Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Finding the Way Back to Mayberry

Each year at our church we have a Lenten Series during the five weeks between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week.  Most years we simply have worship services with the usual components of worship.  Some years we have a Lenten Study where we study a book and discuss it.  This year I decided to do something different, something that I had heard about from another church.  We are watching episodes of the old Andy Griffith television series and discussing them.  So far, we have seen two episodes.  First, it was "Dogs, Dogs, Dogs" in which Opie brings a pack of dogs to the sheriff's office and they have to decide what to do with them. That episode taught us about mercy.  Then, we saw an episode entitled, "Mr. McBeevee" about a man that Opie had seen when he was playing in the woods and when he described him, neither Andy or Barney would believe that Opie had really seen the man.  That episode taught us about faith and believing one another's unique experiences.  This week, we will see an episode entitled, "The Sermon for Today" about a guest preacher who comes to Mayberry to preach at the local church.  The preacher is from the big city and gives them things to think about that they decide need some action.  

Our attendance at these Wednesday night video discussions has been very good, more than we usually have had in years past for Lenten services.  Why do people enjoy watching these old familiar black and white programs from back in the 1960s?  Why is this so attractive to so many in a rural church setting?  Perhaps the experiences that happen in Mayberry may mirror somewhat the experiences that people have had in other small towns similar to Mayberry.  I live in a small town and many experiences in small towns are very much like those in other towns about the same size.  Maybe people long for nostalgia, for the good ole days.  I have been told by more than one person that they like watching these videos because they are so down to earth and reliable.  You can watch them in a group of people of all ages and not have to fear that there could be content that may embarrass you.  The videos teach moral and practical lessons that were true when the programs first aired but are still just as valid today.  

The town of Mayberry, to many, represents the simple lifestyle that many people enjoyed during the 1960s when the episodes aired on national television.  The soldiers had returned from World War II over a decade before and prosperity was growing.  People were living comfortable lives in the small towns and suburbs of our nation.  People could laugh at the conversations and stunts on the Andy Griffith Show but could also relate to the moral and ethical lessons that were taught through the program.  

Mayberry represents to many the more simple way of life before life became so complicated by technology and progress that has brought us many conveniences but has also complicated our lives in many ways.  Technology is great but I have fought with my smart phone so many times since getting it because it will not do what I want it to do and have thought many times that life was simpler when I just had that flip phone and could talk on it with ease even if it cannot do all the things my smart phone can do.  Life was a lot simpler when we had to turn the rotor on the landline phone (because that was all there was) and only had three television stations to choose from.  Today we have a myriad of choices in so many areas of life and it leaves us feeling overwhelmed at times.  

Mayberry also represents the life style that many of us yearn for and some of us emulate when we go on vacation.  We may choose to sit by the lake or mountains and relax while looking at beautiful scenery and resting all we want or just looking around the area at whatever interests us.  We long for lazy days that seem to go on forever and practice some of that when we are away from home.  Americans especially think we have to be busy or occupied all the time or we feel lazy or ungrateful or inadequate.  We want to be on the go as much as possible and do not make a daily practice of valuing each moment and enjoying the day whether we are at work or play.  

When my wife and I were in Germany and Austria a few years ago, we had to get used to the custom of stores closing at noon so that the clerks could go home for lunch.  Most of the villages we visited observed this custom and the stores would close at noon and reopen at 2 or 3 pm.  The clerks were given the time to go home and eat lunch and maybe have a short nap before returning to the work.  The stores would be open to 6 or 8 pm but the noon rest time was important to them.  Can you imagine stores in the US adopting that practice?  They would be beat out by competitors who did not follow the practice and most of us would shop elsewhere because we wanted what we wanted immediately and could not wait for the stores to reopen.  

The longing for Mayberry in our lives may be partly the inner desire to have a slower, more satisfying lifestyle.  It could also be a clinging to the past that is part of our upbringing.  Whatever it represents to us, we enjoy thinking about the more simple lifestyle and sometimes even making it a part of our lives, even if it is just for a week or two when we are on vacation.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Can You Choose to Believe?

