Monday, December 23, 2013

The Ghost of Christmas Future

An imagining and parody of a future Christmas when those who think that there is a "War on Christmas" stamp out everything that is not "Christ-like" in Christmas:

From the Office of Christmas Instructions
To All Citizens of the Land
Date: December 1, 2020

We have finally won the War on Christmas and achieved our goal of establishing a governmental post that oversees the official operation of how Christmas is to be celebrated in the United States of America.  Since Christmas is the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, then we need to establish official guidelines as to how persons residing within the boundaries of the United States of America and its official territories may celebrate and/or observe Christmas.  Listed below are the official rules that now oversee the celebration of Christmas.  All persons residing in the United States of America and its official territories are required to obey these statutes or face the penalty of law:

1. We began this mission with replacing such lackluster greetings such as "Happy Holidays" and Season's Greetings" with "Merry Christmas".  Businesses, Schools, Churches, and Governmental Offices are now required by law to say Merry Christmas during the time period from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas Day.  Persons working it the public arena may not greet others with holiday greetings other than saying "Merry Christmas".  Persons are to report to the authorities any person who uses a greeting other than "Merry Christmas."

2. Since Christmas is the birthday of Jesus Christ and not Santa Claus, then images of Santa Claus are not to be displayed in public.  In addition, shopping centers, malls, and businesses may no longer have persons dressed as Santa Claus, deceiving children into thinking that such a person truly does exist.  We all know that Santa Claus is a lie of commercialism invented to steal some of the glory from Jesus on his birthday.  Advertisements that previously featured Santa Claus are now to have a Manger Scene with "Silent Night" playing in the background.  Those persons who are normally featured in a Manger Scene (i.e., Shepherd, Wise Men, Mary, Joseph, and of course, Jesus) may now be used in advertisements that once featured Santa.  Since Santa Claus can no longer be used in our nation, then other images featuring reindeer are no longer allowed either.  No one wants to see reindeer flying about without a driver and Santa is the only figure that is associated with reindeer.

3. Radio Stations that play Christmas music continuously must play only religious music.  Christmas carols shall be played from Thanksgiving Day through Christmas Day.  Holiday music featuring sleigh rides, walking in snow covered fields, persons wishing others holiday greetings, building snow persons, etc are no longer acceptable.  It is Jesus' birthday, not a time for persons to frolic in snow covered areas.  Snow is our enemy, as is Santa, and we do not want to glamorize the harm that snow can do when one frolics in it.  Our Christmas music will be pleasing to Jesus at the time of his birthday celebration.

4. Christmas Parties at schools and in office buildings shall be solemn remembrances with prayer and singing of Christmas carols.  (See above for officially authorized music.)  No drinking to excess with be allowed and persons will return to their homes at a decent hour and not be out and about being up to no good.  (See rule about frolicking above.)

5. Christmas decorations shall be in good taste and feature images of Jesus and those whom we remember in the celebration of Christmas.  No images of Santa, Reindeer, Elves, or other fictitious figures or storybook characters shall be used as a Christmas ornament.  Using candles attached to trees is suggested rather than electric lighting so as to conserve energy.  No blow up or light up figures shall be seen on lawns in front of homes or offices unless they feature Jesus or his entourage in some way.  Jesus is the Reason for the Season and we must do all we can to emphasize that to others.

6. Persons of other faith traditions or no faith tradition, who insist on celebrating their own pagan rituals (after all we believe in freedom of religion in our country) may hold their celebrations in their homes or houses of worship as long as it does not pour out into the streets or countryside.  Christianity is the official religion of our land (even though we tolerate others) and the one that we officially celebrate with festivities.  Christmas is the official holiday celebrated in the winter and the one that we publicly acclaim.

If you have further suggestions as to how to make Christmas more meaningful to our Savior as he celebrates his birthday each year, please forward to this office and memos will follow to instruct the public in the correct and official way that the holiday may be celebrated.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Candle Lighting

In last week's blog posting, I talked about how dark the world is just before Christmas.  The Winter Solstice is almost here and with it comes the shortest amount of daylight of the entire year.  The sun breaks over the horizon somewhere between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. and disappears in the sunset between 5:30 and 6:00 pm.  Ten hours of daylight and long, dark evenings mark our days until Saturday, when after the Winter Solstice, little by little, in minute increments to begin with, the daylight begins to grow longer each day.  Christmas is celebrated just 4 days after we have the Winter Solstice.  The Early Church thought it was appropriate for us to think about Jesus, the Light of the World, coming into a world of darkness so we celebrate the birth of the Everlasting Light amid a world that is literally sitting in darkness, waiting for the light to return.  

My wife and I were in Austin last Friday and we went to a store that had sent me a card offering me 20% off my entire purchase as a gift for my birthday. We really did not need anything in particular from this store but it was as if the coupon card for my birthday demanded that we go there so we walked around and found a few things, most of which were already on sale and added the extra discount to them, making it feel like it was a good buy.  Among the things we bought were several candles and a package of 100 tealights, small candles that burn only a few hours and are all used up.  That is why you get 100 in a package.  It makes you feel like you are getting a huge amount even though you know each candle burns only a short time.  

Lighting a lot of candles at this time of year is something the people of Scandinavia do.  Norwegians do not tend to be very religious people but their lives have even more darkness than ours during the winter so they light many candles daily to push the darkness out of their lives.  Last week, on the day when I celebrated my birthday, Norwegians celebrated Santa Lucia Day.  On that day, the oldest daughter in each family wears a hand band with candles on it at breakfast as the family eats a special bread in celebration of Santa Lucia.  The family sings a song that tells about this saint.  This custom is repeated again and again in Norwegian society as children in schools and in various groups light candles and sing the song to recall the life of St. Lucia.  Great auditoriums are filled with processionals of girls and boys streaming in holding candles and singing the familiar song.  

There is a saying, "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness."  That saying reminds me of the words of Jesus that we are to be the light of the world, up high where everyone can see the light and give praise to God.  Our good works show others the light of Christ living within us.  Each time we say a kind word or do a good deed, it is as if we are lighting a candle for others to see.  The candle shows the light of Christ to others in our dark world.  

All through this winter, we plan to light many candles in our home.  Even after we take down the Christmas 
Tree and store it in its box until next December, we will continue to light candles to remind us that light does conquer darkness and that even when things seem very dark in the world around us there is a light that shines in the darkness that gives us hope.  

John's Gospel begins with the Prologue that sets the stage for what will happen in the Gospel.  John introduces John the Baptist who was a "witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him."  He reminds the reader that John "was not the light, but he came to testify to the light."  Then he proclaims, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world."  (John 1: 7-9)  

Perhaps that is why Christmas is needed each year, to remind us that Christ is the light of the world and that the lives we live are to reflect that light to others around us.  Christ is the True Light and the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.  That is the Good News that needs to be shared, not only at Christmas but throughout the year.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Darkness Closing Around Us

That magical mysterious day will soon be, I am not talking about Christmas comes 4 days after the day I am talking about.  I am talking about the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, which comes on December 21.  Winter Solstice contains the least amount of daylight of the year.  After that, the days begin getting longer, little by little, bit by bit, each day until we reach the Summer Solstice, which is June 20 or thereabout.  The Winter Solstice also marks the first day of winter.  I have always thought it is a bit strange that the first day of winter has the smallest amount of daylight and then each day during winter the days become a bit longer, day by day.  Shouldn't it be that the first day of winter has more daylight then the last day of winter?  Well, I did not design it this way.  That was the way God made it to be because God knows how it should work out.

When we encounter the darkest day of the year on the Winter Solstice, we are surrounded by darkness much of the day.  Those of us in the southern United States fare much better than those who live in the north.  While our daytime hours stop about 5-5:30 pm, theirs end around 4-4:30 pm.  I remember when our son went to college in Boston, he would call us and tell us how the sun was setting at 4 pm.  It was hard to imagine that small amount of daytime hours.

The people in Scandinavia have even less light than that.  They have built "light rooms" where people can sit in artificial light and soak up some light when it is dark outdoors.  Their culture also celebrates the Winter Solstice with festivals and parades that feature torches and candles and a lot of light.  They party in the darkness and try to bring cheer to a world of cold and night.

The darkness of winter is a metaphor of sorts for the world around us and, believe it or not, our festive Christmas season was set to coincide with the ancient festivals that happened at the Winter Solstice so as to utilize the customs of the day to bring attention to the light of Christ coming into the world.  When the world is at its darkest, the light of the world comes in and illuminates everything.  When the day is the shortest, there is a light that emerges to bring about more and more light, just as the daytime hours begin getting longer and longer with each day of winter until finally spring emerges.

Back in the 60s, there was a movie called "Endless Summer" about some surfers who traveled around the world following the season of summer so that they could surf throughout the year.  They were in California in June through August and then began their trek to Australia to enjoy summer December through March.

