Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jesus Freak!

I had the opportunity to meet a man yesterday that is of a type that I have not met in a long time.  Years ago we used to refer to people such as him as a "Jesus Freak".  That was the name we gave to people who were consumed with their religion and who talked about it constantly.  Many times their enthusiasm about their relationship with Jesus was so overwhelming that it was hard to be around them for any length of time.

The man I met yesterday was passing through our area and needed financial assistance.  He was referred to me by a church member who had met him while having lunch in the next town over.  She told him how to get to our church and he hitchhiked down here and showed up in mid-afternoon.  His needs were simple enough and he was not demanding.  He wanted to be able to spend the night in a motel and get some needed food items.

The minute he entered the door, however, he was full of enthusiasm and kept talking about Jesus over and over again.  He was a bit too hyper for me and my secretary, though, and his energy seemed in sharp contrast to that of a man who had walked and ridden almost 40 miles in that day.  He was wearing his religious shirt and cap and had a Christian fish symbol hanging from a chain around his neck.  He got very excited when I told him we could help him and told me, "God had a divine appointment for me here today.  He knew to send me here so you could help me."  He paced back and forth in my office and in the church and asked me if I could drive him to the local motel where he would be staying.  I agreed and picked him and his gear up in my car and drove him to the motel, first stopping at the local grocery store for him to get his food.  I went into the store with him and he took off like a shot racing around the store as if he had a new burst of energy, stopping now and then to tell jokes to strangers he met along the way.  Equipped with food to last him the night and into the next day, I stopped at the motel with him and went into be sure that the payment for his stay was acceptable to the clerk.  Our new friend talked constantly and when I told him goodbye he said for me to be sure to pray for him so he would find a job in the town where he was heading.
This encounter was a happy one for me. I do not come in contact with people who are so excited about their experience with Jesus that they want to tell everyone and will display it for everyone to see in their clothing as well as hear in all they say.  He reminded me a lot of my brother, who died a bit over a year ago.  He too was a "Jesus Freak".  He was a Pentecostal all his life and punctuated his speech constantly with "Praise the Lord" or "Thank God".  He was very sincere in the way he lived and he trusted God for all of his life including his health which took a turn for the worst and finally led to his death.  He had no need for health insurance or a pension or a will because he believed Jesus would take care of him and he needed none of those "worldly" things.  When he died, he left little behind to help his widow and son because he believed Jesus would help him with whatever he needed.  I guess it was fortunate that his wife also died four months later because she was totally lost without him and did not believe that Jesus was all that was needed to pay the bills.  Their son is lost now, totally dependent on the only relative that will give him what he needs, his grandmother.

Faith in God is not something that is reflected in the life of every person the same.  To some, faith is a very quiet and private matter.  Some people will not tell you that they are a Christian but attempt to live out Christian principles in daily life.  Others wear their faith on their clothing, the backs of their cars, and on bumper stickers for all to read.  Being a Jesus Freak is not a deeper belief in God than that of the quiet ones among us.  It is simply a different expression of faith.  To some, for some reason, they need to loudly proclaim that they are Christians.  For others, the proclamation of their faith in visible or auditory ways is not as important to them as simply living the way they think Jesus would have them live.

St. Paul describes faith and love in the most famous passage he wrote, I Corinthians 13, and talked about being like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol, very loud things that draws attention immediately.  He compares that with lives lived for love that act in faith and are many times not even noticed.  We will always remember the Jesus Freaks among us because they get our attention but perhaps those living quiet faithful lives among us will be the ones whose legacy will live long after their human lives are gone.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

God Does Not Have Any Grandchildren

My wife and I are in the age bracket where some people assume we must have grandchildren.   I have gray hair and my wife has some gray in her hair.  We have grown children who are married, so many just assume we must have grandchildren but we do not.  Neither of our children or their spouses seem to have an interest in having children so we are satisfied to have a granddog (she is so cute, you have to see pictures of her soon if you have not) and a grandcat (rather standoffish, often sullen like some children you may know) that our children own.  Our granddog is named Kiwi and she remembers us every time we go to visit her and her parents.  Kiwi is very affectionate and shakes with joy when she first sees us again after an absence.  She wants to show us new tricks she has learned and she does a dance of greeting where she puts her paws down before us and makes us feel very welcome.  At night when it is time to go to bed, she will jump on our bed and snuggle down meaning she wants to sleep with us that night and that usually happens.  She may not be a human grandchild but she is very close to it in our view.

