Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Love in Truth and Action

That John stops preaching and goes to meddling in this Sunday's epistle lection.  You know the John I mean, the writer of First John as well as the two short epistles that follow.  We got a good start last week when John told us that we were children of light and we should try to live like it and know that we are loved.  That was good....John could have kept on preaching throughout his letter about that.  We like to hear those words of affirmation as much as possible.  This week though, John gets rather personal because he poses the question, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?"  (3:17)

Whoa, John...are you saying that we are not full of God's love just because we do not want to part with some of what we have worked so hard to get just because someone else comes along who may need it?  Surely, you are not saying that....or are you trying to imply that if we don't interrupt our own lives and schedule and come to the aid of someone who is in distress then we cannot really claim to be followers of Jesus Christ?  Keep preaching like that John and you may be looking for another church to pastor.  Loving others is fine, in theory, but we all know that loving people up close and personal is not easy.  We want to think good thoughts about others in the world and wish them well....from a distance, of course.  We want everyone to be happy and succeed and have all the things they a general sort of way.

John is tough on his readers and hearers though...he does not stop with love in a general, rather vague way..."Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." (3:18)  Loving in truth and action is a lot more challenging than loving in a general way.  It often requires something of us.  It often requires us to change our schedule, to go out of our way, to do things we had not planned on doing, for the sake of someone else.

When I was in school, we studied the parts of speech a lot in English class.  We learned that a verb shows "action, being, or a state of being."  I always wanted a verb to be an action verb because it was easier to pick out in a sentence.  I was always sure that an action verb had something going on so I could tell it was a verb.  A verb that was one showing being or a state of being seemed to just sit, is, are, was, were, has, have, had.....they just sit around being verbs, not really going anyplace.  When you met up with words like walk, talk, go, read, do, swim...the list is endless, you knew someone or something was taking off in some direction.  There was motion implied in the very nature of the word.

Love is like that, according to the epistle writer John.  Love is an action verb, not something that can just be.  Love is something that is done on behalf of others, and especially others who cannot do it themselves or pay you for your doing it for them.  Love is done and shown and given because the actor is acting out of a sense of love rather than duty.  When we love in truth and action, it will be apparent that we are meeting a need or sharing a talent or giving of ourselves because we are motivated by something within that compels us to act.  A sense of duty or obligation is not at the center of this kind of love, but a higher calling sends us into action.

So, John may not be straying too far from his original idea of God's love for us....he simply expands on it to include all others that God also loves.  And if God loves all of humankind, then God expects his "little children" (John's pet name for you) to love everyone else also.  "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his son Jesus Christ and love one another..." (3:23)

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Spring Frolic

My wife and I just wrapped up a week's vacation in Colorful Colorado.  We spent a week at Estes Park, high in the Rockies and just a short distance from Rocky Mountain National Park, which we visited daily and saw many, many elk wandering the area.  There were other animals too---deer, geese, ground squirrels, and marmots, but the elk were in such numbers that they seemed to be the dominant species.  We even got to see the elk "Spring Frolic" one evening near dark. We had driven out to the national park and saw a small herd of elk near a watering hole so we stopped the car, rolled down the windows, and observed them from there.  Soon, a large buck with a huge rack of horns began running about the watering hole, stopping now and then to put his head in the water and bring up a stream of water above him.  He pawed the ground and stomped his feet, and chased two does who were also nearby.  The three of them ran here and there and chased each other and it was as if they were celebrating the spring season and all that it provided for them.  After about 15 minutes of this, they stopped and began just munching grass as they had before they began their dance.  We thought at first that they were doing some mating ritual but when we looked it up on the internet when we returned to our cabin, we found out that mating happens in the autumn and what we saw was actually their spring frolic.  We felt very blessed to have witnessed this act of nature and tried to see it again but never did find elk doing the same thing while we were there.

