Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Soaring Like a....Buzzard?

Years ago I worked in a school where our school secretary had a sign on her desk that read, "It is hard to soar like an eagle when you work with buzzards."  That made everyone laugh when they read it because few of us think of buzzards as birds to admire or emulate.  After all, they most often are seen on the sides of roads in groups munching out on road kill, sometimes narrowly escaping being turned into it themselves.  Buzzards are birds that fly in circles in the sky trying to pick out their next prey, or so we have been taught by television programs and cartoons.  When we see a group of buzzards circling somewhere we often begin to look for something dead because we figure it will be the next meal for the buzzards.

Lately I have had time to watch buzzards flying the sky, however, and I have seen a much different picture of them.  The ones I have seen recently were graceful, riding on the air currents high in the air, hardly flapping their wings at all, but just soaring with the breeze and gently flying here and there in the air.  Sure, they may still have their eyes peeled, scanning the ground below them to find their next meal but as they did it they looked anything but threatening.  In fact, I was fascinated watching them.  They were graceful and smooth in their flight in the sky.

Buzzards get a bad rap because we think all they are good for is cleaning up after our cars when we hit the local small creatures who try to cross the road to get to the other side.  Yes, they do that, and for their work we should appreciate them.  What would it be like if no creatures ate the dead ones that litter our roadways and roadsides?  We would have piles of stinking critter corpses here and there and most of us would refrain from going down the road that contained them until nature eliminated them from view and that may take a long time.  Luckily for us, we have the friendly buzzards.  They descend from on high and snack on the road kill and clean up the place for us so we can travel without fear of needing a can of glade everywhere we go.

So, that brings us to the point of this story.  How often do we complain about others and think they serve no useful purpose?  When do we overlook the good in others and not see that they may help out in ways that we did not consider?  Even those whom we think may be of little value to society may actually serve very valuable purposes.

Beggars and lepers in the ancient world were looked down upon and were despised by most persons in society.  Many religious persons would cross the street to avoid passing close to one of those persons.  Jesus often embraced them, literally and socially, and brought healing to their lives.  They were restored to society and lived meaningful and useful lives because of his kindness.

When we encounter others with whom we find little value or commonness, it is easy to want to pass them by and ignore them, but perhaps the gift of community is what they long for...and we can find ways to include them and help them find acceptance if we reflect upon what God would have us to for our fellow humans.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

It is Well with My Soul

"When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast caused me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul."

The hymn quoted above was written by Horatio G. Spafford, a Chicago Presbyterian layperson.  He was a lawyer and had much financial success.  He was a deeply spiritual man and a devoted student of the scripture.  In the months before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he had invested heavily in real estate and his holdings were wiped out by the disaster.  His son had died just previous to the fire.  He planned a trip to Europe so he and his family could have some rest and sent his wife and four daughters ahead while he took care of some unexpected business that had arisen.  On November 22, 1871 the S.S. Ville du Havre on which they were passengers was struck by another ship and it sunk quickly.  The survivors were taken to Cardiff, Wales from where his wife cabled Spafford, "Saved alone."  He left to make the journey to join his bereaved wife and it is thought that on the ship as he crossed the ocean, he wrote the words describing his own personal grief--"When sorrows like sea billows roll..."  He had experienced sorrow which few others could relate to but he had come through it because of his faith in God.

This hymn is greatly loved by many people and it has been sung at numerous funerals for which I have officiated.  It does not end with sorrow but has a theme of hope that runs through it for over and over it echoes the phrase..."it is well with my soul."  How can a couple lose a son to death and then in a short time period lose four daughters to death?  How do they survive the loss of all their children and continue to have the desire to live?  I think it has to do with where they find their emotional and spiritual strength and in what or whom they place their hope as the source of that strength.

I often read from Romans 8 when I am concluding a funeral service at the cemetery.  As we stand by the graveside, and offer the loved one back to God, I read those words that are so familiar to many.  "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life....nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Romans 8:39)  St. Paul lists a large list of things that cannot separate us from God and they include powers of earth and heaven (as believed in his day) and concluded that none of them could cause us not to be kept in God's care and love throughout our lives.  So, Paul would say, whatever happens in life, God is present and God cares and loves through it all.

