Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peace Beyond Understanding

The Angels sang the song of peace on the night that Jesus was born.  "Peace on Earth, Good will to all" was the message they proclaimed.  When we think about that message, we usually sigh in dismay because we know all too well that peace on earth is very elusive.  Has there ever been peace on earth, either before or since the birth of Christ?  If Jesus truly is the "Prince of Peace" as we claim that Isaiah declares of the Messiah (and Christians claim Jesus as their Messiah), then why has the reign of peace not taken hold in the last 2,000 years since the birth of Christ?  Is world peace truly possible in a literal way or is that idea something that only "dreamers" attempt to consider?

World peace is a lofty goal and one that may be realized at the end of the age or when persons depart this life and go on to the next, but the realization of literal peace on earth depends on the humans who inhabit this planet and the change that can happen in humans when they decide to attempt to enact peace in their own part of the planet.  Perhaps the concept of peace is not meant to be a global concept that happens all at once but maybe it is a personal concept, something that happens within individuals when they achieve an inner peace that is present in all circumstances.  Christians understand this as "a peace that passes understanding" as written in the epistles.  Buddhists may realize this as they achieve enlightenment through meditation and seeking understanding.  Followers of Islam may find peace within their traditions and the teachings of the Qur'aan.  Non-religious people may find peace in nature and harmony that comes about as they seek out truth.

If peace is truly an individual and personal experience, then the message of peace as proclaimed by the angels has to do with peace that comes about by understanding what God's Kingdom is and attempting to live as one who is part of that Kingdom.  Jesus described God's Kingdom in many ways as he taught the crowds who followed him.  Perhaps the greatest and simplest description is found in the Sermon on the Mount in what we call the Beatitudes.  Jesus described those who inhabit God's Kingdom---Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:3-9)  Those are the kinds of folks who make up God's Kingdom and for whom God brings about peace in their lives as they continue to strive to be part of God's reign on earth.

Each time we say the Lord's Prayer, we invoke God by saying, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done."  That short phrase contains the petition that we desire for God's Kingdom to come on earth and for God's will to  be done on earth, "as it is in Heaven".  True and literal peace on earth can only come about as humans would do God's will on earth in the same way that God's will is done in heaven.  How can we know what God's will is for we who inhabit the planet?  Jesus described that also as he told people to love God and love their neighbors even as they love themselves.  Jesus described a world in which people go out of their way to do good deeds for others and to love even those who do not love you back.  The world that Jesus envisioned is one that he never realized during his short life on earth.  He died a cruel and violent death at the hands of religion and government and his words of love were lost on those who would see his life end.

Having inner peace in the midst of the events of a turbulent and violent world may seem hard to achieve for many people.  When people see the daily events in which person after person murders others, when countries threaten to destroy one another, when weapons of war are sought for the sake of personal security, it is hard to imagine anyone not being worried to death by the state of society today.  Those who put their trust in a "higher power", however, often do not worry about threats that society may make against them.  They trust that whatever happens in life, they will be secure because a power greater than themselves is in charge of their lives.  St. Paul expressed this idea in the thought, "Whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord's".  He felt secure because his life was bound up in something greater than himself in which he would put his trust.

John Lennon, of Beatles fame, wrote the song, "Imagine" in which he described a world of peace.  He described a world in which divisions would cease and there would be nothing to fight about.  The world he envisioned was one that would have world harmony as all of humankind worked together.  He said, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one, I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one."  John Lennon may indeed have been a dreamer, but he was not the only one.  The world is filled with people who envision a time when humans can live in peace with one another.  Until that day is realized, connecting with the source of peace within our lives brings a personal peace that few can understand but many desire.

May God's peace be yours in this Holiday Season and into the new year, a year of hope for a greater understanding among humans of what it means to love one another.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Touched By An Angel

Mary, a small town teenager, maybe 13 years old, in an arranged marriage that her family had gotten for her...all of her life ahead of her, promised to an older man named Joseph.  He will take care of her, feed her, clothe her, protect her, so that her father does not have to do those things anymore.  All of life seems to be going according to the plan that her parents had worked out for her.