You readers who do have human grandchildren are rightfully proud of them and I know you describe to others all of their joys and attributes as I did above about our granddog.  I am sure you have new photos to share on your phone or maybe even a real photograph in your wallet or purse.  You love them so much because they belong to your children whom you also love.  Grandchildren are a gift from God and God uses grandparents to help care for the new generation to show them much affirmation and acceptance.  Children who have grandparents who are involved in their lives will remember that throughout their lives and it will be a source of inspiration to them as they grow.

I did not know my grandparents and I really miss that experience in my life.  All of them died before I was born or when I was just a toddler except for my father's mother who was named Willie Mae.  She lived until I was about 8 years old and then she died of cancer.  I remember very little about her except that she was a large woman and very distinguished looking.  She stayed with us for a short while just before she died so she could receive cancer treatment at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston.  My parents would take her there for treatment now and then.  Otherwise, she would be at our house and she did not sleep much at night because of her pain.  Instead, she would be up in the night canning jars of pickles or preserves.  I think she did that to keep busy and not notice the pain so much.

I always thought I would have enjoyed knowing my grandparents and I did genealogical research just to learn about them when I was in my 20s.  Having not known three of them, I learned about their lives and deaths and their families, uncles and aunts to me, some of whom I did know and some who reminded me of them from what I had learned about them.

God has a large family but it is so odd that God does not have any grandchildren.  God has a world full of children but not a single grandchild.  That is because every person is a child of God and every person is on a path of discovery in life to find God in a very personal way.  We can teach our children about God and try to equip them for life so that they will follow in the path that we think God wants them to go but they have to do the walking in the path that will lead them to God.  We cannot do it for them.

There is a verse in the Bible that I heard quoted many times in church when I was growing up.  "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray."  (Proverbs 22:6)  That verse was always used as a promise to parents of children who had grown up going to church but no longer attended.  It was meant to bring them comfort that their children would find their way to God on their own terms one day even if they currently did not seem to have an interest in religious activities.

Many of us have children who do not go to church but they grew up in our homes attending church and being taught about God and God's Kingdom.  We hear about their weekend activities outdoors or at sporting events and we may feel that we failed in some way.  I believe the verse quoted above speaks to us about the importance of trusting in God's grace.  When we have planted the seeds of righteousness, they will bear fruit at some point in the future.  We cannot determine the time or way it will happen but we can trust that God will bring about the good work in lives that have been prepared to receive the fruit of our labors on God's behalf.

God loves every person on the planet, even persons that we wonder how God could love them when they do many horrible things, perhaps even in the name of God.  That is what is mysterious and fantastic about grace....God loves us as we are, simply because we are God's loved and created ones.  The voice of God spoke to Jesus at his baptism--"You are my son, the Beloved."---and we hear God's voice in our ears also speaking those same words--"You are my child, the Beloved, the one I love dearly."

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Best Sermon Ever

Pastors have interesting ways of assessing their success in the local church they serve.  Some base their success on the number of people who are members or the number who attend worship regularly.  Some look to the amount of money that comes in as an indicator of the success they have.  In some religious traditions, it has to do with the number of baptisms or conversions that happen within a certain time frame.  In some churches, as long as there is no conflict or discord going on, then the pastor feels pretty good because all seems to be working well.

I would think that all of these factors have something to do with the feeling of success.  Pastors are a lot like other human beings.  They want to do good work that contributes to the overall welfare of the flock they serve.  They want people to get along in harmony and to do work that speaks to the world around them.  They want the bills to be paid so that the utilities will work and they can live in a comfortable manner.  They want their church members to feel challenged and concerned about the world around them and to be doing something in life that reflects their faith.

Conversions and baptisms are not something we count regularly in our church.  Yes, we want people to believe and want that belief acted out in the daily lives of our members but we do not do the hard sell that comes with other churches.  We left the "hell-fire and brimstone" far behind long ago and have a much more moderate approach to presentation of the Gospel in our church weekly.  We present Jesus who is our friend and who wants us to walk and talk with him, preferably in the garden, but also out in the world wherever we go.

Now, if you want hell-fire and brimstone, I can point you to the preacher you want to hear.  His name is Jonah.  He was not sure he wanted to be a preacher, but after spending three nights in the stomach of a large fish and being spit out on shore, he decided that he could serve a congregation after all.  The group he was to preach to was one he did not want to even think about, much less go it, because he was called to go the First Church of Ninevah, not a very friendly group to his kind in the past.  In fact, they had been the enemies of his people for so long that he could not remember a time when they were not enemies.  He really wanted God to smite them, not save them, but for some reason God decided they were worth sparing and that really irritated this preacher a great deal.

