Wednesday, February 27, 2013

1. You Shall Have No Other Gods

This is the first of a ten part series about the meaning of the Ten Commandments.  Traditionally, they are read during the Lenten Season to remind us of our duties before God and neighbor.

The first commandment seems straightforward enough.  "I am the Lord your shall have no other gods before me."  (Exodus 20:2-3)  Most of us modern people read that and say to ourselves, "Well, I keep that very well.  I do not have any stone figures that I worship or have any pictures I say prayers to so I think I obey the first commandment completely."  The idea of not having any other gods, however, does not just have to do with idols made of stone or wood (that is the 2nd commandment's admonition).  It has to do with putting anything in life in a place within our lives that would separate us from our devotion to God.

God was trying to tell the people of Israel that no other deities would have a higher place in their lives than Yahweh the God of Israel.  They were surrounded by people of other lands (their names are repeated here and there in the Old Testament, many of them end with -ite).  Each group of people had its own distinctive deity to which they would offer sacrifices.  The people of Israel were often tempted to turn their attention or devotion to the deities of the other lands when they wanted to win a battle against an enemy or when it did not rain for a long period of time or when they feared calamity may befall them.  Often if they looked at the countryside in a surrounding area and saw green fields in comparison to their dry, dusty ones they would begin to think that maybe offering a sacrifice to the deity of that land may bring them rain and good fortune.  After all, what would it hurt?

The God of Israel, Yahweh, wanted the full attention and devotion of the people whom Yahweh called by the name Israel.  He would not be second place to them and became angry when they did sacrifice to foreign gods.  The people learned again and again that Yahweh was the sole deity that they could address or adore.

So, what does all that have to do with the lives of modern people or with modern Christians?  If we do not worship or possess a stone figure or some form of picture then why should we worry about the first commandment at all?  Perhaps devotion to another god does not require a concrete object to possess.  Perhaps the idea of worshiping another god may be more personal in nature and have more to do with priorities in our lives than with giving devotion to an object of some kind.

What place does God have in the life you live today?  What priority do you give that God when you consider the use of your time or resources?  What do you do with your time that may be wasteful or even harmful?  What do you spend your resources on that may bring harm to your life or the lives of others?  Perhaps when we consider the answers to such questions for our own lives we may find that the attention we give to other areas of life and the lack of attention we give to the inclusion of God in our lives may reveal an absence of devotion to God and a great amount of attention to things in life that may not be the best for us.

There may be areas of life wherein we use our resources in ways that harm ourselves or others.  We may not even realize the extent to which we bring harm upon ourselves until we reflect upon it.  Anything in life that becomes an obsession to us may be a god that we have chosen to include in our life.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Losing My Religion

I clicked onto Yahoo today to see what is going on in the world and I saw one of their attention getting banners that said something about song lyrics that everyone gets wrong.  So I clicked on it just for fun to see what songs they were featuring and the lyrics that we all misunderstand.  They had chosen four songs that they thought lots of people did not understand the lyrics.  One was "Dancing Queen" by ABBA.  Supposedly, a lot of people think that they are singing, "watch her kick and scream"or something equally foolish as that.  Then they had a clip from the song, "Losing My Religion" by REM.  This time Yahoo said that people misunderstand the line that says, "That's me in the corner.  That's me in the spotlight..." thinking it referred to something someone may do in a corner that they should not do (which will be left can fill in that blank.)  I have to say that I never thought those were the lyrics.  I always thought that the funny little man hopping about in the video was saying the real lyrics--"That's me in the corner.  That's me in the spotlight losing my religion."

Now, those lyrics are stuck in my head and I keep singing them again and again.  "Losing My Religion" was a phrase I heard adults say when I was a child when they became frustrated or angry at me or another person, as in--"If you don't stop doing that, I am going to lose my religion."  Usually the result of said losing one's religion would be that the frustrated/angry person would act out in some unacceptable way because of the loss of the religion that they possessed.  Is it only religion that restrains people from acting unacceptably? My mother sometimes said that phase to me, along with a plea to God to "Give me grace, Lord, give me grace."  How funny that religion and faith get tied to coping with life in our culture and other ones.  Of course, faith is the subject in many films and books and songs that ponder the meaning of life.  So, I guess it is not as funny as it may seem.

Losing One's Religion is exactly what many have done because they have blamed religion for many of the world's problems.  I saw a remark posted on Facebook regarding hatred toward gay persons.  The remark said that preachers preach hate toward gay persons.  I took offense at the remark since I sometimes wear the hat marked "preacher" and I do not preach hatred toward any persons.  This person was making a blanket statement concerning his or her experience with persons of the cloth and the experience this one had obviously was connected to intolerance that some had preached toward or about gay persons.  I agree with the poster that some preachers do indeed preach hatred toward various persons but that preacher does not speak for all of us who wear that hat in life.

