Monday, December 29, 2014

A Check-Up From the Neck Up

When I was a school teacher, I taught one year in a school where the principal was very fond of Zig Ziglar and sent the teachers to his workshops so that we could learn the catchy songs to sing along with our classes.  Zig Ziglar was a motivational speaker and featured a woman named Mamie McDowell who was also motivational but very humorous and kept us entertained at the workshop.  Zig's motivational material had catchy sayings that were easy to memorize.  One of them was that people who had troubles needed "a check-up from the neck up" which means that they need to think about their troubles and see what the source of them would be and try to find a cure for them.  There were songs we would sing that also promoted positive thinking.  One such song was called, "See You at the Top".  I can remember only a few lines of it but it began, "If you want to be a winner, let me tell you how you can, turn your dreams into action, plan your work and work your plan...."  The words made sense but translating the ideas into action took more than just singing the catchy refrains.

Taking stock of where one is in life and making a plan for the future is part of what making New Year's Resolutions is all about.  Thinking about one's health or one's exercise routine or one's habits and then making a plan to change in one area or another is a good idea anytime in life but it seems that New Year's Day provides us with the motivation to "begin again" in our lives and health.

The number one New Year's Resolution that many of us make each year is "to lose weight" or "to exercise more."  I have made that one many times in my life.  Each year when I make that particular resolution and go to the gym on the Monday after New Year's Day, the gym parking lot is so full that I can hardly find a parking place.  In fact, one year, I could not find a parking place so I just went home.  I figured if the parking lot was that full, then finding an exercise machine to try to "begin again" on would be almost impossible.  If you wait a few weeks before going back to the gym, though, you will find plenty of places to park and lots of machines to use.  That is all the time it takes for many people to forget the resolutions they made.  Our memories are very short, especially when it comes to putting our goals into action.

Psychologists have said that in order for a resolution to work, it must be reasonable and simple to follow.  If I need to lose 25 pounds, I need to begin by saying I need to lose 5 pounds perhaps and work toward that goal.  Losing 25 pounds seems like a huge task but losing 5 pounds seems much more reasonable.  Taking the steps to lose that weight involves having a healthy diet and getting more exercise than I normally do.  Building that exercise into my daily routine will guarantee more success than just doing it when I feel like doing it.  Eating healthy is something we all should do all the time but we tend to fall off of our best intentions easily.  We have to continue to work toward the goals if we really want to achieve them.

Being a pastor, I hope some people in my congregation will make a resolution to attend church more often during 2015.  Being present in church with others gives us the strength to achieve the goals we make in life because we gain spiritual and emotional strength by being with others who have similar goals in life and who want to live a healthy, positive life.  I hope that our lives will be ordered to include spiritual as well as healthy personal goals for the new year.  As we strive for greater things in life, we will feel the presence of God in our lives to encourage us on to greater things.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Old Becomes New Again

My mother-in-law recently moved into a new house complete with new appliances and modern conveniences.  This is newsworthy because she has resided for over 50 years in a house that was built in 1945 that lacked many modern conveniences including air conditioning.  She had lived through many hot Texas summers and simply tried to survive despite how hot and humid southeast Texas can be.  She had lived through many very cold Texas winters (we do have those now and then) with only a wood burning heater to keep her warm.  The house she lived in was built in 1945 by her husband, his father, and his uncle.  It was a good house in its day but hurricanes and tornadoes and other weather related issues had caused it to be no longer liveable, as determined by the Federal Government through a program administered by FEMA.  So, in about a month's time a new modern home was constructed for her with all the amenities needed to live comfortably in this age.

She has been moved into her new home so, according to the government program that built the house for her, the old house has to be demolished.  Seventy years of memories will fall in with the walls as they fall.  Walls that saw babies born and grow up to be adults and floors that held up many as they celebrated and mourned and lived through many experiences now will vanish in the heap of rubble to be carried away by modern equipment.  Before it is completely gone, though, my wife mobilized and advertised and found people who wanted to buy components of the old house that has served the family well through the years.  One man bought the kitchen sink to put into an old farm house he was furnishing.  Another bought the bath tub to use in another house.  People came one after another to buy the appliances, the wood heater, and the bathroom fixtures.

Some did not buy but were given wood from the walls and window frames that they plan to use in craft projects.  A trio of college age musicians gently took away the old antique piano that had sat in the living room for decades but needed a lot of work to be played again.  They want to restore it and use it to make music again.

As I was thinking about all the people who had bought or were given parts of the old house, I thought about how the old house that will soon be demolished will live on into the future.  The house may not stand as it once did but parts of it will be living in several of the surrounding counties nearby where it once stood.  The old house slowly gave up its parts once thought to be necessary and important so that others could claim them as their own and use them to make another house complete or to bring beauty to the world through art or music.  The old has become new once again in a new and different way than was imagined when the new house was being constructed on the property nearby.

I thought about the verse from the Prophet Isaiah, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (43:18-19)  God is always about the business of doing something new that totally astounds and surprises us.  God speaks in ways that are beyond our thinking.  At this time of year, I cannot think otherwise that God's new thing that God did in the person of Jesus Christ was totally surprising, astounding, and mysterious.  For God to come to earth wrapped in the flesh of an infant, totally dependent on others, so that God could understand the creation that God brought to life was and is so amazing that it is incomprehensible.

God did a new thing in that manger in Bethlehem, something that had never been done before in all of human history.  The old lived again in the new creation that was given to earth as a gift so that humans would learn what it means to truly be loved and forgiven and accepted.  The best gift of the holiday season has already been given to all of us.  Humans can become new, just as the old house became new in its metamorphosis of lending its parts to others to use and transform for future greatness.  Our lives are constantly being transformed as we learn and grow and accept the changes that life brings year after year.  We may not be the same as we were when we were children or young adults but we are becoming what God would have us be for our good and the good of others.

Humans often do the same as old houses when they no longer can continue to live.  Their parts are used to make others well, to bring healing to others through transplants and treatments.  They live on into the future through the lives that they touch by their sharing of themselves in a way that is totally amazing.  God continues to do a new thing in human lives as they open themselves up to grace and peace and generosity that lives throughout the year, not only in the holiday season.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sweet or Unsweet?

The South is one of the places in this country where when you order iced tea in a restaurant they may ask you, "Sweet or unsweet?"  That, of course, means do you want sugared tea or tea to which sugar has not been added.  If one travels away from the South, one will not usually hear this question.  Tea, if it is brewed and not canned or bottled or instant, is normally served without sugar being added to it in the rest of the United States.  Finding iced tea that is not bottled or canned or instant is very difficult when one has left the United States behind and traveled into other countries.  Even our friendly Canadian neighbors to the north rarely have brewed iced tea in restaurants.  If you order iced tea, most likely they bring a can or bottle to your table and a glass you can pour it into if you are lucky.

When we lived just west of Tyler, Texas in the hamlet of Edom for three years back in the early 90s, we would often dine at a restaurant just across the street from our house called The Woodshed.  It was a country cooking kind of establishment in those days, famous for its mile high pie.  When you ordered your meal, you always ordered the pie at the same time, if you wanted pie for dessert, because it may not be there at the end of your meal if you did not reserve it early.  The Woodshed had many servers but our favorite one was a young woman who had a sparkly personality and was the daughter of the owner.  When she took your order for iced tea, she would ask the question, of course, "Sweet or unsweet?"  After she brought you your first glass of tea, though, she would remember what kind of tea you were drinking but she would usually say, "You're sweet, aren't you?  I thought you were sweet" or "You're unsweet.  I know it."  She was a lot of fun and was always ready to help you in any way when you were her customer.  That usually brought her very good tips.

Sweet or unsweet is the question that talks about extremes.  Do you want tea that has sugar in it and you do not have to add any or do you want tea that is plain, sugar-less to which you can add artificial sweetener if you desire?  The question asks about involvement or the lack of it when it comes to tea.  Do you want tea that you have to stir and do something to or do you want tea that is already prepared for you as you need it to be?

