Monday, June 30, 2014

A Match Made in Heaven

Do you  believe in love at first sight?  Do you think that two people can be drawn together by something we may call "fate" or "providence"?  Do you think God cares who we marry?  If a marriage does not last, does that mean it was a mistake from the first?

Our culture is full of examples in movies and books of people who were drawn together by some irresistible force.  Some were attracted to each other from the very first moment they met and for others it took some time of warming up to each other and overcoming odds but soon they were a couple.  Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have been in at least two movies that we call Romantic Comedies.  First there was "Sleepless in Seattle" where Tom played a single dad needing a mom for his son and Meg Ryan got acquainted with him but there were all kinds of snags they had to overcome and soon they were meeting at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine's Day and hit it off immediately.  Then there was "You've Got Mail" which had the same basis premise as the first one except Meg's character owned a small bookstore that was being threatened with extinction by a huge chain bookstore moving into her neighborhood whose CEO was Tom Hanks.  Luckily, the anonymity of the internet allowed them to meet without revealing too much until they were drawn to one another and then love was in the air.

So, is that the way it works with love?  Do people meet and know that they have met "the one" or are there many to choose from and they just decide on the one that seems best to them?

The Old Testament lesson for next Sunday is one from Genesis 24 that I have never preached on.  It is the story of how Isaac met his wife Rebekah.  It is a love story but not one that is similar to the Hanks/Ryan experience.  It is more like Hanks sends his best friend or co-worker to meet Ryan and then the friend/co-worker checks Ryan out and brings her back for Hanks to have a look at her.  He sees what he likes and they move in together.  Romance is not really in the mix as the story is told.  It is more a marriage of convenience, as was true in marriages in the old country where Abraham had grown rich.  Abraham's servant went in search of a wife for Isaac, Abraham's son, and went to the town where Abraham's brother and his family lived.  There, he met Rebekah who was drawing water from the community well.  Rebekah was Isaac's cousin, but in those days that did not seem to matter to people.  Finding a wife for Isaac among Abraham's own family was superior to finding one among the riff-raff in the other nearby lands, especially among the Canaanites (who worshiped idols).   So, Rebekah agreed to marry her cousin, Isaac, and the two seemed like the match was made in heaven.  (It does say an angel led the servant to find Rebekah so maybe it was indeed made in heaven or at least by a heavenly messenger.)

So, do such love stories happen today (not including marrying your cousin which is outlawed in most states)?  Are there people who just know from the first that they are destined to be with another person?  Is it that crystal clear or do they have challenges or obstacles that must be overcome and persistence brings about the results they seek?

I know couples who have been married many years and some say that they never thought they would be with anyone except their spouse and it has been great for all those decades.  I know other couples who say they were not immediately attracted to the person who became their spouse but gradually they grew on them and then the light bulb lit up and it was clear they should marry them.  I know people who thought they should marry another person but they could not make up their mind or challenges were in the way (such as family members who objected) so they did not make that commitment and they regretted it throughout their lives.

Is divine providence involved in some way in our choice of a person to marry?  Do we sometimes ignore the guidance that God would give us in such decisions and that is why we make a mistake in whom we choose to marry?  Or does God give us free will in all things and we choose and sometimes we make a bad decision or a good decision and that is all there is to it?

Join us this Sunday at 9:30 at our church as we think about these questions and others as we examine Genesis 24 and "Isaac and Rebekah--A Love Story".      

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

I'll Take Bible Questions for 500, Alex.

I love to watch quiz programs on television that test the knowledge of the contestants.  Two of my favorites are "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and "Jeopardy".  I watch them often and try to guess the answers to the questions while the contestants are doing so.  "Millionaire" is a multiple choice game, giving the contestant four choices and all they have to do is choose the right one.  Yesterday, I was watching this middle aged woman playing "Millionaire".  She was neatly dressed and about my age, I would have guessed so I figured she should have known a lot about the world around her and a lot of subjects.  The poor woman did not last but half the first group of questions before she had to leave.  One of the questions that she had to jump over because she had no clue was about the Bible.  As soon as they put the answer choices on the screen, I knew the answer.  The woman on the program looked at the choices and she made terrible faces, groaned a bit, and finally told the host, "I will have to jump this question.  I have no idea what the answer is."

I groaned too because it was so simple, at least for me.  The question was "What phrase used does not come from the Bible but from the story of King Arthur?"  The choices included, "The Ten Commandments", "The Crown of Thorns", "The Holy Grail" and one other that was very biblical in sound.  Many people should have known that "The Holy Grail" is not mentioned in the Bible in any place but this poor soul had no clue.  I guess she thought that since The Holy Grail is mentioned in the movies by the character Indiana Jones as being the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper then it could be in the Bible somewhere.  She jumped the question and lost some money she could have banked because of her ignorance.

