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)