Tuesday, March 26, 2013

5. Taking Care of Mom and Dad

The 5th in a series on the Ten Commandments: "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you."  (Exodus 20:12)

So, how long do you have to look out for your parents when they become old?  When does your obligation end?  What does it mean to "honor" a parent?  It is just thinking fondly of them or does it require some action on your part?

I actually took a class in seminary one semester on the book of Exodus and when we got to this commandment, we discussed it at length.  The professor told us that to honor a parent was to care for them when they were old and could not care for themselves any longer.  He also said that this commandment not only applied to parents, but to all elderly persons.  The reasoning for this is that there was no social security system in their day.  There were no nursing homes.  There were no home health care organizations.  Caring for elderly persons became the responsibility of families.  Extended families were the rule, not the exception.

This is illustrated in the book of Ruth when Ruth cares for Naomi and treats her as her own mother, even though she was her mother-in-law.  When they returned to the land of Israel from the land of Moab, Ruth was a stranger there and Naomi actually belonged because of her ancestry, but the roles were reversed because of Naomi's age and Ruth became her caretaker.  When the happy ending of the story arrives and Ruth and Boaz marry, Naomi lives with them and becomes the caretaker for their children.  That story illustrates what the people of Israel considered the norm for caring for the elderly.  They were part of the extended family and were cared for by a family member or by the entire family unit who teamed together to provide what was needed.

Today it is rare to find an older person living with a family.  The situation is much more common that an older person wants to be independent as long as they can and live in his or her own home until they finally must have another arrangement and care facilities have sprung up to meet those needs.  So, does one's obligation to a parent end when the parent is institutionalized and lives with other elderly persons?  The commandment to honor a parent has no end to it.  It exists as long as the parent is living.

I am aware of situations in which children abandon their parents.  Some do it while they still are living by themselves and others do it when the elderly parent enters nursing care.  Some grown children forget about their parents and neglect them in many ways.  Some go so far as to stop communication with them, not even sending a card or Christmas gift, as it true in one case I know.  Others reject the pleas of their parent to provide transportation for health care, making them rely upon community members even though they are capable of providing such a basic need to their parent.  People who abandon their parents forget all the times in life when the parent provided the care they needed, in times of sickness and health, and become self-absorbed.  They forget that their own needs were met by the very one whom they now neglect and turn away from.

Jesus told a parable in Matthew 25 that applies to all persons in need when he commanded his followers to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the ill and those who are in prison.  Jesus said those who fulfilled that commandment to do this to "the least of these" would be welcomed into the kingdom that God had prepared for them.  The term "least of these" means even those in society that one would consider to be beneath them in some way.  Surely if one must do these things for the least in society, shouldn't one do that and more for one's own parents who now must rely upon them for health care and meeting their basic needs?

Caring for the elderly in a society marks it as a civilized society.  Perhaps persons who care for the elderly, their own parents, are civilized persons and those who abandon their parents in their hour of need are uncivilized.  Fulfilling this commandment seems to be a matter of decency and respect, something that we should offer to strangers and persons in prison, and even more so to our aged relatives.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Hound of Heaven

What metaphor have you used to describe God?  There are many that are very traditional--Heavenly Father is probably the most used and traditional of all the metaphors.  God is also called Mother in more than one place in the Scriptures.  God is called a Rock, a Fortress, a Hiding Place.  The action of God on behalf of humans has led some to call God--Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer which are synonyms for the members of the Trinity.

One non-biblical author penned a poem called, "The Hound of Heaven" in which he compared God to a bloodhound that will track you down when you go astray.  That metaphor is also valid because there are scriptural references that refer to God's omniscience and how humans cannot get away from God no matter how hard they try.  Psalm 139 refers to this when it says, "Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I feel from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there..." (Psalm 139:7-8)

I had this metaphor for God come alive to me yesterday as I went for my daily morning walk.  It was a beautiful sunny day with cooler temperatures, just perfect for walking around our town.  So, I set out walking with my headphones on listening to music and walking about feeling energized and when I was about halfway finished, I came upon a beautiful black Labrador dog, most likely a large puppy.  He was almost waist high to me and very energetic.  I broke my rule that I have concerning stray dogs and talked to him and he came over to me immediately.  He lay down on the ground and turned over on his back and I broke my other rule not to pet stray dogs and rubbed his tummy and told him he was a good boy.  I started out on my way walking again when I learned that I had a new friend.  This dog would not go away and would not leave me alone.  He jumped playfully around me, putting his paws on my chest now and then, and he ran ahead of me and then back to me over and over again, as if he was checking for danger in my path and then coming back to assure me that there was none.  He was a great dog and it was a shame that someone had let him out to run around because I feared for his safety as he ran out in front of automobiles a few times too.

