Monday, June 24, 2013

Small Things

Have you ever noticed that it is the small things in life that often annoy us or delight us?  Like a rock in your, it can be a pebble smaller than a black-eyed pea and it feels like a boulder in there until you get it out.  Or, sitting outside having a drink of your choice as you watch the day give way to incredible is that?

I walk 2 miles each morning and come back home a bit more tired and sweaty than when I began.  Each day I take a shower and then make my breakfast--the same one day after day (I like that routine)--oatmeal with fruit, usually blueberries and a banana, crowned with some yogurt, a piece of whole wheat toast with a bit of jam on it, and some orange juice to wash it all down.  Most days when I sit down to eat breakfast after expending all that energy of walking and getting refreshed with my shower, I think that my oatmeal is the best thing I have ever eaten.  Many would find that meal monotonous and boring but I enjoy it a great deal at that particular time each day.

It is the little things in life that bring us pleasure.  I would rather sit in my backyard at sunrise or sunset and watch the birds and squirrels than spend a day at an amusement park.  I would rather dip my foot in the water at a lake or on a beach where many do not go than walk the streets of a large city.  It is not that I never go the city but once my activities there are accomplished, I am very glad to be back home in the backyard watching the animals at play.  I love going to cities but would rather not live in one day after day.  I am so fortunate to live in a town of 2000 people that is 1 to 1 1/2 hours away from three major cities.  After spending time in one of them, I can be back home in the peace and quiet of rural Texas very soon.

The small things in life satisfy us because they bring back pleasurable memories that are based on relationships, most of the time.  They remind us of good times we had with those whom we love or have loved.  They make us glad to be where we are rather than striving to be elsewhere.  They speak to our spirits  in ways that are mysterious and subtle.  They whisper our names as we listen to the wind or the chirping of the birds.

St. Francis of Assisi wrote of kinship with nature.  There is something about it that renews our spirits and fills us with energy necessary to go ahead with our lives' plans.  Life is a balancing act and when we are in balance, we know it.  When we get out of balance...well, usually it is because of those annoying small things in life such as that rock in your shoe that you have to get out.  Deal with those, and you can get back to enjoying the other things that speak to your spirit.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Hearing God's Voice

Sheer silence....hmmmm, wonder what that sounds like?  Being in a place where you hear nothing is hard in today's world.  Where can you go where you do not hear a sound at all?  When I was recently traveling to the Holy Land, I wanted to see if I could block out a lot of noise if it would help me sleep while flying on the airplane.  It is a flight of about 12 hours so sleeping really helps to pass the time.  Besides that, sleeping helps with the jet lag too.  I have a lot of trouble sleeping on planes, though.  I rarely sleep an hour on an international flight.  So, I bought some of the new Bose Noise Canceling Headphones to see if they would cancel out enough noise that it would help me sleep.  Sure enough, they do cancel out the major noises, such as the roar of the airplane engines.  They don't, I learned, cancel out normal conversation of persons nearby, however.  It muffles their conversations somewhat but you could still hear what they were talking about.  The quality of the sound when used to listen to music was fantastic but it still did not help me to sleep.  I got very little sleep on the flights both ways but I survived and did not get too many negative effects of jet lag this time.

The next Sunday I am preaching about Elijah going out into the wilderness all alone.  It can be pretty scary being out in the wilderness all alone and Elijah wanted to know that God was with him and would protect him against the evil of Jezebel and her heinous henchmen.  She had threatened his life so he took off for the hills to get away.  Elijah needed to know that God would be with him and would keep him safe from danger. A whirlwind happened and Elijah thought that maybe God was speaking to him through the wind but he did not sense God's voice there.  An earthquake happened and Elijah thought that God was speaking through the earthquake but that did not seem to happen.  A fire happened and again God's voice did not seem to be there.  But then.....Elijah heard God's voice in the sound of "sheer silence".

Can you hear God's voice if you get very, very quiet?  Can you hear God speaking to your inner being in the quiet hours when no one else is talking?  Finding sheer silence is really difficult but hearing God's voice seems almost impossible at times.  God speaks to all of us in different ways.  Perhaps God has spoken to you in one of the noisiest places on earth---maybe Times Square in New York City or in a traffic jam in Houston.  Maybe God has spoken to you while listening to music or watching a movie or hearing the thunder roar during a storm.  God may have spoken to you through the words of another person or through the innocence of a child.  There are as many ways that God can speak as there are humans on the planet.  Each person is different from the other and each hears the voice of God in a unique way.

We have a motto in the United Church of Christ....."God is Still Speaking" which means that God still speaks in our world.  We simply just need to listen for what God would say to us.  Maybe God does speak to you in earthquake, wind, or fire but to some it is in the quiet moments of life when God shouts the loudest and directs what life should be like for the listener.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How Many Commandments Can You Break?

