Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Light Overcomes the Darkness

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."  (John 1:5)

Each year the Queen of England presents a Christmas Message to the people of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom.  Her message is televised for all to see and hear.  She tries to reflect upon the Christmas Season and to give the citizens some hope for the year to come.  This year she quoted the verse above as part of her message.  She talked about how even in the darkest of days we can find light to shine in our world.  She concluded by saying that if we follow Jesus and try to love one another, the light will overcome the darkness.

I watched her message on Youtube and thought, "How remarkable that the leader of a country of the world would quote from the Bible and give a bit of Christian testimony in her remarks to her citizens."  Wait, though, the United Kingdom does not have separation of church and state as we do in the United States.  They have an official state church, The Church of England, and the Queen serves as the head of that church, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The intertwining of Christian faith into the comments of the Queen of England is not exceptional.  It is expected.

You see...England has a plethora of religious institutions across its land, just as we do in the United States.  Everyone has freedom of religion to worship as one chooses and everyone has the right not to belong to a religious group if one so chooses.  The United Kingdom, however, has an official state church and it is the Church of England and the Queen represents that church so she can say as she wishes on television as she speaks for her country and this year she shared a bit of scripture and a bit of faith with those who were watching.  They did not have to agree with her but she was speaking out of her own experience to those who would hear her.

Isn't that what sharing one's faith is about?  Is it not testifying to what one believes without requiring that others also believe or agree with what one has said?  You and I, as well as the Queen, can voice what we believe to others as we share our faith but we can also allow others to have the freedom to believe what they will without requiring that they think or believe as we do.

Our church denomination, the United Church of Christ, has similar beliefs when it comes to faith sharing.  We do our mission work through our mission division, along with the Disciples of Christ church, in that same way, reaching out to all, but not trying to convert others who have their own faith tradition, making them think that their faith tradition is less authentic to our own.  We believe in shining the light in the darkness but do not call what other believe as darkness if they see their faith tradition as a path to God as we see our own in that way.

John's Gospel begins with a section that gives a clue as to what the rest of the Gospel will present.  Again and again, John's Jesus encounters people whose eyes are not opened and they live in darkness and suddenly because of the life and ministry of Jesus they can see, both naturally and spiritually.  The light of Jesus shines in the darkness of the world and the darkness cannot overcome it.

We live in a dark world in many ways.  There are some who would do violence against others and say they are doing the will of God.  They are some who will advocate mistreating others and say they are Christians while doing it.  The light shines in the darkness and points the way and the way it points to is the way of the man who called himself "the way, the truth, the life".  God sent his son Jesus to be the light to shine in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it or be able to put it out.  We are the ones to testify to the light, even as John did, and what we say to others may shine light into the darkness they may be experiencing in life.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Journey

When I was taking psychology in undergraduate school in preparation for serving as a school counselor, I learned that in the 1950s there was a psychological movement based on the power of positive thinking that instructed everyone to arise each morning, look into the mirror, and say to oneself, "Everyday in every way, I am getting better and better."  If one did that each day and truly believed that what one said was the truth, then internally it was supposed to make a difference in the way one lived.

That idea reminds me of a skit that was on Saturday Night Live when Al Franken was part of the cast.  He portrayed a character who was on television who also believed in the power of positive thinking and he would look into a mirror and say to himself, "I'm good enough, and I'm strong enough, and doggonit, people like me."  It was always funny and at times he would have guest stars who would do this with him.  Perhaps this was a parody on that earlier strain of pop psychology.

Whether or not it was based on pop psychology, thinking positively about life is a good idea.  In this age of fear mongering by many in society, where isolationism seems to be promoted as the way to deal with the unknown, it is easy to become afraid of strangers or to want to close ourselves in and not enjoy life as we desire.  Thinking in a positive way about life encourages new relationships and opens us up to new possibilities that we may not have expected in our lives.  It offers us new enjoyment that we may give us a sense of fulfillment.

The book of Philippians offers advice on this very topic in chapter 4 when Paul wrote to the church at Philippi and told them, "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (4:8)  In other words, fill your mind with good things and the negative things will not overwhelm you.

Life is a journey and as we travel along from birth to death we can become better human beings or ones that others would rather not be around.  Our lives can be blessings or hindrances to others on their own journeys.  We make choices to live so that others may be blessed with our joy and the good that we can do.

Every day in every way, we ARE getting better and better, as we walk the journey of life and attempt to make others on the journey also to experience the better in life.  We will not always make the right choices and make unintentionally harm others.  But our good intentions to continue to live in a constructive manner will outweigh our minor indiscretions now and then.  Live in a way that is pleasing to God and helpful to neighbors and know that God will be with us as we travel daily.

Monday, December 7, 2015

All Fired Up and Washed Clean!

The Prophet Malachi predicted that a messenger would come to prepare the way for what God wanted to do for the people of Judah and Jerusalem.  The messenger would come, "but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (3:2)  This messenger would purify those who needed purification.  He would be like "a refiner's fire" and "like fuller's soap" burning away every fault and sin and washing away every impurity.  The ones who needed the most purification, according to Malachi, were "the son of Levi", the priestly tribe, the ones charged to process the rituals of the Temple, the ones that took the animal presented to atone for the sins of worshipers and slaughtered it on the altar in the area near the Holy of Holies.  The priestly tribe was not always completely righteous themselves though and needed sacrifice given on their behalves to wash away their own sins.

So, Malachi predicts that one would come whose effect on them would be to purify their actions and cleanse their sins even as a fire hot enough to melt metal could do and a soap harsh enough to wash away a bit of skin along with the dirt as one used it to do the laundry as well as clean one's body.  The messenger of the Lord would purify the priests along with those offering sacrifices until the sacrifice they gave would be pleasing to the Lord.

Fast forward 500 years or so, and up steps John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River, yelling out at all who would listen that they need to submit to his baptism for the purpose of repentance.  Calling his listeners broods of vipers, he told them to change their ways as well as to be dipped in the water as a symbol of their new life to come.  Their family heritage was not important to him.  Instead, it was obedience to the message he preached that would bring a change in their lives.

Tax collectors and soldiers were among the crowd listening to John and they asked what they should do in order to escape the wrath of God that he said was coming.  Share, give to others, do not cheat, be satisfied with what you have....good advice to live by.  "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."  (Luke 3:18)

Is being subjected to fire and soap good news for the masses?  For John's crowd, it seemed to be what they needed to hear.  Clean up your act, John would say, and your life will be much better.

Perhaps John's message to his First Century listeners is one that is relevant for today's world also.  Many people seem to have no direction in life and go about in patterns of life that bring them and others misery and pain and confusion.  Maybe what Malachi and John offered the ancient world is what continues to be needed in modern society in order for peace to truly be the order of the day.

The messenger that Malachi predicted would bring about righteousness through a purification process that would be painful or uncomfortable to say the least.  Israel had experienced that purification again and again as their land was overrun by foreign armies and their citizens were killed or taken into exile.  Each time they rebounded and began again in the land God had given them, they were faithful to the Covenant for a while and then began to stray away from what God had instructed them to do.  Purification happened again and again and each time the People called Israel learned more about how God would have them to live.

We, as individuals, as members of a country and society, are much like the people that Malachi and John spoke to.  We forget the lessons we learned in the past and go our own ways to do what we think is right.  Time and again, experiences happen that provide purification and cleansing.  They teach us how to live as we reflect upon them and compare them to what we know from our study of God's Word.  John's advice to those in the First Century was kind and share what you have and treat others the way you would want to be treated.  This Messenger spoke as the one he was preparing for would do.  Jesus' words to the crowds who heard him were exactly this same message.  Those words are ones we need to hear again today, in the complex, confusing world we live in also.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Three Widows--One Common Bond

Every now and then, the Revised Common Lectionary offers us a week when all three major scripture passages blend beautifully into one common theme.  This week is one of those weeks.  This next Sunday is listed as Stewardship Sunday on the official United Church of Christ calendar and at the congregation I serve it is also that special Sunday.  So, we have three stories from scripture that all have something to do with trust and giving and hope.

First, there is the great old story from I Kings 17 about the prophet Elijah.  The land of Israel is in the middle of a great time of drought and it has not rained for years.  God sends Elijah to Zarephath where he meets a widow who is gathering up sticks.  He asked her for a cup of water and as she is going to get the water he also requests a little bit of bread to eat.  She replies that she only has enough meal and oil to make one little cake and after she and her son share it then they will have no more food and will just die as a result.  The prophet sounds very selfish as he tells her first to prepare that food for him and then she and her son will eat.  Did he not hear her?  She said she had no more food to prepare.  And besides, he is just an old wandering man who happened by...why should she give him the last bit of food she has in her house?  Perhaps she is despondent and thinks what difference does it make anyway and just does what he asks?  Or maybe she saw something special in who this old man was and decided to take a risk and do as he asks to see what would happen?  So, she brings him that little cake she prepared and then he tells her to go check her meal and oil again, and sure enough, there is enough again to make another cake.  So, she and her son eat and drink as did the prophet.  The story concludes that until the rains came there was never a lack of meal or oil in that household.