Tea is a bit like church at times.  We may not ask, "Sweet or unsweet?" of members but we often do ask, "Active or inactive?"  Are you involved with the church or do you just like it there and you do not have to do anything with it?  Some people just like the idea of the church existing.  They like the idea that it exists but they really do not want to go or participate in its ministries.  They like to know that it is there in case they may need it at some point in life but do not want the church to interfere in their lives until they decide they need it.

Some became church members and said that they would attend regularly, give to the church to support it, and volunteer to help out where needed.  Perhaps they did all of this for a while but for some reason they lost the desire to be a faithful, active member.  So now, they fit into the "inactive" category when it comes to church membership.  Their name is on the church roll but they are hardly ever seen at worship or church functions.  Some churches have solved the problem by creating an "inactive membership roll" on which they write the names of members who joined in the past but are not around in the present.  That roll is there to remind the church that those people exist since they are not seen in person.

Being an active or inactive member of a church is not as easy as deciding what kind of tea one wants.  It does not usually happen immediately.  It usually happens over a period of time as members decide that other things are more important to do on Sundays than attend worship, that they do not have enough time to participate in church activities, and that they do not need to keep the vows they made years ago when they became members through their inactivity.  Once someone has been absent from the church for a long period of time, it is hard to return due to embarrassment or the presumed need to explain one's absence.

One church advertised for its long, lost members to return to the church with a clever ad that said: "Missing Persons needed to return.  No questions asked.  Come home."  What success they had with the campaign is unknown but the truth behind it remains.  We do not need to know why someone has stayed away from the fellowship of the Body of Christ.  We only want them to return and rejoin the camaraderie they have been missing.  They are needed so that the Body will be complete.  As long as they are missing, we will never be complete.

Come home for the holidays!  No questions asked.  You are missed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Riverside Revival Meeting

When I was a kid, my mother was very taken with tent revivals.  Most modern people have no clue what those were but traveling preachers would pass through town and erect a tent someone in less than favorable neighborhoods because those were the only ones that would allow a tent to be erected in their area.  The tent would be equipped much like a church, with folding chairs, a speaker system so that all could hear, and, if it was winter, big heaters that would blow from the back of the tent toward the front so that people would not freeze while receiving their dose of religion.  The ground under the tent would be covered with sawdust so that the shoes of all would not be covered with dirt or mud from the ground.  The preacher sponsoring the revival would put out ads in the newspaper and many seeking miracles or salvation would flock to hear what the visiting preacher had to say.

Even though my mom faithfully dragged us to church every time the doors were open, she still insisted on going to tent revivals to see the visiting preachers.  It was not enough that she went but she took her three children with her on these religious escapades.  I remember falling asleep many a time on those hard wooden folding chairs and being woke up when we finally could go home after my mom had received whatever blessing she had come to find at the tent revival.

Most tent revivals were of the Pentecostal style, featuring lots of theatrics presented by the preacher along with music that would be more acceptable in some of the nightclubs of the area.  Worshipers were encouraged to "let go and let God" so it was not unusual to see people falling on the ground or dancing around the tent area to the beat of the loud music.  My mom was not one of the dancers or fallers but she did stand at her chair and did a little gospel jig as the music droned on and on.  Finally when the preacher got started he usually did not stop for about an hour.  His message was punctuated with a lot of guilt and his purpose was to make those present feel about as guilty as they could be so that they would "get right with God" and "walk the sawdust trail" to the altar to pray.  Many a man and woman ran down the aisle to find relief when the preacher described how disastrous life and death would be without knowing God was there to save you.

I mainly slept through the sermons but sometimes I would watch the participants (I was an unwilling one, dragged there but not old enough to be held responsible for actually being a part of it) as they would dance or shake or fall and wonder why this traveling preacher should have such an effect on these otherwise seemingly civilized people.  If you had met them on the street in Beaumont, most of them would not have behaved as they did under that revival tent, but there was something magical about being under the spell of the traveling preacher.  He would shout and he would pace back and forth and wipe his sweaty brow with a big towel he brought along for the purpose and people would shout back at him and the entire experience was one of sound and light and electricity that could not be found anywhere else in society in those days.

Maybe it was that way with John the Baptist when he stood on the banks of the Jordan River and told people to repent of their sins and to be baptized to show they were serious.  That traveling preacher was as odd as they came--dressed in animal skins and eating all manner of things that others in that place and time did not eat.  He yelled at those gathered and compared them to snakes and told them that their religion was nothing special.  He told them to repent and to be baptized and that he was there preparing them for the real messenger of salvation who was to soon come.  We do not know the result of his preaching except that it eventually got him killed when he accused Herod of all manner of things, something that was not very wise.

Still, John the Baptist made waves and the waves swept across the the kingdom until finally John met the one whom he had been predicting would come, none other than Jesus of Nazareth, his cousin to whom he gave great homage.  Repentance was the theme of John's message to those who would be baptized but Jesus willingly accepted baptism even though he had no need to repent.

Sometimes it takes something so out of the ordinary to make people think that they will go out of their way in order to see it.  Maybe it is a traveling tent revival or a screen door or pancake with the image of Jesus on it.  Maybe it is a story that the Virgin Mary appeared to various people around the globe.  Maybe it is something that cannot be explained and that very fact causes thinking people to think and emotional people to feel something that they had not felt before.  Sometimes people are seeking an answer to their questions and they go to any place to see anyone whom they think could have the answer.  If they have to fall down in some sawdust in order to receive what they were looking for, well, there have been higher prices to pay for wisdom or emotion somewhere in the world in the past.

Repent....the message of John the Baptist for Advent this week.  Repent and turn again and be ready for the coming of the Messiah.  Repent and start again and be made new in the season of newness and light.  Repent and decide to be more involved and more alive through the grace of Jesus Christ given to all who would believe.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Transitions

O how well I remember those Thanksgivings of my childhood when we would spend a lazy morning around our house watching the Macy's Parade and smelling the good food cooking that my mother was preparing in the kitchen and that we would not enjoy until early afternoon.  Those seem like the "good ole days" now that I am older and my family of origin has slowly disappeared over the years.  First, it was my sister who died a decade ago.  Then, my father died four years later.  Then, my brother and sister in law died only last year.  Now, I have an elderly mother and myself as the only ones of our family of origin remaining.  So, Thanksgiving now consists of going to Luby's Cafeteria on Thanksgiving Day along with my wife and our grown nephew whose parents left him with few usable practical skills so he is fairly dependent on others.

Going to Luby's on Thanksgiving Day is not bad but it is not Thanksgiving as we knew it in the past.  My wife and I are officially middle aged, both of us having elderly mothers who are widows and grown children who live in other states so far removed that they never come home for Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving Day has lost its cultural identity for me.  It is no longer a gathering in a home with lots of food weighing down the table to the point that one cannot squeeze another dish on it---a literal representation of a feast.  Now, it is waiting in a line along with others who will not eat at their homes either on this special day and then eating the plate lunch that Luby's sells as their own version of the Thanksgiving Feast.  A piece of pumpkin pie accompanies the package deal if you want it but another dessert will cost you extra.

Luby's is a fine place to have a meal if you enjoy cafeterias and I grew up going to Luby's on a fairly regular basis with my family so I have nothing against eating there but if I had my choice of spending Thanksgiving Day at my home or another home with friends and family rather than going to Luby's, I would certainly chose that more nostalgic representation of what Thanksgiving is supposed to be like.

Many of our friends have grandchildren and that is an immediate lure for people to get together at holidays.  Having none, then that magnet does not draw us anywhere for the holidays.  Our children have their own busy lives and although they knew they have a standing invitation to come home anytime they wish we are not insistent about pushing our holiday agenda hoping it will be their idea to come home for the holidays rather than be urged by their parents to do so.