I recently wrote a blog series on the Ten Commandments in which I examined each commandment's meaning.  There are ten of them, of course, and some are related to one another.  This next Sunday we will feature a story from the Bible in which a person broke one commandment and it led to his breaking another and another.  The person in the story is a King, Ahab by name, king of Israel in the Northern Kingdom after his father Omri.  He is king in Samaria and makes the mistake of marrying a woman from a surrounding tribe named Jezebel.  The name alone is notorious enough to us to let us know that she was up to no good.  Sure enough, when Ahab looked over into the garden next door to the palace and saw a wonderful vineyard that belonged to his neighbor, Naboth, he began to covet it.  He did not want a vineyard like the one that Naboth had.  He wanted Naboth's vineyard.  He wanted it badly.

You have to give Ahab some credit.  He first negotiated with Naboth, offering him money and another piece of land in exchange for his land but Naboth would not be swayed.  The property had been in his family for generations and no amount of money or no other piece of land, regardless of how attractive it was, could persuade him to give up the land that had been in his family for many generations.  Ahab was king, so technically he could have commanded Naboth to give up his land to him but he was not the type of guy who would command so he just went home to his palace and began to pout.  He fumed and turned his face to the wall and refused to eat.  It sounds like he may have been clinically depressed.

His lovely wife, Jezebel, who had a reputation of being up to no good, could not stand to see her man sad and depressed.  She questioned the king and found out the reason for his having the blues and basically laughed at him.  She said, "You are the king, are you not?"  (My paraphrase).  Then she made a plan for Ahab....if Naboth would not give up his vineyard to Ahab legally, then they would get it from him any way that was needed, even if it involved murder.  And it did.

Jezebel hired some low-life rascals to hatch a plot against poor old Naboth and to say that they had heard him curse God and the King and then to take him out and stone him.  So, the plan came off just like she planned.  Naboth had false accusations leveled against him and before he knew it, he was dead.  Clean and simple and to the point.  The vineyard could be claimed by Ahab.  Ahab immediately went out to claim what was not rightfully his and Jezebel laughed that hearty laugh that wicked people love to laugh.

All was right in the world of Ahab and Jezebel, it seemed...until that nosy prophet Elijah got involved.  God informed Elijah about what had transpired and he soon found Ahab and confronted him about his great sins.  "O my enemy?" was what Ahab said when he saw Elijah coming.  The coming of the prophet did not mean something good was about to happen in their day and sure enough Elijah leveled the judgment against Ahab and Jezebel and it was not going to be pretty.

So, Ahab looked at his neighbor's fine looking vineyard and it looked so fine that he decided he had to have it for his own.  Commandment 10---Thou Shalt Not Covet!  Then, Ahab and Jezebel leveled false charges against Naboth in order to do away with him.  Commandment 9--Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness!  Then, Naboth was murdered at the command of Ahab and Jezebel.  Commandment 6--Thou Shalt Not Murder!  Three strikes and Ahab and Jezebel were out!

How easy it was for them to let breaking one commandment lead to breaking another one.  When Ahab began obsessing about something he could not have, instead of just forgetting about it, he decided he had to have it and with the help of his dear wife he plotted to get it.  Coveting led to making the obtaining of what he wanted to happen.

There are people in this world who will resort to many dangerous and wicked actions in order to get possessions that belong to others.  There are television programs weekly that tell the real stories of real persons in our world who do dastardly deeds to gain material wealth.

The psalmist recognized this fact in the first psalm: "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked; or take that 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." (Ps. 1:1-2)  Meditating on what God would have us do in life does not mean that we consciously recite scripture verses.  It means that we allow our consciences that  have been shaped by the values we have been taught to lead us into doing what is right, things that will be good for us and for others in life.  Following the precepts set down by church and society will help us live a happy life, one that will lead us in paths that we will naturally follow because they seem right to us.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Are You a Snob or Just Distracted or Shy?-

In the part of Texas where I live, it is customary for drivers who meet each other on the road to wave at each other.  Many of them wave with just one finger, the index finger, as they grip the steering wheel.  They make a slight motion of the first finger and look at the other driver.  It is a recognition that someone is in that other car that is meeting them on the highway.  It is a friendly gesture, I think, even if you do not know the other driver you are meeting.

If you happen to meet another car and you think you know the driver of that car and they do not return the favor of a wave, then often the waver begins to think that the other driver is unfriendly or irritated about something or perhaps even trying to be a snob, "high-hatting" the waver, as they call it around here.  It may be that the driver who did not wave was distracted, perhaps looking at the highway intensely, or at a field of hay or cattle, because those things do catch the interest of many rural folks.  It may be that they did not recognize the one waving at them so they did not wave back, although common courtesy around here is to wave at everyone, even if you don't know them.  Or it could be that they really are being a snob.