Jonah, being finally convinced that there was no way out of presenting his sermon, walked three days from one end of Ninevah to the other preaching the same short sermon to all who would listen: "Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!"  His text was unclear but his presentation was effective because all who heard it reacted and the king gave the edict that all should cover themselves with ashes and dress in sackcloth and not eat or drink anything at all.  They prayed to Jonah's God that they may be spared and sure enough God heard them and answered them prayers and granted their forgiveness.  Over 120,000 converts were made in one day because of Jonah's preaching.

There has been perhaps no greater conversion of sinners at one time than this example of Jonah's short sermon of the hell-fire and brimstone type.  Everyone accepted the Word of the Lord and was saved and Jonah was the bearer of the words that brought about their salvation.  Jonah was not happy with his success, however.  It was not because of the number of people saved or the lack of enthusiasm on their part--they were very sincere.  It was because he did not like to see his enemies saved.  He wanted them destroyed because he hated them so much.  Even at the end of the book that bears his name, we find the surprise ending where God chides Jonah for his refusal to accept the gift of God's grace for the people of Ninevah.  Jonah cared more for a bush that grew and died than he did for a city full of people who may have perished.
Who on earth is dispensable to us?  Who could die and vanish without our being concerned and even noticing?  Who is considered less than equal to us in our eyes?  Who has less rights then we do and we do not care?  Who does God love that we cannot love?  Questions Jonah could not answer...can we?

Monday, January 12, 2015

God is Still Speaking!

That is one of our official mottos in the United Church of Christ---"God is Still Speaking".  We believe it and teach it in the UCC but how do we actively listen for God's voice to speak to us as individuals to act on behalf of God in the world around us?  There are many voices in the world.  Some voices guide people into wrong actions.  When someone believes that they are acting on behalf of God by using a gun to kill another person, then their listening has turned to another source besides that of God.  If one looks at what we as Christians are taught as being the very essence of God, it is summed up in 3 words--"God is love."

The writer of the short epistles that we call I, II, and III John wrote those familiar words and expanded them with these--"Beloved, let us love one another.  For love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love." (I John 4: 7-8)  Love is at the center of what one does in life if one truly is striving to serve God and neighbor.

The lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures for this next Sunday is the very familiar story of the little boy Samuel who lived in the Temple with Eli and his sons.  Eli was the priest on duty and he was seeking to serve God but his sons were wicked and were doing all kinds of things that God found displeasing.  So, God spoke to Samuel with a message to tell Eli so he would know that judgement was coming.

The story of God speaking to Samuel was always intriguing to me.  Samuel was a little boy and knew nothing about God speaking to anyone.  He heard his name being called in the quiet of the dark night but thought it was Eli who needed him.  Three times he went to Eli to see what he wanted only to be told to go back to bed and stop bothering the old priest.  The third time Eli recognized what was going and and told Samuel that if he heard his name again to say, "Speak Lord, for your servant hears."  Sure enough, his name was called again and he was given a message to give to Eli, not good news to share but important news that had to be given.

God has never called my name in my ear in the middle of the night but God has spoken to me in dreams and feelings and impressions and strong yearnings to do something that I felt had to be done.  Many times I have acted based solely on these things because I felt God wanted me to do something.  When my wife and I had been married only a couple of years and we lived in Humble, Texas, I dreamed about one of my best friends from high school one night.  The dream was a pleasant one as I recall but for a couple days I could not stop thinking about this friend.  So, I wrote him a letter getting the address I could from his parents.  A few weeks later, I received a letter back from him postmarked Chile.  He had been working in Chile as part of his training to become an architect and he had received my letter there.  He said that it was great hearing from me and that the letter arrived just when he was feeling very lonely and homesick.  Shortly after he returned from Chile, he paid us a visit and we all have been close friends through the years.

I sincerely believe that God spoke to me through that dream and the feeling to write to him that would not go away was the work I needed to do to remind my friend that he was not alone even though he was thousands of miles away.  God speaks to each of us in unique ways that fit our own personalities, our gifts, and our talents.  When we invite God to be active in our lives and desire to be led by God's Spirit, God will use us in ministry to the world around us.

God is still speaking--everyday, in every way possible.  Being willing to hear God's voice is what we do in response to God's voice speaking to us.  Speak Lord, for your servant hears you.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Happy Epiphany Day!