This story is a wonderful one that preachers have loved to preach for generations.  It is about faith and taking a risk because of that faith.  The widow decided to risk using the last bit of food she had in her house hoping that the word of this old man would be true, and sure enough, what he said would happen, did happen.  Her needs and those of her son were provided miraculously because she was willing to take a risk and give all she had to give.

So, that brings us to the second widow story, this time from the Gospel of Mark.  As Jesus and his disciples watch those passing through the Temple give their offerings, he observes a widow among the wealthy folks who are depositing their offerings with great gusto.  She drops in two small coins in a quiet way and leaves.  We do not know how Jesus knows this but he tells his disciples that she gave more than all the others who were giving that day because "she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."  (Mark 12:44b).  Jesus commends her because she gave all she had while others had a lot still to live on after they gave their offering.

This story is used often for Stewardship Sunday messages.  It teaches a lesson about giving that it does not matter the size of the gift.  It is the motivation behind giving that matters.  When we look at the main character of the story, however, and see what is involved in her gift, we see, as we did with the Widow of Zarephath, that she took a risk in giving all she had.  She gave away everything she had, all she had to live on, so what would she do then to support herself as a result of her gift?  This too was an act of faith, a result of trust in the God of Israel to supply her needs.  She put herself in a position where she would have to rely  upon God because she had nowhere else to turn.

The final story this week looks at that wonderful story of loyalty and love from the book of Ruth.  Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are both widows and return to the land of Israel because of the drought in the land of Moab where they lived.  Ruth is a Moabite woman and was welcomed in Israel only because of her relationship with Naomi.  Both women were dependent upon society caring for them because they were widows.  Women only had anything in society because men provided it for them.  So, Ruth took a risk and followed Naomi back to Israel where she would be an alien.  We do not know how society in general viewed Ruth but we know that a man named Boaz took a liking to her and treated her kindly.  Because of this good deed, Naomi suggested that Ruth be nice in return to Boaz and perhaps he would marry her and, sure enough, Boaz fell in love with Ruth and married her and their son became an ancestor to David whose line would rule the house of Israel for years to come.

Ruth took many risks in this wonderful ancient story.  She followed her mother-in-law into a country where she would be viewed as an outsider.  She gathered leftover grain in the fields to support her and Naomi despite it being a dangerous thing for a woman to do.  She approached Boaz by night in a way to let him know that she would be willing to marry him, risking rejection and scorn if her plan did not work out.  God's providence and care were at work, however, and Ruth was accepted and loved by Boaz and she and Naomi became part of the ancestral line of David and Mary and Joseph and Jesus.

Three women who took a risk and found grace and hope as a result.  All gave of themselves so as to bring about good things for their lives.  Today, we offer what we have to God and neighbor in many ways.  Sometimes we give financially to our church and to other organizations to provide for the needs of those less fortunate than we are.  Sometimes we give of our time and talents to assist individuals and organizations that care for others in society.  Sometimes, like the widow who cooked the last of her food for Elijah, we give what we have hoping that it will bring about a good result....and it does.  Hungry people are fed.  Those without adequate clothing are covered.  The sick are given healing.  Those on the road to destruction are given hope.  All because we give as we can in whatever ways we can because we know that God provides for our needs daily and commands us to care for others who have needs.

When I was growing up in the church I attended as a child, the preacher was fond of quoting a verse from the Bible that said, "Give and it shall be given unto you, pressed down, running over, will men give unto your bosom."  I cannot tell you where that verse is found but its promise is one that as we give to benefit others, our own needs will be taken care of.  That I do believe and preach.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

New Lives for Old!

Resurrection---for now or later?  Kind of like when a server asks you, "Sweet or unsweet?" in reference to iced tea...Would you prefer your resurrection now or later?  Or maybe you would like it both now and later on.  You really can have resurrection now, in this life, today....and later, when you die.  For, you see, resurrection happens continuously throughout life and we just do not recognize it for what it is.

Like the time I had the flu, years ago before flu shots were so popular.  I remember I was a school teacher and stayed home an entire week with it, something I never did when I was a teacher.  I may have called in sick now and then because I needed a mental health day but when I was ill I tried to get better and get back to work.  So, I had the flu and suffered through a week of chills, fever, coughing, sore throat, general malaise, and in the middle of it thinking...."I could get well or I could die, and right now I really do not care which happens."  It was that severe and I was just staying at home, alone during the day because my wife worked too and we needed both of our incomes to survive, and spending much of the day on my back in bed, moaning with pain when I was not asleep.

Then....I got well.  That gnarly old flu germ finally gave up on me and I began to feel as normal and I could feel.  (What is normal, after all?)  I was resurrected from my bed of death and brought back to life, just like in the story of Lazarus that we will read this week in worship as we observe All Saints Day (or Totenfest, as we call it in German).  Lazarus was Jesus' best friend in the world, along with his two sisters, Mary and Martha.  In fact, some Bible scholars think it refers to Lazarus in John's Gospel when it mentions "the disciple whom Jesus loved".  So, Jesus was very close to Lazarus and hated it when he got the news that he had died.  In fact, he hated it so much that "Jesus wept."  Jesus wept when he encountered others weeping over the death of his good friend.  He saw their pain and knew he would work a miracle to end the reason for their pain but at the time he knew how much they were hurting because he hurt too.

Jesus had told Lazarus' sister Mary when he was talking to her after he arrived at Bethany, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live."  (John 11:25)  Now, the resurrection was standing with them in their time of grief and weeping with them.  Soon, he would work a miracle that would end their time of weeping but for the moment he sympathized with them and was with them in their pain.  Sure enough, Jesus called Lazarus out of his tomb and, all mummy-like, he hobbled out and was unwrapped and was back in the land of the living.

On All Saints Day we remember those whom we said goodbye to during the past year and think about them again.  In the church setting, we remember their lives in relation to the church and how they were involved in their church.  We also remember the good and kind things they did and how their lives reflected the love of God in the world around them.  We remember and we in the promise of Jesus being the resurrection and the life and that he promised to all who believed in him that they would live.  So, the saints whose names we call aloud are alive even as we say their names.  That is true and sure and a promise based upon the goodness of God and the love of Christ that lives in our hearts.

So, know that resurrection is a part of daily living.  We experience it each morning when we wake up and have our coffee and come back to life.   We experience it each time we are ill and recover and find life to be meaningful again.  We experience it each time we see a sunset, a butterfly, a singing bird, a jumping whale, or anything else that is alive and reflecting something about the goodness of life and living to us.  Resurrection is not just an Easter event.  It is a daily event and we saw it in the lives of those whom we remember who are not gone on to have it as their reality in a world we can only imagine.  We know it now, though, because it is also part of our world.  We just need to recognize it as we open our eyes and ears to life around us.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Free, At Last!

I was driving to a church meeting last Tuesday when I saw the sign that has been erected by Washington County welcoming travelers to the county.  It is a large white stone monument that says "Welcome to Washington County" but also adds, "Birthplace of Texas."  I know what that last part means but to travelers from outside of Texas or even to foreign visitors perhaps they shake their heads and wonder what it means for Washington County to call itself the Birthplace or Texas.  If they venture a bit farther then the sign, perhaps to Brenham, and go to the Visitor Information Center, they may find a brochure or other information about the hamlet of Washington, Texas, just up Hwy. 105 from Brenham.  There is where they will find the official "Birthplace of Texas" with the historic building where they could learn about why this place bears this name.

We learned in school when we took Texas History that early Texan pioneers settled in Texas when it was still a part of Mexico and, as the Colonies did in the century prior, soon they became disgruntled with the policies of the Mexican government that greatly affected their lives.  Rather than move back to the United States and give up the land that the Mexican government had given them, they decided to have a rebellion and soon the Texas Revolution began.  Those who were bent on revolution met at Washington on the Brazos in 1836 and declared themselves free from the Mexican government and soon the armed forces of Mexico led by General Santa Anna were racing across Texas to quell the rebellion and restore order.  Unfortunately for him, the Texans were led by the tough soldier Sam Houston who led the forces of Texas to conquer the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto and took Santa Anna captive as part of it all, bringing independence and freedom to the Texans there.