I know a snob or two, people who do know who you are but refuse to talk to you in public or acknowledge your presence on the highway or in social gatherings.  For some reason, they never learned about common courtesy or social skills that would gather them friends.  We just have to admit that there are some people who think themselves better than others.  We all know them.  I have worked with a few of them over the years.  They are in every place, even in small rural ranching and farming communities as well as in large cities.

If we want to give snobby people the benefit of the doubt, then we may decide that they are just shy.  I can empathize with them.  I grew up as a shy person.  I was incredibly shy most of my growing up experience and into my young adulthood.  I was so shy that I would not talk to my friends in public much less people that I thought may not like me.  I was so shy that I would hide if I saw a teacher or other public figure coming my way in a grocery store.  I fought the battle of shyness all through school until the 11th grade when I did something that shy people almost never do.  I signed up to be in Speech Class, the kind of class where you have to stand up in front of your peers and give speeches on an assigned topic.  Why I took that risk is beyond me but it worked to help me get out of much of my shyness.  I went from that point to being in the Drama Club and appearing in plays.  Something clicked to make me get beyond my shy personality.

So, maybe some of the people that we think are being snobby are really shy people.  They may not know what to say to someone so they would rather say nothing.  They may be afraid that they will say the wrong thing and be embarrassed so they keep silent.  They may think that what they have to say is not as important as what others say so they share nothing with the group.  They may not be able to relate to what others say or do because their insecurity is a prison that they have lived in all their lives and they do not know how to break out of it.

Or they could be snobs.....My mother used to quote something to me that she declared was in the Bible.  I cannot locate it in the Bible but she said, "To have friends, you must show yourself to be friendly."  I think what that means is that if you want to have people to be your friends, you must interact with them.  You have to talk to them, to see what is important to them, to discuss things with them, even to talk about the weather.  You have to be around people, though, and care about what matters to them in some way.

Relationships evolve.  They do not just happen one day out of nowhere, normally.  They take time and effort on the parts of all concerned.  The more time people spend getting to know each other, the closer they generally feel toward each other.  The circle of friendship expands as people bring others into it.  That happens as people open up areas of their lives to others so that they can peek in the windows that they had previously kept shut.  Some people are not able to open their windows of their lives so that others can see in.  They have had them closed for so long that they are tightly stuck shut.  It is risk taking to open up our lives and allow others to look in at what we have kept hidden.  We never know what their reaction will be to what has been revealed.  Once the light begins to shine in the hidden places, however, light brings warmth and the warmth warms up relationships that have never been developed before.

So, let the light in as you take the time to get to know others.  The rewards far outnumber the risks.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Where is the Hope?

What do you do when you are faced with insurmountable odds, when the world has crashed in on you--either emotionally or literally?  How do you make sense of the things in life that don't make sense, when you have lost your job or your health or your spouse?  How do you cope when life throws its best of its worst at you?  Where do you go for relief or solace or peace?

Hope is the thing that sustains us and motivates us to keep on living and trying even when we wonder why we do it.  Hope is the force within us that makes it all okay and tells us that we can continue to face each day.  Hope pushes us forward and makes us search for new realities so that we will discover resurrection even in the face of death.

I have a new reality that I never thought would happen to me.  I and my mother are the only surviving members of our family of origin.  This reality became final just about two months ago when my only brother died.  He was my older brother and he died of a stroke and cancer at the age of 64.  My younger sister died nearly nine years ago at the age of 45.  My father died about five years ago at the age of 86.  So, my mother who is nearly 88 has only me left of the family that she and my father formed.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that it would be her and me left to carry on.  I figured my older brother would be the one to carry on and be responsible and do all that mom needed to be done because that was his role in life, the one he seemed to choose for himself after my father became ill and died.  My mother became very dependent upon him and it seemed to work out for them for her to call on him when she needed something.

But death does not give us a multiple choice of who will go and who will remain.  Instead, we take what life gives us and deal with it.  So, my nearly 88 year old mother who lives 200 miles from me and lives a very independent life, driving wherever she wants to go in her area, cooking and cleaning and making lots of decisions for herself, has only me to call if she does need something.  The day after my brother's funeral I went with her to the bank and signed the necessary forms to make decisions for her in case she should ever need me to do so.  I am the official "back up plan" in case she cannot do what is necessary.  How ironic is that?