So, Thanksgiving is what it is.  I have learned in all things to be content, so said the Apostle Paul, and if he was around today and celebrating this American holiday along with us, you may find him standing in line at Luby's too since we have no record that he had a family of any kind.  Perhaps he would have ordered the Thanksgiving Feast with the accompanying pumpkin pie or he may have just had a big bowl of gumbo instead because it is the holiday that brings us together and whoever is around our table is more important than the food, regardless of what it is, that is on that table.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The joys and challenges of being a Protestant

"Freedom, O Freedom....Thank God' Amighty I am free at last..."  (taken from an African-American spiritual).

As Americans we have milestones in our history that we celebrate annually.  The Fourth of July or Independence Day is probably the biggest celebration where we think about what it means to be Americans and to have the freedoms we enjoy.  After that, most likely it is Thanksgiving that captures our attention as to how our collective history has shaped us into the people we are.  We remember those brave people who boarded that boat we call the Mayflower to come from England (by way of Ireland) to the shores of a continent that was still very unknown and considered dangerous.  Savages (that is what they called the Native Americans who lived on this continent) were there and they soon learned that was the least of their worries and those very ones they feared became the source of their salvation when they got to know them and learned from them so that they could survive in this harsh and forbidding land.  Being free from the religious and political oppression they believed they endured in England was a greater motivator for them than enduring the challenges they would endure in the new land they would claim as their own.

The Pilgrims (as we call those hardy folk who made that voyage across the Atlantic) set up their own little kingdom in Massachusetts and created a religious order or sorts in which they were now in charge rather than any other religious authorities.  No longer would the Church of England or the British government impose their rules upon them but they themselves would act as rule maker and enforcer.

Things began well with everyone pitching in just to survive but soon as they were established and had time to do other things than just build and plant and gather in order to live they had time to do other things and those in charge who were very religious determined that the only things that could be done in one's spare time was reading the Bible, praying, and conducting oneself in religious activities of piety and charity.  Those who chose to pursue other activities soon found that they faced punishment.  Those who questioned the authority of the leaders of the group also faced punishment or exile.  The Pilgrims had traded the perceived harshness of the British system for their own system that offered similar harshness only in a new setting.

Freedom from British rule may have seemed like prison to some who suffered at the hands of the religious leaders of the day and some did suffer and die, convicted of witchcraft or other severe offenses, and others who chose to set out on their own and establish their own rules (such as Roger Williams who made his way to what became Rhode Island) rather than be subject to what the Pilgrims may do to them.

Personal freedom as always been a precious commodity.  Some will go to great lengths simply to be free of the oppression of others who impose their rule and will upon them.  What do we do, though, when left to our own devices, when we are totally free and can make up our minds for ourselves?  Greatness or Disaster can emerge from lives with no order or structure.  Some can know how to handle the time and space given to them but some have no idea of what to do with their lives without a structure surrounding them.

The Reformation had set the world free from the rules imposed upon society by the Roman Catholic Church.  Persons had a choice as to how they would live and what they would believe because of Martin Luther's bold statement that faith rather than works brings salvation.  Henry VIII made the same kind of move, but for other purposes that were selfish on his part involving a certain woman he wanted to marry, and the Church of England was formed.  No longer did they need the Pope's approval to do anything.  Suddenly the word of the King or Queen of England carried more weight than someone who resided hundreds of miles away in Rome.

Freedom became the rule of the day.  No longer were people required to do anything much unless they wanted to.  Yes, they would still pay taxes to the church to support its ministers but church attendance was not really required and the ministers being paid by the church could drone on for hours and put everyone to sleep and rarely did anyone question the method or the mode of what happened in religious institutions.

Now....we are totally free in America.  Persons can do as they please in their lives unless they hurt another person, and even then that pain may or may not be considered justified, depending on the jury one gets.  When it comes to religious training or worship or involvement in anything to do with religion, it is totally optional.  Some religious institutions may try to coerce involvement through the use of guilt or shame or the threat of hell.  That does not work with Protestants, mainline ones usually, though.  We have freed people from the threat of hell (many of us no longer believe in it) or the imposition of guilt.  We had allowed people to make up their minds and decide what they would do and now all are free to decide for themselves if or when they may be involved in any way in religious life or if that is a relic of the past to be forgotten.

The loud singer of the 60s-70s, Janis Joplin, sang her most famous song that contained the line..."Freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose..."  Who knew that she would be remembered as a theologian beside a drug addict and rock singer?  When freedom sets us free from all the past and its teachings and traditions that once informed us of who we are, then what is left to lose?  Life once had meaning within the contexts of things that we felt were important but when people live without goals or directions given to them by something greater than themselves, where does the meaning of life come from?

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free..." words of Jesus that are quoted often.  But is the truth that Jesus talked about truth that frees us from responsibility or concern or care for others.  That is not what he said in so many other places when he challenged all who would follow him to care of others in society who could not care for themselves.  That became the defining attribute of what it means to truly be free through the truth that he offered humanity.  Freedom to be involved in a world that needed to receive the love that only God could give through the followers of those who would claim that mission as their own for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Will you have the carrot or the stick?

I have decided on a new plan in order to boost attendance at our church.  Since so many cannot get motivated enough to come to church on many Sundays, I have decided that we are going to give away a brand new 2015 car or truck next year.  We will begin on the first Sunday of 2015 and each week that a person is present in church, they can put their name in a basket from which we will choose the winner of the vehicle on the last Sunday of the year.  So, each person has 52 chances to win in this big attendance extravaganza.  Couples can have twice as many chances if both of them can get to church on the same Sunday.  We will emphasize this drawing over and over again each week in order to build enthusiasm and when the fall comes we will begin telling everyone that the time of the drawing is nearing.  I bet we will have a full house on the last Sunday of the year despite the fact that it is usually one of the lowest attendance Sundays since it falls just after Christmas.

Isn't that a great plan?  I wonder if people would actually attend more if they thought they may win a huge prize after a certain time period OR would they fall back into their old habits and begin to rationalize it telling themselves that the vehicle being given away is not that good after all or that they could buy it themselves and not have to worry about attending church so much.  Would the chance at winning a big prize such as a vehicle be a motivator enough to encourage people to attend church more often?

When I was preparing to be an educator back in the early 1970s, I remember taking a psychology class in which we discussed intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  The topic has to do with what it takes to get a person to complete a task.  In education classes, of course, it was about what could we as teachers do to encourage students to complete the work assigned to them.  The thought behind the lesson was that some people just have a natural motivation to complete a task; it is just part of who they are genetically.  That is called intrinsic motivation.  When you do what is required just because it is required, you are intrinsically motivated to do it.  No outside force is making you do it.  If, however, you need an outside stimulus to get you to do what is required, then that is called extrinsic motivation.

Motivators comes in many forms but generally they can be positive or negative.  Giving away a car in order to get people to attend church is positive motivation.  People may respond because they think there is a reward tied to their behavior.  Threatening a punishment for not attending church is a negative motivator.  Churches have used the threat of punishment to get people to do what they want for centuries and it sometimes works but it rarely works in today's world.  The threat of hell or divine retribution does not motivate people as much as it did back in the Colonial Period when people would shake in their boots when a preacher described God holding them over the flames of hell wanting to drop them into eternal damnation.  People do not really believe in that kind of God anymore and most of us have no use of hell in our theology. Even if we do, the threat of hell rarely changes behaviors.  It just caused guilt.

So, will you come to our church every Sunday in 2015 in hopes of winning that new car or truck?  Will the hope of that prize make you want to get up every Sunday and put your name in the box at church so that you can have more chances at winning the prize?  Or will you get excited about it for a while and then give up on it because it does not really motivate you to do something you would rather not do?