Last Sunday evening a new television series began called "Resurrection."  It had been advertised for many months with a clever little theme song to catch the imagination.  "I'm coming home, I'm coming home..." still runs in my head when I think about the program.  In case you did not see the first episode or have not been aware of the program, its premise is that persons who have died in the past are returning to the sleepy little town of Arcadia, Missouri.  The people return at the same age they were when they died.  The first episode was a the story of a boy who drowned at the age of 8.  It had been 32 years ago and his parents are in their 60s when he comes back.  They recognize him but cannot believe that it is actually him.  After his mother rejoices and accepts that this is indeed her son, he has a seizure of some sort and has to be hospitalized.  During that time in the hospital, the boy wanders out in the hallway and encounters his best friend with whom he played when they were both 8.   The best friend is now 40 years old and is the pastor of a local church.  When they meet, they both realize who the other is and the pastor is filled with questions which he addresses at a worship service the following Sunday.  The pastor makes a statement that I found very provocative and intriguing.  He said to his congregation--"You choose to believe."

I immediately thought..."That will preach."  And it does, especially in connection to the Gospel lesson this next Sunday from John 3.  I have preached that text many times.  It is the one in which Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night to ask him questions that he has pondered.  What kind of teacher is this Jesus?  What is he really about?  Nicodemus only talks a little during his conversation and Jesus teaches him many things about faith and God and love but after all of Jesus' teaching to Nicodemus that night, it finally all came down to the idea--Would Nicodemus choose to believe what Jesus said or not?

Is that what faith is?  Is it simply a choice we make?  Do we choose to believe what we want to believe in all the areas of our lives?  Do we believe in our political choices because they make us feel comfortable and more safe than believing in the opposite party or candidate?  Do we believe in our lifestyle choices because we think our quality of life is better by doing so?  Do we believe to be religious or not because our personal history informs that it was important to persons in our past so it must be important to us?  Is choosing to believe the dominant factor that rules our lives when we say we have faith in God?  Is it as easy as that...just making up our mind to believe?

Believing in a higher power is something that many find necessary.  Some find it to be needed because they find their life out of control without it.  My sister was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.  She was also an agnostic.  When she began attending AA meetings and got to the step where she was to turn to a higher power as her source of strength, she came to me with questions because she said she was unsure where to find the higher power.  As her brother, but also as a pastor, I tried to guide her but I could not force her to use a religious framework as her source for this if she did not find it authentic to her life.  All I could do was make suggestions.  Finally, she asked me if I thought it would be okay for her to use our deceased friend Mary as her higher power.  Mary had died of cancer a number of years before and my sister had admired her strength through her ordeal and had admired her wit and outlook on life also.  I told her that if she found strength through thinking of Mary as her source or strength in times of weakness that I thought that was great.  She made a shrine of sorts in her house to Mary with pictures of her and had that in a prominent display and I think she even talked to Mary when she needed her comfort.

My sister chose to believe that our friend Mary could be her source of strength in her times of weakness.  She chose to believe, to have faith in something that she was unsure of.  Humans choose to believe all the time in life.  What we choose to believe differs by individuals but it is part of the human experience.  Why do some find it harder than others to believe in the existence of God?  That is a complex question but there must be a multitude of answers to why some find it easy and others almost impossible to come to the same conclusion when it comes to matters of faith.

Nicodemus was told that the Spirit is like the wind.  It blows where it will and you only see its results from observing the landscape that is affected by it.  Some choose to feel the wind and enjoy how it feels on their skin when they are outside.  Some choose to run inside when the wind blows because they don't like how it feels on their skin.  Both reactions are reasonable.  It is just a choice people make when they experience the wind blowing.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Desert Days

I told the story in last week's sermon about our family traveling to Colorado for the first time when I was 13 years old.  I shared the story of traveling in that big Pontiac to Colorado Springs and up Pikes Peak and how it thrilled me so much to see the mountains for the first time, an experience that has stayed with me for life and has never let me go.  That same trip involved travel from Colorado down through the Four Corners Area and to Phoenix, Arizona where we visited relatives who had moved out there to work in the orange grove industry back in the 50s.