Hope pushes us on, even in the face of death.  We do not stop living just because people we love did.  We continue to get up each morning and to get the day started and to continue until the sun sets and we must get some rest.  That cycle goes on day after day, season after season, with hope on the horizon each day as the sun rises that this day will be better than the previous one.

I have never faced what many have faced in the way of tragedy.  I have never stood over the rubble of what was once my home and now is gone due to fire, flood, or tornado or hurricane.  I have never looked into the mangled wreck of an automobile where a loved one once sat but now is gone.  I have never endured the hardship that some have who have lived to tell the story so that they can better educate us to the dangers that may happen in life.  I can sit in my comfortable, air-conditioned office, and write words of hope because I have not experienced such tragedy.  I do not know how I would feel or what I would write if circumstances were different.

I have experienced heartbreak and disappointment, however, to the place where it has been tempting to throw in the towel.  I have known the pain of persons I thought were my friends abandoning me in life.  I have known the pain of job loss and economic misfortune.  I have dealt with issues that divide and challenge families and have held on until things became better because holding on seemed better than giving up.  I have questioned and doubted and searched for answers throughout life, sometimes without finding a reasonable or satisfactory answer.  Hope is what kept me going in the face of the challenges of life.

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote words that became famous when the rock group The Birds put them to music back in the 60s---"For everything there is a season. and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together..."

You get the idea.  There is a time for everything under heaven.  All humans experience what is common to humanity.  We all receive what is common for humans to experience.  Or as an anonymous person once said, "Sometimes we are the birds and sometimes we are the statues."  We are all part of the human experience and there will be days that are better than others in life.  Regardless of what happens, hope still abounds because we know that hope sustains us when nothing else in life can.

May the God of peace keep you spirit and soul and body and fill you with hope that is beyond comprehension.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Hunger for the Supernatural

There are many in society together who name themselves as "Spiritual But Not Religious".  Most of those who wear this moniker claim that they do seek the Other, the Holy, the Spiritual in many ways but that they do not need or desire organized religion for themselves.  Some persons who fit into this category have been wounded by organized religious groups.  Churches have inflicted wounds on some by some of its members or leaders being judgmental or unaccepting or intolerant.  Some churches have used their official rules or views toward social issues to cause pain for individuals to the point that they would rather stay away from anything that smacks of religion rather than encounter emotional pain once again.

I come from a family of origin that had a wide variety of attitudes toward organized religion.  My father never attended church.  He saw no need of it and spent his Sundays working in the yard, grilling meat for lunch, or watching sports on television.  My sister attended church until she was a young adult and then stopped because more than one pastor stepped on her toes when it came to their views on social issues.  She was very liberal in her views and lived in a very conservative area and never could find a church that she could align her ideas with so she stopped attending church until she passed away at the age of 45.  My mother took all of us kids to a non-denominational fundamentalist church of a Pentecostal style through all our growing up experience and she is still very much part of that church even at the age of 87.  My brother followed in her footsteps and became a pastor of church much like the one that we grew up in and he spread the gospel fervor until he died at the age of 64.  Then there was me.....

I was the lost child, the lost sheep, the one who could never find satisfaction with religion through all my years, both as a child, as a teenager, and as a young adult.  I often thought about throwing in the towel and staying home on Sundays as many of my friends and co-workers did but something kept me going and searching until I found my place in the world of religion.  I did not start out being a pastor but worked as a teacher and school counselor for many years before deciding that a call kept working on me to become a pastor.  At the age of 37 I went to seminary and retrained and have been working in churches and with persons in ministry for the past 22 years.

I did not return to the church of my youth to find my place, however.  I went in a completely opposite direction, first finding a home in a moderate mainline denomination and then finally going all the way to a church that is 180 degrees away from the church of my youth, and now I feel completely at home.  I belong to a denomination that proudly welcomes everyone of all kinds and has views on social issues that are as far to the left as is acceptable in Christian circles.  We truly do welcome all who are on their journey and try to act in love despite what others may have experienced in other churches.

Some who say they have no need for organized religion still have a yearning for a connection to the supernatural.  Some belong to groups that are quasi-spiritual, practicing yoga or meditation, reading spiritual or meditative materials, visiting monasteries or retreat centers.  Some breathe in the fresh air of nature and proclaim that as their sanctuary.  I can understand all this because I have done many of these things also.  I have been on the journey all my life and have searched the vast domain of religion.  I was never totally satisfied until I found the place where I belong.  That place speaks to me and assures me that I am where I need to be.

So, if you feel that yearning to connect with your Higher Power, with the Other, with the Holy, even if you cannot name it or put your finger on what it should be for your life, don't stop your quest or put limits on where you may find satisfaction.  It just may be that you have never connected with the right source and that when you find it, you will know that you have.

"When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:13)