Perhaps that is the biggest question in this discussion.....if people do not attend church regularly, why don't they?  If the carrot or the stick does not work to bring about the desired behavior (attending church) then what would?  Perhaps an internal change is all that brings about intrinsic has to desire to do what one wants to do in order to make oneself do it.  Perhaps asking God to give us the desire to be with God's people and to learn God's will and way for our lives can bring about the change we need even more than a brand new 2015 automobile.

PS.  There is not going to be an actual automobile given away at church in 2015.  That is what we call playful fantasy in writing to make a point.  Just in case you may have wondered....

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Make Your Choice

Decisions, do we decide?  Some things are hard to decide, some are easy.  Sometimes you think you have made the best choice and then you have second thoughts.  I have officiated at many weddings over the course of my 23 years of being a pastor.   I have yet to see a person decide not to get married on their wedding day.  Yes, we see that happen in movies.  In fact, some movies are about that very idea.  "The Runaway Bride" was a movie about a woman who decided not to get married.  "In and Out" was another one about a man who decided not to get married.  In real life, though, think about how hard it would be not to get married on your wedding day once all the plans have been made, the reception has been paid for, the guests have all gathered.  Think about how much courage it would take to not get married when everything has been done to prepare for the wedding and you are about to walk down the aisle and make it happen.  One person told me that he married his fiance even though he knew that he was making a terrible mistake, and he did, by evidence that the marriage ended in divorce only 2 1/2 years later.

Decisions, big important ones, need to be carefully thought over and the decision made is one that persons must live with for the rest of their lives.  Those decisions affect the rest of your life....the college you will attend, the person you will marry, where you will live, whether or not you will have children, the profession you choose.  All are life changing decisions.

Joshua challenged the People called Israel to think carefully before answering the question he put to them in the 24th chapter of Joshua.  "Choose this day whom you will serve...will it be Yahweh the God of Israel or will it be the gods of the surrounding area" (paraphrased).  Then, the old grizzly commander in chief (he was 110 years old at the time) questioned their sincerity and whether or not they could really fulfill their commitment to serve Yahweh.  "You cannot serve Yahweh, because if you make a promise and do not fulfill it, then he will turn around and do you harm rather than good."  They believed that God would punish those who went back on their word or promise to God.

The people insisted that they could serve Yahweh alone and not worship the idols of the Ammorites, Canaannites, etc in the land where they lived.  Joshua made them give their word and then wrote down their promise in the book of statutes.  He also said that nature bore witness to their pledge and set up a rock as a monument to remind them of what they had promised.  Then, he sent them out to get to work.  Their promise did not last long, though, because the next book of the Bible, Judges, describes how they began to find idols in the land to worship along with their worship of Yahweh.

Making promises is easy...keeping them is much more difficult.  Keeping promises to be faithful to a spouse or a church takes work on our part.  People make promises but time and obstacles get in the way and they forget the promises they make.  Sometimes I blame the church for making it so easy for people to become church members.  We ask one simple question, if people will be faithful and support the church they are joining, and then we do not spell out what we mean by being "faithful" or to "support" the church.

Perhaps we should use some of ole Joshua's reasoning.  Maybe when they say "Yes" to our question about their faithful participation in the church, I should say, "Are you sure you can do this?  Do not promise if you cannot fulfill it?"  We are too polite to do such things, though.  We just shake their hands and welcome them in and then leave them to their own devices, never expecting much of them but hoping they will attend church and give of their resources to support the church and participate in the activities of the church.  Then, years later when we do not see them again, we scratch our heads and say, "What ever happened to them?  I hardly see them."  Perhaps the old saying is as valuable as scripture, "To whom much is given, much is required."  Or to rewrite it, "When little is expected of someone, that is what you get in return."

 Perhaps a new commitment is needed now and then as a refresher course in what it means to be a member of a church just as it is often done for marriages, something to refresh our memories as to why this is important and what we said to get into this relationship in the first place.  A lot is riding on both of them so putting a little effort into it may bring a good return in our investment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches

When I began my life in ministry back in 1991, I served as pastor of two small rural churches in northeast Texas, Edom United Methodist Church, which is about 17 miles west of Tyler, Texas and Sexton Chapel United Methodist Church, which is about 6 miles north of Edom.  At the time of my pastorate there, Edom UMC had about 200 members and about half that in worship on a good Sunday while Sexton Chapel UMC had about 25 members and about 12 on a good Sunday.  I was one in a long line of pastors who had served both congregations for many years.  We were part of those called "Circuit-Riders" in Methodist tradition, pastors who served more than one congregation and who often officiated at services at both each Sunday.  I did that for the three years I was pastor there.  I would drive out to Sexton Chapel, in the Primrose Community, and have service with 10-12 people at 9:30 each Sunday morning.  Then I would return to Edom UMC and have service there with 100 folks, more or less, at 11:00.  We would finish up by about noon so that we could have lunch with the tourists in town (Edom is an arts community and hosts an Arts Fair each year) at the Woodshed Cafe across the street from the Edom church most Sundays.

The church at Edom continues to grow slowly but surely, replacing those who pass away with others to continue to carry the load.  The church at Sexton Chapel closed its doors in 2009 and was merged with Edom as its stronger neighbor six miles away.  At one time, the church at Sexton Chapel was as strong as its neighbor church with over 100 members and was very active.  During my tenure there, once a year there was a reunion with singing and dinner after worship when the children and relatives of members would drive in from Dallas or Shreveport or other cities to reminisce about the good ole days of the church.  Other than that one Sunday each year, however, there were so few people in worship that the congregation could barely pay its share of the pastor's salary and keep the lights on.  Finally, they could no longer function because most of the active members had died and no one was left to continue the job of keeping the church alive.

Those of us who work in ministry often worry about what will happen to churches when its members are no longer active in the life and ministry of the church.  When people have their names on a church membership roll, and that is enough connection to the local church, when they stop attending church except for holidays or special days such as baptisms or confirmations, when they stop giving to their church because they rarely attend and they only give when they are present, when they no longer care to serve on a committee or work at a church clean-up day or visit the sick or shut-ins, what will happen to the church?  Will it have a future?

Churches exist to provide a vision to people as to how their lives may be better because of the message that the church has to offer.  It is not there simply to baptize, confirm, marry, and bury its members, although those are functions of a church, but it exists to offer something better to people than the culture can offer so that their lives will be better lives than they could have without the influence of the church in their lives.  Churches exist to give meaning to the lives of all who come under its teachings and activities, whether they "belong" to a church or not.

Without "active" members a church cannot continue to live.  Names on a church roll do not contribute anything to the life of a church.  Only living bodies, people who can think and create and work, can make a church come alive.  Even if a church has a long history, that is not what is important today.  It is the people who presently make the church to be an active one that brings life to it.  Otherwise it is just a building in a place that could function as a museum, as do many churches in Europe that have closed due to no one caring to continue to make it a living entity.

When people become members of the church I serve now, we ask them if they will be "faithful members" and "support its ministries".  That is all that is required of people who call themselves Christians to join our church.  I guess we should be more specific as to what it means to be "faithful" since that word seems to have lost some of its meaning over the years in society.  Some churches ask if persons will give their prayers, presence, gifts, and service....that is helpful.  Others ask if people will give of their time, talent, and treasure.  That is also helpful in defining what is needed from church members.  Maybe we need to be even more explicit.....Will you choose to come to church most Sundays except when you are ill or out of town, even when there is football on tv or sports to participate in otherwise?  Will you choose to come to church when it is hot or cold or rainy or cloudy unless a flood or hurricane or ice storm prevents you?  Will you choose to give of your resources to the church so that we can pay the pastor and staff and keep the air conditioning and heat going and pay the church insurance?  Will you pray for your church and pastor and ask God to lead you into thinking about ways to be involved and active in your church?  Will you serve as you are asked, knowing that God and others will help you in whatever you are asked to do?

