Monday, January 28, 2013

Walking Forward Into the Light

"Some live by 'love thy neighbor as thyself'.  Others by do not harm, or take no more than you need.  What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national.  Love that casts a widening pool of light.  Love with no need to preempt grievance.  In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.  On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp--praise song for walking forward in that light."  Those words are the concluding ones from a poem read by Elizabeth Alexander at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009.  She read the poem she had written especially for the event. She read it with over two million people listening to it on the Mall facing the Capitol building and with millions more listening and watching via television across the world.

It was a message of hope on a day of hope.  It was written to inspire people to walk in the light that they felt was shining on them because of a hopeful attitude that had begun with the election that had previously been finished.  Ms. Alexander connected hope with love because love is the source of hope.  "Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love."  So says, Saint Paul to the church at Corinth.

What power does love have to bring about change?  Can love overcome selfishness?  Can it cause someone to change one's mind about an issue because they feel love for another?  Can love conquer fear and doubt that has been cast over one's mind because of the state of the world around us?  Can love make someone lay down a weapon and speak on behalf of peace?

Love can do all these things, according to the words of Saint Paul in I Corinthians 13.  He proclaims that there is no greater force than love.  Love can do more than we can ever imagine or think because if one truly loves others then one would never want to do anything to harm them or insult them or make them feel badly about themselves.

"Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but it rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends..." (I Cor. 13: 4-8a)

Love casts a widening pool of light, according to Ms. Alexander in her inaugural poem.  I think that Saint Paul would agree with her.  As we love others, the love we show and share causes others to also want to share love.  The love expands even as light illuminates all around it.  Love is a force that can cause people to voluntarily change or to forget their own selfish ideas in favor of those of another.

We need that force in society today.  We need it to change the minds of those who insist that their way is the only way and they will not budge even if it is for the good of millions of others.  We know that feeling, that stalemate, because we see it displayed by our elected officials in Washington.  Selfish ambition and greed has made many of our elected representatives draw a line of exclusion against reason and peace.  We need for love to take the place of the negatives that stop peace and civility from ruling in our land.  We need for light to shine so that they can see that only by loving our neighbors can we accomplish what is truly a just and peaceful existence for all people.

Walk in the light of love and let your light so shine that others will see your good works and give God praise for what you do.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How Martin Luther King, Jr. Taught Me the Truth

I grew up in the 1950s-60s most of which was lived before the passage of the Civil Rights Act that stopped segregation of the races.  I grew up in a town in the South that was all white.  Our little town had no persons of color living there ever and at one time had a very active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.  I am not proud of that distinction at all but it is part of the history of the town and I have to accept it because it was so.  Luckily, my family of origin did not promote racism.  In fact, my parents taught their children that all people were worthy of respect both by their words and their actions.  So, even thought I did not know any black people personally throughout my childhood, I always viewed others with an accepting feeling because I wanted everyone to get along and to live peacefully.

When I was very young, my mother would take us shopping with her when she went to the larger town nearby.  We would go to a shopping center where there was a department store named Newberrys.  My mother would shop there and we would tag along and explore.  On one shopping excursion, I was a drinking fountain with a sign over it that said, "Colored Water Fountain."  My young very literal imaginative mind pictured a fountain that would give out various colors of water....maybe blue, pink, orange...anyway, I asked my mother if I could go get a drink of water from that fountain and she pulled me back quickly and told me, "No!"  I said I was thirsty and she said she would find the fountain that I could drink from.  I said I wanted to drink from that fountain because I wanted to see all the colored water.  My mother must have looked strangely at me for saying this and she said in a very matter of fact way, "That water is not for you, it is for colored people.  The water is not colored, the people who drink it are."

Oh, so that was the meaning of the sign.  I did not even think it had to do with people being different colors.  I just wanted to try some water that was a different color than clear.  I guess I had always wondered if black people were just like white people or if they were different in different ways.  When we passed through neighborhoods where black people lived and I saw their dogs and cats, I always wondered if the animals were different because black people owned them.  Since I had no exposure to people of color, I had no one to ask the questions that I had in my childish mind.