From 1836 to 1845, Texas was a country of its own with its own government, President, and money.  For nine years it functioned as a country of its own until finally its leaders decided they would be better off as a state in the United States rather than a country, a decision that some Texans today still hate happened.  Texas gave up the right to be independent when it joined the Union and today is one of 50 parts of one whole unit.  Despite what some secessionists say, Texas does not have the right to be an independent nation again.  It became part of a nation in 1845 and its future is bound up in that nation and its welfare.

Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of his day in John 8 and one of the most quoted verses in the Bible is found in that chapter.  "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:32)  His point to his listeners was that he would bring them the truth and they would be free from sin.  They took him literally and got upset that he would imply that they were not already free because they were not slaves (except to the Roman government).  His point was that freedom from sin is even more important than freedom as individuals.

Many religious persons throughout history struggled with this idea.  Some were even the founders of certain religious traditions found throughout the world.  Martin Luther believed that he was consumed with sin and tried to do all the works he could to bring about relief.  He beat himself, he crawled on his knees up the steps of St. Peters in Rome while on a pilgrimage there, he read the scriptures voraciously, he prayed over and over again for relief from the sins he believed plagued him.  Finally, he was reading from Romans and came across the idea that salvation was achieved through faith, not works, and the lightbulb came on over his head and he began to teach and preach that, much to the dismay of the religious hierarchy of his day who made their living selling the right to get out of hell for the right price.  His very life was at stake because of his decision to tell the good news of faith to those fearful for their eternal future.  All this happened while he was a priest serving as a monk.

John Wesley was an Anglican priest serving a parish in the Church of England.  He mourned his sins and also wondered how he would escape the fires of hell because of his wickedness.  He was attending a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London when he heard the book of Romans read and explained and he had what Methodists call his "Aldersgate Experience" where his "heart was strangely warmed."  He received good news from the Holy Spirit about the role of grace in his life and how he could have assurance for his sins being forgiven rather than have to be in despair.  That experience launched him into the work that became the forerunner of the Methodist movement both in England and abroad.

Both of these Reformers received news of freedom that they had longed to hear.  The Holy Spirit spoke to them of this good news that they shared with others and began the Reformation that brought about the Protestant churches we have today.  When you know the truth, it will set you free from worry, anxiety, despair, and sin.  You will be free to know God's love is true for you personally and that God loves you just the way you are.  Let the Spirit speak words of truth to you so you will find peace in this world of conflict and strife.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Right Priorities

When I meet with a couple to discuss their upcoming wedding, we usually discuss my list of things that I have decided cause the biggest problems in marriage for couples.  The list is one that I have formulated over the years as I have talked with couples and counseled with individuals concerning their relationships.  The list is not one that incorporates all the issues or problems that may evolve during a marriage but it is one that I think lays the groundwork for a good relationship if one considers what is involved in having a good relationship or marriage.  

I always tell the couple that at the foundation of a good relationship is communication.  If two people can talk about whatever is on their minds, then they can usually tackle just about any problem if both of them are willing to try to solve them.  Actually listening to the other person and hearing what their concerns are AND having a desire to find a resolution to a problem will help people to get past whatever the issues may be that divide them.  So, good communication is at the heart of every good relationship.  

Then, we go into discussion of issues that regularly cause division in a marriage--children, relatives, work, use of time, religion (church attendance), how to decide where to spend holidays, and finally to the big one, the problem that causes many marriages to, not that one, but the one I name is MONEY.  Yes, money, the use of money, overspending and overuse of credit is a huge problem for couples and if they do not talk about how they will spend their money, how they will arrange their banking and saving, these issues can divide a marriage and has even ended marriages.  

Money is a necessary part of living and all of us want it and need it in order to live comfortable lives.  Money allows us to buy possessions, both small and large.  Money is both real (such as cash or checks) and imaginary (such as is given to us by credit cards and loans of various sizes).  We can see the cash we use and the checks we write that represent cash but the use of charge cards and the acquisition of loans is an almost mysterious process.  It is very easy for people to be overextended in their use of credit cards and their handling of loans.  When people begin to feel the pressure and tension of living in an overextended state with little money to do anything except pay bills, then tension may develop between the persons involved in the use of money.  

Jesus talked about money many times in the Gospels.  Sometimes he told parables that ended with platitudes such as "You cannot serve God and money."  This week, we are reading from Mark's Gospel a familiar story commonly called, "The Rich Young Ruler".  Mark seems to only tell us that he is a man and that he is wealthy.  We do not know that he is young or rich but that has been the tradition told in regard to the story over the years.  

The man bows at the feet of Jesus and asks him to tell him what he needs to do to have eternal life.  Jesus tells him to obey the commandments and Jesus names some of them to which the man says that he has tried to obey them all from his youth.  Jesus then tells him to go sell what he has and to give the money to the poor and to come follow him.  At this command, the man goes away "grieving" because he "had many possessions" which in the ancient world would indicate that some was wealthy since most people had very few possessions.  

Jesus then does a teaching segment on how wealth can stop one from entering God's Kingdom, although he says it is not impossible, but just difficult.  He also says that those who give up things in order to follow him will be rewarded in the world to come.  The platitude that ends this story is: "Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."  In other words, things are not always what they seem to be using worldly standards to try to negotiate the spiritual world.  Worldly things do not matter as much as spiritual things when it comes to following Jesus.  

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ involves having a relationship with him.  It is just like having a relationship with a spouse or other relative.  We can allow things in life to separate us from others, things such as the ones on my list, or we can not consider them as important as our relationship with Jesus and consider it to be of utmost importance to our lives.  Money may be one of those things for some people but it is not the only one.  Life is full of choices that may present options that stand between us and our devotion to Christ.  

Jesus was actually describing the greatest commandment when he commanded the man to sell his possessions and follow him.  He somehow perceived that this man's wealth stood between him and his relationship with God.  The first commandment says to love God with all our of being.  It is called the greatest commandment because of that duty.  Anything that comes between loving God with all of our being and us is something to be cleared away so as to have a right relationship with God.  

It may be money but in the modern world it may be one of a host of other things that keep us from truly knowing, loving, and serving God.  It may be something that we have to do, such as resolve a conflict with another person, or something we have to not do, such as turn off our television or computer now and then to allow time to seek God through prayer and study.  In either case, asking God to direct our lives so we can have a better relationship with God is a prayer that God will truly answer as we seek the truth and light that only God can bring.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Biblical Literacy or Is That Illiteracy?

Recently one of the candidates who is running for President of the US was asked what his favorite scripture was in the Bible since he said that he thinks the Bible is the greatest book ever written.  He first said that it was too private for him to discuss and then, when pressed further, said that his favorite verse was the proverb that said not to bend to envy.  Some Bible scholars have been discussing this interaction and many think that perhaps this candidate has rarely if ever actually read the Bible and perhaps is bringing it into the public forum so as to gather some votes and voters.  Who is to know if the man ever reads the Bible but his response is similar to many who say they value the Bible and think it is the greatest book ever written but they do not actually read the Bible?

When people defend certain societal views of theirs using the Bible as their defense, hardly ever does one hear them quote Book, chapter, and verse in their defense.  Usually they just say, "Well, the Bible says..." and they leave it at that.

I had a young woman in a Bible study group one time tell everyone, "Well, it is like it says in the Bible, 'Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach him to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime."  As the words came out of her mouth, I could not believe that she actually thought the verse she quoted could be found in the Bible.  I raised my hand and said, "I don't believe that is actually from the Bible."  She was taken aback at what I said and tried to defend her views and I challenged her to find the verse in the Bible.  She could not, of course, because that proverb is taken from American culture, not from the Bible.  She admitted to me later that she was mistaken and we both laughed about it.

That example is not uncommon though.  Surveys have been done asking participants to say whether or not a proverb or verse can be found in the Bible.  Most of the time the participants are unable to successfully pass the test of the survey.

I enjoy watching game shows such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" or "Jeopardy".  When the subject is something found in the Bible, I usually become amused because the game show participant rarely knows the answer and I usually do.  One time a woman was in the last round on the Millionaire show and a Bible question came up.  She either had to answer or had to walk away and she did not know the answer (which I thought was pretty simple) and she had to walk away ending her time on the show.

I know that I have been to seminary and have two theological degrees and have almost 25 years experience as a pastor but much of the knowledge of the Bible that I possess was taught to me as a child in Sunday School.  I had the Bible drilled into me weekly with games such as "Sword Drill" where we had to open our Bibles and find specific verses.  We were given challenges to make us want to look into the Bible and learn what was there.  We had memory verses to learn again and again and were given prizes if we could say them.  I had a mother who pushed Biblical knowledge on me over and over as long as I lived in the same house as she did.  So, even though I have advanced studies in seminary, I can attribute much of my Bible knowledge to my early roots as a Christian.