Our spirits long for the light.   That is one of the reasons why scientists have named a disorder "Seasonal Affective Disorder" or SAD for short.  It affects many people during the winter months because with the shortness of the days also comes changes in their moods and general depression.  These people become SAD because they need light in order to live cheerful, happy lives.  Once spring comes and summer soon follows, they feel much better.  They actually like summer even if it is way hotter than they like it to be, just because there is so much light.

I don't really mind winter weather.  I can dress up with sweaters and coats and stay relatively warm, as long as the sun is shining.  When we experience long stretches of grey, rainy or drizzly days, however.  I long for the sun to shine and to make the grey clouds go away.  I need the sun, as do most of us.

The world is a dark place, if you look at the world situation with so many social problems.  Most people think there is no hope for the world.  That is why we need the sun to shine in our hearts to illuminate our faith so we can be the light of the world for those who wander in the darkness.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined."  (Isaiah 9:2)
"You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.:  (Matthew 5: 14, 16)

Monday, December 9, 2013

On a Quest

Have you ever searched for something and could not find it?  Maybe it was your car keys or glasses or check book.  You search everywhere you can think of and still can't locate the lost item.  It is very frustrating.  Take it from someone who occasionally lays something down and then cannot find it that it can get very frustrating to be on such a quest.  I lay my glasses down now and then and search high and low and finally somehow locate them again.  I told someone a while back that if he would invent something to attach to your glasses so that you could call them to locate them as you do your cell phone they could make a fortune.  This person did not follow through, as far as I know, so if any of you readers are inventors, look into this and see if you can come up with an idea and maybe you will be the one to make the fortune.

Seeking and finding is a major theme in the Bible.  There is a lot of lost and found amid the pages of Holy Writ.  The Prodigal Son is one character who is the role model for the lost child.  He leaves home on his own volition and gets lost in a far country and then he is found once again when he returns home.  Moses is a lost and found guy in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He committed a murder and then ran away from Egypt and got lost in the desert only to be found by a voice coming from a burning bush and to be redirected back to Egypt once again, this time with a mission in mind.

Sometimes people are lost and do not even know it.  Some elderly people who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's Disease get into their automobile and begin driving and end up far from home, without even knowing that they are lost.  I wonder if they think they are on a grand adventure somewhere or if it is really scary to them to be driving around with no destination in mind.  It is only when they are discovered by a citizen or the police that their being lost becomes apparent.

In this Holy Season, we meet up with Wise Men from the East who are seeking the Christ Child.  They did not know that it was the Christ Child; they only knew that the stars directed them to seek someone who would be great.  When the star stopped over the place where the manger lay, the Wise Men began to rejoice with exceedingly great joy because their quest had ended.  They had found, at last, the object of their search even though they did not know for sure who they were seeking.  They had brought along gifts to present to the great one they encountered so they knelt down and gave the Holy Family their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  That is why we think there were three Wise Men--because they had three gifts. There could have been any number of them but they had three gifts to give.

Jesus himself becomes the lost one in one of the other stories from his childhood when he is left in the Temple when he was about 12 years old.  After a couple of days there, his family discovers he is not with them as they made their way back to Nazareth from Jerusalem so they frantically search for him and find him right where they last saw him, in the Temple conversing with the religious leaders.

We are all on a quest in life.  Sometimes we do not even realize it.  We are seeking meaning in life and do not know where to find it.  Many of us find it in relationships but some find those relationships fragmented and broken after a while and then do not know where to turn.  Some of us try other sources of meaning and find them coming up short.  We often struggle and worry in our quest until finally the source of meaning becomes apparent to us and then we find satisfaction and a sense of peace.

Our Buddhist friends describe the quest as a matter of letting go.  The more we let go of earthly things that tie us down, the more we find peace.  In Christian circles, we often say the same thing.  We describe it as letting go of those things and placing our trust in God, in whom we find solace.  When we give up the need or desire for things that do not really matter, we find peace in the absence of the desire.

The holiday season may be good for the economy but the consumerism that drives it is not always good for individuals.  We can never buy enough products and give them away to enough people to bring us peace and satisfaction.  We can find joy in giving to others but may learn that it is not the gift that counts but the act of giving itself.  Being satisfied within oneself is the greatest gift we can acquire.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Peace on Earth....another wish for another Christmas

There is really nothing I want for Christmas.  This is the same as for the last two decades or so.  Somewhere about the time I reached the age of 40 suddenly I found out that I really did not want anything for Christmas or my birthday or for any special occasion unless someone just wants to give me whatever they desire for me to have.  I like receiving food products because I can eat them.  I like receiving cologne or after shave because it has a practical purpose.  I like music, and anything musical is okay too.  But, the idea that I really WANT any of those things is long gone.  What I really want, and none of you can supply, is peace on earth.

Yes, I know it sounds trite to request Peace on Earth for Christmas because not one of you can really give it to me or to the world.  That is the gift that is so fantastic and special and extraordinary that no member of humanity can supply it.  It doesn't stop me from wanting it though.  Every Christmas someone will ask me what I want for Christmas and I will usually reply, "Peace on earth, of course, but if you cannot give me that, whatever you want to give will be great."

There is a song that I first heard when I attended a conference of persons from across the world in Kansas City, Missouri back in the 90s.  It was a religious conference of church people and the music was church music, of course.  The song was a new one and was introduced at the conference to the delegates.  It was written by the modern song writer Shirley Erena Murray who has written many new songs that have been included in modern hymnals.  It is called "Star-Child" which is the name that describes Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.  I can hardly sing the song without getting a lump in my throat because it describes the great love of God in sending this gift to the earth and the ones for whom he came to earth.

"Star-Child, earth-Child, go between of God, love Child, Christ Child, heaven's lightning rod"--that's Jesus, alright.  Like a celestial visitor, he took up residence among earthlings and became the lightning rod that sparked all who witnessed his life and heard his words.

Then, Murray describes all he came to earth for..."Street child, beat child...hurt child, used child...Grown child...old child...sad child...lost child..."  Many of us have been one or more of that group of kids.  Even if we do not think of ourselves as children any longer, each of us have that inner child that remembers the past and tries to live with the present.  We are the ones who long for the love that only the Star-Child from heaven can provide.

"Hope-for-peace Child, God's stupendous sign, down-to-earth Child, Star of stars that shine"--that's Jesus again.  Jesus is the hope for peace.  Jesus is the sign of God's love for humanity.  Jesus is the brightness that illuminates the path we all must walk.  Jesus is the hope of the world for peace that only God can bring.

The refrain repeats the hope that it will come soon...."This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive!"

"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," we say in reply.  Let me work for peace in my corner of the world.  Let me pray daily that God's will be done on earth, even as it is done in heaven.  Let me reach out to those who are like all those children who feel used and sad and lost that their wounds will heal until they see the world differently than it has been in years past.

So, if you are wondering what to give me for Christmas, you know what I really want...but I doubt if Santa will have it in his bag for me on Christmas morning, at least this for this year.  Some Puppy Chow (the kind with the chocolate and powdered sugar not the kind you give to the dog) or a great bottle of virgin olive oil may substitute.  I will have to look upward with my request for the thing I want most and know that the one who can give that gift also wants humans on earth to have it, even more than we want it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Does Your Faith Have an Expiration Date?

Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, we wanted to have some good ole fashioned country food.  You know how it is--you eat all that good food on Thanksgiving Day, rich foods, sweet foods, and something inside you longs for simple food from your past.  So, I cooked up a pot of red beans, made healthy with vegetables and garlic but no fatty meat, and some brown rice to go with it.  Then, I decided to make some cornbread.  That would make it a real tasty country meal.  I like to jazz up the cornbread with the addition of some creamed corn, some mild jalapenos, and some cheddar cheese but this time we decided to leave out the cheese so it would be a little more cholesterol friendly.  I looked in the cabinet to find some canned creamed corn and none could be found so I thought I would run to the grocery store and buy a can while out doing a few errands.  I found the vegetable aisle in the store and located the creamed corn.  There were two choices--a national brand and the store brand that was a dime cheaper in price.  I picked up the less expensive store brand and as I was walking to the check out counter I decided to look at the expiration date.  I stopped in my tracks because the can I held in my hand had an expiration date that had run out two months before.  I returned to the veggie aisle and got the more expensive national brand and checked its date and it was good so paid for it and went home.  The cornbread turned out great and it was a wonderful down home country dinner with beans, rice, and cornbread.

Expiration dates are on products as a guide.  They help us rotate our stock so we will always have the freshest products on our shelves.  The product does not suddenly blow up or disappear just because we have let the expiration date pass on a product we own.  Many times we have used products with expired expiration dates and the food we ate has been safe and tasty.  That information serves as a guide for us so that we can use products in a timely manner.