Now, I as a pastor, was watching the program and yelling at the television set---"O come on, surely you know the answer to that one.  Give me a break."  I do the same when Jeopardy has Biblical categories.  I am amazed at the lack of knowledge of people when it comes to the Bible.  I guess just because I grew up in a church where learning what was in the Bible was practiced regularly resulting in my being able to locate most books of the Bible without having to consult the table of contents and am familiar enough with it that if you ask me where something may be located I may have a reasonable guess, that I think everyone else should too.  The truth, however, is my experience with the Good Book is out of the normal realm of experience of most other people.  I am the proverbial odd duck when it comes to Biblical knowledge.  Many pastors are in this same situation.  We use the Bible in our occupation regularly so we are expected to know more than the average person on the pews.

Does that mean that if one knows little about the Bible, they should be considered "Bible-illiterate"?  Or, does it simply mean that their past experiences have not offered them the opportunities to read or study the Bible?  Does knowing a lot about the Bible mean that one would be a better person than others who know nothing about it?  Not would seem that what one does with one's knowledge is more important than simply having a great amount of knowledge about anything.  My congregants know that I know little about mathematics, something that I readily confess.  When Jeopardy or Millionaire features math questions, I am the one who quietly thumbs through a magazine until they change to something more relevant to me.  I really do not care about higher level mathematics or physics or chemistry because I studied little of those subjects in the past and my knowledge in those areas is very limited.

Some people with great Biblical knowledge use it for the wrong purposes, such as to persecute or mistreat others based upon their interpretations of the Bible.  Some in religious circles in past eras used the Bible to keep minorities in their control.  One can defend the mistreatment of women or slaves based upon certain biblical passages.  One can tell others how they must dress or what they can eat or who their friends or partners in marriage could be based upon certain biblical texts.  Many religious leaders in the world have done these things and continue to do them based solely on their interpretation of verses found in the Bible.

Jesus said he came to give people life and life that was abundant.  He said he came to bring freedom from captivity.  When the Bible is used to oppress or control others, biblical knowledge is used wrongly.  When people are allowed to read and decide what they think scripture means for themselves, light can shine to reveal what God would say to them.  God's Spirit can guide us all into new truth that can liberate and bring about positive change in the world.

The Scriptures are meant to be a light and a lamp to illuminate our paths.  That is the most important answer to why one would even want to read the Bible and use what is said in its pages to direct one's life.  Knowing answers to questions for television programs is just a bonus.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Being on the A-List

There is a word used in the entertainment industry that defines persons who are approved to entertain or to attend events in the entertainment world.  It is called "The A-List."  I do not know if the A in A-List stands for approved or if it is just because A is the first letter in the alphabet so being on the A list is better than being on the B list, if such a list exists.  If one's name is on the A-List then doors open for them, both professionally and in reality.  Such persons can go to events that are reserved only for special people.  They can enter places that most of us will never see.

Being on the A-List in the entertainment world means that you are special.  It may mean that you are loved by persons who decide who can and cannot be on the list.  Being on the list is reserved for only the elite who have been chosen.

It is a bit like being loved or giving loved.  Some people are on the list to receive unconditional love from others.  Some people are able to give unconditional love to others.  They just have that quality to be able to include and accept others just because they are alive.  People do not have to do or be something in order to receive love from such persons because they are just loving by nature.  Then, there are others who seem to not be able to give or express love, unless others are on their personal A-List.

I know a person who is unable to give unconditional love to anyone in her life.  She has always had strings attached to how much she would love others or if she could love others.  People have to be approved of by her according to the way they look, the color of their skin, their weight, the place they were born, and many other characteristics.  She makes a judgment of them based upon her many criteria and decides if they are worthy or not and then decides whether or not to love them.

Perhaps the greatest characteristic that she applies to evaluating the worthiness of others has to do with the religion a person embraces.  This person belongs to a very conservative, fundamentalist church that has a very literal interpretation of the Bible.  She had heard her preachers (they do not call them ministers) over the years talk about the worthiness or lack of it of many types of persons and she has embraced their teachings wholeheartedly.  She disapproves of all non-Christian persons so Jews, Muslim, Buddhists, and all others who do not call themselves "Christian" are automatically eliminated from her approved list.  She disapproves of all Christian persons who practice what she calls "dead, dry religion".  She probably is referring to those in mainline, liturgical churches but she does not have enough vocabulary in that area of knowledge to know how to express herself.  She merely repeats what she has heard her preachers say.  So, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and many others are on her list of Christians who really do not practice the "true faith."  Then there are the cults to consider, of course.  She lumps together Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, and many others into this camp.   None of these can be truly approved by her and, by extrapolation, loved by her.