God does not cause grief and God cannot prevent grief.  God gave humans free will and cannot step in to prevent humans from making errors in judgment or from taking risks that could prove to be fatal (such as riding on a ship across the ocean that could sink, as Mr. Spafford's family did).  God cannot interfere in the choices we make but God can love and care for us during and through the most difficult times of our lives.  Some things are of our own making and some happen to us simply because we are humans living on this planet.  Natural disasters, disease, weather related tragedies....all happen to humans because they inhabit this planet.  Some modern maladies may be caused by our lifestyles or by the effect humans are having on our planet but regardless of why they may happen, God as our source of our strength never fails to be present.

"Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well with my soul..."  Perhaps that is the greatest lesson we can learn from life's trials.  It is well....it is well....because God is and will always be.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How Do You Know Who You Are?

Many people have spent most of their lives trying to discover who they are.  Some have gone through extensive counseling or therapy to search out what makes them tick and how to deal with the less positive components of their natural being.  None of us are perfect, after all, and some of us have big quirks that we have to overcome or for which we have to compensate.  How do you discover who you are, down deep, when you get below the surface level?  How do you get the courage to be real or authentic and allow others to really know the person you really are?

Life begins to present us with identification tags the moment we are born.  First, we are someone's child and we are a boy or a girl.  Those are two labels each of us wear when we arrive on the planet.  Dad and Mom bring us home from the hospital and we are known from that moment forward as the child of our parents.  We are also known as either a son or daughter of those people.  We wear those nametags for a few years until we begin our public education and then we gain another nametag or two--student, learner, class clown, lazy, smart--names given to us by the people with whom we interact in school.  We begin to believe we are the people others say we are because of their importance or influence in our lives.  The tags change as we go through the years of schooling depending on what happens in our lives, both good and bad.

Sometimes life's circumstances make us question who are are because we cannot be who or what others think we should be.  We may have struggles with the school material we are expected to learn or with our home where we live.  We begin to question our own value in comparison to what we think we cannot do or learn as directed by others who are important to our lives.  Our inability to do math or to play sports may cause us to doubt our value as human beings.  When we discover areas of life at which we can succeed, then suddenly we begin to wear nametags that we never thought we would wear.  Who we thought we were changes in light of our new discoveries about ourselves.

This Sunday we are going to confirm four young people during our church service.  They have been studying about the Christian faith and about our denomination and local church during the past year.  They will be asked to respond to the same questions asked of their parents when they were baptized as infants 12-13 years ago.  The questions are not hard ones but they are questions that demand that we reflect upon them to be sure we agree to try to abide by them.  The questions ask them to put aside evil and try to follow faithfully in the path that Jesus walked.  They are asked to promise to be faithful to our local church and support its ministries.  The questions demand thought as to what they may mean to their lives for the future.

In our church and faith tradition, we believe that when a person is baptized, at any age, that person has a new name added to their own name, the name of "Christian" so that there is always another name that follows their own surname, even if the name is not spoken aloud.  Baptism marks a person for life with the sign of the cross and designates that one as a follower of Jesus Christ.  Baptism is where the Christian journey begins and it does not end until one reaches the grave.  So, in addition to these young people being named son, daughter, student, athlete, musician, and various other labels they wear, they are also named Christian.  Confirmation is the coming out party announcing to the world that they wear that name and promise to be true to what it means to be a Christian.

It is the responsibility of all of the rest of us who have already made our confessions of faith and have been wearing the nametag marked "Christians" for many years to welcome these new ones into the fold and to let them know that we are here to urge them on and lift them up as they live and grow through the years to come.  As was popular to say a few years ago, "It takes a village to raise a child."  In the Christian family, it also takes a village, a community, a loving family of faith to surround each new one and guide them in the way that will lead them to what God has prepared for them for their future.  That is how we continue to tell them again and again who they are---they are Christians, on the journey of life with others who are part of their family and who bear the same name.    

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

And the Sheep says, "Baaaaaa!"