As I turned the corner to head back to my house, I spotted another person walking, an elderly lady.  My new friend took off toward her and I went in the opposite direction and walked even faster, hoping that he would take up with this woman and I could go home peacefully without him.  No such luck!  After he visited with this new human, he returned to escort me home.  He walked with me all the way to my house and, as I went into my yard and closed the gate behind me, he stood at the gate and looked longingly at me, as if to ask me why I had not taken him to my house too.  I went inside because the two dogs who live in my house were waiting for me.  They would not take kindly to a new canine friend trying to horn in on the attention they get regularly from me.  I gave the black lab a minute to disappear and then let them out into the yard.

That black lab reminded me of God.  It did not matter how much I tried to get the dog to go on and leave me alone, he just kept on walking with me.  I told him to go home, I waved my hand in the direction away from me to give him a signal, I even tried to lose him here and there when he wandered off to explore yards along the way.  This dog would not give up.  He just kept on returning to keep walking with me even though I did not want him to go with me.

God is like that, according to the psalmist.  God keeps on hanging around us even when we try to lose him.  God follows us and sniffs out our scent until finally we cannot stay lost any longer.  God truly is like the Hound of Heaven that the poet describes.  God just keeps on searching for us again and again until finally we cannot turn him away any longer.  We may think we have outsmarted him, but he is there, around the corner just waiting to surprise us with his presence.

The holiest day of the Christian Year is getting close---Easter!  God's revealed his biggest surprise in history on that day about 2000 years ago.  Just when humans thought they had God's son boxed in, suddenly he was free!  That is the reason for celebration on Easter Sunday!  The Hound of Heaven is alive and looking for you, not just on Easter Sunday but every day that you live!  Thank God!

Monday, March 18, 2013

4. Remember the Sabbath Day; and keep it holy.

The Fourth in a series on the Ten Commandments.

Sabbath....ah, the meaning of the word is "rest".  Take time to rest.  That is all it means, pure and simple.  People get hung up on the word's true meaning in regard to when in the week it is to be observed.  Is it Saturday or Sunday?  What can you do on the Sabbath?  What is work and what is not when it comes to observing the Sabbath?

For centuries, biblical scholars have argued over the meaning of the Sabbath.  Some scholars have been literalists or purists-wanting to give their definition based upon what they interpreted from Scripture as the most precise answer to the questions about the Sabbath.  Jewish scholars for centuries have attempted to pinpoint what could or could not be done on their Sabbath, which is Saturday, and went so far as to forbid the switching on or off of light switches or the traveling more than a certain distance from home on that day.  The definition of "work" on the Sabbath was a complex thing that required rabbis to dissect the commandment so many times that it lay in pieces on the biblical cutting room floor and could hardly be put back together.  So, people who think there is a strict, literal interpretation of the Sabbath law want others to know that they MUST obey their interpretation or they are guilty of breaking this commandment.

Then, there are those of us who are not literalists, but we are more inclined to see the meaning of the commandment contained in the purpose of it...to give people rest.  The concept of "sabbath" literally means "rest" as in "After six days, God rested from his work (of creation)".  If God needed to rest after being busy for six days, then shouldn't humans also rest from their labors after six days.  So, after we have had a busy week, shouldn't we devote at least one day to resting and not doing much more than is necessary so that our bodies and minds can recover.

Different people rest in different ways.  Some people literally "take to the bed."  I sometimes like to do that, especially on a hot summer day.  When the weather is really hot in the summer, I like to go to bed in the middle of the day, closing all the curtains, and turning on the fan, pretending that it is night-time and taking a great nap on a Sunday afternoon.  I remove the phones from the bedroom and bar the door so that no animals can disturb my slumber.  I awake rested and relaxed and a bit mellow.  That often works for me to get much needed rest.