Then, a surprise entered her life.  An angel, Gabriel, paid her a visit.  Mary was totally shocked, stunned, nonplussed.  Who had ever encountered a heavenly being and lived to tell the story?  The messenger assured her that everything was okay---"Be not afraid" he said with authority.  Then he began to lay out a new plan for Mary's life, one that she had not even contemplated.  Gabriel assured her that she was favored by Yahweh and that she was chosen for a special task that only she could accomplish.  The news was totally unexpected and, well, not entirely welcomed.  After all, her life was just beginning to fall into place and she did not need a major interference as Gabriel described.

"You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

A, that was not part of the plan at all.  First comes love, well maybe first comes an arranged marriage that may turn into love somewhere along the way, and then comes a baby.  It had to work in that order.  Society would not allow Mary to be an unwed mother.  That was punishable by death according to the laws of her people.

"How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Mary asked Gabriel.  Even Mary knew that a man was necessary to cause a baby to be born.  Without Joseph, she thought, nothing would happen to bring about a new life.

Gabriel had an answer for everything, she must have thought..."The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God...For nothing will be impossible with God."

Mary considered what Gabriel had told her.  She must have thought about it for what seemed the longest even though it may have been only a minute or two.  "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  Then---poof--the angel was gone.

Mary, all alone again, sitting in her room, wondering what the future would bring now that God had changed her life plan.  Would Joseph be understanding when it began to be evident that she was expecting the birth of a baby?  Would Joseph still marry her or would her family send her away to stay with relatives until the baby was born?  Would anyone ever believe her when she told her story of the angelic visit?  She had to tell someone so she began the journey to see her relative Elizabeth, much older than she but also expecting a baby that would be born even before her promised child came into the world.  Mary had to tell what she was feeling to someone who would understand, and Elizabeth would surely understand since she was expecting a miracle baby too.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hidden Treasures

We had a scavenger hunt of sorts a few months ago when a long time member asked if we in the office knew where she could find a document that her grandfather had written in German and had given to the church.  Now, our church was founded in 1900 and all of its documents were written German for about the first third of its history.  When a long-time member passes away and I need to look up information in the "big book" in which baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals are recorded, I have to bring out my very small German language skills and try to interpret the writing in the book so I can have this information to use at the funeral.  The document that the member was seeking was a copy of our church constitution that had been hand written in German by her grandfather.  We looked everywhere that we could imagine the document could be but could not find it.  We frantically searched again and again only to come up empty-handed each time we looked.  Finally, one day one of our other members was at the church and heard us telling about this hunt and he casually went into our church library and opened the drawer of a desk that sits in a corner that is rarely used.  Sitting in that drawer was the document that the other member had been seeking.  When we gave it to her, she rejoiced with great joy.  It was as if a long lost family member had returned.  The document she was seeking was a link to her history.  It was the missing jigsaw puzzle piece, without which she could not feel complete.

Today, the member who was searching for the document came to the church again, this time to present to the church a photocopied replica of the original German document.  She intends to give the original to the library/museum of our county where it will be stored and kept safe for future generations to see.  The replica is bound in a nice notebook and has newly crisp pages to take the place of the very worn pages of the original.  I wondered where we should keep this gift to the church and finally decided upon the desk in the church library where we found it in the first place.  So, I went into the library and opened the drawer where the original had been found and as I lay the replica in its place I noticed another book, this one also written in German, laying there.  It is a German choral book, containing musical lines with German titles, only music and no lyrics.  There was also a choral book of Handel's Messiah, missing its cover and looking very worn, dated 1912, perhaps left from an era when the church choir had performed it.  Looking further into the desk, I came upon book after book written in the German language, many of them containing liturgy and services for leaders of the church during the era when this congregation held services in German.  It was a veritable treasure trove of books from the history of this congregation.