It is sad that many people who are Christians and who say they believe in the Bible as God's Word hardly ever open the book or read its words.  They may hear it read aloud in worship services and hear a pastor preach from it but they have never personally taken the opportunity to read it for themselves and to learn what it truly says about the social issues of our day.  They instead listen to television preachers tell them what they should believe and give a world view that is more akin to the medieval world rather than the modern world as they sway them into thinking the way they promote.

Some may be surprised to find that the Bible does not say anything about many modern topics.  It is silent on those because the cultures of the ancient world did not contain many of the modern things we discuss today.  Some Bibles are translated specifically to promote their own theological bent and even the translation of the Bible one chooses to read will lead one to think in a certain way about our world and its peoples.

The Holy Spirit gives light to those who seek it.  Those who honestly open the Bible and ask God to direct them in understanding it will find light and truth.  Those who simply carry it around or hear what others may say about it without actually reading its words for themselves will be led in one direction or another and may find turmoil and confusion.  God will lead us where we should go in life and God's Spirit will never fail to be our guide in our lifelong search for truth.  Open the book and read its words and ask God to direct you as you honestly search for the truth contained in it.  You will find peace and joy in such a personal venture.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

Being First in God's Kingdom

I recently had an experience while getting my hair cut at Supercuts in Austin that made me think about the Gospel lesson from yesterday's lectionary.  My wife and I were there and I  had already had my haircut and she was in the chair getting hers.  As I sat waiting for her to finish, suddenly the door opened and an elderly woman entered the place along with a younger man that I assumed could have been her son.  The older woman was using a walker and the younger man carried an instrument of some kind that had a tube leading from it to the woman's clothing where it was hidden beneath.  The hair stylist who had done my haircut, a younger man in his 30s, greeted the couple warmly and asked them to sign in.  He explained it would be a wait of about 30 minutes which seemed okay with the elderly woman.  As he told them to have a seat to wait, the younger man stopped him and asked a request of him.  He said that the woman could not sit in the regular chairs where we were waiting because of her legs and she may not be able to get back up if she did, so he wondered if she could sit in one of the stylist chairs that was not being used.  The stylist smiled and said, "Of course.  Just choose any one that is not be used and you are welcome to sit there."  The younger man with the woman thanked him for his consideration and the stylist replied, "Of course.  We are glad you are here and want you to be comfortable."

What a warm welcome this stylist gave to this aged woman with many health issues.  It made her feel included and accepted as she was.  They went out of their way to do what they could to be sure that her needs were met so that she could receive her hair styling along with other customers.

This lesson from life made me apply it to our life as Christians and as church members, of course.  It made me think about the welcome that we give to others who venture into our churches or the personal welcome we give to individuals whom we meet in life.

The Gospel lesson for yesterday was found in Mark's Gospel where Jesus asked the disciples what they were talking about as they traveled to Capernaum.  They were silent because he knew that they were arguing about who was the greatest in the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing.  Jesus told them that to be first in God's Kingdom means that we have to be servants to all.  To make his point clearer, he called a little child to be among them and said, "Whoever welcomes one such as this welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."  (Mark 9)

Children were not seen as precious gifts from heaven in the ancient world as they are today in North America.  They were seen as a burden and responsibility, one more mouth to feed, until they were old enough to contribute and help out with growing the crops necessary for all to be fed.  So, welcoming a child was an act of courage and acceptance because they represented a cost to the family who had a new child.

We like to think that we welcome all persons whom we meet but all of us have suspicions or fears or prejudices that we brought to adulthood with us from our childhood.  We learned to fear or mistrust others based upon ideas or characteristics about them.  Perhaps our feelings about them have to do with the color of their skin, their country of origin, their religion, their language, or their sexual orientation.  We may judge persons immediately based upon these and other factors without getting to know them first.  Welcoming the stranger who is different may be challenging for us but it should not be considered impossible if we truly want to act on Christ's behalf to others.

Persons who have rarely ever been a stranger or newcomer have a hard time relating to the feelings of others who are different.  Perhaps one has always lived in the same community or area where one was born and grew up and finds it hard to know how persons may feel who are new to an area or country.  Perhaps some have never been friends with others who are different.

I grew up in a town that was all white and never knew a person of color until I went to college.  I was taught to be wary of persons who were not of my same race.  When I went to college I wanted to be friends with all persons so I began to get acquainted with others and soon had many friends who were African-American.  As I worked in many places, I got to know persons who were different from me in many ways and soon found that all of us have the same needs and desires in life.  We all want to be happy, to be loved, to be safe and secure.  We all want a good future for ourselves and for our children.

Think about times when you have received a genuine welcome from others?  What did they do that conveyed sincere welcome to you?  How did they treat you to make you feel included and welcome?  How do we translate the welcome we have felt into a welcome that we offer others across all the distinctions that often separate us?  How do we make persons to feel welcome in our personal space and in our churches?

As we ask God to open our eyes to others around us and to see their needs, God will direct us into how we can expand our welcome so that we will truly be a welcoming and inclusive church as well as individuals who strive to show God's love to all in our world, even those who are much different than we are.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Believing or Doing or Both?

We are reading passages from the book of James each week during worship in the month of September.  James was written to the first century church to guide them in how the life of faith is to be acted out in daily life.  Paul wrote to other churches and stressed belief in Jesus Christ ("saved through faith, not works, lest anyone should boast").  James stresses works as an important part of the life of faith ("faith without works is dead").  The tension between these two views were not apparent at the time of their writings because they were written to different groups of Christians and each did not have both to compare.  We modern Christians have both writings and more that inform us of how the life of faith works in daily life.  We wonder if belief is the most important component or is what we do for others is more important than what we believe or does it take both to make a Christian a complete person?

James is adamant about religion containing works of piety and mercy.  Last week we read one of the key verses of the book of James---"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."  (1:27)  This week we continue with what James teaches and will hear--"You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (2:8)  The concern of chapter two, however, is not to judge others based on criteria that one may set for oneself but to love others without being judgmental.

James is concerned that some in the early church were favoring the wealthy over the poor when they attended worship.  He went as far as to call it a sin to show partiality to some based on criteria we set for ourselves. (2:9)  He compares it to other sins that we consider to be serious and are named in the Ten Commandments.  He urges mercy for all, for "mercy triumphs over judgement."  (2:12)

So, we are left with the instruction to love all and to show mercy and to not judge, something that even Paul would agree with James about.  So, what does that have to do with belief?  If one believes in Jesus as savior, then does the Christian life consist strictly of believing and professing one's belief to others OR are acts of mercy and piety necessary to the Christian life in order for one to truly be Christian?

I think Jesus own' teachings help to answer that question and the passage quoted most often in regard to this topic is from Matthew 25 where Jesus describes the great judgment where people are separated as sheep are from goats.  The judge who separates the people sits on the throne and the criteria used to decide whether one goes to everlasting peace or eternal punishment has to do with works.  The judge does not ask if one believed in Jesus as one's savior.  The judge asks those who stand before him...did you feed the hungry?...did you give drink to the thirsty?...did you welcome the stranger?...did you give clothes to the naked?...did you take care of the sick?...did you visit those in prison? (Matt. 25:31-46).  The answer given determined the fate of those being judged.

Jesus' parable about the judgment did not have the judge ask one time what one believed.  The outcome was based solely on works.  That leads me and others to conclude that the complete Christian life must include acts of mercy and piety and charity.  Saying what one believes is not enough to satisfy God.  Showing what one believes through what we do for others demonstrates our belief.  When it comes down to it, it really does not matter what we believe about God or Jesus or social issues if our lives do not demonstrate a life of love toward others in the way we treat them and in what we do to help them in their distress.

Paul was a great man and a great theologian and his own life demonstrated love for others in the way he lived among First Century persons.  He acted out his beliefs through his life of love and sacrifice resulting in his death for what he believed and taught.  He most likely would have agreed with James if they would have discussed their views together.  There is no writing saying they ever did this but both men's writings guide our thinking today as they struggled to reflect the teachings of Jesus to those of their day, both in what they said and in how they lived.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Crumbs Under the Table

When my wife and I first became Methodists back in the early 80s, we worshiped with a small Methodist congregation, aptly named Wesley United Methodist Church.  There were only about 50 regular worshipers there each Sunday.  The congregation was small but the members were devout and devoted to their expression of faith.  Each first Sunday of the month, Holy Communion was celebrated and we were instructed to turn to page 832 in the back of the red hymnal to find the order of worship for Holy Communion.  The language contained in it was very old, some of it going back to the Anglican roots of the Methodist Church.