Those would be good questions to ask of prospective members.  The only thing is, if we asked straightforward questions such as those, as people considered church membership, we may have many less members than we do now.  Church membership is very easy and the cost of being one is not explicit.  It is easy to become a member and stay one until we die.  Laying out the expectations of what it really means to be a church member, a difficult thing to do.

Without active and involved members, though...any church can become like Sexton Chapel church...closed with no future because no one really cared to continue its ministries.      

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Good Ole Martin Luther

This Sunday we will have a special worship service at our church to remember the beginnings of the Reformation, which happened nearly 500 years ago.  The man at the center of the Reformation, of course, was our good friend Martin Luther.  He was a very troubled man, to say the least.  He wanted to do right but felt like he was always sinning (and he was a monk who was supposed to devote his entire life to prayer and study and teaching, to boot).  He made pilgrimages, climbed up the steps in Rome on his knees, beat himself with a rope whip, and got so mad at the devil that he threw his ink bottle at the wall making a stain that supposedly can be seen to this day.  He challenged the institutions of his day that he felt were taking advantage of the poor and uneducated, which was nearly everyone except the rich, so on October 31 (yes, that is Halloween), 1517 he made a list of things he thought was wrong with his employer (The Roman Catholic Church) and posted them on the door of the church in the village where he lived, Wittenberg.  There were 97 things on this list so they became known as the 97 Theses.  That act of nailing them to the door of the church (which was the ancient equivalent of a bulletin board) was revolutionary and it began a movement that expanded and spread like wildfire across Europe.  It became known as the Reformation.

Luther did not actually intend on leaving his beloved Church, at first, but just wanted others to straighten up and stop what they were doing that he considered to be wrong but the authorities in charge took offense at what he wanted them to do and instead began proceedings against him to accuse him of crimes and to excommunicate him from the Church, which in their day was equivalent to banishing him to Hell.  Luther stood up for what he believed in and spoke to the authorities about his ideas resulting in his having to run for his life, literally, because there were people who wanted to kill him because of the ideas he taught.

Eventually, Luther found safety and a wife after he stopped being a monk.  Today, if you go to Wittenberg, Germany you can visit the place where Luther lived and the church where he nailed the 97 Theses.  You can hear an organ concert in the church and see a statue of Luther on the street.  The citizens of Wittenberg are preparing for the huge crowd of people to come in 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  Everyone has forgiven Luther for speaking out so long ago and now see him as their favorite son (since he brings so many tourists to town).

Luther's lesson in speaking up is one that all of us must consider when we see injustice around us.  Questioning authority seems easy to do today when we live in a country with freedom of speech but often we are afraid and do not speak out when injustice is around us.  Luther faced death by speaking out for what he believed in and finally had to give up his job in order to live in peace.  We remember Luther at this time of year for his courage and ask God to also give us courage in the face of modern challenges.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Eight


            I am going to miss these cool summer mornings that happen regularly in Parker’s Cove.  The temperature was 56 degrees this morning.  There was a beautiful sunrise with the copper colored morning giving way to the bright blue.  When we got up the tide was out and the little fishing boats lay in the mud and rocks.  There were many seagulls, crows, and cormorants around making their usual noises.  Some sat on the rocks just offshore as they do when the tide is out, populating the area where water once stood to see if they can find anything to eat that may have been left behind by its receding. 
            It was a lazy feeling Saturday morning but we were up early and had coffee and sat on the sofa looking out the window at the view.  We decided to have only toast this morning as we were going into Annapolis Royal for the Saturday Market one last time.  We do not really need anything in particular and cannot bring fruit or vegetables across the US border so we could only buy things we may want to bring home with us to remind us of our time here. 
            The market was busier than usual, thanks to the motorcycle rally that is going on over in Digby.  It is one of the largest ones in the Maritimes bringing in an estimated 50,000 participants.  Some of them ride around the area during the five days of the rally and know that the Annapolis Royal market is a large one.  Parking places on market days are rare but luckily we found a car backing out just as we pulled in the parking lot and parked close to where the vendors begin selling their wares. 
            We have brought Bo with us each time we have gone to the market and he is always a big hit with people.  Doris carries him around in her arms and people stop us frequently to ask us about him and to pet him.  He must not mind the attention because he allows all to pet him and he never growls at anyone. 
            We bought potato pancakes from a German woman who is at the market each week.  Finding some empty steps at a nearby building to sit on, we ate them as we watched others pass by.  Bo would bark at other dogs going by but he never barks at their humans.  Soon, I went to buy some coffee for us and we found a pastry to go alone with it. 
            We looked around; walking here and there to see all that was being offered.  Lots of fruit and vegetables from the farms in the area were being sold.  Crafts made by local craftsmen—wooden, pottery, stained glass—proudly displayed by their makers.  Breads, pastries, sausages—all made in local shops nearby to be sold at markets throughout the area. 
            I had bought a coffee cup in Digby made by a local potter, a German man who is originally from Bavaria.  He was at the market with his wife and son and we talked with him a bit.  He remembered us being in his shop earlier this week and he remembered Bo coming with us. 
            We had bought some delicious almond croissants at the market in Kentville last Wednesday.  They were made by a bakery called Marie and Guy’s, French people who have immigrated to Canada from southern France near the Spanish border.  We saw her at the market today and told her hold delicious her pastries were, asking if she had more with her today.  Alas, she said she had already sold them but did have others.  We looked them over but did not choose any from her to purchase.
            Rounding the corner, we found the booth of another baker from whom we had bought pastries and bread two weeks ago.  They had some delicious looking blueberry tarts so we bought a few from them to take with us for our trip home. 
            A woman who knits had sold us a sweater for Bo on our first trip to the market.  We stopped at her booth to see if she had a larger one for our granddog Kiwi.  She had a light green one that was larger than the one we bought for Bo so we bought it to send it to Laura for her to try it on Kiwi.  We told the woman goodbye and that we would be returning to Texas soon.  She wished us safe travels. 
            Back at our cottage, we began preparations for traveling back home.  We had one last lunch, trying to use up the remainder of the fresh vegetables we had in the refrigerator.  We cooked one more batch of fish we had stores in the freezer.  We finished off the loaf of homemade bread we had bought at the Kentville market earlier this week.  Little by little, we are closing up our home away from home we had shared for the past four weeks to begin the process of going home to where our real home is, about 3000 miles from here. 
            Having a time away is wonderful.  It is very enjoyable and relaxing to have new experiences in a new place, to meet new people and learn about them.  It is relaxing and energizing to breathe in the clear, pure air that is part of the natural environment in a beautiful place and to have cool, refreshing air daily as a wonderful gift.  As the saying goes, all things must come to an end, and being away must also end if one is to return home. 
            I am not looking forward to the long drive home, through many states, over many miles of mostly interstate highways but I know the end result will be that the road will lead us home once more, back to where we have friends waiting who we look forward to seeing again.  What a blessing it has been to have an extended time away to enjoy all of these unique things but home calls once more as it always does to bring us to where we belong. 
            “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven;”