I wondered why had these books simply been left in this desk with no one knowing that they were there.  Such books should be in a historical collection somewhere or in a museum or library.  Here they are laying on top of one another, their pages yellowing by the day, part of the history of this congregation and town, seemingly serving no purpose but to deteriorate.  The books were once very important to people, a link to their German heritage they had brought with them from the Old Country.  They had conducted services in German in this church into the 1930s, I have been told, so why shouldn't these books be treated like important links to our congregational past rather than old relics that no longer matter?

It makes me reflect upon life and living and why it is that we often overlook those around us who have a wealth of experience and education.  We often toss them aside like old books and put them in a place where we can know they will be safe and then just forget about them.  When someone asks about them, we say we know they are some place but we have trouble remembering where.  The value of what they know and have experienced is far greater than we can enumerate.

I have the privilege of going to a retirement home once a month to lead a worship service.  The residents there are still very lively and love to sing so we sing a few songs (accapella since the lady who used to play the piano got ill and cannot play any longer), say the Lord's Prayer, I read a passage from the Bible and talk about it for maybe three to five minutes, and then I say goodbye until next month.  You would think I was a rock star or famous personality.  Those who come to the services thank me for coming and tell me they enjoyed it.  I go away feeling much happier than before I arrived.  I often wish I had the opportunity to sit down and hear the life story of each of these wonderful people.  I guess I could do that one day, if I could only make the time.

Valuing those in society who have so much to share with us should be a high priority but many times we, as a society and individuals in it, do not want to be bothered by what is required in order to sit and learn from them.  We have to give up something....our time and maybe even our pride, changing our attitude from one who knows all that is required to one who can gain much insight from others who have experiences that we may not have gained in life.  We are surrounded by hidden treasures daily but often we overlook them simply because we do not see them as such.

May God help us to have our eyes opened so that we will see who and what is important in life.  May God help us to take the time to stop and look and listen to others who may share an insight with us that we would never have any other way besides through our interaction with them.  May God help us to consider the great gifts we have in those around us and never neglect the opportunities that are around us daily.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Watching and Waiting

Have you ever thought about waiting?  I mean, have you ever thought about how waiting is done.  Sometimes waiting is a very boring activity.  Waiting in line at the post office, waiting in traffic when you are trying to get somewhere important, waiting in the doctor's office or in the little room they put you in telling you that the doctor will see you shortly.  Those are all examples of waiting that can bring about impatience.  We are not good waiters when it comes to waiting that seems to waste our time.  I am among the chief of impatient people when I think my time is being wasted by people who cannot seem to recognize the inadequacies of their system.  Waiting that fits into this category is a bane on society, I think.

Then, there is waiting in anticipation of someone or something.  Waiting for company to arrive--waiting that involves looking out windows or preparing the house or cooking a meal--waiting that is being done with a specific purpose or reason in mind.  Waiting for a refund or rebate to come in the mail--checking the mailbox daily in anticipation that soon our waiting will be rewarded.  Waiting for a loved one to come home after being gone for a length of time--such as one who is in the military and has been on duty and now is coming home at last.  That is an entirely different kind of waiting.  It is watchful waiting.

Advent is a season of waiting but it fits into the second category of waiting.  It is watchful waiting that provides us time to reflect upon what this season is actually about and how our lives are affected by it and how it provides opportunities for mission and ministry in our community and around the world.  Advent is not Christmas.  Christmas comes on December 25--until that date we are officially in our waiting mode, a time of expectation and preparation for the event soon to come.

We wait in anticipation of the one who has come, is coming, and will come every day.  Jesus came about 2000 years ago as an infant in a cattle stall.  He lived as a human for about 33 years and then died and went away.  He came as the Holy Spirit to inhabit the world and the lives of humans.  He comes into our hearts and lives daily as we show God's love to all in our world in the ways we know how to do.  Jesus' coming is an ever present reality that occurs again and again.  Our waiting in Advent is for opportunities to experience the coming of Jesus in our lives and in the lives of others.  That happens in multitudes of ways as we share ourselves with those around us.