Integration took the place of segregation in the mid-1960s and while other cities dealt with it and wrestled with how to accomplish school integration with busing and other plans, our little town did not think about it at all.  We were still an all white community and black people rarely stopped in our town, although we were right along an interstate highway.  I had been told that there once was a threatening sign along the old highway that existed before the interstate warning non-whites to keep driving but that sign had disappeared by the time our family had moved there in 1957.  The only thing I knew was that black people were afraid to come to our town even though we were just 8 miles from the larger town with a large black population.  Fear stood in the way of learning about other races.  The races did not mix because there were people who feared it and would prevent it from happening.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was shown on television many times during my early teenage life.  When he came on, my parents never called him bad names but just referred to him as a "trouble-maker."  I think they, along with many other white people of the era in the South, preferred for things to remain as they were, the status quo where whites lived separately from blacks and we were all happy about it, at least the whites were.  When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, I and my friends from school really did not know what it meant to us or anyone else.  We had seen the race riots on television and the way that white people treated black people in Birmingham and Selma and Atlanta and other places in the Deep South.  We were so far removed from that part of life that it seems almost fictional to us.  We did not dream that his death would move people into action even more than his life did.

I graduated from my all white high school in 1970 and began attending the college in the larger town nearby. I was officially a "commuter student", going to school in the day and working at part time jobs in the afternoon and evenings.  I shared classes with black students and worked with black persons in my jobs, the first time I ever had any experiences of actually talking with black people as other human beings.  To my surprise, I found out that they were much like me in many ways.  They talked about their families and their goals for the future and current events.  They talked about school assignments and projects and wondered how they would ever finish all that they had to do.  They talked about being tired and sleepy and going out on dates.  Turned out, they were more like me than I had ever imagined.

When I was about to graduate from college and also was about to get married, my fiance and I invited a very dear black friend to attend our wedding.  She was in many of our college classes and we thought of her as a good friend.  I guess I did not think she would actually attend but the day of the wedding came and as I looked back at my bride coming down the aisle there was our black friend sitting in one of the pews of the church toward the back.  She had a huge grin on her face and congratulated us heartily when the wedding had ended.  She did not stay for the reception that followed, though, I think and I don't recall ever seeing her again.  She had stepped out to show her friendship for us by being the only black person sitting in a white church at our wedding.

Now, almost 40 years later, our country has inaugurated our President for his second term on the day we have set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The dream that Dr. King had that one day we would have an America where black and white children could play together freely has been accomplished in many ways.  The idea that one day a person could become President of our nation and be non-white in race has happened.  Most people in our land are happy with the situation or at least recognize that our political system has worked in a peaceful way and brought this about.  There is a small segment of our country that continues to be racist and against anything that would open the door to change.  We will most likely always have that group in society.

I was talking to a friend today who said that he thinks most people do not see race when they see another person, that they just see the other for who he/she is with the characteristics they have.  I agree with him for the most part.  I have evolved into a person who tries to live in that way, coming from a small town with a heavy racist history but not latching on to that kind of thinking thanks to persons who taught me to love others regardless of their race.  I think that if we want to accomplish that as a goal of society, however, we have to continue to break down the barriers of hatred and prejudice and spread the message of love so that all will be accepted despite differences that may divide us.  I have to give some of the credit for this understanding to Dr. King.  I may not have ever met him and may not have been influenced by him or his message as others have been, but his work toward bringing about equality and justice for all in a land that proclaims itself as a land of freedom for all has broken down barriers that divided us for much too long.

I still wish there was a water fountain that sprayed out water that was colored the colors of the rainbow and that all persons could drink freely of it.  It would be the water of love and peace and joy that God intends for all persons to share.  It would not be marked for any one group to enjoy but it would flow like an everflowing stream as the justice and righteousness that Dr. King imagined would come one day for all.  That fountain would be one that would unite all persons to drink from it and would quench the thirst of all who long to see the world that Dr. King longed to see.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Turning Water into Wine...a daily task

What do you do when the wine runs out?  Well, most of us go to the grocery store, the liquor store, or the giant liquor superstore in our nearest major city so that we can choose more to satisfy our cravings for the Cabernet, Merlot, or Chardonnay we may prefer.  The wine industry in the USA has grown by leaps and bounds in the time period following Prohibition and today there are wine producers in just about every state.

When we were in Washington state two years ago celebrating Christmas with our grown children and their significant others, we had dinner at a really great little restaurant in a very small town over on the Olympic Peninsula.  It had a quaint name and our son-in-law found it on Yelp and said it had great ratings so we gave it a try.  We were celebrating our daughter and son-in-law's anniversary so the management seated us at a nice table near the fireplace.  We took our pictures by the fireplace to remember the occasion and settled in at our table and ordered.  I ordered a glass of a Cabernet Sauvignon to go with my meal.  Maybe it was the great food that went with it or the atmosphere but when I began to drink that wine, it tasted like the best wine I had ever tasted.  I could actually notice the fruity nuances that wine experts sometimes describe in wines.  I slowly enjoyed it and then smelled the empty glass again and again, breathing it in and giving a satisfied sigh each time.  I wife looked at me and groaned by my behavior.