We in the Church have made a commitment somewhere along the way to our church and to God.  If we have been baptized or become a member of a congregation, we stood before a fellowship of faith and made promises to God and those who witnessed our vows.  In some congregations the question is asked if the one joining the church will support it with their "prayers, presence, gifts, and service."  In other congregations, persons are asked to give of their "time, talent, and treasure."  In others the question is more vague but still very valid, "Will you be faithful to its congregation and support its ministries?"  All of these questions that receive an affirmative answer are asking for a promise to be made that the one being baptized or confirmed or joining a specific congregation will be faithful as members attend and support a congregation.

Those questions and answers seem so long ago to many, however.  If a person is about my age, 60 or so, and he/she was confirmed at 13, then 47 years ago those promises were made.  A lot has happened over that many years.  Do those promises ever expire?  Are they like that warranty you buy on a television or a piece or furniture that are valid for a specific length of time?  Perhaps we need to rephrase the questions so that we allow people to no longer be liable for the vow the made.  Perhaps something like, "Do you promise to give of your time, talent, and treasure to this congregation until you are 55 or die, whichever comes first?"

For some reason it seems that some forget all about the promises they made at an earlier point in life.  Their names remain on the church membership roster, and they would become angry if someone dared to remove it, but they rarely attend worship or support the ministries of the church financially, or serve in any way to contribute to the life of the congregation.  Why do some become what we call "inactive members"--members in name only, a name on a roster, but never really involved in the Christian community that they seemed to treasure at the time in life when they made the decision to become a part of it?  That question is as ongoing as the other hard questions of life.

Maybe it is just human nature to become part of an organization and then forget why we joined in the first place.  Many of us have experience that when we joined a gym as a New Year's resolution.  We were determined to "get in shape" in January but as February led to March we found our way to the gym less and less and then finally decided to give up on that idea.  We often have the best of intentions but lack the will power to carry through with our goals.

The Church is a volunteer organization.  It is largely led by volunteers.  Sure, most congregations have a pastor who is paid something to be there, and maybe even a church secretary or custodian but outside of those positions, unless it is a very large church, most roles in the organization are filled by volunteers.  Church members serve on the church committees, give of their funds to keep the lights on and the a/c working, and help others in one way or another through their efforts.  When the volunteers begin to stay home and stop their support, then the church either has to recruit new volunteers or energize those who have fallen into neglectful patterns.  If neither can be done, then soon the church will cease to exist.

I have been the pastor of my church for almost ten years.  In that length of time, we have said goodbye to many devoted faithful members, people who were present in worship almost every Sunday and who gave of their resources to support the church.  Those people were part of the backbone that made the church successful over its century long history.  Now, we need others to step up and take over where those who are gone have left off.  We need faithful members who will be present most Sundays and who will give of their time, talents, and treasure cheerfully because they believe it speaks of their love of God and neighbor.  We have many who are active and involved but we need others to join them.

How do we encourage faithfulness?  How do we create new habits to replace the ones that hinder some from being involved?  How long does a faith commitment last?  Does it ever expire?  Or is it meant to be an eternal commitment because it was made to an eternal God?  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

New World Coming!!!!

"When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, Then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars, This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius..."  (The 5th Dimension, 1969).

The Age of Aquarius is here.  Some believe it began in the year 2000 as we left behind the Age of Pisces, the two dimensional struggle between individualism and group pressure to conform and be something that organized groups and their leaders tried to pressure others into doing.  Some believe that we are only on the cusp of that new age or world to come, that it will emerge as time continues to move along but will not be complete until 2062 or even as late as 2680.  I doubt if I will be alive to welcome its coming if it takes until either of those two dates.

The Age of Aquarius, both the song and the belief in a world of peace and harmony, sees a vision of what could be if humans could only learn to live together without conflict, war, and strife.  "Harmony and understanding, sympathy and truth abounding, No more falsehoods or derisions, Golden living dreams of visions, Mystic crystal revelation, and the mind's true liberation."  Aquarius....a new world, a new way of living!

It sounds much like the vision that the prophet Isaiah saw in chapter 2 of his words.  A new world would emerge in which all nations would stream to the holy city of Jerusalem to encounter wisdom from God's throne and God would teach the nations how to live peacefully.  People would willingly beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, agricultural tools necessary to grow crops.  The vision gives the encouragement---"come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!"

Light---necessary to guide our footsteps in times of darkness, to prevent us from hurting ourselves due to tripping and falling over obstacles in our way that we cannot see...the light is there to guide our way but we cannot always perceive its existence.  Walking in the light means that we see it and understand what to do in order to be safe.

The last few days have been gloomy days of overcast and cold and rain, something we are not accustomed to experiencing in sunny, hot Texas.  Winter seems to have arrived early as the days have been wet and cold and dark.  It has been getting dark very early and the long evenings seem to go on forever.  We long for the light, for the sun to shine again, even though we have plenty of sunlight in our long, hot summers.  We complain about the heat but when it gets cold, what we consider cold at least, we want that to go away too.  Keep us in the pleasant moderate temperatures with plenty of sun but not too much.  We want things just right.

That is the desire of all humanity.  We want things to be just right all the time.  That desire is called longing for utopia, for paradise, for all to be right in the world.  That is what the prophet Isaiah describes also.  He sees a time to come when all humanity will learn how to live and will enact that learning into common practice.  War will be a thing of the past because people will know how to live and act and will love each other instead of killing each other.  It is a dream, a vision, but one that we can continue to believe in because God is the source of all hope.  We believe in things that we cannot see, including a God that is invisible.  We believe not because we can see what we believe it but because we have faith in hope---hope that sustains us in the dark, gloomy days of winter and in the dark days of hatred and inhumanity.

"I believe in the sun even when it is not shining, I believe in God even when he is silent, I believe in love even when it is not evident."  So goes a saying written on a wall of a prison cell by an anonymous author.  Truth to live by and reflect upon.  There is a new world coming....wait for it...hope for it...believe in it, even if you never experience it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Brave New World

I am a child of the 60s and still sing and hum music from that era.  I really liked the music of Simon and Garfunkel when I was a kid and then enjoyed Paul Simon when he struck out on his own.  Some of you may remember a song that Paul Simon sung, perhaps in the 70s called Kodachrome.  For those too young to know what the reference in the title of the song is about, long ago in a galaxy far away, there were little boxes that one would hold in one's hand to capture a visual image.  Those were called cameras.  No, you could not talk on them or use them to find a restaurant or to find directions if you were lost.  They were simply boxes that could capture an image on a piece of film.  Film?  Oh, that was a brownish looking strip that one would put inside the box and attach to a spool and as one captures visual images (we called the "pictures") the spool would advance some of the film and the visual image of something that the box was pointed at would be captured on the film.  Long ago, perhaps back in the 20th century, the film only came in black and white (yes, that is true, howbeit funny) but someone finally devised a way in which color pictures also could be captures on film.  Somewhere in the 1970s, an ever higher quality color picture could be achieved on film by comes the song title...."Kodachrome" film, made by the Kodak company, thus the name.

Whew, all that just to introduce some lyrics from a song.  Well, I still sing Kodachrome when I am in the kitchen cooking or when I am doing chores or any other time it pops in my head.  The first verse has little to do with taking pictures but it does have to do with life today.  "When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all, but though my lack of education hasn't hurt me none, I can read the writing on the wall."  Obviously, Paul Simon's lack of education may have hurt him some as the line contains at least one double negative, but I digress.  The verse to me is a prophetic call from the 70s that is made plain in life today because there seems to be a lot of things that people either are asked to learn at some time in life or are taught that people today consider to be (pardon my French) "crap".  Values, social mores, orders of life in the world that made sense in the 60s suddenly began to slip from favor with the general population as the 70s rolled into the 80s and the 20th century soon became the 21st century.

Today, life is nothing like it was in the era when Paul Simon first sang the song.  Institutions that once were held in high esteem by the general public are questioned regularly.  People in general have claimed the freedom to think as they will and act as they will despite what authorities may have said in the past.  I work in and for an institution whose authority has been eroded to the place where one may question one's own worth or role in the institution.  Where pastors at one time had great authority over members of a church, what one says today in one's official role is taken with a grain of salt by most people.  There are topics of conversation and debate that I dare not address, either officially or either casually, except among people with whom I feel a great confidence that they think much as I do.  I am not free to give my opinion on such topics even if I can quote a scripture from Holy Writ that would back me up.  To do so, may mean losing support among people whose support is desired in the church setting.

What Paul Simon sings about is generally true.  All of us had to try to learn information when we were in high school that seemed totally useless to us.  For me, it was anything that involved math.  I was math challenged (most likely from that hit on the head with a bat that my brother gave me when I was a child, but who knows who to blame for such things?) and never could do mathematical computation beyond simple fractions.  When I got to algebra, I squeaked through with a C for which I gave much thanks for (luckily I had a coach for an algebra teacher who was much more interested in chatting with the cheerleaders in the class than teaching the subject matter) but when I got to geometry, all Hades broke loose.  Good ole Mrs. Dean, who had been at the school since it was built long ago, couldn't care less for cheerleaders or football players.  She was all business and geometry was her love.  She only said things once, we were told on the first day of her class, and she did not repeat herself.  So, math challenged me, spent a lot of time drawing cartoons on my test papers because I knew nothing about the subject matter.  I finished the class with a 37 (yes, that was my average, not just one grade on a test.)  The result of that episode in failure was that as an adult anything that has math in it immediately brings up some math anxiety in me and I really do not care about math or what it can do for society.  Luckily, I chose a profession that uses a lot of words rather than digits.