I belong to a denomination that preaches love toward all persons.  Persons of other religions, gay persons, persons of different skin colors, persons who do not speak English--all are welcome in the United Church of Christ, in which I serve and belong.  All of these and more are invited and welcome and urged to come and experience "extravagant welcome", as we like to say.  How sad that some have never experienced "religion" that truly attempts to follow the words and actions of the one whose life inspired the Christian movement-Jesus.  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."  (James 1:27)

Caring for those who find themselves neglected or persecuted by the "world" is the business of the Church.  In the Early Church, those were widows and orphans, who resided on the bottom rung of society.  Today, those whose address is at the bottom are defined by persons who often look down upon them and relegate them to that position much like a modern cast society.  Whoever may feel they are at the bottom is in need of a friendly boost up by those who claim to be part of "religion", "church" or "Christianity."  Religion that is absent of love and caring and compassion is no religion at all.  It is simply an organization.  Religion is the human attempt to find God, and if you find God you will find all of those whom God loves.  No wonder some people lose their religion.  Who would want it if it is devoid of love?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Running Amok

Many people know that I was a school teacher for 16 years before entering the ministry.  I taught a lot of things and in a lot of places before finally settling down to being a minister.  I taught several times in elementary schools, teaching 5th grade three times, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and even 1st grade (that was a huge mistake and I was tricked into doing it so I lasted a year in that job and then went on to bigger and better things).  I had the distinction of being one of the few teachers who mistook a tornado drill signal for a fire drill.  Hearing the bells, I lined up my group of 5th graders and began marching them out to the playground away from the building to protect them from the imaginary fire.  Looking around, I saw no other classes of children walking out too.  I told my class, "I guess no one else is participating today" and we walked back into the building and started our lessons again.  I was so embarrassed to find out that the imaginary tornado would have swept us all away if we had walked into it as we did.

Teachers are often like that, called upon to protect their charges against unseen danger.  The brave teachers in Newtown, Connecticut who gave their lives as they protected their students were examples of what it means to be truly called to the teaching profession.  Teachers routinely do what is needed so that their students will be safe and cared for.

I know a teacher who once taught special needs students in a rural Texas school district.  She had her students in a fenced in area outside one day when a stranger came by and began talking with her.  This man asked the teacher if he could come inside the yard and pray for one of the students saying that the believed God will heal the student if he prayed for him.  The teacher refused his offer and told him that he had to report to the school office and talk with the principal if he wanted to do anything.  The man walked away and said he would pray for him from a distance.  The teacher reported this incident to the principal but the man could not be located.

Jesus was often called "Teacher" by his followers and by others inquiring of him.  He wanted to guard his disciples and others who followed him.  In Luke 13 he compared his relationship to them as "a hen gathers his brood under her wings."  Jesus the Good Shepherd also called himself the mother hen.  In the same way that a hen will spread her wings so that her chicks can hide under them in the face of danger, Jesus used this term to describe the relationship he had with humanity.  The stopper, though, was in the last phrase of that same verse, "and you were not willing."  The mother hen could have her wings spread to provide a hiding place for the chicks but they had to run under her wings in order to find shelter.

Humanity is like that.  Humans are always seeking a place of safety from life's woes but few too many find the place of shelter in the arms of God.  "All we (like sheep) have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way..." (Isaiah 53: 6ab)  Whether humans are compared to chicks or sheep, we have all run amok  going here and there and rarely finding the shelter we truly have been seeking.  We all have our own ideas of how things should be and do not truly want to conform to the will of another who may have their own ideas.

Jesus, the Great Teacher, must have become very frustrated at times with the humans he knew best, his own disciples.  There are so many instances recorded in the Gospels where he attempts to teach them lessons he thinks they should know but they come across as thick headed and slow.  He tells them again and again how things will turn out in the end but they do not want to hear the dreadful news he must share.  Who can blame them for not wanting to think about their teacher leaving them?

Jesus lets his followers know, however, that even that old fox Herod cannot truly conquer him.  Jesus says he will continue to minister today, tomorrow, and on the third day he will finish his work.  Jesus seems to allude to what his life and ministry is about, bringing good news to humanity and bringing resurrection to all as the final work of grace he will complete.  Rome could not be the final word over him.  He would bring the message of salvation for all of humanity through his resurrection from the dead.

We all run amok, every one of us to our own ways.  Jesus is patient with us, though.  He will guide us with his staff as a good shepherd would.  He will spread his wings around us to protect us, as a mother hen would do.  He will teach us what we need to learn, as a good teacher does.  The journey continues with Jesus to guide us.    

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dust in the Wind

A pastor friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to a song by a group named Kansas.  The song is called "Dust in the Wind."  I seem to remember the song.  I think it is from the 80s perhaps.  The song has a refrain that sweeps through it that is the same as the title...."all we are is dust in the wind."  Not a very happy thought but one that I always say as we are concluding a funeral in the cemetery.  One of the last phrases I mutter is, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."  Then I say a final prayer, shake hands with the family, and invite everyone to return to the church fellowship hall where there is food waiting for us.  We want to get away from the cemetery as fast as we can and get back to a place where life surrounds us instead of death.  We don't want to hear "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" too often because it reminds us of our own mortality that surrounds us daily.  We may sing, along with Kansas, the melancholy refrain, "all we are is dust in the wind" but the real meaning does not sink in until we stand with the mourners in the cemetery, ready to get it over with and return to the church into the life that will surround us.

