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.