When the server brought our check, I asked her where this wonderful wine came from.  She told me that it came from a small winery only about 20 miles from the restaurant.  I was amazed.  Here we were in Washington state in a small restaurant in a small town and I had tasted wine from a winery only 20 miles away and it was probably the best wine I had ever tasted.  I wanted to bring home a barrel of it.  When I returned home I looked up the winery on the internet and found out that it is just a small winery that produces a limited number of cases of wine each year.  The prices were a bit higher than what I normally pay but I was tempted to order some to be shipped to our house.  I decided against the idea but cherish that experience as a memorable one.

In John's Gospel, we share the story this week about Jesus' first miracle....turning water into wine.  A Middle Eastern wedding, the biggest life event and celebration in the lives of most people in their day.  It would have gone on for days with the family of the couple providing all the food and drink that people could consume during the feast.  Suddenly, there was a shortage of wine, which would have been a huge embarrassment for the families of the couple.  Mary informs Jesus of the need at hand and, at first, he says it is none of his business and waves her off.  But, for some reason, he changes his mind and Mary orders for a huge quantity of water to be brought to her son.  He just dips out some of the water and suddenly it is no longer water, but great quality wine.

We know it is great wine because the wine steward, who would have been hired to oversee the pouring of the wine comments that usually the best wine is served first and then the more inferior wine is served later when people are not really thinking their best and they don't really care about the quality of the wine BUT he says this time the best wine was saved for last.

Jesus not only turned water into wine but he turned it into superior wine, the best quality wine one could buy, maybe earning a 98 from Wine Spectator Magazine.  Everyone talked about how good the wine was.  They commented on its fruity qualities, and they smelled their wine glasses (or whatever they drank from) long after they consumed the wine.  It was just that good and they wanted to enjoy it as long as they could.

This story is about our lives as well as about Jesus' first miracle.  This story speaks to us about all the times in life when the wine has run out of our lives.  We all have had times when the wine, the joy, the excitement about life, has run out.  We feel diluted and run down and empty and we just want to give up.  Perhaps the system we have been part of has abused us or persons within the system have betrayed us.  Maybe the entire run of our lives has been so unfulfilled that we want to give up entirely on life.

The story is about how Jesus cared so much about the people who would have been greatly embarrassed and humiliated by the faux pas of wine ending before it should have that he decided it was his time after all to begin his public ministry.  He turned water into wine to preserve the feelings and life and social standing of persons within their community.  The wine he served was the best there could be because it needed to be superior to the drudgery of ordinary existence.

We all have felt empty and in need of spiritual wine that we could savor and enjoy.  We have all felt like we needed to be energized in spirit so that we can live another day.  The wine that is reserved for us in those times is the joy that can be brought back to life by the Spirit of God.  God's Spirit brings new life as we experience what God can do for us.  If you need some wine in your life, all you have to do is ask.  Jesus is still serving the best wine there is.  He will be glad to share it with you if you ask him to become involved in your life.

"They have no wine."  Mary said.
"What business is that to us?"  Jesus said.
"Bring him all the water you can find."  Mary said.

Water into wine.  Joy into weary lives.  Celebration instead of defeat.
It happened long ago.
It still happens today.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Precious, Honored, and Loved

Have you ever been away from home for an extended period of time?  Maybe it was when you went away to college or when you went to help a relative or friend who was ill or when you traveled for a period of time.  What did it feel like when you finally went home, to familiar surroundings?  Usually it feels very good to get home after a vacation or business trip.  It may feel like you are returning to an old friend whom you have not seen in years.

The prophet Isaiah writes to the people called Israel in chapter 43 about how God feels about the people of Israel.  He writes that God will gather them from the four corners of the earth and bring them back home, out of exile.  They will return to the place where they belong and nothing will stop them.  Whether it is flood or fire, God will be with them and bring them back because they are precious in God's sight, they are honored by God, and because God loves them.  The passage is one of the only places in scripture where God says the words, "I love you" to human beings.  It is implied in many places in the Bible but it is plainly said in this passage---I love you.