I remember driving over those desolate roads from northwestern New Mexico to Phoenix.  How dry and isolated the landscape was.  We went through long stretches of landscape where no one lived.  My mother, ever the worrier, voiced her concerns many times that she hoped the car did not break down in any of those barren spots.  I remember driving through the desert regions of Arizona and seeing the giant cactus, standing tall with their arms held high toward the sky.  We stopped to take pictures with them, avoiding lizards and other desert creatures that would scurry out of our way.

I must admit that as a child and young person, I also worried about the things my mother worried about.  Being stranded in the desert was always big on my worry list, especially in those days before cell phones and cars that are much more reliable than they once were.  As we would cruise over the miles in our large Pontiac, I would secretly wish that we would go faster so we would be out of the desert sooner and out of danger of being lost in the vast wasteland that surrounded us.

We did make it through the desert with no problem, thanks to my mom praying constantly while we were traveling.  She would pray under her breath, sounding a bit like she was whispering to herself but we knew what she was doing.  She does it to this day, especially when she asks someone else to say grace and we do not do it to her satisfaction so she adds additional prayers under her breath to compensate for our lack of proper prayer length and sincerity.

Being lost in the desert has always been a concern.  When one looks at movies that happen in desert areas, the characters are always looking for a source of water and a way out of the desert so they can find relief.  Many times they are so hot and tired and thirsty, they can barely pull themselves along the sand and begin to hallucinate seeing an oasis in the desert that does not exist.  They are so close to unconsciousness that they must find relief or they will die.

Jesus' forty days in the desert in this week's Gospel lesson leaves him in such a state.  He sees things, things that speak to him and challenge him, things that represent the evil in the world, the evil that is inherent in human beings.  Jesus hears a voice speak to him, from within his head, presenting him with challenges to give in to human desires while in his state of weakness from lack of food and water.  He considers finding food anywhere he can find it, even in rocks that resemble loaves of bread but knows that humans cannot change rocks into bread, even he cannot do that as he is a human too.  He thinks about taking a risk and letting God save him from the foolish choice he could make by putting himself in danger but again decides that God is not in the business of saving humans from making bad choices, too many humans had proven that to him over his years.  He thinks about the powerful armies of the world and the conquering heroes that are on display in the Roman Empire and what it would be like to be one of them but again decides that he was not chosen for such a place in life and puts that out of his head.  He finally comes to his senses and finds a source of food and water and it never tasted so good to him as when he has done without it for so long.

We spend 40 days in the desert of our own making each Lent.  Some of us give up something we enjoy such as cake or meat.  We find other things to eat that satisfy us when we are hungry.  Some of us add something on to our lives such as a spiritual practice such as meditating more or reading the Bible more or doing a kind deed for others daily.  Some of us just reflect upon our lives and what faith means to us as we live our lives around others.  Whatever we may do in our own Desert Days, when we enter into them willingly we find out who we are through the experiences of these days.

Lent may be a new experience to some people.  Maybe they have never been part of a Christian community that observed Lent.  Maybe they are new to Christian ideas or practices.  Maybe it is a bit risky for them to try to participate in it.  Trying something new is risky, such as driving through the desert when you have never gone there before, but when you try it and find it meaningful or rewarding it may speak to your spirit in ways  you have never encountered before.  The desert is a place of danger, for sure, but it is also a place of beauty and inspiration.  Some have even encountered the holy in such a place.  May you find the holy in your life as you continue to think about what life means to you.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Where Do You Live If You Cannot Afford to Live?

Last week I was privileged to represent our conference at the annual meeting of the Retirement Housing Foundation in Cerritos, California which is a community about 10 miles from Long Beach.  The Retirement Foundation (RHF) has an annual meeting each year at which representatives from the 30 Conferences of the United Church of Christ are invited to attend.  This year 5 conferences sent representatives.  Members of the Board of Directors of RHF were also present as were persons who work in various positions within the framework of RHF.  Part of the meeting was a continuing education opportunity for RHF Employees who manage and administer the housing facilities across the nation, part of whom come yearly to this event, according to the geographical area they serve.