So, I understand how some things change over the decades and are influenced by past experiences.  The authority of the church is one of these things.  Once the Church spoke and people listened and tried to obey, regardless of what the Church or its leaders said.  Today, people question the authority of the Church on every subject and consider their point of view as valid as that of church leaders even if the leaders think that they have the Bible to back them up.  People may love to have a Bible to tote around or to pick up from the pew rack now and then but as a whole society really does not care what the Bible says about anything.  It is all up to individual interpretation (we thank the Reformation for that insight) so even if church dogma or doctrine is based upon the Holy book, many regard it as second in authority to their own ideas.  In the same way that I consider algebra and geometry to be remnants of the medieval age, most modern people consider Church doctrine to be relics of the ancient world.

Who can blame society in general for having lack of faith in the Church or its leaders?  After all, some churches oppress others based upon Bible passages.  Other churches teach that hatred toward others is okay and they too use the Bible as their defense.  Some churches put their pastors on trial and announce to the world that they are bad based upon their church rules which they say they base upon Bible passages.  Some churches go all the way back to the ancient church and its leaders to defend their view on social issues that did not even exist in the ancient world.  It is any wonder that many people feel they have no need for the Church and would rather spend Sundays reading the paper, grilling something good to eat, or watching sports on television.

Whatever happened to the simplicity of the Gospel based upon the Golden Rule that Jesus and most faith traditions teach?  Love God and unto others as you would have them do unto you....treat others the way you would like to be treated.  It is not a hard thing to understand.  It is as brilliant as a Kodachrome day...."give us the nice bright colors...the greens of summer, makes you think all the world is a sunny day..."  God's Love for all humankind is easy to understand, it is just implementing it in daily life that is a challenge.  Perhaps that is why the Church exists and is show that love in daily life in practical living to ALL persons.  Then, maybe when people understand that is what the Church is about, they will want to willingly be part of it.  I hope it is in my lifetime.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Responsibility or Irresponsibility?

My wife and I were recently waiting in an airport for a flight to take us home.  We always arrive earlier than we need to and have time to sit and read and watch the people go by while we are waiting.  While we were sitting there,  halfway reading and occasionally looking around, we both began to watch a young woman who was walking a dog around the airport.  The reason we became fixed on this particular person was that the dog she was walking resembled our granddog, Kiwi, that belongs to our daughter.  It was a dog that seemed to look like a Lhasa Apso which is Kiwi's breed.  Long and lank, rather furry, with a tail that arched over its back, walking briskly, its little legs trying to keep up with its owner's long strides, we both felt sorry for it.  It had its tongue out as if it were thirsty and the young woman who was holding the leash was more interested in looking at her cell phone than she was in paying attention to her little dog.  She would pause here and there to consider whatever was going on inside her phone while her dog looked up at her longingly for approval or attention.

Every once in a while, the young woman would pass the trash containers and recycling bins that were set up around the airport and immediately the dog would press its nose to the ground and begin sniffing as if it was trying to locate something.  Then, while the young woman was either oblivious to the actions of her dog or ignoring it totally, the dog would lift its leg and urinate on the side of the trashcan.  This was repeated again and again, up and down the concourse, with the dog relieving itself on the trashcans here and there and the young woman transfixed on her cell phone.  The little dog had to go a lot and once an official for one of the airlines stopped her and told her of an alternative place for her dog to go to the bathroom and the woman's response was simply a smile and a wave, which I interpreted as a gesture of nonchalance or non-caring on her part.  She began her pacing up and down the concourse after her interaction with the official, the dog stopping now and then to lift its leg and do its business.

My wife and I discussed the scene we were observing and felt sorry for the dog.  Her owner was clearly distracted and not in touch with the needs of her dog or her fellow passengers.  Who wants to sit near those trashcans (and there were seats fixed not far from many of them) and smell the urine of an animal that had soaked into the carpet?  Who wants to have to clean up after the little animal as those working in the terminal that day had to do?  Why did this young woman become hypnotized on a piece of technology to the place that she could not understand her responsibility to those around her and to the dog who was supposed to care for?

My wife's sense of justice always emerges when she sees an animal or child being neglected or mistreated.  She wanted to march over to the young woman and point out the error of her ways.  I was much more secretive with my intentions--I just wanted to turn her in to the authorities in the airport telling them about the dog soiling the carpet here and there.  I figured they would make her confine her dog in a safe place and make her pay something in restitution to the airport.  Neither of us did anything, however.  We just talked and looked and shook our heads with displeasure.

My wife did encounter the young woman in the ladies room, though, bending down to pet the dog and tell the owner how cute it was.  She said the owner smiled and said that the dog drinks too much water and she did not want to give it any more right them because it was urinating too much.  The dog's long red tongue was out much of the time they were walking indicating to my wife that the poor little thing was thirsty.

We soon boarded our plane and left the problem behind us, only to reflect upon the situation more and to ponder why some do not see their lack of responsibility to others as they live their daily lives.  This was not the only example of irresponsibility we observed while on our recent trip.  There were others that involved pets and children but again they were observed momentarily and then once out of sight were quickly forgotten.

What responsibility does one have as a private citizen when one observes others being irresponsible?  Perhaps that is the great quandary we all have to ask ourselves.  When does it become necessary for us to interfere or intercede on behalf of another who may be helpless to fend for themselves?  A dog or cat or other animal or a young child is at the mercy of a human being who owns or has in their care this helpless one.  If the human is mistreating or neglecting such a being, do other humans who observe this have a duty to step in to do something to relieve the situation?  Is it necessary to be upfront about our interference with the offender or is something of a more secretive approach just as good?  Those of us who wish to avoid conflict are more ready to use the stealthy method while many would just as soon march right up and make their opinions known, despite perhaps unpleasant circumstances that could emerge.

There is not a simple or easy solution to such problems.  One has to handle them with care.  When caring for those who cannot care for themselves, however, perhaps it is love or mercy that guides our actions.  Divine intervention may indeed be needed when dealing with others who may not easily see or admit the error of their ways, especially when a stranger points it out to them.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Taking Care of Business

If you have never been a substitute teacher, then you don't know what you have been missing in life.  I was a school teacher for 16 years and had a few times that I substituted when I was in transition between jobs.  Either I had changed from one school to another and the timing of the change was not exact resulting in my being a sub for a while or there was some other reason. I did not sub many times but did it enough to know that it is a very challenging role to play.  Substitute teachers are faced with being the new person in a class of people who all know each other.  You do not know the names of any of the students (and often they organize and try to trick you into calling them something besides their real names) and you only have a set of written instructions to follow that are supposed to be keyed to a textbook or a pile of papers that the teacher left on his/her desk.

When I had finished my student teaching in college, I substituted in the same school for a few days where I had done my student teaching.  This was near the end of the school year so the students were weary of the routine and a bit restless.  The teacher had left instructions for the students to copy words and definitions out of the dictionaries in the room for a writing lesson.  When I saw the instructions, I thought, "How much more boring could an assignment be."  I actually hated to tell the students what they had to do for the assignment.  I felt sorry for them to have to do that mindless task (we called it "busy work" in the teaching profession) but I gave them the assignment and watched them at work, copying one by one the words and definitions from the dictionaries in the room.  As I recall, they stayed busy or asleep throughout the class period and I was also one who had trouble staying awake.  

Substitute teachers are people who try to fulfill the role of the regular teacher for a short period of time while the regular teacher is ill or gone to a workshop.  They cannot be that regular teacher because they do not have the status or authority of the regular teacher.  They can only try to use their talents and wits and intelligence to get the students in their care to fulfill the tasks to which they are assigned.  They are "stand-ins" for the one in charge and try their best to make it all work out.

Humans are like that substitute teacher when it comes to be good stewards of the earth.  The earth does not belong to humans.  It has only been loaned to them for the time period they are on the earth.  They are charged with caring for it and keeping it healthy and alive, keeping it clean, and making the best use of the resources that are provided on it.  Humans answer to the one who is in charge, the God who created it and endowed it with its resources.  Being a good steward of the earth means that humans attempt to care for it as they think that God would care for it.  Perhaps they may ask themselves the question, "What would God do in order to make the earth a wonderful place on which to live?"

Stewardship is often misinterpreted as being solely about money and giving money to organizations, such as churches (since many of them have annual Stewardship Campaigns that result in financial pledges to support the church).  Giving money to an organization is only one aspect of stewardship.  Being a responsible steward means that we use whatever we may possess (time, talent, treasure) in order to make the world a better place.  We in the church use our church as the organization through which we try to accomplish our goal of making the world a better place.  The end goal, though, is that once we have given all we can give, then we can see that what we have done has made a difference.

