Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An Overflowing Crowd--A Tribute to Life

We had the largest funeral that has been held at our church since I have been pastor here last Sunday.  It was a funeral for a woman who had been a school teacher in the community for almost forty years.  She retired from teaching just prior to my coming as pastor but had taught first grade in this community and the adjacent one for those many decades.  I knew she was very well known but I was not ready for the huge crowd that turned out for her funeral.

Our church can seat around 300 persons on special days such as Easter Sunday but we have never before had so many people in attendance that even chairs in the rear of the sanctuary, throughout the overflow, and in other places could seat them all.  People were standing in the back, seated in the church library and nursery so they could hear the service via speakers, and some just sat in the fellowship hall during the service even though they could not participate due to technical difficulties in our speaker system out there.

The service was the usual funeral service we normally do at our church with hymns, scripture readings, and prayers.  I presented a homily that related the faith that this woman possessed and her service to the church and the world around her.  Then her daughter and grandson told stories about her life that painted the picture of the unique person that she was.  Finally, a duet sang the song that her two daughters had requested to be sung at the service, a song that was originally featured in a movie but has become popular in American culture--"Wind Beneath My Wings."

This song was sung because it expressed how the two daughters felt about their mother, a woman who overcame many challenges in order to help the daughters to become independent women with families and careers of their own.  She empowered them by equipping them for life through her example of someone who dealt with the challenges on a daily basis but did not give up even in the face of overwhelming odds.

How must it have felt to be a woman in her 30s, happily married with two children in elementary school and to have her husband die suddenly?  Faced with the challenge of carrying on to educated and nurture her two girls, she gathered up all the emotional strength she could and pressed forward into the future with her family beside her.  Plagued by health issues as a result of a tragic accident early in life, she dealt with each one as they came along and did what was required daily to keep healthy and active.  She had a strong community and church family to support her, but ultimately the decision to keep moving each day was hers alone and she did that with great strength and fortitude.

Last Sunday afternoon was a beautiful Texas spring day (even though it is officially still winter, we had a bit of spring that day) and for about 500 people to give up such an afternoon when we have had few of those this winter in order to be wedged into a church facility that was not designed to contain such a crowd is a tribute in itself to this woman.  Many would have looked at the size of the crowd with dismay and turned around to go home but even those standing remained for the hour that the service lasted and did not leave until its conclusion.  The fellowship hall was filled with persons afterwards who returned to continue to express their words of hope to the family over dessert and coffee and tea provided by a large band of workers.  The day was tiring but fulfilling in that all things worked together for good to express the love of church and community to the family who needed to experience it.

Jesus was in a house one time teaching an overflowing crowd when suddenly the roof tiles began to move and a cot with a sick man was lowered through the roof down into the middle of the crowd so that he could bring healing to the sick man.  Jesus healed the man and the crowd experienced the power and grace of God among them.  We experienced the same thing last Sunday among the crowd gathered at our church.  God's power and grace was made evident through the presence of so many who cared and through their words and actions that spoke peace even in the face of death.

Modern life has become so busy that people rarely take the time to attend funerals anymore.  Many make a quick pass by the funeral home at visitation time to say a few words to the grieving ones and then go on their way but when people are willing to block out time in their lives and devote that time to being present to others when the circumstances are not optimum, then you certainly can feel the love made manifest through such an experience.  God bless those who will take the time to put their own needs and desires aside in order to be present to others who need them.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Do What?!

An old preacher who was known for telling his congregants about the way he thought they should live would often stop mid-sentence and say, "Now, I've stopped preaching and gone to meddling."  That is the way we can picture some of Jesus' listeners during the Sermon on the Mount thinking about what Jesus is telling them in the latter portion of it found in Matthew 5.  This past week's lection concerned anger, adultery, divorce, and taking oaths--all things that plague modern day Christians as much as they did Jesus' original audience. Next Sunday we conclude our four week journey through the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus' next admonitions to love your enemies and not get back at others when they have wronged you.  I can just picture some of Jesus' listeners saying, "Do What?!"

The ancient world had come a long way since the days of Moses leading the people called Israel through the desert to the Promised Land.  Before the Exodus, the law of the land was tribal justice which meant that if someone was offended by another, then they may raid their village and kill everyone in it for revenge.  After the Exodus, when the Law was given to the Israelites, justice became equivalent---an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a cow for a cow, etc.  So, an enemy would not automatically murder an entire village because he was wronged.  He would just murder the person whom he blamed for the injustice or steal whatever he thought was fair to recoup a loss he thought he had suffered at the hands of another.

A couple thousand years later, Jesus is teaching on the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and gives a new teaching that no one would have thought would ever come along.  He told them that those who are part of the Kingdom of Heaven (the poor in spirit, the merciful, those who mourn, those who yearn for righteousness) would live in a way that fits their place in the kingdom.  He told them to "love your enemies".  What an odd thing to say, even in today's world.  Why in the world would anyone tell someone to love their enemies?  After all, isn't an enemy someone that you automatically hate or at least dislike strongly?  Isn't that the definition of an enemy?  Exactly!  Jesus' teaching was one that promoted behavior that encouraged enemies to become friends, or at least less abrasive enemies.