It has finally arrived, the last day of Christmas, the day of Epiphany that we celebrate on January 6.  The twelve days of Christmas now are past and a new season, a season of light, emerges.  We celebrate the light coming into the world today and being revealed to Gentiles, specifically The Wise Men who came from the East to find the new born king.  They knew nothing about where they were going and what they were looking for.  They were just curious, having seen a new star in the sky, and thinking that such an event in the heavens signaled something important happening on earth, they began a journey to go the place where the star would lead them.  Perhaps it would signal the birth of a very special person, royalty, a king perhaps, so they came prepared with gifts to offer that special person.

Today is the day we celebrate the discovery of the Wise Men and the light that came into the world so long ago and continues to shine into our lives today.  The star of Bethlehem led Wise Men to seek out and find what the star would make clear to them.  They began a long and arduous journey and when they reached the end of their journey, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Joel Payne, a British minister and song writer, wrote a blog entry entitled, "A Magi-cal Approach to Worship" in which he gave 6 comparisons of what the Wise Men did to find the Christ Child and what we do in worship when we go to church.  Here are his points, briefly:

1. They made an effort---The Wise Men traveled many miles and gave up other things in life to find the Christ Child.  We have to make an effort, to go, to give up other things in order to be in the place where we can worship.  The beginning of the journey is often the hardest but it grants great rewards.

2. They came prepared---They came with gifts.  They were ready for what they may find at the end of the road.  We have to be prepared in our hearts to encounter the living Christ in our presence when we worship.  Asking God to bless us as we enter the pew may be a step to help us to be prepared.

3. They were full of joy---They were overjoyed by being in the presence of Christ.  We should anticipate joy when we go to worship.  We should ask God to fill us with joy as we offer what we have to God and open our hearts to God.

4. They saw the child---They could have left their presents at the door and left but they entered the humble place where he lay so they could be in his presence.  Worship is a participatory activity, not just something to observe from afar.  Worship is an encounter with God where we want to see Jesus.

5. They bowed and worshiped---The Wise Men, believed to be wealthy persons, bowed before the baby they found.  They lowered themselves in his presence as people do before royalty.  We may not bow our bodies in worship but our hearts and attitudes become open to God's presence as we bow our hearts and minds in reverence.

6. They opened their treasures---What do we bring to lay before God in worship?  Do we participate in worship, singing the hymns, saying the prayers, offering our time, talents, and treasure to God in humble service to God?

Joel Payne helped to author a Christmas Cantata that contained the song, "What Kind of Throne?"  It contains this verse--"So, I'll bow down to worship the humblest of kings, and I'll bring him the best that I have, I'll say that I love him and that I am his, and I'll give him the throne of my heart, I'll give him the throne of my heart."

We may not have gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer the Christ Child today on Epiphany Day but we all can give him the throne of our hearts and put him first in our lives, above all other cultural claims that prevent us from worshiping him.  Epiphany Day begins the season of Epiphany which continues until Lent begins on February 18 this year.  It is a season of reflection and devotion to the light that came into the world and illuminates our lives daily.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Check-Up From the Neck Up

When I was a school teacher, I taught one year in a school where the principal was very fond of Zig Ziglar and sent the teachers to his workshops so that we could learn the catchy songs to sing along with our classes.  Zig Ziglar was a motivational speaker and featured a woman named Mamie McDowell who was also motivational but very humorous and kept us entertained at the workshop.  Zig's motivational material had catchy sayings that were easy to memorize.  One of them was that people who had troubles needed "a check-up from the neck up" which means that they need to think about their troubles and see what the source of them would be and try to find a cure for them.  There were songs we would sing that also promoted positive thinking.  One such song was called, "See You at the Top".  I can remember only a few lines of it but it began, "If you want to be a winner, let me tell you how you can, turn your dreams into action, plan your work and work your plan...."  The words made sense but translating the ideas into action took more than just singing the catchy refrains.

Taking stock of where one is in life and making a plan for the future is part of what making New Year's Resolutions is all about.  Thinking about one's health or one's exercise routine or one's habits and then making a plan to change in one area or another is a good idea anytime in life but it seems that New Year's Day provides us with the motivation to "begin again" in our lives and health.

The number one New Year's Resolution that many of us make each year is "to lose weight" or "to exercise more."  I have made that one many times in my life.  Each year when I make that particular resolution and go to the gym on the Monday after New Year's Day, the gym parking lot is so full that I can hardly find a parking place.  In fact, one year, I could not find a parking place so I just went home.  I figured if the parking lot was that full, then finding an exercise machine to try to "begin again" on would be almost impossible.  If you wait a few weeks before going back to the gym, though, you will find plenty of places to park and lots of machines to use.  That is all the time it takes for many people to forget the resolutions they made.  Our memories are very short, especially when it comes to putting our goals into action.

