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.