and those who followed them hashed out the various doctrines about the Trinity and each member of it and when they came to Jesus they even wanted to know what his body was made of and what he was like when he walked the earth.  Some thought that he was only human when he was on earth.  Others thought that he was only God, almost walking on a cloud.  They debated and argued and hashed it out until finally they came up with what we call "The Nicene Creed" in 325 C.E.  In it they finally declared that Jesus was "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father..."  They also decided that he was "fully human and fully divine."  I don't know how that works but they needed the assurance that even if Jesus looked like a human being, he had the divine spark working within him.

People have asked questions about Jesus through the centuries, questions concerning his childhood, his life as a young adult, his entrance into ministry.  People have wanted to know "at what point did Jesus discover who he was?"  Did Jesus know from the time he was born that he was the Messiah or did it gradually grow on him as he lived among humans and learned what humans were--the good, the bad, and the ugly?  Was Jesus just a regular kid, kicking rocks and wrestling around with his friends?  Did Jesus socialize with other young adults in his town or was he more of a loner?  Was Jesus shy as a teenager or was he the center of attention wherever he went?  Was his baptism the first time that he recognized his divine nature when the Holy Spirit descended upon him or had he known that he was "different" for many years?

Some of the ancients tried to decipher answers to these and other questions about Jesus through reading books about Jesus that never made it into the Bible.  Those "nonbiblical gospels" relate stories about Jesus that were so different from the stories in the four Gospels of our Bible that the compilers of the Bible canon could not include them.  The boy Jesus who could walk on mud puddles or make a mud bird come alive did not seem to be in the same category with the adult miracle working Jesus.  The sayings attributed to Jesus in some of the books do not seem to reflect the same thinking that is included in the Gospel record we have.

We still would like to know if Jesus' humanness dictated to him what he did more than did his godliness or if all things about Jesus were equal especially when we consider stories such as the one we have in this week's Gospel lesson from Mark.  The story is about a Gentile woman coming to see Jesus when he was in Tyre asking Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus was trying to get some rest so maybe she woke him up from a nap and he was fussy but when she bowed low and made her request, Jesus basically insulted her saying, "It is not right to give the bread for the children to the dogs."  People today may not mind if you compare them to their Yorkie or Schnauzer or Great Dane but in the ancient world, dogs were not our lovable household pets.  They were more like buzzards, looking for dead animals or people to devour.  They were considered nasty, unclean beasts that people would chase away and of which people were afraid.

The woman whose daughter was ill did not let Jesus' insult to her made her run away.  Instead, she replied, "Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table."  Jesus must have felt reprimanded by this woman who crossed two social barriers to get to him (women were not to approach men, Gentiles and Jews did not speak to one another).  He told her to go home knowing that her daughter was well--and she was.

So, could the Jesus whom we consider to be sinless, faultless, "God from God" learn something from another human being that he needed to learn?  Could the human Jesus in his humanity, in the moment when his tired, weary body was speaking to him have said something less than loving to another human being and then learn from what he had done by way of a Gentile woman?

If Jesus was truly human and one who "was tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15c), then is it not possible that Jesus was a human being with human feelings and emotions, and with a body that got tired and weary and had aches and pains, as we do?  If such a Jesus was human in this way, then he could learn from other human beings, and I think stories such as this show us that part of Jesus that we need to consider.

As Christians we affirm the divinity of Christ, but we also have to affirm that Jesus had flesh and blood and bones and was biologically as we are.  Jesus had the help of the divine in what he did when he walked the earth but if he did not experience what other humans experience in every way, then how could God truly understand what it meant to be human?

I love television programs where characters are placed outside of their natural elements.  The Beverly Hillbillies had mountain folk who found themselves in the richness of Beverly Hills, California and did not know how to live in that place.  The aliens on Third Rock from the Sun were constantly learning what it meant to be human and to feel human.  The smart guys on The Big Bang Theory are always trying to decipher relationships without using a computer to assist them.

Jesus was not in his heavenly element when he roamed the earth.  He was just like you and me, just one of the gang trying to sort out what life was about.  Certainly he was special, divine, much more than the average human, but when he was murdered by the Roman government, his death proved just how human he was, blood dripping down that mechanism of cruelty to which he was attached.  He had pain like any other human being and knew what it felt like for a human to suffer because he suffered greatly.  Maybe that was the last lesson he could learn from others on the planet---humans sometimes insult and hurt each other in ways that cannot be described.