One particular part of the order of Holy Communion was called the Prayer of Humble Access.  These are words contained in it that we would pray before we would receive the elements of Holy Communion:
"We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.  But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.  Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so as to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, and grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.  Amen."

After that prayer, we would make our way to the altar rail to kneel to receive the bread and grape juice (never wine in the UMC), feeling pretty unworthy even to accept these tokens of faith from the hand of God.  I always liked that prayer, even though the mood of it is fairly dismal at first.  I think I liked the idea of gathering up the crumbs that fall from the table, such as a dog may do when small bits of food fall to the floor while the family is eating.  That is a very humbling image--one who picks up crumbs that fall below the table instead of eating at the table with others.

This image can be found in the Gospel lesson we will examine next Sunday during worship.  A Gentile woman approaches Jesus, asking him to heal her daughter.  For some reason, Jesus is hesitant to grant her request.  Perhaps it is because of her status as a Gentile and of him being a Jew.  He tells her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  The woman was not dissuaded by Jesus' comparing her to a dog; instead, she used that same image to state her case--"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

How surprised Jesus must have been to hear that from this lowly woman.  He saw her comeback as a statement of faith in him.  "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left  your daughter."  She received the healing she had desired from Jesus for her daughter because she would not be put off.  Her persistence brought about what she desired.  

"Crumbs under the table" in this story has to do with humility and lowliness, accepting that our status is not with those in power in society.  Perhaps that is why Jesus saw something in this woman that resonated with him.  He too was lowly, not part of the power structure or religious class of his day.  He could see that she was coming to him in humility but desiring something desperately needed for her daughter.

Humility is something that Jesus stressed again and again as a key to being part of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Beatitudes taught that the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are merciful, those who suffer for righteousness' sake, and the peacemakers were first in God's Kingdom.  Those who were servants of others were leaders there.  Arrogance and self-righteousness have no part in the kingdom that Jesus established.  It was only by coming to God as a child or one lowly in spirit that connected with what Jesus taught about his kingdom.

Some in religious circles substitute "kin-dom" for "kingdom" when they talk about the Kingdom of Heaven.  They make this change for many reasons but one of the positive reasons has to do with kinship, with belonging to one another.  We all are unworthy to gather up the crumbs under the table, unworthy in our own righteousness, at least.  God makes us worthy to be part of God's great Kingdom of love and mercy by accepting us as his own, not based on our own merit but based solely on his grace.  And God commands us to do the same for accept them as they are and love them as they are and allow God to work in their lives to become what God would make of them.

We will share Holy Communion this Sunday, all of us sharing the crumbs we can gather as we admit our need and accept the grace that only God can give.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sticks and Stones

Most of us can remember being teased by others when we were children.  Sometimes the teasing hurt us.  Perhaps someone called us names based upon what we looked like or some characteristic that we had.  When that happened, often someone would say to the teaser, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."  We knew that was not true--words do hurt people--but we wanted to appear that the teasing did not bother us.

Words are powerful tools, either for good or evil.  Words can build up others or tear them down.  Words can praise or destroy another person.  Words, once said, are difficult to retrieve.  Once they are out of our mouths, they cannot be taken back.  The effect of words is long lasting.  Sometimes they cause us to be shaped into the person that we become.

When I was a school teacher, in my first year of teaching, I taught in a rural school district north of Houston.  I taught special needs students, many of whom had behavior issues as well as learning challenges.  One boy that I taught was named Barry.  He was in the fifth grade but was large for his age and may have even been older than the other students due to his learning difficulties.  Barry was full of energy and was always chasing the other students and often an altercation would happen between one or more students and Barry.  Usually they were minor incidents and did not require a lot of attention.

One day, when I was on playground duty, an older teacher came toward me with Barry by his side.  The older teacher had his arm around Barry's neck and had a scowl on his face.  He brought Barry in front of me and held him there.  "Mr. Carpenter," he said, "you see this boy."  I looked at Barry who was looking down at the ground.  "Yes," I replied, "I see Barry."  "Well," the older teacher continued, "one day Barry is going to be in the penitentiary.  He can't keep his hands to himself and he is always getting in trouble."  I looked at Barry, who was still looking down at the ground and immediately I had feeling of empathy toward him.  How must it have felt to him to have this older teacher make the prediction about him that he would one day be in prison?  That experience has bothered me all through the years because of the actions of that teacher.

Years later, as I read the Houston newspaper, I saw an article about a man named Barry who had burned a building down and was being sent to prison.  Yes, it was the same Barry who now had grown up to be a man and who had lived up to the predictions that the older teacher had made about him.  I wondered if Barry became the person that people said he would be, if he had lived up to their expectations, because few had faith in him that he could be anything different that what he became.

Psychologists call that a "self-fulfilling prophecy".  That means that people often become what we think they will become.  What we see in others often shapes who they are because they internalize the perceptions of others and see themselves the way others see them.  If teachers constantly tell students that they are slow or low achieving or mean, many times the students will live up to their teachers' expectations and become what others say they should become.

That does not stop with students.  It continues with adults also.  The words we use about others have power.  The words can do good or cause harm.  We are the ones to determine what happens when we say the words.

" one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing."  (James 3:8-10a)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The God of Second Chances

When we were kids and were playing a game where we were asked to perform a certain task, if we messed up and didn't do it right, we would often ask for a "do-over".  That meant that what we meant to do did not work out and we wanted another chance to get it right.  Do-overs are something that all of us want in life because none of us is perfect and we often make mistakes.  Do-overs fit right in with the Gospel message of forgiveness and renewal because Jesus taught that God is the God of second chances.

Most of us remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  We remember that story about a younger son who asked his father for his inheritance and then he went to a far country where he wasted his inheritance "in riotous living".  I love that phrase from the King James Version of the Bible because it describes perfectly what some people get involved in during their lives.  Riotous living is the act of living with little care for tomorrow or its responsibilities.  So, after the son had wasted all of his money, his friends were all gone (because all they wanted was a good time at his expense and once his money was gone so was their friendship) and he had to work to avoid starving so he hired himself out to a Gentile pig farmer where the corn pods he fed to the pigs actually started to look delicious to him.

This younger son finally came to his senses and decided to go home and face his father, asking to be treated as a servant because he knew he was not worthy to be called his son again.  Can you picture that young man walking slowly toward the place where he grew up, totally ashamed of his actions and himself, thinking that his father would scold him and put him to hard labor to make him pay for his sinful actions?  Can you picture him also, when he looked into the distance and saw his father running, not walking, toward him with his arms extended widely and a huge smile on his face?  Can you see the young man gaze in amazement at his father, who now embraced him tightly and held him to himself?  What a wonderful scene of reunion and joy!

The father was so excited to see his son, whom he had assumed had died, that he proclaimed a feast and dressed the boy in fine clothing.  The only person who was not excited about all the festivities was the older son who resented the attention given to his younger brother.  He refused to go into the feast but stayed outside and pouted.

When I was in seminary, we would examine stories such as this using the question: with whom do you identify in the story?  Have you ever felt like the Prodigal Son, needing forgiveness and redemption?  If we are honest, I think we all have had experiences where we felt that way.  That is the human condition, after all, to fail and need to begin again.  Have you ever felt like the Older Son, resenting others who needed a second chance, often being critical of them instead of extending mercy to them?  I think we have all had that experience also, again because we are human beings and often judge others instead of thinking mercifully about them.  The big question in the parable, though, is have you ever identified with the father in the story, having mercy on someone who offended you and forgiving them even if you thought they did not deserve to be forgiven?  We sometimes find it easy to overlook faults when we can identify with the misgivings of others.

Jesus told many stories about God being the God of second chances, about God's mercy being given to ones who did not deserve to receive it, by human standards.  Jesus even defended those in society whom others passed judgment upon.  You may remember the story found in the King James Version of the Bible where a woman has been accused of committing adultery and the men of the town were gathered around to stone her as was commanded in the Hebrew law.  When Jesus was asked what he thought should be done to her because of her sin, Jesus responded, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."  When Jesus looked up to see only he and the woman remaining, he told her, "Go, and sin no more."  Despite what the law said about what the woman had done, Jesus extended mercy to her and saved her life.  Jesus cared more about individuals than about the letter of the law.  He knew that God was the God of second chances.

As we live among each other, do we also believe in giving others "second chances"?  Do we offer others the chance to begin again, to find renewal and new life even when we think they may not deserve it?  Do our lives reflect the spirit of Christ that extended mercy rather than award justice?  Do we offer others the "benefit of the doubt" rather than "jumping to conclusions" about the kind of person they must be based upon our assumptions we have formed?