How many times have you wanted to frolic when something made you excited and happy?  How many times has your spirit told you to do the "dance of joy" but you only thought about it instead of doing it?  Many of us are limited physically so we cannot actually dance or frolic using our bodies but we can let our imagination and our spirits take us to a place of celebration in our minds.  Celebration is something we all crave.  We want to have reasons to celebrate and those reasons come about through life events that most of us have---birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays--all give us reason to rejoice and celebrate.  There are times when life needs to be celebrated, however, just because life exists.  There are days when the weather is just right, the sun is shining in the right amount, the sky is a beautiful blue, and all seems right with the world.  Perhaps that is a day to celebrate life.

I have many reasons to celebrate in my life.  Besides having special days that the calendar provides, I have a wonderful family with children who live in beautiful parts of the USA that provide reasons to visit there.  I have a fabulous supportive congregation to serve and lead that gives me a reason to get up and go every day.  I have  time to renew and relax and unwind on a regular basis so that my emotional battery can be recharged.  I have a place to live that provides an environment that encourages reflection and self care.  As the writer of Lamentations said, "The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness."  (3:22-23)

We used to sing the old song, "Count Your Blessings" now and then in church services.  The old hymn talks about the idea that when life provides challenges to your body or mind, then try to think about the positive things in life instead of dwelling on the negatives.  There will always be challenges to us as long as we are alive but we can try to think about the positive aspects of life, the opportunities for joy, the relationships that we have and we will know that life contains far more blessings that challenges.  That knowledge can help us to overcome those challenges and realize that we have many others to assist us on our life's journey.

Do the dance of joy when you can.  Celebrate spring with a frolic of your own.  Dance a jig in your mind if you cannot do it with your body.  Rejoice in your spirit and have confidence that God is still with us.  God is still speaking if we will open our minds and hearts to listen.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Speaking Through My Pain

My apologies to the man in the gift shop in the Rocky Mountain town recently who pushed his way in front of me to look at post cards when I was already there looking at the same ones.  I backed up a bit and said in my most diplomatic way, "You pushed right in front of me." to which he replied, "I wanted to get one of these cards" and as he walked away I said, "You had already pushed in front of my wife a few minutes ago." because he had.  She had just given up on looking at what she wanted to and put her items back and gave him the rack for him to peruse but I decided I was not going to give up so easily.  And besides, my leg hurt a lot. 

I don't blame that man for hurting my leg because he had nothing to do with it.  That actually happened about two weeks ago and I have been dealing with the pain and getting help to deal with it for the past two weeks.  We had vacation planned a long time before I hurt my leg so I did not want that injury to prevent us from going so we went ahead and took off for the Rocky Mountains.  Making the transition from jet to Denver and then bus and rental car proved painful at times but being in the cool Rocky Mountains was a great salve for my spirit if not for my leg.  I went to a doctor not too far away who seemed to help me out and have been feeling like I have been getting better a little bit at a time. 

We could not leave Estes Park without browsing the shops as the tourists do so we were determined to look around today even if I spent a lot of time sitting on benches while my wife looked in the stores and then returned to where I was posted.  When I was looking at the cards in the first shop, my leg pain was about a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10.  That poor man who happened to push himself in front of my wife and me was rude but I should have probably overlooked his rudeness and then moved on to another place to be in pain but the pain seemed to say to me, "Don't let that joker get away with this!"  So, I spoke to him as most of us would when we have been mistreated and then left, happy that I stood up for my rights.  I guess I had second thoughts about it, though, thinking maybe retreat would have been better than telling him what he had done wrong.  Who knows....I am human, after all.

We all speak out of our pain at times.  Sometimes it is physical pain and sometimes it is emotional in origin. We speak words that express the pain we feel in life and want others to feel our pain too even if they cannot actually feel the depth of what we are feeling.  The pain comes out in our words and actions and we may even mistreat others close to us.  All we can do is learn from our experiences and hope that we will continue to grow and become better at dealing with pain and with life.  We grow with every painful experience and learn what is the best way to handle life's situations because of our experiences. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Day After Easter

Whew....we had a record breaking crowd in worship yesterday.  The pews were packed and extra chairs had to be placed behind the pews and in the overflow.  This may be our largest attendance ever on Easter Sunday. Relatives and friends of relatives attended as well as many members whom we had not seen in quite a while.  The choir sang the anthem they had been practicing for months and it turned out well.  The sermon seemed to go well and not last exceedingly long.  Holy Communion was served without a hitch and without running out of elements.  Everyone was dressed nicely and seemed to enjoy the fellowship and the children's egg hunt that followed the service.  It was wonderful to see the church full and running over.