Feeling precious, honored, and loved by others is not an everyday experience to many people.  Many people feel unloved, unworthy, dishonorable.  Society and the people within it have made people to feel that they are less than they are by the way people are treated by others.  Organizations and governmental entities have caused people to feel dishonored by the massive amount of red tape and the nonsensical rules that they have established.  It is very easy for persons to feel less than they are because of bureaucratic regulations and dead-end organizational requirements.

I heard a story recently about a person who had to find a governmental agency in a foreign country so as to make a financial transaction that was necessary in order to travel in that country.  This person went to office to office without finding the correct place, directed by persons who spoke little of their language to one place after another.  This person had almost given up hope of finding the correct place when suddenly it was discovered by sheer luck.   Many of us have had similar experiences over the years and have felt that life was a hassle and we were ready to just give up.  Usually, someone or something comes to our rescue and brings us that ray of hope that we had been seeking.  Perhaps that something is grace to remind us that God is always present with us, especially when we are in despair.

This Sunday we celebrate the baptism of Christ, where Jesus hears the voice from heaven say, "This is my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased."  It resonates with the same kind of words that we find in the Isaiah passage..."You are precious, honored, loved."  God announces to the world that God's Son, fresh from the waters of baptism, is loved and honored for who he is.  Jesus, the boy who was in the Temple at 12 talking to the religious authorities, is not the 30 year old man, ready to begin the ministry that awaits him among many who care nothing for what he had to say.  Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph (they thought), was going to proclaim the "Kingdom of God" among people who needed to hear a word of good news.  Little did he know that the road ahead would be long and hard and sometimes he would be less than appreciated for what he had to say.

Perhaps Jesus needed to be reminded that he was loved by God at that moment when he would be driven into the wilderness for testing and then launched into a ministry that would be under-appreciated.  Hearing words of affirmation from his Heavenly Father would be something that Jesus could remember all his life to lift him up in his dismal days (and he did have some of those, I am sure).

We all need to hear words of affirmation that remind us that we are loved by others, that we are honored for who we are, that we are precious in the sight of many.  We all need to tell others those words too.  Many times people walk around on the earth, weary from the weight of the world, needing to hear from someone that they matter.  We are often too negligent to tell others that they matter to us.  Too often it is only after someone has died that we say really nice things about them.  Perhaps we need to resolve in this new year to spread words of love and affirmation among others in our world so that they will know that we honor them and love them and find them valuable to us.

God loves all of humankind and thrusts us into action to make that same type of declaration about one another.  If you do love another person, let them know it.  If you value someone for what they mean to you, express it in words.  If you honor someone else as someone important to you, let that be known to them.  The positive words you say today may be the light that brings hope to someone who feels hopeless and may bring cheer to a life that is longing for relief.    

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Beginnings

January....a new beginning...a new year....a time to start put the past behind us and move on in life. I love having the opportunity to start over.  It implies that if something was not exactly as we wanted it in the past, then we have another chance, another opportunity, to do it again and to do it right this time.  We have all failed at something and have wished we could just erase what we had done and start again.  The end of one year and the beginning of another offers us exactly that chance to begin again.

The last two New Years Eves before this one we were in the Seattle area with our daughter and son-in-law. The first year we watched fireworks from the roof of the apartment building in which they lived in downtown Seattle.  We stood on the roof with many others and watched the streams of color burst over the city's trademark, the Seattle Space Needle, shivering in the cold and excited to see the blaze of color and light in the sky but also ready to head inside and have something hot to warm us up.  That was a great New Years Eve and one that will go down in our memories as very special.

Last year we were back in the Seattle area again, this time our daughter and son-in-law had moved to an eastern suburb, Bellevue.  There were no fireworks that year, only enjoying the evening with them while they fixed chicken wings and food to go with it.  We popped the champagne at midnight and hugged and kissed and said, "Happy New Year!" and then I went off to bed while the other three stayed up later talking and laughing.

This year we were at home.  Our daughter and son-in-law had come to visit before Christmas and we had dinner with friends over at our house, each pair providing some of the meal.  It was a nice quiet evening of food, music, and conversation.  Then, the party broke up around 10 pm and the new year came to some who stayed up to see it and others went on to bed, sure that the new year would arrive without any help.

New Years Day was quiet, pensive, a gray, rainy day that welcomed a lazy attitude.   A late breakfast, a late lunch, a walk around town, a visit from a friend, all made the day special.  The day seemed just right.  A good day to start a new year.

Today...back at work, things to do to get the new year going, but still feeling mellow from the holidays.  A New Year, a new beginning, a new attitude that life is good and the future is hopeful.