Being a good steward begins as we look at our lives as caretakers of the earth and of the resources of the earth with which we are blessed.  When we see ourselves as caretakers instead of owners of what we have, then we will begin to have a change in the way we look at things and we will give thanks for being allowed to have this short life on earth in which we may attempt to make things better than when we first began our journey of life.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Will It Ever Change?

Many weeks as I prepare for the coming Sunday, I am struck by how relevant and modern the readings from the Bible are for that week.   Even texts written three to four thousand years ago have meaning in today's world.  Take, for instance, the reading from Habakkuk for this coming Sunday.  (That is the little book in the Hebrew Scriptures tucked away between Nahum and Zephaniah.  Go to the end of the testament and back up 5 books to find it, or do as I do and look in the index.)  Habakkuk is a minor prophet, meaning his book is very short, not that his is less important than other writings.   Habakkuk was concerned about violence in his land in his day.  He cried out to God and asked questions such as, "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?" (Hab. 1:2)  The prophet was concerned about violence around him, strife and contention, the wicked taking advantage of the righteous.

He positions himself so that he can observe his surroundings and puts himself on guard.  He says he will stay there until he gets an answer from God.  And so he does....

"There is a vision for the appointed time," God replies, "it speaks of the end, and does not lie, if it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay."  (Hab. 2:3)  In other words, God will bring about an end to violence but the timing of God's answer is not something that any of us can predict.  We may be surrounded by violence and trouble and chaos, but our trust in God can be sure.  God will bring about an answer in God's time.

Our town of Weimar has been in the big city news this week.  The news trucks from two Houston stations were in town yesterday.  I passed them as I drove toward the neighboring town and wondered why they would be here.  Then I learned today they were featuring a story about one of our high school students who has been charged with murder.  Supposedly, he was involved in an incident over the weekend in another town that ended in the death of another young person.  He now sits in jail awaiting the outcome of this ordeal.  People today are asking why this promising, athletic young man would be involved in such a crime.  Answers are in short supply.  Only questions can be asked with little hope of finding an answer.

I watched the news story from the Houston station on my computer this morning.  The station allows viewers to post comments on their website after viewing stories.  I was appalled by the many people who left racist remarks in regard to the story.  They were not concerned about gun violence or why a high school student would have a gun at a social event.  They could only cast blame at him because he is an African-American.  They said many disparaging and racist comments, one after the other, until finally someone interjected a remark to bring some civility to the list of comments.  Is this what American society has become at this point in time--more concerned about the race of a person charged with a crime rather than with the crime itself and why the crime had to happen in the first place?

I could have added a comment to the list and brought up the issue of gun control but I would have been shot down in my tracks (no pun intended) by others who think it is okay to say mean spirited things about someone based on their race but think that the guns they value so much are much more important than the life of an individual.  Why have we become a nation that worships guns but does not value human life?  This is the question that the prophet Habakkuk was asking?  When will violence ever end?  The answer to that question is one known only to God....but the righteous will live by faith, the reading concludes, and will not give up, even when they cannot see attitudes change.  God is the only source of hope in troubled times.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Casual Commitment

Society in general today in America seems to be caught in a trap that allows its members to be connected to persons and institutions in a very loose manner with little or no commitment to others.  Perhaps it has always been this way but I doubt it.  To me, an observer of society who sees people in many different settings, it seems that many people do not want to commit themselves fully to any cause or institution or person.  They want to be involved at their level of comfort but when it comes to the giving of their time or effort, they rarely want to be imposed upon.

This casual commitment that some have seems to be the ruling factor in their lives.  They will be involved as long as it does not put them out or cause them extraordinary effort.  Pastors see it in the life of the church all the time.  Persons join a church and make a vow in front of God and all those present on that day that they will "support the ministries of the church with their time, talent, and treasure" or that they promise to "participate fully" with their "prayers, presence, gifts, and service."  That pledge is made cheerfully as they shake the pastor's hand and are greeted by others as they exit the church.  Having made the pledge, they are told of service opportunities in the local church for which their talents could be used.  After that interaction, what the future may hold for the new member is anyone's guess.

Some persons become very involved in the life of the church and are present for most services and functions of the local church.  Some go beyond the service to the local church and also serve in jurisdictional or national settings.  Those persons feel a commitment or calling to service that compels them to be active and present as they fulfill their promise to "participate fully."  Others are less involved but are present for most services and attend many other church functions.

Some persons, however, join the church and then seem to forget the promise they made to give their time, talents, and treasure to the institution they made a commitment to.  They are seldom present, rarely do they attend a social function, and they do not even fulfill the duties for which they promised to serve.  Their names may be printed on the bulletin for the week but they will just as well be absent as present in doing the duty they agreed to fulfill.  Their connection and commitment to the organization is weak and at times nonexistent.
This is not only true in the life of the church but it is seen in other civic organizations and even in relationships.  Persons make commitments and say promises and perhaps their intentions are honest when they say the words but time and life give them opportunities to forget and soon they blow away like the grass after it has been cut.

Jesus' famous parable of the seeds illustrates this very well.  A sower went out to sow seeds.  The seeds landed in various places.  The seed that found good soil grew well and brought about a harvest of grain.  Other seeds fell in rocky places, among the thorns, and were eaten by birds.  All of those seeds did nothing to bring about good results.  People are like those seeds.  Some get planted deep in the soil of the life of our institutions and in their relationships and they grow and bring about good results.  Others are very shallow in their commitments and fall away and do little for others.  The seed has promise and can bring about much growth but where it is planted and how it is fertilized makes the difference.  Perhaps once a seed has been planted, all the others in the soil should surround them with opportunities for growth and they will spring to life rather than fade away into nothing.

Monday, October 14, 2013


The more life changes, the more it stays the same.  I have heard that one.  The only thing constant in life is change.  I have heard that one too.  Both truisms are true even if they may seem to be in conflict with one another.  The older I get, the more convinced I become that as life goes on changes will have to happen because of life's circumstances.  We pass from one decade to the next and our bodies change, of course.  The persons we were when we were in our 20s are not who we are when we are in our 60s.  We look much different than we once did and we may even think a lot different than we did in the past.  Life has molded us into the people we have become and often for the better.

I am much the same person I was when I was a teenager, only more handsome and less fat than in those days, thank God and proper diet and exercise (that takes care of the fat part but the handsome part is up to you....I think I do look a lot better than I did when I was in high school...egad, how weird is that?).  I entered an occupation and a marriage in the same summer and at the age of 21 and now almost 40 years later I reflect upon those decades and all the changes I have seen in life, specially my life.  Two children, now grown and living independently (very independently), one wife that has been the same one for almost 4 decades, two professions later....and I am mostly very happy with the way life is for me.

When we first started out in life together, my wife and I were both school teachers and lived in Humble, Texas, just north of Houston, and Humble was a small country town that Houston had not reached yet.  We lived in a little one bedroom apartment and were very active in the church that was just down the street from us.  We had many friends there and socialized with them often.  Today, I never hear from any of those friends.  We even traveled with some of them, to the Rocky Mountains on a few occasions.  We caught fish together and shared mountain cabins and I thought we would be friends forever.  Then we moved north, away from Houston, closer to Dallas.  Those friends faded like the light at the close of day as the night sets in.  I have not heard anything from any of them in at least two decades now.  Life changes and so do we.

I am not the man I was when I was 21.  I was not that guy when I was 41.  Today, as I approach 61 (in two months) I do not resemble him physically, emotionally, spiritually, politically, or in just about any other way.  I am so different now than I was when I first started out in adulthood that I most likely could not be good friends with those persons I considered to be close friends then.  They and I no longer share the values that I thought we did in the early 70s.  Some of them cling to the ideas they had long ago and I know I could never convince them to see the world any differently.  They are who they have been for decades and I am not the same guy they knew.

I became convinced of this fact a couple years ago when I decided to attend the burial of the pastor of the church I attended when I was in college.  He was a wonderful man and he and his family accepted me as part of the gang and I shared many hours with them that nurtured me and helped me through some most difficult times.  I have kept in touch with his children through the years and when I heard that he had passed away and would be buried in Brenham, I decided to go to the burial.  The funeral had been held in Fort Worth so this was supposed to be simply the graveside burial service.  It was a very hot summer day when this was held and a tent had been erected in the cemetery.  People were sweltering under the tent and there were few places to sit so I stood in the back of the crowd and sweated and wanted it to be over so I could visit with my friends from long ago.  As the brother-in-law preacher began his long apocalyptic discourse filled with messages that I would preferred not to have heard, it dawned on me that I did not belong.  No longer did I belong in this crowd of people shouting "Amen" as the preacher droned on.  No longer did I belong with people whose world view was so different from mine.  No longer did I belong with people who considered all who do not believe or practice what they teach as "sinners" because I now fit that category if they were to be totally honest.  I was the black sheep who had happened in to mix with all the white sheep who inhabited the flock of the righteous and holy.