When I was in high school in the tenth grade, I hated tenth grade and school very much.  I had subjects I knew little about but was expected to learn (such as geometry).  I had subjects that did not interest me except for English which I loved.  And, I had a bully who picked on me every day when I went to P.E. class.  I do not know, even to this day, why this bully targeted me as the one who would bully me daily but he did not like me even though he did not know me at all.  He would hit me and call me names and make my life miserable every day I went to P.E. class.  Luckily, I had a coach for a teacher for that class who did not care if students went to class or not so every day I could I would ask if I could go to the library to work on other work and he would say, "Sure, go ahead" so I would go to the school library and not have P.E. class.  I always got an A in the class even if I did not attend.   When I did have to go to P.E. for some reason, my bully was always there to help make my life miserable during that day.

If my pastor had told me to love that enemy, I would have laughed in his face or at least later on after he said the words.  When we hear the word "love" we think of romantic love or love for our family members or close friends.  The Greek word used in the passage though is the one used that means to respect or imagine God's love for them.  Even that definition of love is hard to apply to enemies but Jesus was trying to let his listeners know that citizens of the heavenly kingdom love in a way that earthly people cannot understand.  What he told them did not make literal sense because he talked about turning a cheek so that others can hit it, giving away your cloak if someone want your coat, and walking 2 miles if someone demands you walk one mile to carry their load.  All of those self-giving acts puts the oppressor in a bad light because they receive more than they demanded by force.

Loving an enemy implies wanting the best for them which is again hard to imagine if the person is truly your enemy.  Wishing them the best goes against our grain because we want enemies to suffer and die if possible.  At least that is the human response to having an enemy and we are all humans, even our enemies.  When we try to imagine a heavenly response to an earthly dilemma, however, we attempt to see it through a lens that is like God's view of the world where everyone matters and God has love for all.  God's love makes all persons to be seen as valuable, even those whom we may consider an enemy.  Attempting to visualize others in a God-like way brings us from labeling another as "enemy" to accepting another even if we would really not want to try.

Going the extra mile is all about carrying a load twice as far as someone else demands.  The thought reminds me of a statue that is outside the Cal Farley Boy's Ranch outside of Amarillo, Texas.  It has a younger boy riding on the back of an older boy and a motto that reads, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother."  A song was made with those same words.  When we begin to see others as brother or sister, then the word "enemy" ceases to be one that we can use to describe them.  Assisting others to become brothers and sisters is what we are about as citizens of God's Heavenly Kingdom here on earth.  God help us all to have eyes that can see the worth in others even when it is the most difficult thing that we think we can do.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Saying Goodbye is Not Always Easy

Last Friday morning we had to say goodbye to a dear friend whom we had known for 15 years.  She was a very close friend.  She had lived with us in our house for 15 years, had slept in our bedroom, had gone on walks with us, had taken trips to other states with us.  She was a dear friend who we accepted as part of our family.  If you have not figured it out by now, this dear from was our family dog.  We called her Bushy, although the woman who gave her to our family called her Rosebush.  She was found wandering the streets of Longview, Texas about 22 years ago when she was just a puppy.  This kind woman took her in, cleaned her up, took her to the vet to have her checked over and to get her shots and then put her in her backyard with the other dogs she kept.  Bushy learned to fend for herself there along with the big dogs but soon the day came when the kind lady had to let someone else take care of Bushy because she had too many dogs to  handle, and that was when she entered our lives.

Bushy was about 7 years old when she came to live with our daughter who was in junior college in Tyler.  We had never had a dog that lived in our house and we were hesitant at first but our daughter assured us that she was just "trying her out" so we allowed Bushy to live with us during the trial period.  Bushy loved to chase toys and was a very loving affectionate animal as soon as she entered our lives.  She was very little trouble at all.  She just wanted to be with her owners and keep them company and only needed food to eat and a place to sleep and occasional walks around the block.

Our daughter finished with junior college and left to go to the university 200 miles away and Bushy could not go to her new apartment.  Dogs were not allowed there (all I could say was, "How rude!".  Some animals are better tenants than some humans who live there...but I digress.)  So, Bushy gradually became the dog that belonged to my wife and me.  Bushy was very loyal and protective and it felt good to have a dog in the house to protect us in case an intruder should try to enter.  She would bark and we would know that someone was on the property, be it the mailman or the plumber or a handy man we had hired.  We usually had to restrain her someplace so the workers could do their business and she was always glad when they left.

Bushy moved with us to Weimar when we moved here and she had lived her for almost ten years, the same was we have.  We began to notice that her health was deteriorating, though.  First she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and began taking a daily pill to keep that in check.  Then, she did not seem to hear as well as before and gradually became totally deaf.  Her eyesight began to fail and then the seizures set in and it became clear that she was a very old lady and her time with us was short.  She began to fall down and could not get up easily and we would hold her until she was calm and she would pace the floor or the yard for an hour or more, restless in her spirit after her seizure.  Finally, last Friday after having two seizures in one night we decided that her pain had to end.  Her poor old black hair that once shone had turned gray here and there and her eyes were clouded with cataracts.

It was not an easy decision to give up our old friend that lived with us for 15 years but her 22 year old body could not continue to sustain her.  My wife and I both found ourselves sobbing as the doctor helped to end her pain and took her tired old body home to rest near the fence in the back yard, in the garden where we will plant a rosebush in tribute to her.  As the kind veterinarian told us as he consoled us last Friday, "Animals ask little from us but they give so much in return."  He is right.  She gave us so much more than we gave to her.  She was a friend that stuck closer than a brother in many ways and was always there to greet us and to make us feel better when we felt sad.  We will miss her but we will not forget her.