The sermon yesterday was entitled, "Now What?" to reflect the idea--what do we do with the Easter message once Easter is over.  Perhaps that question can challenge our lives daily but today it seems very relevant in asking "Now What?" in relation to what is important in regard to the daily practice of faith in life everyday.  Don't get me wrong....I love having a full house on Easter Sunday.  I always try to welcome warmly everyone who attends on Easter Sunday.  A part of me, though, also longs to see the crowd attend on one of the other 51 Sundays of the year.  Easter is the Grand Celebration of the Church.  It is even more important in religious circles than Christmas Eve/Day.  Easter has been part of worship longer than Christmas historically so it should be considered to be the high holy day of the Christian Year.  Once Easter is past, however, does that mean that our commitment to our faith is over until this same day next year?  Does it take a funeral, baptism, or wedding to bring us back to the church?

The Easter faith expressed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one that interjects itself into our lives on a daily basis.  Each time we face a Good Friday experience in life....a death, breakup of a relationship, job loss, catastrophe because of an accident or natural disaster...God is present to reveal the resurrection to our lives to help us cope and receive new life even in the face of the worst that life can throw at us.  Easter faith is not just faith for Easter Day but it is faith for living in a world that is less than certain.

This next Sunday is often called "Doubting Thomas Sunday" because the Gospel text is taken from John's Gospel where Thomas states that he will not believe in the resurrection of Jesus unless Jesus appears to him in the flesh.  He desires positive proof that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  Easter faith does not demand that we have no doubts but it helps to answer our doubts with possibilities that only God can supply.  Thomas was not different than the other disciples.  They had already had Jesus make a personal appearance to them when Thomas was out running errands.  Thomas only wanted the same confirmation that they had received.  He wanted Jesus to recognize him in the same way that he had recognized the other disciples and to greet him in his resurrection body.

Doubters are always welcomed in faith circles.  Nowhere in Scripture does it say that humans must be free from doubt before coming to be part of the faith community.  It instead gives us many examples of how the Church began to organize around the Resurrection of Jesus and get busy providing for the needs of the many with the resources of all.  Doubters are welcome to be part of the life of the Church and to help make coffee, arrange tables, plan meetings, and contribute their talents to the common good that is needed so that the Church can continue to grow and thrive.  Doubters are part of who we all are for even those whom may think they are the most faithful must admit that there are times when they want to throw in the towel and let someone else carry the load for a change.  And, believe it or not, the day after Easter is one of the days that they may think about it.  Instead, once they get some rest and have some time away they will be much better and ready to accept the next challenge that is ahead of them.

"Easter People, Raise Your Voices, sounds of heaven in earth should ring.  Christ has brought us heaven's choices; heavenly music, let it ring.  Alleluia, alleluia, Easter People, let us sing."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cleansing Rituals

This week is Holy Week, of course, for Christians with its Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday that leads to Easter.  For our Jewish friends, it is a special week too because they observe Passover, one of their high holy observances in which they recount their ancestors' deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish families often host a Seder, which is a ritual meal with foods that remind them of the Exodus story.  They eat foods that resemble the bricks that they had to make by hand and the mortar that went between the bricks.  They eat an egg, a lamb shank, and parsley that they dip in salt water to remind them of the tears of their ancestors.  The story of the Exodus is read again with pauses at which they eat a specific food.   The eating is accompanied by drinking glasses of wine to remind them of the joy of the Lord that brought them out of slavery.