I had intended to stay around to visit and have food after the burial but something inside me told me it was time to make my exit, and I left without telling anyone that I was leaving.  It was as if a panic set it that told me it was "fight or flight" time and fleeing was better than fighting in this instance.  As I drove away, it was as if a curtain pulled in my mind to separate me from the past that this group represented.  At one time, I had been part of their particular religious dogma.  I now find it oppressive and dictatorial and could never return to it or them.  

Passages....we all travel through this life and we find traveling companions along the way.  Some of them we keep for life....if we are lucky.  Some of them come and go as we move and travel and change.  Some of them drop out of our lives for good along the way and we think about them now and then and let go of the memory because it does us little good to long for something that is no longer possible to have.  We change as life does and our lives continue to be be impressed by others even as we impress them by the kinds of lives we live.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Strangers Are Friends You Have Not Met Yet

Seventeen new friends came to our church hall last night.  They had flown all the way from Germany to visit Texas (and Louisiana too but we claim them now).  They are part of a group that is visiting Texas to compare our agricultural system to theirs.  They are touring farms and ranches, looking at animals and crops being grown, and driving over the miles of roads that separate these facilities and lands.

Last night we had a welcoming dinner at our church hall to welcome them to our town.  Our men grilled chicken and beef and everyone else brought dishes to go with the meat.  It always works out well when we have these potluck dinners.  There always seems to be just the right number of vegetables and salads and desserts.  I have never seen it happen that everyone brings a dessert and no one brings other things needed.  It seems that people just sense what is needed to go with the main course.  I prepared German Potato Salad, hoping that one of the German people would compliment me on it and tell me that it tasted just like their Oma made but they ate it along with the rest of the food and smiled and talked and seemed happy.  My wife made a Texas Sheet Cake and it also was eaten along with happy chatter.

Welcoming strangers and extending hospitality to others has a long history in the Biblical record.  Abraham and Sarah did it for three strangers who happened to stop by their tent on their sojourn across the desert.  The disciples did it for a stranger that turned out to be the Risen Christ who revealed himself in the breaking of bread as they prepared to eat.  Something mystical happens when people eat together.  A bond forms that unites their spirits even as they break bread and drink wine and share stories.  Strangers become friends right before the eyes of everyone present.

Doris and I last visited Germany in 2009.  I was on sabbatical for a month and we stayed around Germany most of that time looking here and there and learning a lot about the country of my wife's ancestors which is also the country of the ancestors of many of my church members.  One day we took a train ride from Freiburg where we were staying to a smaller town that is about 10 miles north of there.  I had made contact with a pastor of a German Lutheran Church in that city before leaving home and he said we should stop in to see him when we were in the area so we did.  I sent him an email and told him the day we would be there and he sent back a note telling us how to recognize him when we got off the train.  Sure enough, when we descended the steps of the train, there was Hans standing there wearing a UCC comma pin on his lapel, just as he said he would be doing.

Hans took us to his church in his small vehicle and we met his co-pastor Wolfgang and had coffee and cookies.  Then, he drove us to the school where he teaches a class as part of his pastoral duties (remember there is no separation of church and state in Germany so pastors can teach in schools as well as do other things) and we met some of his students who quizzed us about being Americans.  Then, we had lunch at a very nice restaurant and they refused to let us pay for our meals.  Then, Hans led us up a bell tower for a great view around the area so we could see the vineyard that his in-laws own as well as the rest of the area.  Finally, Hans drove us around town to see the area and stopped at his house where his wife had prepared a cake and coffee and we met his three sons and enjoyed their incredible hospitality.  Hans had to leave for a church meeting so his wife drove us to the train station so we could catch our train back to Freiburg to where we were staying.

We invited Hans and his family to come see us in Texas someday and they said that would be wonderful but it was doubtful that they could.  Plane fares for a family of five is very expensive and traveling as we had was not something they could presently afford.  So, we are not able to repay their extravagant hospitality that they had shown to us.  But.....we can repay them by showing that same hospitality to others who come in our presence.  Some may be visitors such as our German friends whom we cooked for and tried to made them feel welcome in our town.  Some may be people we bump into during our daily routine and we take the time to do something for them even though we thought we were too busy to be interrupted.  Some may be folks who say they are down on their luck and they need our assistance and we give it even though we wonder if we are being rooked.  Hospitality is given where it is needed and at times when it may not be convenient for us to give it.  Who knows if our German friend Hans set aside a day to show us his extreme hospitality or if he purposely rearranged his day and put other things on hold just so he could be with us instead?  I will never know but he and his family and co-worker made a great impression on me and my wife on that day.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."  (Hebrews 13:2)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Hand Me Downs

My mother is one of the most frugal people in the world.  You and I may call her "cheap", and she is, but she looks at it as being frugal and taking care of what she has so that she will have it longer and it will carry her through the days ahead.  She is constantly aware that there may not be anything in the future so you have to use what you have for the greatest good and spend as little as you can on daily life needs.  My mom has always looked for bargains and usually will not buy something unless it is on sale.  She loves to shop at garage sales and will try to bargain with an owner of an item that is already nearly marked down to nothing.

When I was growing up, my mother would buy groceries at the supermarket by looking at what was on sale.  Every item she prepared had to be on sale and what was on sale determined what we had for dinner usually.  She also bought "day old bread" at the bread surplus store and shopped the "bent can buggy" at the supermarket to buy dented cans and those without labels (for mystery dinner...we never knew what may be opened so we never knew what would be on the table on those days.)

My mother clothed all of us kids with clothes she found at garage sales and sales at stores too.  I remember one year that I needed a new coat for the winter.  She looked at the sale ads in the paper and we found  store that had coats on sale and we went to look at them.  Only after finding a coat that she thought was marked down enough, was I allowed to get a new coat.  Luckily, growing up on the Texas Gulf Coast, a coat was not required on too many days so I could coast along without a coat until the right one could be found.

I had an older brother too and received many of his shirts and coats as "hand me downs" to wear now and then if they weren't in too bad condition.  I usually had to have "husky" pants and he did not so I rarely got his pants to wear but did get many shirts and a coat or two.  Having an older sibling is usually a good thing for many kids because they have a selection of clothes to choose from once the other sibling decides the item is not good enough for them.

A man named Timothy received hand me downs from his mother and grandmother.  No, he was not a cross-dresser, this Timothy is the one whose name is on two books of the New Testament and those books are actually letters that St. Paul wrote to him.  In the second letter to Timothy, Paul reminds him of the faith he received from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  That faith, Paul said, lived in Timothy too and Paul urged him to "rekindle" the gift of God he had received or inherited in his faith journey.

Receiving gifts from our family members can be a good thing, especially if what we receive has great value.  The faith traditions we have received from our family of origin can be valued or forsaken.  Sometimes those traditions have spoken to us through the past years and still enrich and enable us in our way of life.  Sometimes we are not even aware of the effect they have on us until suddenly we are reminded by a song, a verse, an aroma, or something else in our world that speaks to us.  We have received those things from our past and now they are part of who we are.

My mother is still with me (she and I are all that remain of my family of origin) and she still shops the garage sales and looks for the ads with coupons in them.  I inherited the frugal trait from her too, I have to admit.  I always look for a sale and hate to pay full price for anything.  Maybe that is not so bad.  It helps what you have to go farther.  Perhaps there are lessons in life that we have inherited from others that help our lives to be ordered in a way that is helpful to us, even if we hate to admit it.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

Snapshots of Life

Another PBS mini-series has captured my attention.  This time it is called "Last Tango in Halifax."  No, it is not Canadian, it is from the UK.  I have watched three episodes of the program and find it interesting and funny and a bit weird, all traits that make for good watching and thought provoking entertainment.  The program is about an older man and woman who loved each other 50 years before but married other people.   They had children by the others and now are widow and widower.  They each live with their grown married children and grandchildren, one in a town and the other out in the country in Yorkshire.  They meet again thanks to Facebook and trade many messages and finally decide to meet in person.  After their initial meeting, they discover that they are still in love and decide to get married.  Their grown children balk at the idea at first but soon realize that they are serious so gradually accept the idea.  Both grown daughters are involved in dysfunctional relationships of their own, one with a husband who is having a fling and the other with a much younger man than she is.  Grandchildren are involved in the mix and gradually the viewer learns there are many family dynamics at work in the social setting.

Last night the older couple decided they would drive into the city (Halifax I assume) in their new Lexus convertible they decided to buy together rather than get an engagement ring to visit the vicar in the local church because they thought they wanted a church wedding.  They sat in the choir area talking quietly about their lives and religion and politics.  Their views on many issues were very opposite but they decided they could live together and not agree on everything.  They discussed church music and she liked the traditional kind and he said he was open to what she called the "happy clappy" music.  The church wedding was far more important to her than him.  He said he was not sure he believed in God any longer.  She said she would come down the aisle to the song, "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba" and he remarked that would be very appropriate.  They had a good laugh; they discussed politics and disagreed on most of it.  They they went in to see the vicar.