The meeting began with a worship service held at the Community Congregational UCC Church in Los Alamitos, CA which is about 5 miles south of Cerritos.  The service was both a celebration of the ministry of RHF and a time to remember those who have served and died during the past calendar year.  Special music was offered and a sermon was preached by a UCC pastor.  I was asked to lead a prayer during the service and other Conference representatives had a part in the service as well.

The annual business meeting of RHF was held the next morning and then we loaded onto a bus to tour two of the housing communities in the area that RHF administers.  Both were in excellent condition and offered the residents a good quality of life but each was distinctive in its own rite.  Bixby Towers in Long Beach is a multi-story building that is clean and well kept and offers seniors a comfortable place to live at affordable prices.  We ate lunch there and the food was restaurant quality, served by a very gracious waitstaff.  I asked our tour leader if we received special food because we were visitors or if the residents received the same food.  I was assured that the residents also had the same choices we were offered (grilled salmon, nice green asparagus, a baked potato was what I chose).  All the residents we met and talked to seemed very happy.  We toured two model apartments that were well decorated and represented the kind of apartments the residents live in.  I was very impressed by Bixby Towers and the staff members who work there.

We also toured St. Mary's Tower, another multistory apartment building but this time this housing unit is specifically designed for low income persons, who would not have other choices of places to live if it were nor for St. Mary's Tower.  We were told that to qualify to live there, one's annual income could not be more than one-half of the average yearly income of the residents of the area.  Those who live there have to pay 1/3 of their income for rent and the rent is subsidized by the government through HUD.  St. Mary's Tower is clean and well kept also.  We toured two apartment there also but these had residents living in the apartments we toured and we were able to meet them.  They seemed very happy living at St. Mary's although their qualification for being able to live there is much different from the senior housing at Bixby Towers.

The Retirement Housing Foundation is a ministry operated through the auspices of the United Church of Christ.  The Board that makes decisions for RHF has 51% of its members as clergy and lay persons who are members of churches of the United Church of Christ.  The reason for its existence is to provide affordable housing to seniors and low income persons across the nation and they are continuing to seek places to establish new housing units to help meet the increasing need for housing across the nation.

The final meeting of the conference was a banquet held on Friday night at which they honored persons who work and live at the communities across the nation.  It felt like the Academy Awards, which would be held just up the road at Los Angeles two nights following it.  The Retirement Housing Foundation honored the Resident of the Year, a Korean man who lives at Angelus Plaza in Los Angeles, who spoke in Korean and had someone interpret into English what he said, a man who gives of himself to his community where he lives because he loves the life he has there.  They honored the Manager of the Year, a woman who oversees Desert Sage Manor in Oregon.  She thanked many people for her award and told stories about why she loves working with the residents there so much.  They honored the Administrator of the Year, a woman from Missouri who bubbled with joy as she shared about the job she does at St. Catherine Retirement Community.  They also honored the Volunteer of the Year, a 16 year old young man who gives of himself to the residents of the Mayflower Convalescent Hospital in Lancaster, California and who inspired everyone with the words he used to describe why he gives of his time to others.  Sitting at the table with persons from across the US of several ethnicities filled me with joy as I experienced the warmth of this celebration of talent and mission.

The Retirement Housing Foundation fills a need in society by providing places for persons to live when no other place is available to them.  When one stops to consider where people go when they become older and need care or when they cannot afford to pay what is required by the normal places to live in society, the options are few.  One can live with a relative that may be willing to take them in or in public housing if that option is available to them but there are places where none of these options exist and some have no relative to assist them.  RHF ministers to persons in the spirit of Matthew 25 by providing housing that persons can turn to when other options may not work for them.  It is a ministry that many do not know exists and that we need to explore and share with the family of the United Church of Christ.  It is a ministry that continues to grow with the needs of society and fills in the gaps that would leave some in the lurch without it.  I am glad that I learned about it and plan to assist others in knowing more about its mission and ministry also.

If you would like to know more about the Retirement Housing Foundation, look it up at: www.rhf.org.