(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Seven


            I thought I heard thunder last night during the night when I awoke from sleep briefly, but now I think it was the strong north winds that had moved in with the cold front.  The strong winds are still blowing this morning, winds of tropical storm strength most likely, bringing waves that are worthy of surfers on the West Coast of the US.  The tide is at low tide right now so the rocks in the bay are revealed but at high tide they are completely covered by the waters of the bay. 
            A cold north wind is blowing.  The temperature is 60 but it feels more like 45 with the wind blowing furiously.  When the conditions are like this, the bay seems more like the wide open ocean which it is since the Bay of Fundy empties into the Atlantic.  The sun is shining brightly after a cloudy start but the sun’s rays are not enough to warm up the air as the wind batters about everything that is not tied down. 
            There are two days left here including today and the plan is not to venture too far away but to get out into the country one final time to catch glimpses of the autumn colors which are beginning to show.  There is a country road that runs almost parallel to Hwy 1 and we have not driven it very far so we thought we would explore it a bit more.  It connects to others roads we have traveled twice which are dotted with dairy farms and apple orchards.  Communities with lovely names like Paradise and Clarence are along the way, communities with no visible businesses but with little stands here and there advertising vegetables and fruits for sale at houses along the way. 
            We have eaten most of the fresh vegetables we had bought to cook with so we are at a place where we do not want to buy many more as our days here are numbered.  We may buy some green onions to go along with the remainder of a butternut squash we used a few days ago and the rest has been in the fridge waiting to be used in a pasta dish.   We have fresh basil, tomatoes, and the squash so it should be good sautéed together with the onions and a bit of cheese.  We have two kinds of fish in the freezer to be used too so there is the core of two dinners which is about how many we have left to prepare at the cottage before leaving. 
            What we are experiencing is called “in between time.”  We all experience such times in life.  It is not time to go yet but the time is so limited where we are that we do not know what to do to pass the time before we go.  So, you have to be creative and use your time wisely. 
            When I was a school teacher, the day before a holiday or the last day of school was like that.  Some teachers allowed their students to have a “free day” with nothing planned for them to do to use the time before leaving.  Those teachers usually had a pretty rough day as students would create things to do that would usually be things that the teacher would not want them to do.  That was not always the case but the motto that I lived by on that day was, “Busy people are happy people.”  So, I usually had projects for students to do to keep them busy during the day so that all our lives would be happy ones. 
            In between time can come for us in other ways besides preparing for travel.  Waiting for treatment for a disease, waiting at the bedside of a sick one, preparing for a test or medical exam, sitting by the phone to hear about a job offer, thinking about a new house to purchase for a move-- All are things that happen normally in life that are part of in between time. 
            Sometimes the anticipation or excitement of what is to come helps us to wait.  Sometimes it can be heart wrenching though.  A part of us wants to go forward but   another part tells us to wait.  Living useful meaningful lives during times of waiting becomes the purpose that we are looking for in life. 
            When I filled in report cards for students as a teacher, there was a box on some of them that said, “Uses time wisely.”  It was up to the teacher to decide if a check filled in that box or not.  The teacher could observe who used time wisely and who did not over the course of the grading period. 
            We all have to use our time wisely as we wait during in between times which fill up many periods of our lives.  We can trust God to lead us to make good decisions so that our time will truly be used wisely and we will live meaningful, useful lives. 
            “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time…” (Ephesians 5:15-16)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Six


            The day began with clouds and a bit of fog covering the area, with the sun unable to break through it.  Then, rain began and gently fell for about a half hour.  As it stopped, the sun began to try to shine but then just as it brightened the day, suddenly fog rolled in from across the bay bringing the clouds again.  Such is life by the seashore.  It can change rapidly.  The ocean currents seem to be in charge of the weather.  The clouds come and go during the day even as the tides change. 
            Today is a day that we will stay close to our cottage.  We decided we need a day to just read, write, and relax since soon we will begin our journey back home.  We have been going here and there on many days and we have been trying to incorporate days to rest mixed in with the busy days. 
            We may venture across Parker’s Mountain this evening to have dinner out in Annapolis Royal at a restaurant near the river that we have seen.  We have been cooking our food most of the time we have been here and thought we would have one more meal out before going home.  There is a little café near the river run by some Austrian people.  It was recommended to us by a local person so we thought we would give it a try. 
            There is a boardwalk built by the river that runs from the library to the dock and it runs by the back of this café.  They have an outdoor dining area built near the boardwalk.  It is a pleasant place to sit and look at the river and the wildlife and enjoy a meal.  We have walked on the boardwalk and found it to be a very nice experience. 
            I continue to read, having finished reading six books so far and still reading each morning and afternoon.  I am currently reading The Shoes of Van Gogh by Cliff Edwards.  It is an examination of the artwork of Van Gogh from a spiritual viewpoint.  It explains much about the life of the artist and how his artwork revealed a spiritual side that is not often seen.  I will report on it later in more detail. 
            I often think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew where he invites all who are weary to come to him.  I had an enlightened moment concerning this verse when I was a young adult.  I had struggled with my own sense of self-worth for years and thought I was not worthy of anything that God would offer me.  I had been taught that you had to be perfect for God to love you and I knew that I was far from perfect.  So, I had just about given up on trying to earn God’s love (which is what it is if you think that you can be perfect enough for God to love you) when, as I read this passage from Matthew that God seemed to speak to me words of assurance. 
            “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
(Matthew 11:28-30)

            It was as if God said to me that all that was needed to come to God was to be tired.  I knew I was tired in so many ways and wanted rest for my soul.  It was at that point that I told God exactly those words and it was as if a light went on in my head and my burden of guilt was lifted.  I knew I could never be perfect and God does not expect perfection of me, simply trying to live in an honest, loving way, trying to serve God and my neighbor in all that I do.  I can do that, even if it does not always work out to be the most perfect way of doing things.    

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Five


            Today is Market Day at Kentville again, about 50 miles up the Annapolis Valley—which is the large agricultural area of Nova Scotia.  More produce is grown, fruit trees cover the area, berry bushes abound.  We have gone there two times already (it is held every Wednesday in downtown Kentville) so this was the last time for us to go there for this trip. 
            We drove there using the old road—Highway 1—instead of the faster moving freeway-like 101.  The road takes you through small towns along the way that have beautiful old homes dating back into the early 1900s or earlier.  There are many homes for sale, even some of the very beautiful ones.  The road also passes through some of those communities that bear only a name but nothing else.  It is a pleasant drive mostly at 55 mph or less but on a sunny day with little else to do it is nice to just drive along slowly and look at what is along the road. 
            The market is held downtown on a parking lot surrounded by other existing businesses.  Farmers bring their produce.  Crafts persons bring what they have made—soap, woodwork products, things that whirl in the wind, and other things that catch the eye.  Prepared foods are offered by part time restaurateurs.  Bakers bring their breads and pastries.  Sometimes there is music provided by a couple of musicians playing guitar and banjo or fiddle. 
            The atmosphere is almost fair-like with people visiting and laughing, stopping to look at the many booths, sampling some of the food products, buying things to put in their shopping bags.  In weeks past we have bought vegetables and bread from a nice couple who seem to be of the Mennonite faith.  She wears a bonnet and a long dress with an apron.  He wears plain gray clothing most times.  They grow and sell green beans, onions, garlic, and blueberries.  She makes several kinds of bread—we love the oatmeal molasses bread and have bought a loaf of it each time we have been there. 
            Doris bought a sarong from a woman who makes them for sale at the market.  The woman is named Joyce and she has chatted with us each time we have been there.  Two weeks ago when we were talking to her she told us that she is Irish and she comes from Cape Breton Island.  She told us about the Red Shoe Pub (which we intended to visit when we were there) and about the singers called the Rankins who own it.  Then she began to sing an Irish folksong to us as we all stood there in the market.  She has a lovely voice and the song was a slow sad song about someone telling someone else goodbye.  She laughed when she stopped and apologized for her voice not being good, which I told her she was mistaken.  She sang beautifully. 
            We also met a woman who sells homemade skin care products that contain emu oil.  She calls herself Nana and that is on her label.  She was intrigued by our being from Texas and said her husband is a bluegrass singer and had been to Texas.  She said she knew someone by the same name as a woman Doris taught with years ago.  We still have to investigate if it is the same person when we get home. 
            Everyone at the market who met Bo loved him.  Bo was the center of attention many times, drawing people to leave their booths and come over to look at him and ask about him.  People cannot believe that he is 9 years old since he looks very puppy like. 
            The markets happen in many towns in this area weekly during the summer months.  We will go to the Annapolis Royal market this Saturday for the last time before we leave on Sunday to begin our journey back to Texas.  We really do not go to them looking for specific items but we usually find things that we enjoy seeing or tasting or learning about.  There is a community spirit there.  Even if one buys little or nothing, it is the experience of being a part of it that brings some meaning to life. 
            Being part of the market is similar to being part of the religious community.  When we all gather to share a common experience, we belong to a higher purpose than we do alone.  We share in the experience of worship, of course, breaking bread and drinking wine and singing and listening and praying.  We share in the lives of one another as we share joys and concerns together and support each other in myriad ways.  The shared experience happens in many avenues of life but in the Christian community it has a purpose and meaning that transcends all the other experiences in life. 
            Each of us is important to the whole that we call the Body of Christ.  Each of us has a purpose that is important to the Body as a whole and if a member of it is absent then it is not complete.  What each person contributes is unique and cannot be provided by others in the same exact manner even if someone else does what is needed to be done.  The Body cannot function well unless all its parts are working in good order and are doing the jobs they are designed to do.  Each part of the Body of Christ must be present in order for it to be complete.  That is one reason why we miss individuals when they are not present for worship and work that needs to be done.  Each one is needed and necessary. 