The vicar (a woman, much to their distress) asked when they had last been in church and the older man said, "Christmas.....about 1977".  The woman said that was about the last time for her too.  Then, the vicar looked at them both and asked, "Why do you want to be married in the church and have the blessings of God on your marriage when you have not been attending church?"  The viewers did not hear their reply because the next scene showed them in their Lexus driving away after calling the vicar a name with the word "bloody" attached to it.

My reaction to this portion of the program was mixed.  I have asked that question of persons who came to me wanting a wedding in the church but tried to discuss it with the couple until we could find common ground and have the wedding they wanted in the church.  I found the vicar to be a bit judgmental and cold, the caretaker of the church, but not as interested in caring for the souls of those who came to her for assistance.  Of course, since England does not have separation of church and state as we do in the US, then going to an Anglican Church to have a wedding is just as much a civil matter as it is a religious one.  Persons who are citizens of the UK pay taxes to support the church and deserve services from the church for the taxes they pay.  Weddings and funerals are part of the package, along with baptisms---all part of what it means to be Anglican or British.

Against this snapshot of an older couple who has renewed their love and want to begin again are the awful vignettes of their grown children's lives falling apart around them.  Each is striving for something they cannot have and doing things they have regretted.  Their own children suffer because of their wrong direction in life.  With each episode, we are drawn in a bit closer and closer into their daily lives and struggles and we wonder if and when they will ever get their acts together.  The older couple seems to have found renewal in the new life they are planning together while their grown children's lives are gradually coming loose at the seams.

It has been said that life is like a stream that takes all of us along with it in its course.  We move with it and in it and our struggles bring grief and pain into our lives.  It is only when we yield to a power higher than ourselves that we begin to give up the struggle and go with the flow.

What does it mean to be truly happy?  How do we achieve happiness in our lives?  Perhaps it is in finding something beyond ourselves that we locate the meaning of life.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

Good ole Jonathan Edwards, Puritan preacher from back in the 1700s, one of the most influential persons of the Great Awakening in American religious history---preached his most famous sermon that had the title of today's blog entry.  Historians say that as he preached, people would moan and cry out, asking how they could be saved.  His sermon, and it was a long can read the entire text in Wikipedia if you desire...depicted God as being angry at sinners, and especially wicked sinners, and having great desire to cast sinners into Hell for all eternity.  Edwards preached with great fervor and his listeners could just see themselves being dangled over the flames of Hell as God contemplated dropping them at any moment.  He concluded by urging people to "get right with God" (as more modern theologians of a conservative bent have been willing to say.)

I felt the flames of hell surrounding me when I was a mere lad of eight or so.  My mother decided that our family needed to attend a very conservative fundamentalist church in the area where we lived, a church of pentecostal-charismatic fervor with plenty of Gospel music and action.  The church suited my mom's personality so we were dragged to this church and subjected to their style of religion for all of my formative years, until I could drive and take myself elsewhere, and that happened when I reached college age.  Anyway, back to hell fire and damnation---so, one Sunday evening the church we attended decided to put on a play.  Now, this was not a Christmas play with angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill to men, no this was a scare the living bejabbers play that depicted the doom of humankind.  It started out fairly harmless....a mom and her kids are dressed to go to church...she asks her husband to go with her but he does not want to go; he would rather stay home and watch television (a exceedingly terrible sin in the 1960s in ultraconservative circles--our pastor's name for television was "the hell box"---I still call it that today to be funny now and then when nothing good is on it to watch.)  So, the mom and kids go off to church and the dad stays home to watch tv and read the paper.  So far, so good....but suddenly Jesus returns to take all the righteous people to heaven and the dad does not go because he did not go to church.  Instead, the devil (or an actor in a devil suit, but I was an 8 year old, how did I know that?) comes to the house of the dad and picks him up and throws him literally into the hell they prepared behind the altar rail with one of those Christmas spinning lights we had in the 1960s that would shine on aluminum Christmas trees. It was covered with red cellophane paper to make it more red than other colors.  The dad being thrown into hell yelled out in pain and cried for mercy but no one would come to his aide, all because he chose to stay home and watch tv rather than go to church.  How wicked he was!

So, I remember as the play ended and the pastor pleaded for people to come forward to be saved that I had to go.  Everyone thought I was going forward because I loved Jesus and wanted him to save me from my sings.  The fact was that I was scared out of my socks and traumatized for years by that experience.  I was like the Puritan audience who had to sit through Jonathan Edwards' long sermon, hearing him talk about how God would find great delight in dropping each of them into the fires of hell because of their great sin.  I remember being so scared when I went home that I pulled the covers over my head and prayed repeatedly for God to spare me from the fires of hell.

To this day, if I see a church advertising such an event (and there are churches who have them--a popular name is "Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames" in case you see it on a sign), I cringe and want to charge the church with abusive tactics.  Mostly, this form of evangelism is popular in the deep South and in very conservative and literal congregations.

I wrestled with the terms "sinner" and "wicked" for many years.  I figured I was pretty wicked because I always wanted to do all the things that our church told us we should not do.  We were taught not to drink, smoke, curse, dance, watch television, go to movies, go to plays, go bowling, play board games that included dice, play cards,  or associate with sinners.  So, as a teenager there was little that I could do that was not forbidden by someone.  By the time I was 16 and wanted to do all the things that I could not do, I was convinced that I was about as wicked as they came and gave up trying.  I sneaked out with my friends and went to movies, lying to my parents about what I had gone.  I danced at school dances until I got caught.  I said bad words (at least bad for our day).  I played cards and games with dice when I stayed over at the homes of friends and my cousins.  I did not drink or smoke though because I figured I would have been thrown out of the house if I got caught doing that and had no where else to go.  So, I became a wicked teenager, at least in my mind.

Having been away from that church now for many decades, my view of the terms "sinner" and "wicked" has changed.  Being a sinner does not have to do with not doing things that a church or pastor forbids.  It has more to do with not desiring a better way of life when one knows one exists.  A wicked person is far worse then simply one being a "sinner" if one is one.  To be truly wicked implies a total disregard for whatever is good or right or noble in life.  There are wicked people in the human family and we may ever hear about them on the news now and then.  Most of us would not fit in that category though.  We know the way to live a good life and we aim at it but we just miss the mark now and then.  When we do, we are sorry and try to start over.  That is not being wicked....that is being human.    

Our world and society is much different from Puritan society of the 1700s.  It is ever much different from society of the 1960s.  In today's world, individuals decide what is right and appropriate for their lives and the Church and organized religion have little authority in the lives of most people.  Some people grant the church some authority in their lives in certain instances but most people, especially in America, want to decide for themselves how to live and what to believe and they are not nearly as liable to have someone scare the hell out of them...or into them as I was at 8 years old.

"Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked; or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night."  (Psalm 1:1-2)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Standing in the Gap

"And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land..." (Ezekiel 22:30)

When I was young, I remember sitting in the church listening to the preacher and he would be railing against sin and sinners, often becoming very animated and excited.  His face would get red and he would be sweating to the point that he would have to wipe his brow and face with a handy towel he kept nearby.  This man perspired a lot so after he finished his gospel workout pacing down the aisles and shouting, he would be so wet you dared not give him a hug lest you be inflicted with his sweat.  He loved to quote from the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  There is a lot of ammunition in those books that can be aimed at modern persons even as they were at the ancient folk for whom they were intended.

One obscure verse that he pulled out now and then was the one quoted above, except he always quoted it from the King James Version because that was the only one he used and he believed it was the one that God intended for us to use.  He railed regularly against the modern versions that those seminaries (except he called them "cemeteries" and said they were full of dead people) and their sort tried to put out to quench out the word of God that is contained in the KJV.  So, when he quoted the Ezekiel verse above, I remember him saying, "Who will stand in the gap and make up the hedge?" as a way of trying to get people more involved in the local church.

I may not agree with his theatrics and his sweaty was of preaching but I do agree with his sentiments from Ezekiel that God needs people to be there to help out in many ways....i.e. "to stand in the gap and make up the hedge."  Ezekiel was using the metaphor of the wall of protection around the ancient cities and if there was a breach in the wall, people were often needed to stand in that broken place and watch for approaching enemies while repair crews got ready to fix the wall.  Often, all that stood between safety and disaster was a good strong wall and it often made all the difference in the lives of ancient people.

We just said goodbye to one more of our older people yesterday, a wonderful man of 88 years who was one of the foundations of our church.  He and several others in their 80s and 90s have gone on to be with God this year and we will miss them terribly.  They were among the most devoted and faithful members of our congregation.  They were almost always present on Sundays and were ready to serve in any way on committees and work groups to get goals accomplished.