Pieces of matzoh bread are eaten along with the other foods to remind them of the unleavened bread that was eaten because the captives in Egypt could not wait for bread to rise.  In each home, they are to cleanse the house of any yeast that may be there as it is forbidden during Passover.  Yeast breads are not allowed in the house either so this cleansing has to take place in preparation for the Passover observance.  All breads that are of a risen nature must be eaten or put out of the house before Passover begins.  Anything that contains leaven (bread, cakes, cookies, biscuits, crackers, cereals) must be removed from the house.

In homes that are kosher, even the dishes that are used in preparing foods that contain leaven must be removed from the house during Passover week.  Special Passover dishes are stored all year and brought out to be used during Passover week.  The house must be thoroughly cleaned, and all crumbs from leavened products must be removed.  All traces of anything that may have contained leaven must be gone.  Preparing the house for Passover is a major "spring cleaning."  It is a huge task to clean the house and change over the kitchen.

In the morning of the day that Passover begins at sundown, any leavened products that are found in the house is burned.  A Jew cannot even own leavening during Passover so households may give their products to non-Jews for the Passover period with the understanding that they will receive them back once Passover is done.
Sometimes, Jewish families will sell their products to others and donate the money to a charity as a form of "wheat money" as the holiday begins.

The Seder meal is held and the ritual reading of the story of the Exodus is done and as it closes the saying is done, "Next year in Jerusalem" as it is every Jew's wish to be in Jerusalem for such a meaningful time.

I have had the honor to be invited to Seders held in homes and synagogues.  I was a guest of a rabbi and his family one year.  I was invited to a private Seder held in a home with a group to which I belonged another time.  Then, when we had become established in our current location, my wife and I were invited to a Seder held at a small synagogue in a neighboring town.  A very sweet Jewish lady who was the grand dame of the Jewish congregation invited us and included me as one of the readers.  I was very honored and humbled that they would think of including us.

I am a bit envious of our Jewish friends when it comes to the great ritual that they observe at the holy times of the year.  Our Roman Catholic friends also have many great rituals involved in their religious experiences. We Protestants seem to have cleansed our faith traditions of as many rituals as we could leaving our faith practices with the minimal requirements.  No cleansing of our houses in preparation for Easter.  We may vacuum and dust but cooking the ham and dying the eggs does not require as much sanitation as being sure there is no yeast in the house.  Protestants rely upon faith to save us, which is very true, but somewhere along the way ritual became connected to "works" and were thrown out along with the other things that we lumped into that category.

When we go on vacation and we decide to go to church on a vacation Sunday, we usually end up at an Episcopal Church.  Most of the time there is not a United Church of Christ congregation in the vicinity so we find the local Episcopal Church and worship with them.  Something about the "smells and bells" and the rituals of the Anglican tradition speaks to my spirit.  Something about kneeling at an altar to receive the Eucharist, receiving the wafer and drinking from a common cup as I play tug of war with the priest who is holding the cup reaches me.  I have found myself with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes many times when I have risen from that altar.  I do not have the same experience as we pass the elements down the pews as the organ softly plays.  Something in the ritual touches my spirit in a way that I cannot describe.

Those of us in mainline Protestantism have a faith that incorporates head and heart.  We want to think along with feeling our faith.  Many times we cognate the faith to the place where everything is explained for us and to us and we only have to shake our heads in assent.  The rituals have almost disappeared as we have cleansed our traditions of all but those which are absolutely necessary.  I sometimes miss kneeling and facing an altar and reading from a prayer book with words that are ancient and proven.  I sometimes yearn in my spirit to feel once again the connection that came from being part of familiar rituals.  Perhaps we Protestants should reclaim some of our heritage that spoke to our ancestors and find the meaning in them that we once found meaningful.  Our own version of the "smells and bells" does not have to be the same as our religious cousins enjoy but perhaps we can find added meaning in words and practices that have a familiarity in them that were once enjoyed in our pews.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Easter Musings