            “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the One Spirit we are all baptized together into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (I Corinthians 12:12-13)   

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Four


            One of our favorite episodes of the British comedy Keeping Up Appearances was when Hyacinth decided that she wanted to host a “riparian picnic”.  When she invited her guests to join her and Richard on the picnic, they all had to look up the word “riparian” to find out its meaning.  They found out that the picnic would happen by a river since the word means “by or near a river”.   The result of the picnic near the river was that Hyacinth and Richard ended up getting drenched in the river while the guests laughed about the ending. 
            We decided to have a riparian picnic of our own today.  We packed a lunch of smoked fish (haddock), potato salad, bread, mayonnaise, and cookies with some iced tea and drove to a little roadside park we had seen when we were driving in the area last weekend.  It is a place called Hebb’s Landing and it is by the side of the Annapolis River.  There is a boat launch there and several places for picnics to happen.  We chose a covered one by the side of the river.  The wind was blowing briskly but the sun was shining brightly so we anchored down our paper plates with heavier objects and began the picnic, putting mayonnaise on bread and scooping up potato salad and munching happily as we looked up the beautiful blue water of the river running nearby. 
            One could not have asked for a more beautiful and tranquil scene for having a picnic or for any other reason.  Birds swam in the water.  Wildflowers grew in the grasses in our view.  We were thankful to be there enjoying this special moment together. 
            God gives us special moments in life to enjoy.  Sometimes they are planned, as was this picnic and there are other times when the moments just happen and we can bask in the beauty, serenity, and love of the place and the people we may share the moments with. 
            Our days in Nova Scotia are winding down.  Soon we will leave the cool breezes of the Bay of Fundy to return home to the hot winds of our Texas summer as they give way to the hint of autumn in the air that we hope will come quickly.  Even as we enjoy each of the remaining days here with the natural beauty and the pleasant feeling air, we will give thanks for the blessings of being able to share this together with one another.  We will also give thanks to God for allowing us to enjoy these blessings and for the moments in which we live. 
            “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. “  (Numbers 6:24-26)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Three


            Monday of our last week in Nova Scotia---chore day, the need to wash clothes has come again so we are preparing for a trip to Digby to go to the Laundromat.  While we are there we plan to browse their lineup of gift shops and see what they may have that we have not seen while here.  We seem to have a need to find some reminders of our time here, maybe something nautical in nature since that is the theme of this area.  I am finding boats of all kinds to be of interest and would like to find something to bring home that would remind me of Parker’s Cove and the fishing industry that is of great importance here.
            I have almost finished reading my fifth book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh.  It is a new biography of the German theologian that has just come out in print.  I have known a small amount about Bonhoeffer dating back to my days in seminary but have not known a great deal about him so I wanted to read more and this new biography has been receiving good reviews. 
            Bonhoeffer is a complex person.  Reared in an affluent German family, his father a successful psychiatrist and his mother a socialite, with servants to care for the needs of all family members, he enjoyed an upbringing with all the advantages of the upper echelon of German society of the early part of the 20th century.  Neither of his parents was extremely religious and church attendance was rare for him but he somehow developed an interest in spirituality at an early age and declared at the age of 15 that he wanted to become a theologian.  His parents neither encouraged or discouraged his decision and sent him to an excellent school in preparation for this career decision.
            He completed his advanced educational training with high marks and moved on to seminary, which was a very complex and complicated undertaking in his time.  Before he had finished his seminary education, he had written two doctoral dissertations and had received his PhD in theology and had set his sights on a professorship at the University of Berlin. 
            In order to fulfill the requirements for being licensed as a pastor in addition to receiving his degree, he had to work in a church setting for a year.  He chose to work in a lower socioeconomic neighborhood in Berlin with youth who had little religious training.  At first he found this difficult but then he began to teach them Bible stories that they had never heard and to incorporate music and drama into his work and won them over to wanting to know more about the Christian life. 
            This experience opened the door to the desire in his life to be a pastor and, instead of immediately pursuing a professorship at the university, Bonhoeffer served as assistant to a pastor at a German Lutheran Church in Barcelona, Spain where many expatriates lived.  He enjoyed being in Spain and found the time to travel to Italy and the Middle East while there.  He had a great love for travel and took every opportunity to go places about which he had read as a youth. 
            The time he spent in Barcelona sparked his interest in the Roman Catholic faith especially after his trip to Rome and his worship experiences at some of the great cathedrals in Rome, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  Bonhoeffer developed a great love for the monastic way of life which would become the basis for the way the Confessing Movement would be structured later in his life. 
            As Germany began to change with the imposition of Nazi rule under Adolph Hitler, Bonhoeffer became aware that he could no longer function as a pastor in the German Lutheran Church and he began a dissident church called the Confessing Church.  At first it was tolerated by the Nazis but soon they began to order more and more restrictions on religious freedoms for Germans and all they ruled in the Third Reich.  Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church was outlawed and anyone who participated in it could be charged with treason and arrested.  Hitler declared himself the new Messiah and demanded worship for him and his rule. 
            Friends that Bonhoeffer had made in the United States during a visit to Union Theological Seminary in New York in the early 1930s encouraged him to move to America to avoid being arrested and he did make a visit to New York in 1939 but felt so homesick that he could not stay so he returned to Germany to face whatever would happen there alongside his German friends who were being forced to serve in the military. 
            Bonhoeffer joined the underground movement and became a double spy, working for an agency where he was supposed to report on what was going on in England and the United States but at the same time he was reporting to the underground what he would learn about the Nazi plans during the war.  Soon, he was caught up in a plan to assassinate Hitler and that would eventually lead to his arrest and execution just before the war ended. 
            Bonhoeffer is widely known as the author of the book The Cost of Discipleship which came about as a result of his experiences and suffering.  He examined the biblical texts with Jesus’ words to “take up your cross, and follow me” and tried to explain what that means in our daily lives.  He was very critical of Americans when he visited the US twice and declared that they had never experienced a Reformation such as Germany had with Luther.  He thought of Americans as enjoying an individualism in religious thought and life that did not connect with his idea of community which he had written about in his doctoral dissertation.  As life became harder and harder for him in his native Germany, he made the decision to know the sufferings of his fellow Germans in a personal way rather than to run away to the US and avoid it all.  That decision cost him his life but his years in prison before his death left a legacy of writings that ask the modern reader to reflect upon what the cost of discipleship is for us in our world.  Is our religious or Christian experience one that is very individualistic or do we feel connected to the worldwide Christian community and its sufferings?  What does it mean to consider a “cost” to Christian discipleship today or is there a cost at all to modern American Christians?  What do Jesus’ words from Mark mean to us today as we consider them? 
            “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”

 (Mark 7:34-35)      