Other people have to escape their house and go somewhere so that no one can find them.  They may have their phones with them but they silence them or ignore them or turn them off.  They need to see different scenery for a short while.  They may simply need to take a drive in the country (harkening back to the "Sunday drive" of the 1950s or so) to see the wildflowers or trees.  They may need to find a lake or river to watch for a while and just rest their minds.  I have done that too.  I like drives in the country and I love lakes so driving to a lake to have a picnic is a great restful activity, unless the road is full of other drivers or the lake is full of swimmers, boaters, or cavorters who wreck the quiet of nature.

So, you see, the way you rest is up to you but the purpose of having a day of rest is to allow our bodies and minds to recover from life's daily grind.  We need a break from daily living and the Sabbath helps us to find it.

Now, is the Sabbath Saturday or Sunday.  Yes, it is.  It is either or both, whichever you choose.  Our Jewish friends and some Protestants who think they are a bit Jewish like to observe Saturday as the Sabbath.  Most Protestants and Catholics use Sunday as the Sabbath claiming the "Lord's Day" of the Early Church as their Sabbath.  I think that since there are two choices, then that proves that God is not that strict about which one you choose.  After all, if most of the world's population uses one of those two then God must be flexible on this one.

Is it okay to work on Sunday?  Sure, if your boss says you have to and you work in a business that is open on Sunday, they I guess you have to.  I work on Sunday regularly, and the other days too regardless of what some of my church members may say.  The Sabbath was made for humans, I believe Jesus said, so it is used as it is needed to be used.  Just don't get so tired on the Sabbath that you need to rest up the next day or you have defeated the purpose of it.

Can I go to church on the Sabbath?  Yes, and you should go to church on it if you are bodily able.  Worshiping God on the Sabbath is an act of giving back to God some of the energy and life that God has loaned you.  If God can give you 7 days of life, then surely you can give back 1 hour of your time and energy so that God can be praised.

So, that is the primer on the Sabbath.  God loves you and wants you rested.  Use the Sabbath to benefit you and others and take time to smell the roses and drive to the lake for a picnic.  I may see you there.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

3. Watch What You Say

The third in the series of the Ten Commandments--"You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name." (Exodus 20:7)

I really cringe when I hear someone use God's name in vain.  I do not like movies that have the word GD used in them.  Just hearing someone say "damn" is not like that to me.  I occasionally even say that word myself, but when someone adds God's name to that expletive, suddenly it takes on new meaning.  It makes me cringe, I suppose, because I was taught from the time that I was a child that saying that word was a major sin.  It elevated cursing into a category equal to one using the F word (which I really do not want to hear either).

I suppose it has something to do with the idea of there being a separation between things which are considered holy and things which are ordinary.  The Israelites' holiness code went to great lengths to define what was holy and what was not holy.  Things that were considered to be holy were set apart and were treated in a respectful manner because of their holy nature.  Holy things were protected and given special honor because they were considered to be holy.  The Israelites built the Ark of the Covenant to carry holy items in as they went on journeys here and there.  There was a list of specific things to be carried in the Ark of the Covenant which was itself so holy that no one could touch it.  It had to be carried by 4 men who held long poles that ran through the bottom of it.  There is a story in the Old Testament about a man who thought that the Ark was going to fall and he reached up to steady it and he fell dead.  That story emphasized that the Ark was so holy that humans were not supposed to ever touch it.

So, things could be holy such as the Ark of the Covenant and its contents.  Places could be holy also, such as where Moses stood when he encountered the Burning Bush and was told to take his shoes off because the place was "holy ground".  Joshua had a similar encounter but this time it was with an angel and he was given the same command.  Their shoes had to come off because the holiness of the place demanded that respect.

Setting apart God's name as holy is something that is still done in Jewish circles.  Many Jewish people will not speak God's name and will not write it.  They write G_d instead or use words such as Jehovah which was written using the same letters as in Yahweh but it was written by Germans for the German translations of the Bible so the Y became  J and vowels were added since there are none in Hebrew.  Judaism considers God's name to be as holy as an object one could hold and one is not to tread on the misuse of God's name in any way, setting it apart to be sacred.

I grew up in a family and church that also frowned on cursing and, of course, would never say GD or anything that may smack of it.  I was not allowed to say what they called "by-words" which were words that sounded similar to curse words.  I could not say "Gosh" because it sounds a lot like "God".  I could not say "Gee" because it sounds similar to "Jesus".  I could not say "Golly" because they said not to.  I could not say "durn" because it sounded a lot like "damn".  So, if I slipped and said one of those words, I was lectured or punished, depending on the mood of the one who heard me say it.  One day I slipped up and said, "Gosh" and was reprimanded, and I said, "My gosh, I didn't say "Gosh durn" just "gosh"."  I was severely punished for saying those words and for talking back.