Happy Holy Week....or is it okay to say Happy connected to the words Holy Week?  Is Holy Week supposed to be happy?  Or perhaps Holy Week is supposed to be pensive and reflective and meaningful but not exactly happy?  Holy Week is holy because it contains days that are considered to be special and come only once a year so that gives it its unique status and makes the days holy in the sense that one needs to think about why these days are so special.  Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week are just those days in Holy Week and some churches have special services to offer the chance to think about this week in the life of Christ.  Thursday becomes Maundy Thursday with Maundy coming from the Latin maundatum which means "commandment" because Jesus gives his disciples a command to them to wash the feet of others and serve them even as he served others.  Friday is Good Friday, not being very good for Jesus because that is the day he dies but good for the salvation of humankind.  Saturday is Holy Saturday with most churches doing nothing special but just waiting as the women did at the tomb.  Finally, Holy Week gives way to the festival day of Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Whew...what a busy week for Christians and for pastors.  Is it any wonder that we collapse on the Monday after Easter and that many pastors take vacation time on the Sunday following Easter?

The Easter season offers signs of new life and resurrection before our very eyes.  It comes in conjunction with the Vernal Equinox and the beginning of spring.  Flowers are blooming.  Trees are budding.  Pollen is abundant and everywhere.  Little baby animals lie in the fields, fresh from the birthing process.  People are busy working in their yards and fields trying to put the winter drabness behind them.  No wonder that we use eggs and bunnies and chicks as symbols of Easter.  All of these speak of new life and new birth.

I grew up in a home where we were not allowed to have any observance of religious holidays that may be culturally based.  Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were banned from our house by my mother.  She told us when we were very little that both personalities were false and made up by people who wanted to take Jesus out of the religious holidays.  So, we could open presents given to us by other humans at Christmas and we could hunt for eggs that we had dyed and play a game with them to search for them but no mythological creatures were going to come to our house and surprise us.  Jesus would get all the recognition that he deserved at these two holidays because He was the reason for the season and he died to prove his worthiness. Is it any wonder that I got into a lot of trouble at school because I shared this knowledge with others on the playground and tried to convince them that their set of beliefs was fraudulent?

Easter was the time when we usually got a new piece of clothing to add to our wardrobe, usually something that we needed anyway.  I often got a new shirt or pair of pants but some years I got a sports coat or pair or shoes.  Getting new clothing for Easter did not go against any principles that my mother had and we needed them anyway so it was okay.  If we did happen to bring some piece of cultural propaganda home with us from school that we colored or filled in blanks that contained the dreaded Easter Bunny, then we would get an additional lecture about the evils of the cultural observance of Easter.  My mother thought that Jesus wept each time we gave the Bunny some credit that Jesus should have gotten in regard to Easter so she was pretty serious about cleansing our home from the cultural Easter celebration.

Easter Sunday was pretty much a normal Sunday at our house.  We did have a ham with potato salad filled with the eggs that we decorated and hid and hunted and we sometimes had deviled eggs made with those same eggs too.  We went to church, came home and got out of those stuffy Easter clothes, and ate the special lunch and then took a nap or played quietly until time to go back to church again.  If Jesus really did die on the cross and rise again, then shouldn't we go to church twice on Easter Sunday?  Didn't he deserve our praise for doing all that or were we going to be lazy just because it was a special day?  So, we would get dressed up again and go to church at night for evening worship that lasted long enough that it was time to go to bed when we returned.

I actually was jealous of the kids I knew who had a "normal" upbringing and attended a church where they only went to church once on Sundays.  I secretly believed in the Easter Bunny and wanted him to surprise us all and give us eggs that we did not decorate just to prove to my mother that he did exist.  My mother did not want any explanation of how the cultural beliefs had come across the ocean with the immigrants and part of their celebration had these practices integrated into them.  She just knew that if Jesus was not at the center of it all then it must be wrong.

Easter is a great holiday for celebration.  It is a wonderful day for families to get together and eat special food and share memories from the past even as they create new ones.  There is nothing wrong with incorporating cultural celebrations into our religious ones.  For most people who celebrate Easter as a religious holiday, Jesus is recognized as the one whose life, death, and resurrection we celebrate but I think even Jesus would have loved the joy that children get from thinking that there may be some magic or mystery involved in the holiday celebration.  After all, isn't the resurrection itself a mystery?  Who can explain it?