Psychologists have said that in order for a resolution to work, it must be reasonable and simple to follow.  If I need to lose 25 pounds, I need to begin by saying I need to lose 5 pounds perhaps and work toward that goal.  Losing 25 pounds seems like a huge task but losing 5 pounds seems much more reasonable.  Taking the steps to lose that weight involves having a healthy diet and getting more exercise than I normally do.  Building that exercise into my daily routine will guarantee more success than just doing it when I feel like doing it.  Eating healthy is something we all should do all the time but we tend to fall off of our best intentions easily.  We have to continue to work toward the goals if we really want to achieve them.

Being a pastor, I hope some people in my congregation will make a resolution to attend church more often during 2015.  Being present in church with others gives us the strength to achieve the goals we make in life because we gain spiritual and emotional strength by being with others who have similar goals in life and who want to live a healthy, positive life.  I hope that our lives will be ordered to include spiritual as well as healthy personal goals for the new year.  As we strive for greater things in life, we will feel the presence of God in our lives to encourage us on to greater things.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Old Becomes New Again

My mother-in-law recently moved into a new house complete with new appliances and modern conveniences.  This is newsworthy because she has resided for over 50 years in a house that was built in 1945 that lacked many modern conveniences including air conditioning.  She had lived through many hot Texas summers and simply tried to survive despite how hot and humid southeast Texas can be.  She had lived through many very cold Texas winters (we do have those now and then) with only a wood burning heater to keep her warm.  The house she lived in was built in 1945 by her husband, his father, and his uncle.  It was a good house in its day but hurricanes and tornadoes and other weather related issues had caused it to be no longer liveable, as determined by the Federal Government through a program administered by FEMA.  So, in about a month's time a new modern home was constructed for her with all the amenities needed to live comfortably in this age.

She has been moved into her new home so, according to the government program that built the house for her, the old house has to be demolished.  Seventy years of memories will fall in with the walls as they fall.  Walls that saw babies born and grow up to be adults and floors that held up many as they celebrated and mourned and lived through many experiences now will vanish in the heap of rubble to be carried away by modern equipment.  Before it is completely gone, though, my wife mobilized and advertised and found people who wanted to buy components of the old house that has served the family well through the years.  One man bought the kitchen sink to put into an old farm house he was furnishing.  Another bought the bath tub to use in another house.  People came one after another to buy the appliances, the wood heater, and the bathroom fixtures.

Some did not buy but were given wood from the walls and window frames that they plan to use in craft projects.  A trio of college age musicians gently took away the old antique piano that had sat in the living room for decades but needed a lot of work to be played again.  They want to restore it and use it to make music again.

As I was thinking about all the people who had bought or were given parts of the old house, I thought about how the old house that will soon be demolished will live on into the future.  The house may not stand as it once did but parts of it will be living in several of the surrounding counties nearby where it once stood.  The old house slowly gave up its parts once thought to be necessary and important so that others could claim them as their own and use them to make another house complete or to bring beauty to the world through art or music.  The old has become new once again in a new and different way than was imagined when the new house was being constructed on the property nearby.

I thought about the verse from the Prophet Isaiah, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (43:18-19)  God is always about the business of doing something new that totally astounds and surprises us.  God speaks in ways that are beyond our thinking.  At this time of year, I cannot think otherwise that God's new thing that God did in the person of Jesus Christ was totally surprising, astounding, and mysterious.  For God to come to earth wrapped in the flesh of an infant, totally dependent on others, so that God could understand the creation that God brought to life was and is so amazing that it is incomprehensible.

God did a new thing in that manger in Bethlehem, something that had never been done before in all of human history.  The old lived again in the new creation that was given to earth as a gift so that humans would learn what it means to truly be loved and forgiven and accepted.  The best gift of the holiday season has already been given to all of us.  Humans can become new, just as the old house became new in its metamorphosis of lending its parts to others to use and transform for future greatness.  Our lives are constantly being transformed as we learn and grow and accept the changes that life brings year after year.  We may not be the same as we were when we were children or young adults but we are becoming what God would have us be for our good and the good of others.

Humans often do the same as old houses when they no longer can continue to live.  Their parts are used to make others well, to bring healing to others through transplants and treatments.  They live on into the future through the lives that they touch by their sharing of themselves in a way that is totally amazing.  God continues to do a new thing in human lives as they open themselves up to grace and peace and generosity that lives throughout the year, not only in the holiday season.