If God is truly the God of mercy and forgiveness, then God is the God of second chances for everyone, including ourselves.  God gives us mercy every day that we live.  God overlooks our faults and failures, even when we deserve punishment if we were to take literally the words we find in the Bible.  God's love is greater than our sin and God's steadfast mercy is never ending.  If God loves us so much as to forgive us, then how much more does God expect us to forgive others and to extend to them second chances also.

We live fragile lives in a very fragile world.  We often hurt each other and cause pain for others.  We are worthy people, not based upon our standards, but based upon God's mercy and forgiveness.  We are all sinners, saved by grace, if we have believed in Jesus Christ as our savior.  We are all in the same boat of life, needing a savior to help us when the storms swamp our boat.  We all need mercy and God expects us to also give mercy, especially when it is not deserved.  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Do I Have to Forgive?

Humans hurt each other.  That is a fact of life.  We say hurtful things or we write them or we cause distress for each other as we live our lives together.  We hurt each other on different levels.  The hurt may cause us emotional scares for years to come, wounds that do not easily mend.  So, if we truly are striving to be Christians, to be followers of the one who was hurt by humans even to the point of death, we are commanded to forgive one another.

The chief teaching of Jesus regarding forgiveness, although there are many places where he says the same thing, is in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  After he taught his followers the prayer that we call The Lord's Prayer, he expanded on it by saying, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6: 14-15).  So, Jesus connected our own forgiveness for the wrong we have done with the forgiveness we must offer others.  We must forgive if we want God to forgive us.

Jesus taught about forgiveness in the Parable of the Prodigal Son when he told the story of the younger son who took all his inheritance and spent it in wicked living.  He showed how merciful God is toward us in the person of the Father who not only forgave this son for his irresponsibility but waiting on the road eagerly looking for the prodigal to come home and ran to meet him to hug him and put a new clean robe on him.  The wandering son was not worthy of the Father's forgiveness but that is exactly why the Father gave it to him.  He represents God and God's merciful grace toward us all.

Forgiveness is not always easy to achieve.  Sometimes when we have been hurt we want revenge or judgment upon the one who hurt us.  It often takes time before we can forgive another who has wounded us.  That does not permit us not to forgive though, even if it is hard or the memory of the hurt stays in our brains.  We still must forgive if we want to be forgiven.

Peter once asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive.  He thought he was being generous by saying he could forgive 7 times for an action against him.  Jesus adjusted the numbers for Peter though and said he had to forgive 7 times 70 or 490 times.  That number represents grace because forgiveness is supposed to endure forever.  We have to forgive, regardless of how many times we have been hurt or the depth of the woundedness.....if we want God to forgive us of our own sins.

Humans hurt each other.  That is a fact.  Each day we read it in the newspaper or hear about it on television.  Someone murdered another person or stole from them or committed a heinous act against society.  Even in the face of terrible injustice, forgiveness is not a is a necessity...for our own sakes...and our own forgiveness.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Our Place in the World

There is a story about a large church in a large city that once was about to close its doors.  The building was a beautiful structure with stained glass windows and beautiful fine wooden pews.  It once had hundreds of worshipers but had shrunk to the place where only about 50 people came to the worship service held each Sunday.  Then, a new pastor was called to serve the church.  The first Sunday he preached there he told the congregation that he could tell them the entire message of the Bible in six words.  The words were "I am God, and you're not."

The pastor began to encourage the congregation to study the Bible and little by little they began to grow again.  The congregation added people often to its rolls and soon there were active with bible study, mission projects, and service to the neighborhood around them.  They accepted people of all races, ethnic groups, and sexual orientations and they all worked and had fellowship together.

The words that the pastor shared with them about the meaning of the bible helped the congregation realize that God is in control of the world and we are co-laborers in the world where God would have us serve those around  us.  Doing God's Will in the world is the task that we are to be about as we serve God and neighbor.

This Sunday, we will be looking at Mark's Gospel where Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and is asked to speak in the synagogue.  He preaches and receives a less than warm welcome.  Those who heard him could not get past the idea that he was the son of Mary and the brother of others in the town.  They questioned his authority because they thought they knew who he was.  He was just the hometown boy who set out on the road and came home and now they had little regard for what he may have had to say to them.
Jesus could do few works of power among his former neighbors.  It was not until he left Nazareth and traveled into the surrounding countryside that people would listen to what he had to say.  He sent his disciples out into the towns of the countryside and gave them authority to teach and preach in his name.  People who would listen to them received miracles and better lives.  Others had little regard for what the disciples offered and Jesus told them to forget about those who would not hear (literally to shake the dust off their feet at them).  We can only make a difference in the lives of those who want to hear what we have to say.

When we hear what is going on in the world around us, we may be tempted to throw our hands up in despair.  We feel we have no way of bringing about change in our world.  When we remember the words of that pastor in that church though----"I am God and you're not", says God, then we know that God is in control and we are sent out as servants to help bring healing and peace and love to all who will listen.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Basic Auto Mechanics

I know next to nothing about how an automobile works.  I was taught by my father to change the oil, change the spark plugs, change the shock absorbers, and check the fluids in my 1970 Plymouth Duster when I started college.  That car kept me until I married my wife in 1974 and then we bought our first new car together, a Ford Granada, one of the biggest lemons that Ford produced over the years.  Within two years, it had been broken down more than it was running and when the transmission went out on Trail Ridge Road in Colorado while on vacation, we traded it in for a Plymouth Volare station wagon.  That car was a good one and lasted us years and was driven over 150,000 miles before it was traded in.

Automobiles have changed a lot over the 40+ years I have been driving.  Once the average person could be a shade tree mechanic and work on them out in the yard or in the garage.  A basic set of tools was all one needed to keep your car in running order.  Now, I cannot even change the oil in my car.  Everything is computerized or placed in strange locations that requires dis-assembly of the engine practically in order to reach the part needed to change.  We depend greatly on our local car dealership that has a fine and honest service department to keep us on the road.

I especially keep a watch on my tires as I cannot stand to be stranded on the side of the highway with a flat tire.  I would rather invest in a new set of tires than risk having one of them go flat on me while driving on some lonely road somewhere.  The spare tire in my trunk is very important, or course, but I must confess that I rarely check it.  For all I know, it could be flat right now.  It is one of those small tires that are designed to get one to a place to fix the flat tire and not to take you a long way down the road.  It is still a very important item to have in the trunk despite its size.

Come to think of it, I rarely think about that spare tire.  It is always there, I know, but I hardly even think to look at it or check to see if it has air in it.  I just drive daily everywhere I want to go and if the need to use the spare time comes up, and I hope it does not, then I will get it out and put it on the car to take me to the nearest place so I can get the real tire fixed and back on my car.

Most parts of the car are that way.  We do not think about them until something breaks down, causing us distress.  Some people view God in that same way.  They rarely think about God until something breaks down in their lives.  They know that God is somewhere out of sight and that God can be called on in times of emergencies or distress but until then they prefer to keep God at a distance.  Perhaps that is why some do not go to church to try to be in closer communication with God.  It may be that they do not want to think about what a relationship with God would involve.  They simply want God to be there for them when they need God.

There was a television program that aired back in the black and white days, in the 60s I think, called, "My Mother, the Car."  It was a comedy about a man whose mother was reincarnated in the form of an automobile and he bought the car and soon learned how to communicate with his mother through the car.  It was a situation comedy, of course, so it brought a lot of laughs concerning the jams that the car owner found himself in as he talked to the car and no one else knew what he was doing.

The car may be a good metaphor for one's relationship with God.  Just as the spare tire is a part of the car that we rarely think about, the steering wheel is one that we cannot escape if we are going to drive a car.  When we enter the car and begin to start it, we put our hands on the steering wheel and cannot let go until we turn the car off and exit it.  It is at the center of our attention at all times.  We must turn it and use it to make the car go where we would like it to go.  If God were more like a steering wheel to us, then God would be at the center of our lives at all times.  God would be important enough to us that we would want God to be the tool we would use to direct our lives where we want to go in life.