I think the commandment forbids misuse of God's name because some things in life should be considered to be sacred, set apart, holy.  Some things should not be ordinary.  Some things should be valued or cherished. There are things in life that are special---days, such as birthdays and anniversaries and Sundays (that comes next in the line of commandments)--events, such as weddings, and baptisms, and funerals---places, such as the Grand Canyon and the Redwood Forest--buildings, such as churches and synagogues and historical ones.  Setting things aside as special gives them special significance in life.

So, not saying God's name as a curse word recognizes that God is to be cherished and valued and honored and worshiped, and using God's name in the wrong way devalues our idea of what makes God holy.  Our language does matter.  When we use unacceptable language it has an effect on the kind of people we are perceived to be by others.  We become less in the eyes of others because we have lowered ourselves to talk in such a way that some no longer respect us.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

2. You Shall Not Make an Idol

The second in a series on The Ten Commandments.....

Most of us would say, "I have no problem obeying the second commandment.  After all, I have never made, owned, or possessed an idol.  I do not have a statue of any kind that I worship or even look at."  That logic is literally true when it comes to what we modern people think that ancient people referred to as idols.  The Israelites were always getting in hot water with Yahweh because they were crafting things that looked very similar to objects that their neighbors used as idols.  Baal was a very popular one in their world.  He often looked like a bull but could take other forms as well.  So, when they looked longingly at the green lush fields of their neighbors, sometimes they began to wonder why the neighbor's fields received rain and their own did not.  They sometimes guessed it had to to with their lack of worship to the correct deity so they would either make or steal an idol and begin to worship it.

That is what is behind the second commandment.  In its purest and most literal meaning, it means that people should not offer worship to an idol that really belongs to Yahweh, God of Israel.  Thus, the reasonable thinking that if we modern people do not bow down before a stone object, then we are obeying this one.

But, you know we are not literal or concrete people.  We may be modern in the way we live but worshiping idols is not limited to giving homage to a stone figure.  Our idols are much more subjective and may or may not be concrete in nature or makeup.  Technically, the definition of an idol is anything that one looks upon as having high importance in life, and to the place that its importance outranks the importance that one gives to one's Higher Power.  (Don't look for that definition in Webster...it is in my own words.)  So, having an idol in one's life may mean having an expensive car or boat or villa.  Giving worship to an idol may mean spending much of one's time or resources on that idol....constantly washing and waxing that expensive car; taking that boat to the lake every time an opportunity comes to do so; flying to that villa and entertaining friends every spare second one could.  Most of us don't have expensive cars or boats or villas, so we may think we again escape from the clutches of the second commandment but it gets even a bit stickier.

An idol could even be a person....no, not an American Idol, although giving too much attention in one's life to a celebrity could lead to idolatry, those girls who used to scream and faint each time they saw Elvis or The Beatles, may have been idolizing them to the point that their actions were somewhat akin to worship.  One does not have to give one's attention to a celebrity in order to be guilty of idol worship, though.  Giving all of one's attention to another human being you know well could be using them as an idol.  If the attention that one's gives takes the place of worship to God, then the actions could be idolatry.

I have heard the slogan, "You don't have to go to church to be a Christian" far too many times.  Usually it is spoken by someone to does not go to church but wants to use the name "Christian" to identify themselves.  Sometimes the slogan is a convenient excuse to help exonerate the person from their lack of church attendance.  I agree that there are persons who attend churches who may live less than Christ-like lives--I have known a few of them.  However, if people truly are Christians, it just seems to make sense that they would want to be in communion and fellowship with others who are Christians also.  So, going to church is part of the lifestyle that Christian persons have.

That said, giving all of one's attention or time or resources to any person, place, or thing instead of giving it to God borders on idolatry.  Having a proper place for everything we do in life and every person we know in life with our devotion to God at the center of our lives is a well ordered Christian life.  A life that gets skewed in one direction or another so that they give all they can in pursuit of pleasure or in devotion to a person is one that leaves God out of their life.  And a life lived without God and devoted to other pursuits is an idolatrous life.  At least that is what the commandment appears to say to me.  How about to you?