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Two


            Lately there has been a blue heron staying around the harbor area in Parker’s Cove.  It was here this morning early and it is back this evening near dusk.  It has been seen in the vicinity on several days.  It is a tall graceful bird with a long neck, and gray in color.  It is mainly looking around through the seaweed that covers the rocks after the tide goes out.  One time I saw it with a fish in its mouth so it has found some success in its search for food here. 
            This is Sunday so we went to the same United Church of Canada congregation with whom we had worshiped two weeks ago, the one in Annapolis Royal.  The Canadians as a whole are a bit more reserved than Americans and Nova Scotians are even more so.  So, it is difficult to judge them as to being friendly or not friendly to visitors in worship.  We had a few people talk to us and several come to us during the passing of the peace to greet us. 
            The pastor does not greet people at the door after worship as we do in our church.  She retreats to the parlor where coffee and cakes were being served, giving an invitation to join her in there at the end of the worship service.  That may be their custom rather than the one we are accustomed to in our congregation.  We did not stay for the coffee time afterwards though, making an exit through the rear doors instead. 
            The service as a whole was very good and meaningful.  Doris and I knew all the hymns sung today although they sung some responses and the Lord’s Prayer to a tune we did not know.  The pastor read her text for her sermon, which was one of the parables of Jesus, and then did not preach on it.  Instead, she talked about looking at works of art as examples of parables.  She had two pictures of paintings projected on the wall in the sanctuary and used them as examples of art work that teach a lesson.  I was a bit disappointed that she did not preach on the scripture she read since I have preached on it and would have enjoyed hearing her interpretation of it.  Anyway, we enjoyed going to worship and felt uplifted by the experience as a whole. 
            As I said on an earlier Sunday, it is valuable for me to be a visitor in worship now and then so I can understand how someone who is new to a congregation feels.  I think it helps all of us to be the “new person” now and then in a social setting so we can understand the feelings of others and try to reach out to them when they are visiting in our church. 
            We had a rather quiet and restful day the remainder of our day.  The area around the wharf and the campground across from it was very quiet with no one visiting either area.  We sat on the porch a while and had coffee and cookies and finally went inside to prepare dinner.  It has been a very good Sabbath day. 

            “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength.”  (Isaiah 30:15b,c)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Days Twenty and Twenty-One


            We took an excursion to Cape Breton Island which required spending a night away from the cottage.  Cape Breton Island is the northernmost part of Nova Scotia and since we are staying almost at the southern end of it then we had to drive about six hours to reach the area where we would spend the night.   Cape Breton Island is the Celtic center of Nova Scotia where the Scots and Irish settled when they came to Nova Scotia in the 1700s.  It is an island so there is a causeway that connects it to the rest of Nova Scotia. 
            So, on Friday morning we had breakfast and got ready and packed a few things for an overnight stay and began our drive.  Nova Scotia has a series of major roads that we Americans may think of as “freeways” but they are not freeways in the same sense as the roads for which we use this term.  There are stretches where the roads are four lane roads with higher speeds of 60-70 mph but suddenly those lanes will end and you will be driving on a two lane road with a top speed of 55 mph or less.  In addition, these major roads do not go everywhere around the province so to get across the mid-section of Nova Scotia one either has to get off on two lane slower traveled roads that are generally not in top condition or one has to stay on the freeway roads and go south nearly to Halifax and then double back and go north again ending up straight across from where the road went south that one just left.  We did both things on this trip and neither were satisfying, travel wise. 
            Anyway, we drove from about 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., taking times for gas stops, lunch, and other necessary stops and reached our motel in Whycocomagh (which is a First Nation word- people that we call Native Americans are called First Nation in Canada) to check in.  The clerk at the motel was very friendly and when she heard we planned on going to the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou that night to hear Celtic Music, she guided us into going instead to the town of Baddeck, just north of there to attend a Ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee) that would begin at 7:30 instead of driving to Mabou in the rain around curvy roads for the music that would begin at 9 pm.  We thought that sounded better as we do not like to be up to midnight when the 9 pm show ended and we did not want to drive over the curvy road s in the rain and in the dark. 
            So, we changed our plans and had dinner at a local café called Charlene’s which could have the best seafood chowder anywhere, at least that is what we thought.  Then, we drove to Baddeck and found the parish hall of St. Michael’s Church where the ceilidh would take place.  The hall was beginning to fill up already so we found our seats inside and waited for it to begin. 
            Just prior to beginning time, a younger petite woman came in carrying a case that contained a fiddle and took it out to begin warming up.  Another woman about the same age came in and began to open up the top and front of an upright piano and sat down on a swivel stool and began to warm up also.  At the time to start, the woman who had seated us came forward and introduced the musicians and they began the program that would last for two hours. 
            A “Ceilidh” is a traditional Celtic musical party that features fiddle and piano playing tunes that have been created, shared, and handed down from one generation to the next for at least two centuries.  The tunes, many of which came from the British Isles, have been preserved by musicians and taught to one another.  The fiddler named Jennifer has been studying this type of music for at least 20 years.  The pianist named Susan began playing when she was a youth and has continued learning throughout her life.
            Much of the music was lively—reels and jigs---to which volunteers danced.  The musicians and the audience tapped their feet to the music to keep time.  Some of the music was slow and soulful, achingly beautiful, with a haunting melody.  Susan played a tune she made up in honor of her grandmother named Rose and it was very beautiful but it has never been recorded or written down for publication.  When we heard it, she was playing it from memory as her hands moved across the piano. 
            The concert was educational as well as beautiful to hear.  The pair explained much about the Celtic Music of Cape Breton Island and how it has been preserved free from many of the outside influences that shaped similar music that originates in the Appalachian Mountains in the USA.  There the music received additions from others living in their area that made the music what it is today while the Cape Breton Celtic Music is much more similar to music that originated in Scotland and Ireland, some of which is still played in those countries today. 
            The presenters answered questions from the audience and performed some step dancing, each dancing while the other played their instrument.  Both were very adept at dancing in the manner that we have seen in programs such as Riverdance.  They were very entertaining as well as informative. 
            The evening was very meaningful to Doris and me because we each have family connections to the British Isles.  My Carpenters and Cogswells (my grandmother’s maiden name) have their roots in England.  The Conways (another line) have connections to Ireland.  Doris has at least one line of her genealogy that has roots in the British Isles also.  I connect with the music on a level that speaks to me when I hear the slow melancholy tunes such as were performed last night.  It is as if I can hear the ancestors calling to me through the notes that compose the tunes. 
            We returned to our motel and had a good night’s sleep and then drove to Mabou over those curvy, hilly roads that we did not drive the night before.  The countryside is beautiful with hills looking over lakes and rivers.  At one point we spotted two bald eagles near a river we passed.  One was flying down toward the water with his claws extended as if he was going to catch something that was in or near the water.  The green hills rose up from the roadside to form the mountains around us and I told Doris that the pioneers who came here from Ireland and Scotland probably felt at home as it must resemble some place there. 
            We had breakfast at the Shining Waters Eatery in Mabou, delicious food that included porridge bread, a specialty of the house.  Sipping some great coffee as we waited for our food, I looked around the room at all of the people who bore some resemblance to the Irish and Scottish people who settled this area.  I observed a few people with red hair, many with light colored hair, facial features that remind me of people I have seen while traveling in the UK, having conversations about modern things but with a lilt or intonation in the voice that made me think that their ancestry is still alive in this generation. 
            As I looked around and listened to them talk, I felt a connection in this place too.  In this ordinary moment in life, something spoke to me that was spiritual in nature as well as sentimental in consideration of the past.  I felt as if I belonged, even though I live in a different country.  A connection existed that extends beyond time and place. 
            St. Paul sensed that there is a spiritual connection between many of us and that the Spirit unites us in ways that are mysterious and not fully understood.  We share something in common in the same way that we share genetics with others with whom we have an ancestral connection.  He wrote to Timothy and reminded him of the connection he had through his familial line. 
            “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.  For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  (II Timothy 1:5-7)