Finally, there are the unchurched.  They are to be pitied by her.  She prays for them constantly.   She witnesses to them and gives them gospel tracts that she purchases by the hundreds for the purpose of trying to convert every server in a restaurant or maid in a hotel.  She leaves her gospel tracts everywhere she can so that some may read them and "find the Lord."

Her concept of love is narrow.  If you can fit into her approved list, then she may be able to love you in some way.  She may accept you but see you as one she can potentially convert or change to her way of thinking.  You may not be fully accepted by her presently, but she may see you as a possibility.

God has an A-List that all human beings are on.  Everyone who lives is loved by God unconditionally.  God told the people of Israel that they were on the A-List even though they constantly made mistakes and followed after foreign gods in a way that God told them not to do.  Despite all that, God spoke through the Prophet Isaiah (43) and said to them, "Do not fear; for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine." (v.1)  That ragtag bunch of reprobates that constantly messed up and went wandering off in areas to which they should never have gone were claimed by God.  They belonged to God and God claimed them and called them by name.  They did not have to earn God's love.  They already had it.  God simply wanted them to live as beloved of God.

"Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you..."  Chapter 43 of Isaiah is a love song to God's people.  It promises God's presence and God's fidelity toward them.  There is nothing that can be done to earn or deserve God's love because we all already have it.  God loves us all unconditionally and God wants all of us to love each other in the same way.

"Beloved, let us love one another, for Love is of God, and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love, does not know God, for God is love..." (I John 4:7-8, paraphrased)     So, loving others is not an option.  We are to love others as God loves us and in the same way that God loves us.  We are to love others who are not on our A-List (yes, we all have one).  We are to love in a way that surprises and challenges and affirms us all at the same time.  We are to love because God loves and the best part of it is God loves me and you, just the way we are.

You are on God's A-List.  Accept it and live as one who is loved and forgiven.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Can We Save Planet Earth?

I posted a poem called, "An Ambulance Down in the Valley" for you to read and reflect upon.  It is a poem about a place where people kept falling off a cliff and the local townspeople had to decide how to deal with the even increasing number of people who fell off the cliff and were injured or killed.  They decided to fund an ambulance that would come to the bottom of the cliff to retrieve those who had fallen off rather than building a fence at the top of the cliff to prevent people from falling in the first place.  It is a poem about misplaced priorities.  I quoted it because it reflects how I am feeling about our current crisis that is happening to our planet.  It is not easy to see on a daily basis what is happening because the first signs are happening in places that are not in our view unless we live near the coastlines where the ocean is beginning to rise (such as in Miami--see the Houston Chronicle from Sunday, June 8 for a story about this) or in New Hampshire where the once abundant moose are disappearing because of an infestation of ticks caused by warmer than usual winters or in Montana where the cutthroat trout are vanishing.

Even if you do not eat trout or care about moose or live near the ocean, you should care about what is happening to our planet because day by day the very air we breathe is being reduced bit by bit because of an excess of carbon dioxide in the air.  That carbon happens because of the burning of fossil fuels by all of us who drive cars, fly on airplanes, and heat or cool our homes and businesses with electricity or coal.  Scientists have been warning us about this crisis for years but some choose not to believe them (call them scientific atheists, if you will) and say that this is just a cycle that the earth goes through now and then and it will all reverse itself someday.  I don't know about how you feel about all this but when various species of animals begin to disappear and summers are unbearably hot and winters are extremely cold and hurricanes are more frequent, I think the earth is trying to tell us something.  And the something that I think it is saying is "Pay Attention!"

I love our modern way of life.  I drive a car wherever I want to go.  I fly across the country or in other places in the world every chance I get.  I cool my house with air conditioning and enjoy being cool.  I do not blame anyone for wanting to enjoy the modern conveniences of life.  I think, though, that I am going to have to restrict my driving more and use less gasoline.  I think I am going to have to fly less often.  I think that I am going to have to push up the thermostat a little and use the fans more.  I think that I am going to have to think more about conservation and recycling and saving energy wherever and whenever I can.

Because If I dont care to save the earth for my sake, can I truly call myself a Christian if I dont want to save it for the sake of others such as all those in Third World countries who do not live as I do but who will suffer just as I do with the continuing effects of climate change and global warming on the planet.  I should also be concerned for the unborn generations who will suffer or die because the planet will not be hospitable enough to sustain life.  Those with grandchildren at this moment should think about the kind of life they would want their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to have.  Will it be equal in quality to what we have now or will it be lacking in the basic necessities that sustain life?

I love birds and fish and all animals that call earth their home.  Each time one of them dies a part of me mourns for them.  I love the Rocky Mountains and oceans that surround our country.  Each time a glacier melts or an ocean's temperature rises, a part of me mourns for it.  I love eating shrimp and oysters and lobster and crab.  When I think that those creatures may disappear because of the damage being done to the oceans, I mourn the loss of that part of the joy of life.