So, have you ever thought about whether God is more like a spare tire or a steering wheel to you?  The answer we formulate to that question may reveal the importance of our relationship to God in our lives and how it is demonstrated by the way we live our lives.  It may indicate what we do with our time and where we go when we have free time and how we treat others we meet daily.  If God is at the center of our lives, then we would be aware of how to live so that that central truth would shine through in everything we do.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Rough Seas

I have never been on an ocean cruise.  I know a lot of people enjoy going on ocean cruises but I have a bit of anxiety when I am in a place where I cannot see land.  I have a fear that a large ocean cruise vessel will be out in the middle of nowhere in the ocean with no land nearby and have some terrible issue that will require all of the passengers being on board for days with little or no provisions.  This actually happened to a few people from our town a couple years ago.  They were on a big cruise ship out in the Gulf of Mexico when it developed engine problems and all the passengers were stranded on the ship for days.  Supplies began to run out.  Facilities began to be useless.  Food and water were limited.  It was like being in the middle of the desert with no place to go.  Instead of it being The Love was the boat ride from hell.  Those poor people finally made it back to shore with the apologies of the cruise line company and vouchers for another cruise in the future but most were so glad to be back on dry land that they were not sure if they would go on another ocean cruise.

There is a story like this in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus and his disciples being in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a big storm came up with winds large enough to cause the boat to begin to toss about and to be filled with water.  The disciples were afraid for their lives and when they looked for Jesus to ask him to help them they found him asleep on a cushion.  He was enjoying the rocking of the boat to and fro while they were scared to death.  When they woke him up, and asked why he was sleeping when they were all about to  meet their doom, he simply stood up and told the wind and sea to stop....and it did!  They were amazed and said to each other, "Who is this that even the wind and the seas obey him?"

The disciples were of my favorite words for not having any words to say in a certain circumstance.  Can't you just see them standing there, their mouths wide open with disbelief, while Jesus returns to his spot to finish his nap?  They were out of their minds with fear while he was enjoying some of the best sleep he had gotten in days.

Perhaps Jesus' calm in the middle of the storm had to do with his trust in God to care for him.  Perhaps he was so confident that God would take care of him and his friends that he could drift off to sleep even when the storm tossed the boat up and down with the waves of the sea.  Jesus' confidence and trust came about as a result of the relationship Jesus had with God.  He had heard the voice of God speaking at his baptism, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased."  He had known God's love revealed to him, day by day, as he chose and trained his followers and shared with them the news of God's Kingdom among them.  He had taught the crowds and shared with them as he could all that God had revealed to him, and then he settled down for a much needed rest, confident in the love of God surrounding him.

The word we often use for God's care for us is Providence.  It is a word full of meaning.  It implies an over arching intention for good for us as we put our trust and faith in God.  "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)  This does not mean that everything that happens in our lives will be good.  It means that through everything that happens in life, God will work to bring about good for us and that God's overarching plan for our lives is one of good intentions for us.

We may face rough seas as we navigate this life but we are confident that God's love and grace will care for us as we travel through life.  When we, like the disciples, become afraid we can always look for Jesus and find him by our sides, ready to bring assurance to us that everything will be fine.

Peace! Be Still!  Those are the words Jesus spoke to the storm.  Those are the words Jesus speaks to our individual storms too.  He will bring us peace even in the middle of the storms we face.  Seek him...he is easy to find...maybe just a few steps away, resting and waiting for us to call on him.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Truth Found on a Cereal Box

I love languages.  I am not good at speaking other languages but I like to try.  I can say hello, goodbye, thank you, and "Can you speak English?" in several other languages.  That comes in handy when one travels overseas.

Last summer, my wife and I spent a month in Nova Scotia when I was on sabbatical.  Nova Scotia, and all of Canada, is bilingual with French and English being displayed on traffic signs, billboards, and products one buys in the supermarket.  I enjoyed trying to figure out what the French side said on products before turning it over to see the English translation.  It was amazing what one would find on a familiar box or can we have back home.

We have been eating Quaker Oat Squares cereal for years now.  I really like them and think they are pretty healthy too.  When we were in Nova Scotia, we could buy Quaker Oat Square there also.  I cannot recall what the cereal's name is in French but on the back of the box was this French phrase--"Votre voyage commence ici".  That phrase has enough English similarities that it was easy enough to know it referred to a trip someone would take and the trip was about to begin and I had picked up through previous travel that "ici" means "here" in English.  So, I finally learned the phrase said, "Your journey begins here."  The folks who make Quaker Oat Squares want you to think that eating their product daily helps your day to go well.  I liked that box with French on it so well that it is one of my souvenirs from our trip.  We still have the empty box in the cabinet for me to look at now and then.

The phrase launched me into a religious/theological mode also, besides telling me that I get a good start to my day by eating that cereal.  It made me think about baptism and the Christian life.  I wondered if we should put a sign with that phrase over my baptismal font---"Your Journey Begins Here."  At the baptismal waters, the Christian journey begins.  We all go through the waters of baptism in order to begin walking the path of the Christian life that will last a lifetime.  The water gets us wet for only a few seconds but its stain stays with us always.  Even when we cannot see it, the water continues to drip down our faces as it anoints us for daily living.

I am one of those ecumenical Christians who thinks that what they do in other churches is okay for me to participate in so every time I go to the Catholic Church or to an Episcopal Church where there is Holy Water by the door, I dip my finger in it and apply the water to my forehead.  Just as the person on the V-8 commercial slaps his or her head as a reminder to drink that nutritious drink, I gently slap my forehead to say to myself, "Oh yeah, I am a Christian!"  That, Protestant friends, is the real meaning of the Holy Water.  Besides being a refreshing feeling on a hot summer day as one enters the coolness of a sanctuary, it serves as a constant reminder that the waters of baptism stay with us throughout our lives.  We are marked with a cross on our foreheads and we wear the name "Christian" in addition to our given names.  We belong to a family who all share that name in common.

So, brothers and sisters, your journey began at the font and now you are on the road to your future, whatever that may be.  You are walking the road daily but you do not walk it alone.  Jesus is there, as he was with his disciples on the mountain before he left them to go away, and he told them, "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  (Matthew 28:20b)  We may walk the road and feel alone but we are never truly alone because Jesus will always be there to hold our hands and converse with us about what we are experiencing on the journey.  We can always tell him whatever we want because he is a good listener and he always cares about what we have to share with him.

Votre voyage commence ici---Your journey begins here!
Drop by now and then and dip your finger in the your brow and renew your acquaintance with others on the road with you.  Jesus will always be here because he will be wherever you are as you travel.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Three, Tres, Trois, Drei....No Matter How You Say It, There are Three...or One.

Some things in life are just mysteries.  For example, how does an airplane that weighs tons fly into the air taking along with it numerous passengers who weigh a lot combined?  Or how does a ship weighing tons go off into an ocean and float even though each of its individual parts would sink like a rock?  Or how does electricity get from the wires attached to the poles outside my house and get to the switches that I can just through at my beck and command to light up the rooms and cool down the house?

You may say that those things can be explained with aerodynamics and buoyancy and electricity  explanations to which I cannot give name but to me they are still mysteries.  Even if you were to try to explain to me why these things work, I would still wrinkle my forehead and grunt, "Huh?" in a Scooby-Doo kind of voice.  Your explanations do not make sense to me because I do not have a working knowledge of the dynamics and concepts with which you may make your explanations.

The idea of the Trinity is also a mystery, to me and everyone else alive, regardless of how one may try to explain it.  The concept of the Godhead being Three in One, Three separate beings residing in one form, but serving with three functions unique to each is mind boggling.  I have heard preachers try to explain it by giving comparisons to eggs having three parts but still being one (shell, white, yolk) or water being in three forms (water, ice, steam) even though it is ultimately just water.  All of these pale in comparison to an explanation of how God can be three separate beings but also be one being combining all three into one.

Those in the Early Church formulated the Doctrine of the Trinity and tried to explain it and when they put together the Nicene Creed in 325 or so, they tried to say what they thought about all three members of the Godhead, giving lots of type to Jesus and several lines to God and a few to the Holy Spirit.  Most likely, they only knew what they knew about God or the Holy Spirit because of the life of Jesus Christ.  That is what Jesus told his disciples about the roles of the Trinity also.  He said if you had seen Jesus, you had seen the Father.  Then he said that if you listen to the Spirit, it will tell you about Jesus.  So, Jesus is in the center and is the glue holding the Trinity together.  We cannot really know much about either of the other two unless we know who Jesus is and what he taught that was important.

When I was growing up in the fundamentalist church that I grew up in, the concept of God presented to me was one of a terrifying being that wanted to do me harm and it was only because Jesus stood between me and God and prevented God from seeing me that spared me from eternal damnation.  God was always ready to throw a lightning bolt at me and wipe me out, but Jesus stood there ready to present God from harming me.  No wonder we liked to sing, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."  He was like our big brother trying to protect us from that big bully named God the Father.