When our children was small, we bought them a toy that looked like a barn.  It had a pull string that would make an arrow in the middle of it spin and a voice would magically say the name of a farm animal and the sound that animal makes.  "The cow says moooo" it would say.  "The pig says oink."  "The sheep says baa."  There were many animals on it and each had a unique sound it made.  The kids enjoyed pulling the string and making the animals talk as they tried to imitate each sound.  As they grew older, the toy was left in the toy box and, believe it or not, we still own that toy and it still works.

I like to think about sheep saying "Baaaaaa!", not just "Baa."  Now, you may be wondering what is the difference between "Baaaaa!" and just plain old "Baa."  I have not been around sheep very much, hardly at all to be honest, but the few times I have been around them I have noticed that sheep who are in need do not just say a normal, monotone "Baa" but they really shout it out, a long, low or high pitched noise to really get your attention.  It is more like "Baaaaa!" with that exclamation point emphasizing the need they have that must be met.

My wife and I spent a week in Wales back in 2001 when I had a sabbatical in the United Kingdom for a month.  We tacked on two weeks of vacation to the month of sabbatical and were gone for six weeks.  We  had a marvelous time, choosing Coventry as home base from which to explore the rest of England and Wales.  We were there when the terrible "hoof and mouth disease" had spread throughout the land and massive amounts of cattle and sheep were being slaughtered to prevent the spread of disease.  Everywhere we went that was agricultural in nature provided mats that contained disinfectant that one had to walk over in order to keep the spread of the disease down.  Even when we returned to the States, we had to take one final walk across a Lysol mat before we could go home.

One week we were there we spent in a cottage in Wales.  It was part of a timeshare organization to which we belonged.  The cottage was down a narrow country road and adjacent to a field in which a herd of sheep resided.  Sheep would often block the way down the road so that you had to stop your car and allow the sheep to pass before you could proceed.  The sheep were of many kinds--some fat, some skinny, some little, some big, some younger and some older.  We would drink our coffee each morning and look out onto the meadow beside our cottage and it truly was one of the most pastoral scenes we had ever encountered.

There was one particular sheep in the pasture that we became fascinated with.  We called him "Fluffy".  Fluffy seemed very lively and occasionally kicked up his heels.  I figured he was the life of the barnyard and made all the others enjoy their day simply by his presence.  One day a terrible lightning storm came up.  Rain came down in a deluge.  Lightning and thunder happened again and again.  We watched out the window at the herd of sheep and learned that the sheep would simply stand still like statues when the bad weather was coming down on them.  They never moved as long as the lightning was flashing and the thunder was roaring.  The rain pelted their fur and they just took it.  Even Fluffy just stood there withstanding all the blows that nature could pass out.  Finally, the storm passed by and the sheep went back to grazing and milling about.  The worst was over and they could resume life as normal.

Sheep are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for being.  They have been tested and compared to other animals that we assume are smart (such as chimpanzees) and proved to be just about as smart as the average chimp.  They can recognize their names after hearing it a lot.  They can roll over when they need to cross a cattle guard to get to a more lush meadow if that is in the way.  They can recognize people they know and follow them around, much like a dog does.  The old story about them being so dumb they would follow the leader over a cliff has little to do with intelligence but much to do with being part of a community.  They need to be part of a group and actually get very anxious when separated from their group.  They need the security that being part of the group provides.

This week's Gospel lesson from John 10 has Jesus teaching people about sheep.  He tells them that he is the good shepherd and cares about the sheep.  He also says that he comes to give them "abundant life" not just ordinary life.  Abundant life is fulfilling, meaningful life.  It is life that expands and excites and goes beyond the ordinary into the unexpected.  The Good Shepherd leads the sheep where they should go and calls them by name.  He knows each one by name and they follow him wherever he goes because he knows them.  They respond to his call because they know he truly cares for them.

Abundant life is life worth living.  It is life that does not settle for just anything but looks for the unique and wonderful in daily live.  It is not content with just existing but wants more out of life than many people want.  Maybe that is why sheep are not content to stay in one pasture but want to explore and look for the greener grass even if it means crossing a chasm or a river.  The green grass may be worth the effort and risk but one will never know unless one goes in search of what may be the best grass one has ever enjoyed.

"For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls."  (I Peter 2:25)