Today is Ash Wednesday.  The first day of Lent.  We are beginning again the journey with Christ to his ultimate destination, a cross that stands on a hill just outside of Jerusalem.  The journey each year always begins in the wilderness, with Jesus all alone, hungry and thirsty and having extraordinary visions of evil taunting and tempting him.  Jesus overcomes the forces that would destroy him and returns to life among the living, picking up 12 helpers along the way and beginning a ministry that will lead him to Jerusalem eventually.    We have to walk the road with Jesus for 40 days.  We have to think again about the parables he tells, the miracles he performs, the conversations he has with those closest to him.  We have to re-examine our own lives as we reflect upon the Christian journey and what it means to us daily.  We have to reflect upon what it means to wear the name "Christian" and to follow in the way of the cross.  Lent is very demanding if we are serious about it.

I usually do not say "from dust you have come and to dust you will return" when I make the mark of the ashes on the foreheads of those in line in church on Ash Wednesday.  The Book of Worship says that I can say that or the more cheerful "Repent--and Believe the Gospel."  I opt for the second phrase because I think that it gives us a goal to achieve rather than a solemnity to absorb.  I think it also reflects the purpose of Lent--change.  Repentance is not done just to make up for some sin we have committed.  The goal of repentance is to bring about change in one's life so we do not continue to make the same mistakes that led us to have to repent in the first place.  So, as I mark the cross in ashes on someone's forehead and say, "Repent and Believe the Gospel,"  I intend for those words to whack them on the forehead along with the ashes to remind them of the change that awaits them at the end of the Lenten Season.

Ash Wednesday is a new beginning, kind of like another New Year's Day, another chance to start over, another opportunity to do it right.  So, let Lent speak to you and think about what each day brings you, and maybe when you are eating the treats on Easter Sunday that you denied yourself all through Lent, you will have a new perspective on life, faith, and the Christian journey.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Transformation, Transfiguration, Metamorphosis

It's time for a change.  A real change.  A life-changing change.  In other words, it is time to be a different creature than you are.  This message is being given on behalf of caterpillars everywhere.  They are about to change into butterflies in a few weeks.  Right now, they are being dormant.  That means they are just hanging around (literally...most of them are hanging off of plants or the eaves of houses or someplace else trying to be as inconspicuous as possible) waiting until the right moment when they can reappear as something totally different.

A few years ago we have a couple fennel plants that we planted in the herb garden.  I wanted fennel to use in  cooking and thought it would be nice to grow fennel root.  One day there was a strange looking creature attached to one of the fennel plants.  He (or she) was multicolored and striped, had horns on its head, and was hanging around the plant looking like he or she was up to no good.  My first instinct was to clobber him/her but I decided to do a bit of research first and see what kind of thing it could be.  I learned that this creature was a caterpillar that, if left alone, would turn into a beautiful butterfly later on.  This one happened to have an affinity for fennel plants and loved to much on them to gain the strength for the big change that was to come.

We are somewhat like that strange creature.  We are all creatures and some of us are a bit strange (we have to admit it and accept it) but we are not what we will be once all of the transformation of life has taken place.  Each time I begin a funeral I read the words "Here and now, dear friends, we are God's children.  What we shall be have not yet been revealed; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."  Those words speak to the meaning of life for me.  It says to me that we are all on a journey in this life and we are changed as we travel along.  We are changed physically, of course, but we are changed in many other ways too--emotionally, spiritually, socially--we become different throughout our lives as we learn and grow and mature and think and relate to others who are also doing all this.  What we will be...eventually...has not be revealed to us, because we will be much different than when we began the journey of life.

Last week, my wife and I went with my mother to visit her only remaining sibling who lives in Florida.  We flew to Orlando and rented a car and went to the facility where my aunt lives.  My aunt has dementia and she cannot remember what she had for lunch that day as well as who her children are or why she is living where she lives now.  She is not very old by today's standards, only in her 70s, but she relates to the world as one who is near the end of life.  It is very sad to see this woman who was a vibrant, funny, loving person all her life now being told by others when it is time to get up in the morning, to have her meals, and to go to bed at night.  She cannot remember when to do any of those things unless someone coaches her.  Luckily, she lives in a very caring place where they are helping her cope with life.  She is not what she once was but she is not what she will be either.  The days to come may bring even more changes for her life.

We are all changing, day by day.  The changes may be wonderful or painful.  The changes may differ daily and some days may be memorable and others may be ones we want to forget.  We find meaning in life as we negotiate the days and do our best to make them all that they can be for us and others.  The life we live we live with others and our lives reflect our service that we give to others.  We are being changed daily.  The changes may be ones we embrace or ones we fight with all our might.  Either way, change is inevitable.  Knowing that we are not alone in the midst of change is the greatest comfort we may have.  That is what gives us the courage to face the future unafraid and look forward to whatever life may bring us.