Once I left that church and had a few years of counseling under my belt, I sorted out the truth about the Trinity and found out that the God of the Old Testament (that fearsome, awesome being out to get us) was actually a God of steadfast love showing mercy to the 1000th generation.  God was like someone who would hold an infant to his cheek.  God was like an eagle that would spread its wings around us to protect us.  God was like a good parent wanting to do good things for his children.  God was not a big bully but was actually just like Jesus, trying to take care of us and show us he loved us.

So, the doctrine of the Trinity may be hard to explain but the ones represented in it are not.  God is merciful and kind.  God is loving and forgiving.  Jesus is just like God.  The Holy Spirit reminds us of all this.  Maybe it is not that hard to explain or believe when you break it down into understandable parts.

Now, trying to understand how that big jet can fly.....that may take a while.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding a Source of Strength

There are a lot of reasons why people join churches.  Some are born as part of a church with family ties dating back to its founding.  They were baptized, confirmed, and married in that church and consider themselves lifelong members.  They may not attend often but they have an idea that some pastor serving that church will bury them when they die.  Some come to a church because of marriage.  They marry a person who is part of a church and adopt that church as their home church because of the ties they have through marriage.  Some actually choose a church.  They have done their share of "church shopping" and finally found a church that they feel comfortable with and enjoy attending.  All of these are part of most local churches.

The puzzling thing about church membership to many pastors is why some who are part of the local church due to all the reasons stated above decide to intentionally separate themselves from the life of the community of faith.  Some members simply choose to not attend worship services or go to church events.  They become inactive members by their lack of participation.  Others may have been hurt by someone in the community of faith and rather than talk to the offender and try to find forgiveness and healing they just stop attending.  Still others find a multitude or reasons to do other things, considering themselves to be "active" members even though they rarely attend.  These members show up for funerals and weddings and the occasional baptism, but not much more.

So, why do people intentionally separate themselves from the very thing in their lives that will give them strength when difficult times come?  When people find themselves ill or experiencing the death of a loved one or they have lost a job and do not know that the future may hold for them, where do they turn?  If they have distanced themselves from the Christian community, then they rarely return when circumstances bring them distress.  A few do find their way to the church during times of stress, but most who have become independent from the church just muddle through and try to make it on their own.  The pastor may hear about their circumstances from others in the church who know them but they will usually not share what is happening in their lives with the pastor.

I think about this situation in practical terms.  I compare it to the need for proper nutrition in our lives.  If I follow a good diet for my life, eating those things that I know will give my body strength then I will have the energy and stamina to face most of my daily challenges.  If, however, I intentionally begin to not eat healthy food, either by just not eating or by eating the wrong things, such as junk food and food high in fat and sodium and calories, then my body will begin to give me signals that all is not well.  I may feel weak and out of sorts and not able to cope with stressors because of my lack of nutrition.

Being an active part of a Christian community gives us strength in our spirits just as nutrition gives us strength in our bodies.  When we worship regularly with the Christian community we receive spiritual food that our spirits need to grow and thrive.  When we fellowship regularly with others in the Christian community, we receive strength from our interactions because we assist each other as we share our joys and sorrows together.  Being an active part of a local congregation equips us with the skills and tools we need so that we can face the future unafraid because we gain confidence that God's presence will be with us at all times.  We remind each other of the grace that is available through faith in God because each of us have a measure of faith to share with one another.

I need you.  You need me.  We need each other.  When we begin to think that we do not need others and we can be the Lone Ranger in life then we will find that life will be lonely and unfulfilled.  When we admit our need for fellowship, friendship, and spiritual companionship then we will find there are many just like us on their journey of life.  We are not enough in our own selves.  We need each other.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Time to Go Home to See Mom

Mother's Day....every year we celebrate Moms on the second Sunday of May.  Millions of sons and daughters buy the gifts and make the trek to see their mothers or at least call them on the telephone and/or send a gift if they cannot be present physically with them.  The stereotypical mother on television and in the movies is always being controlling and whines if her children do not come home often enough or if they never phone.  Mother's Day is perhaps the day when restitution can be made by adult children who seem to have their own lives to live and fail to recognize their mother's contributions to their lives often enough.

Have you ever considered how much the Church is like a mother?  Actually the Church (if it is like the ideal mother) is like a good nurturing mother.  The Church brings a child into its fold through baptism and then nurtures the child through all the years, teaching the child what she feels is important so that he or she can survive in the world.  Children are confirmed when they are young adults and begin to be a little more independent and soon they are off on their own into the world, making a living, finding relationships, and having children of their own.  Through all of this process, the Church remains faithful and supportive, allowing children to find the places in the world, but letting them know that she is always there to help in case they need her.

The Church is a good mother and she does not complain when her children do not come to see her often enough or even if they do not phone home and let her know how they are.  She simply stands ready to be there for them if they need her.  And one day they will.  They will call home and Mom will answer the phone and hear the news they have to share.  They may be distressed because of ill health or a tragedy and need the Church to bring them comfort.  They may be joyful because of a job promotion or the birth of a child or grandchild or a celebration in their lives.  The Church, as a good mom, will celebrate with them and comfort them through all of their losses, always ready to meet the needs they have, without imposing her will on them or demanding that they come home more often.  She is simply there, watching and waiting for her children to come home and visit when they can.

Our children turn into adults and we have to give them room and space to grow and become themselves as they venture out into the world.  We cannot control them or rule their lives.  We have to give them freedom to experiment and support them when they fail or fall.  We have taught them all we know so that they can make good choices in the world.  If they forget what we have taught them and make unwise choices, we are there to comfort them and give any advice they make seek, without being intrusive.

The Church is that that kind of Mother.  She is there for her children when they need her.  She is always looking out of the big picture window from the living room, for the car lights as they come out of the darkness.  She is always waiting with welcoming arms and a meal prepared to nourish their spirits.  She is always welcoming any strangers they may bring with them when they come home.  She is the kind of mother we all wanted our own mothers to be like, full of grace and truth and love.

Isn't it time for you to come home and see your mother?  She waits to wrap her arms of love around you and welcome you just as if you have never been gone.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tough Questions

There are passages in the Bible that biblical scholars refer to as Jesus "hard sayings", things that modern people have trouble accepting or comprehending.  Things such as "Love your enemies and do good to those who abuse you" or "if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other and let him slap that one too."  The words of Jesus are actually not ones that modern Christians take literally or accept as valid.  Oh certainly, we affirm such sayings of Jesus as, "Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".  We like them because we can quote them and we see them on plaques here and there in stores that import a lot of goods from China.  It is rare to see a plaque in one of those stores that has "If someone asks for your coat, give them your cloak too" or something like that because it would not sell as well as the other ones that make us feel good.

Jesus has a final resurrection appearance in the last chapter of the Gospel according to St. John.  Jesus and his followers have had breakfast together on the beach and after everyone had eaten all they wanted, Jesus looked at Peter, the disciple who had denied knowing him three times as Jesus was being tried by the Jewish authorities, and asked him a hard question.  "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"  We are not sure about the "these" that Jesus was referring to....was it the other disciples, the fish they had grilled, others they both knew?  Peter's response was quick..."Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

Jesus repeated this question three times and each time Peter became more aggravated by Jesus' questioning him in this way.  "Do you love me?"  "Yes, Lord, you know I love you."  With each question, however, Jesus gave a task to Peter to do to show that he really loved Jesus.  "Feed my lambs...tend my sheep...Feed my sheep."  The proof of Peter's love would not be in the words he said to Jesus but in the action he took to live out his love daily among those whom Jesus loved.

That action took legs in Acts 10 when Peter had his famous dream where he saw a sheet descend from heaven filled with animals of all kinds and a voice said to him, "Kill and eat."  The animals in the sheet were some ones which were forbidden by Jewish law for Jewish followers to eat.  Peter responded that he would not eat them because he was an observant Jew.  The voice told him, however, "What God has called clean, you must not call profane."  When Gentiles knocked on his door a bit later and asked him to go with them to the house of Cornelius, a wealthy and important Gentile, Peter took the risk and went and the result was that Cornelius and his entire household was saved and baptized.

Peter's pledge of love to Jesus was acted out in his life as he obeyed the command to mix with others who were not like Peter and the other disciples, people whom Jewish law forbade them from having dealings with.  Peter fed the sheep that Jesus said he had, sheep of another fold, by obeying what he believed God had spoken to him in that dream

Jesus' words often bring comfort to us in times of trial but his words also bring challenges in the way we live.  Do we love Jesus enough to follow him in loving and serving others?  Do we love Jesus enough to choose to do something that we think God would have us do rather than choose something we would enjoy?  Do we truly love Jesus enough that we would obey his commands, even the hard ones, rather than dismiss them as not relevant today?  Jesus' words are often challenging but serving him is always rewarding when we do it for "the least of these."