So, I began to wonder, as Ezekiel of old did, who will stand in the gap and make up the hedge for our church now that many of those who were so active and supportive of the local church are gone?  Who will step up and take their places so that the mission and ministry of the local church can continue?  It is hard in this modern age to get church members to even attend church on a consistently regular basis much less serve on committees or work groups to accomplish the goals of the church.  Who will carry on in the place of those who have gone on so that we can continue the work that God has called us to do?

There are people in every generation who answer the call to service so we need not fear that it will not get done but we need to continuously pray for God to call and for humans to answer so that God's Will may be done on earth even as it is done in heaven.

The old man Mordecai looked into the face of his niece Esther and said those challenging words, "Who knows if God is not calling you for just such a purpose as this?"  That question goes out to every generation of those in the church.  God is calling you to service.  There is plenty of work to be done.  Willing workers are needed to continue the work until the next generation picks up the mantle and carries it on.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Chariots of Fire!

Chariots of Fire--The movie, not the Bible story about Elijah...but they each have a lesson to teach.  One is about a prophet who is caught up to heaven in a chariot of fire---Elijah, the prophet who worked miracles, who argued and struggled with kings and queens, who fought against false prophets and won, and then when his work on earth was done he rode in that fiery chariot into the great beyond.  He was last seen on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus and Moses but he is expected at every Passover Seder each year to sit in an empty chair provided just for him.  Once he appears...then the Messiah will come!

The other one, the one who is not a movie, made back in 1981, a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Song that year...."Chariots of Fire".  It was about the life of Eric Liddell, a real person from Scotland who was an athlete and Christian missionary.  He participated in the 1924 Olympics in Paris but refused to participate when a race was held on Sunday because of his Christian faith.  He went on to win the gold medal for the 400 meter race and the bronze medal for the 200 meter race.  After that, he returned to his native country and prepared to go to China as a missionary.  He served in China until he was captured by the Japanese after they invaded China during WWII and was interned in a prison camp until his death in 1945.  His inspiring story was the foundation for the movie.

The hymn, "Jesus Shall Reign" by Isaac Watts was considered to be a missionary hymn in Eric Liddell's day.  The story is that as Liddell left the UK to go to China, that he received a huge send-off by many who supported him in many ways.  As they gathered to hear him speak one more time before he left, he led them in singing this hymn.  The hymn talks about how knowledge of Jesus Christ will spread throughout the world so that all would come to know him.  Eric Liddell gave his life in Christian service for the rest of his life, until finally he gave up his life as a prisoner in a foreign land.

Such stories serve to inspire us to greater things in our own lives.  Join us this Sunday, August 25, 2013 at Weimar United Church of Christ, as we sing the hymn and hear the story of Eric Liddell and perhaps catch a glimpse of a chariot of fire for our own lives that will carry us to do greater things for God and neighbor for the future.  This is the last Sunday of August and it is still cool in our sanctuary, despite the summer heat!  See you there!  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Automatic Elevation to Sainthood

There is a story told long ago about a man who died in a certain town.  The man had been a real rounder (a polite word for someone who did just about everything that one should avoid).  He had not taken care of his children, had mistreated his wife, avoided the church at all costs, offended pretty much everyone he could.  When he died, the wife called her minister to ask him to officiate at the funeral.  The minister obliged and, as it often happens at funerals, began to describe what a loving and caring person this man had been.  About halfway through the eulogy, the grieving widow bent over and whispered into the ear of her son sitting beside her, "Johnny, go look up there and be sure that is your daddy he is talking about."

Sometimes it is a puzzle for ministers to know how to approach funeral services for persons they do not know and especially those who have chosen over the years to not be involved in religious activities.  Many have lived very good lives, even without having the church or religion as part of their lives.  Others, even some who have been members of churches, have not tried to follow the teachings of what it means to be a Christian but have had their names on the rolls of churches.  So, what do we think about what happens when a person dies?  Does dying automatically elevate someone to sainthood?  Are we obliged to use flowerly language to describe a person simply because they are no longer living among us or is it acceptable to admit that flawed persons lived among us and now they have gone on to whatever faces them for the future?

Honesty comes with its cost, at times.  Funeral services are not the appropriate place to air out the dirty laundry concerning the deceased, even if they lived a life that all present know was "sketchy" or "hypocritical."  The purpose of a funeral service is to bring comfort to those remaining.  Sometimes we have to simply talk about the promise of resurrection and how God cares for those who are grieving and desires to bring comfort to their lives.  The Church has to be the place of solace and love for all who are in need even when the occasion is a challenging one.  Private conversations in solitude are the occasions to discuss the deceased honestly, keeping the sharing quiet and non-intrusive upon others.

Many times we do not fully know others with whom we associate.  Their lives may be an open book to us, it would seem, but behind the scenes they may treat others differently than what we experience from them.  There has been an example in the news recently of a television personality whose private conversations were made known in which she discussed things that were offensive to others because they smacked of racism.  Few, if any, knew that she had these attitudes and, unfortunately, now she will be remembered for this episode in life rather than for others for which she may be long remembered for doing good deeds.

This person was unlucky to be caught by the modern media and to be exposed for her inner thoughts but how many of us have thoughts or deeds in our lives that would shock others if they knew about them?  We all live fragmented and broken lives.  It is God's forgiveness and that of those whom we may have harmed that bring us into a right relationship in this world.

Each year on the first Sunday in November we celebrate "All Saints Sunday" when we remember those from our church who died during the past year.  We call them "Saints" not because they lived perfect lives but because they lived and did battle with the forces of evil all their days and now are no longer with us.  All Saints Sunday recognizes the lives of ordinary people who often did extraordinary things but it also recognizes all who lived and died and walked among us through our years.  It is the roll we call yearly as we account for who remains and who is gone.  It is not calling them perfect people, just forgiven people.

So, every so often, we may know of someone who passed from among us whom we wonder how they will slip into the Pearly Gates or if they will indeed....that one is left in God's grace and we allow God the space to decide what their eternal destiny will be.  Truly, that is what each of us do with our own lives because we are kept in God's care and God is the ultimate judge of our lives.  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Fruit Inspectors?

A person I know very well uses a term to cover her tendency to judge others (no, it is not my wife).  When it is pointed out to her that she may be a bit judgmental in talking about others, she always says, "I am not judging.  I am being a fruit inspector.  The Bible says you will know them by their fruits."  To which I usually respond, "Regardless of what you call it, you are still judging."

Jesus had a good reason for saying the famous quote, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."  The verse does not stop there but continues, "for with the judgment you make, you will be judged."  (Matt. 7:1)  Or as it is often said, "What goes around, comes around" or "Whatever you sow, you will reap" or if you are of the Buddhist tradition, "That's karma, for you."

When we examine the faults, failings, or sins of others and pronounce them to be bad or sinful, we overlook all of our own failings.  All of us miss the mark in our lives.  Most of us know what to do--we just don't do it.  That is the reason why a very familiar prayer of confession includes the words, "we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done."  (Book of Common Prayer)  The plea that follows the prayer is one for mercy from God, admitting that our lives could be better.  How sad, then, that we as human beings cast a disparaging eye toward others whom we consider to be sinful based upon some societal norm or some line of thinking that someone may have taught us.

A source that is very extrabiblical, the score from the musical, South Pacific contains the lyrics from the song, "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" in which a character sings about why it is that people hate one another.  The song contains a lot of truth-
You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

The story in South Pacific, you may recall, is about a sailor who falls in love with a woman from the island where the sailors are serving.  He is warned by some that if he marries her, they will not be accepted by others back home.  He sings the song to reflect upon the nature of hatred and why it is that some hate others just because of the way they are.  The song was not immediately accepted when the musical played on Broadway in 1949 when it debuted.  It hit a bit too close to home in an era when black military persons could serve alongside white ones but when they got home they found segregation as the rule of the day.

Today, we struggle with acceptance of others based on many criteria.  Some of the characteristics are those that our parents passed down to us and told us that such persons were unacceptable.  When we really take the time to know a person of a certain kind (you can fill in the blank with the characteristic that makes you uncomfortable), we may be surprised to learn that others share much more in common with us than have things to separate us.

Have you ever met someone and really got to know them that you have always dreading being around?  Have you ever had a friend who was different from you in skin color or religion or ethnic background or any other characteristic you can name?  If you did or do, you can remember how much you had in common.  If you have never exposed yourself to others who are much different from yourself, then perhaps it is time to step out of your safety zone and test the waters and see what may happen.  You may be surprised at how much it enriches your life.

Many of you know that I love to travel.  I would love to go just about anywhere in the world.  When I travel, though, I rarely stay in hotels.  Instead, we stay in bed and breakfasts or in spare rooms that people have and take in travelers in exchange for a small fee (there is a website that offers these arrangements).  We have never had a bad experience but instead have made friends across the US and the world.  Why put yourself out there where you are vulnerable?  As it said on a poster in my office when I was a school counselor--"Go out on a limb.  That is where the fruit is."  Delicious, ripe, juicy fruit of friendship and love...ready for any fruit inspector to have a look at.  Taste and see that it is good.