It is not too late to reverse the damage being done to our planet by humans.  We just have to care.  We have to act on behalf of all who live with us on this earth.  Who is my neighbor that I am to love?  It is everyone both present and in the future.  It is all creatures that live here with humans.  Can we truly fulfill the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves if we do not care what happens to the place that we call home?  Love the earth and treat it with respect.  Live carefully and introspectively as we consider how to make our home the best place it can be for us and for generations to come.

The Ambulance Down in the Valley

The Ambulance Down in the Valley
Joseph Malins (1895)
'Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, "Put a fence 'round the edge of the cliff,"
Some, "An ambulance down in the valley."
But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city;
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became full of pity
For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers in highway and alley
Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.
"For the cliff is all right, if you're careful," they said,
"And, if folks even slip and are dropping,
It isn't the slipping that hurts them so much
As the shock down below when they're stopping."
So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
Quick forth would those rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
With their ambulance down in the valley.
Then an old sage remarked: "It's a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
When they'd much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this mischief," cried he,
"Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley."
"Oh he's a fanatic," the others rejoined,
"Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
He'd dispense with all charities, too, if he could;
No! No! We'll support them forever.
Aren't we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?
Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,
While the ambulance works in the valley?"
But the sensible few, who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
And their party will soon be the stronger.
Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,
And while other philanthropists dally,
They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence
On the cliff that hangs over the valley.
Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling.
"To rescue the fallen is good, but 'tis best
To prevent other people from falling."
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence 'round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

 Read this poem above and reflect upon it and I will be posting another blog in regard to it.  Thanks.  

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Happy Birthday to You!

Me-Stew by Shel Silverstein.  

I have nothing to put in my stew, you see,
 Not a bone or and bean or a
black-eyed pea,
So I’ll just climb in the pot to see If I can make a stew out of me.
I’ll put in some pepper and salt
and I’ll sit In the bubbling water—I won’t
scream a bit.
I’ll sing while I simmer, I’ll smile while I’m stewing,
I’ll taste myself often to see how
I’m doing.
I’ll stir me around with this big
wooden spoon
 And serve myself up at a quarter
to noon.
So bring out your stew bowls,
You gobblers and snackers.
Farewell—and I hope you enjoy

me with crackers. 

Why do we love to celebrate birthdays so much?  Why do most of us look forward to birthdays and love to have people remember our birthdays and tell us "Happy Birthday" on that special day?  Why are birthdays days to have parties and get gifts?  Why do we set aside that one day to think and remember and reminisce with friends and relatives?  

Birthdays are days to remember how special one person is in our lives.  That person had his or her origin or beginning on that day so we set aside that day annually to think about why they are special.  We CAN do that every day and should always be telling people how special they are and how much they mean to us but especially on the day of their birth should we recognize that specialness in unique ways.  

Last week Doris and I were driving home from our vacation in Arkansas and we went through Oklahoma on the way home.  We were having lunch in McAlester, which is in eastern Oklahoma and looked at the map and found out that if we went 50 miles out of our way to the town of Ada we could visit with my Aunt Tootsie who is the widow to my Uncle Shorty who died 27 years ago.  Aunt Tootsie remarried and her second husband died a few years ago and now she resides in a retirement home.  She is a very young 82, an accomplished artist, and a very loving and friendly person.  We visited with her for about an hour and a half and could have stayed longer if we did not have had to be in Dallas that night.  As we were leaving her, we all hugged each other and said we loved each other and then she told me, "I am so proud of you."  That meant a lot to me.  She has always been very affirming but she is my favorite aunt and she told me that day that I was always her favorite nephew.  The affirmation I felt that day brightened my day and has stayed with me.  

Affirming each other is something we should do daily but if we can only think about doing it on a special day such as a birthday at least we do it one day a year.  Birthdays are celebrated in many ways, sometimes due to personal preference of the celebrant ("I don't want any fuss made over me") or because of cultural traditions such as having barbeques or picnics on birthdays.  Some have huge gatherings with many invited and some prefer small intimate get-togethers.  The point of a birthday is to remember how special the one being celebrated is and to tell them that fact on that day.  

This Sunday is the birthday of the Church, the Christian Church, the holy catholic church, the universal church that includes all persons who claim the name "Christian" due to their baptism and place in the Church.  This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday that celebrates the giving of the Holy Spirit to the world and the giving of the mission of spreading Christianity to the the Church.  This Sunday we say Happy Birthday to the Church and since we are the Church we say it to ourselves too.  Celebrate and rejoice and be happy and get to work.  There is a lot to do!