Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Bible Tells Me So


"Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belongs, they are weak but he is strong."

We have sung this hymn in church circles in every church I have ever attended in my life.  It is a very pleasing and pleasant song with the underlying meaning that we can trust that Jesus loves us because the Bible tells us that truth.  Jesus does say that he calls the little children to come to him and older folks should not prevent them from doing so, which in his day was a revolutionary thing to say because children were considered to be worthless until they were old enough to earn a living.  They were treated as objects or property, the same as women, because in the ancient world only men had rights, property rights and personal rights.  So, when Jesus ordered his disciples not to forbid the children to come to him and for him to hold them and talk to them, his words were in complete contradiction to what society in his day believed about children.

The Bible tells me so....that is what many of us base our beliefs upon and say we believe certain things because we believe that the Bible says something about our beliefs, but how many of us actually believe what the Bible says and really consider the teachings of Jesus and of the Bible as valid for daily life?  Yes, many of us say we believe the Bible and its teachings but when they run contradictory to what we have been taught by others in our lives or by society or by people or organizations whose opinions we value, we may discount what the Bible says and consider its teachings to be secondary.

Our Bible study group this morning discussed the Old Testament reading for this week's lectionary, Exodus 20: 1-17.  That is where one can find "The Ten Commandments" in case you are ever asked where to locate them.  We read the passage aloud and then discussed it in light of our understanding of the world today in comparison to the ancient world.  Most of the commandments found there can be taken literally but a few are ones that few people take literally or they would live their lives in a different manner than they do.

The first two commandments blend into one idea--not to have an idol or god in your life other than the God we worship.  That sounds pretty commonsense in that few of us have a statue of some kind to which we pay homage regularly.  But when one looks at our modern life in the United States, we can see that many of us elevate persons or things to the place of idols in life.  If we were to meet a movie star or celebrity or sports figure that we see on television or in the movies, we would immediately consider that person to be better than we are and we may even idolize them.  If we value money or possessions to the place where it holds first place in life then it has become an idol.  So, we do not need to worship a statue of a cow as the Canaanites did in order for us to have an idol in life.  We only need to examine what is important to us in order to know whether or not we have an idol in our life.

Then, there is that whole idea about keeping the Sabbath day holy.  Since Sabbath literally means "seventh" then Saturday is the Sabbath from scripture so perhaps as Christians we are not obeying that commandment literally unless we rest on Saturday as our Jewish friends and Seventh Day Adventist friends do.  So, even if we allow that Sunday is our "Christian Sabbath" then how do we live on Sunday if we keep it "holy"?  Does that mean that we do nothing on Sunday except go to church and eat lunch and then take a nap?  Does keeping it holy mean that we live entirely differently than the rest of the week or does it mean that we try to slow down a bit and enjoy the day rather than rushing around as we do the other 6 days?  That question is open for debate so perhaps we do not believe it literally, just as the words say.

Taking the name of God in an improper way.....Oh My God--OMG--has saturated our culture.  People say that phrase so much that it has little meaning.  If I say it, does it mean I have taken God's Name in vain or is it just an expression?  Do I have to not say God's name at all to keep it holy as my Jewish friends practice?  Does it mean I do not say G-D (you know the word I mean)?  Again, not a literal meaning to consider.

The list goes on when one considers the Bible and all contained in it.  So, why then, do some insist to elevate certain verses so as to castigate or condemn some in society?  Perhaps the words they are saying are not truly from the Bible but from a human who has used the Bible to promote his or her own agenda.  Perhaps the Bible is being misused by that individual and that misuse needs to be called out by those of us who believe in a sacred reading of God's Word.  Perhaps that person who is misusing the words of scripture has an agenda that needs to be revealed to others so that the power they gain from its misuse will lessen or disappear.

I grew up in a very restrictive religious community which forbade almost everything in society based upon their reading of scripture.  Very few ideas they promoted were truly in the Bible but they taught they as if they had received the commandments from the mountain rather than Moses.  Those people are no longer even involved in a church or religious movement.  Their ideas have faded even as their influence is gone.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so....maybe that is one of the few things I can take literally from the words of Scripture.  It may not say those words literally, but I believe them because that is my experience.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Little Easters in the Middle of Lent

Each Sunday in Lent is considered to be a "Little Easter" and is not part of Lent, actually.  So, you can eat that chocolate cake that you gave up for Lent one day a week, on Sunday.  If one adds up all the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday you come up with more than 40 days.  The Early Church decided that on Sundays we should always proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ so Sundays became days of celebration even during Lent.  Adhering strictly to the Lenten discipline that you set before you on Ash Wednesday is noble but you can "live a little" on each Sunday even during the Lenten season.

Sundays are special days year round.  When one is accustomed to attending worship services on Sundays and rarely misses them, it seems unnatural to be elsewhere on Sunday morning.  Sundays seem incomplete without church attendance to many of us.  There is a certain air about Sundays that may have to do with people having a different schedule than during the work week.  Even after being in worship, Sunday afternoons seem lazy and long, perfect times for reading the newspaper and then taking a nap.  I love Sunday afternoon naps and I usually try to work one in every Sunday if I can.  Then, after waking from the nap, a good cup of coffee and maybe something to go with it, such as a piece of cake or pie or a couple cookies reinforces the Sunday lazy feeling.

Some people like to be out and about on Sundays and that is nice now and then but having a relaxing, lazy Sunday afternoon is more of a treat to me than driving into the city to see a movie or getting involved in some activity that will take a lot of energy out of me.  The commandment to "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" has many interpretations.  Honoring the Sabbath, to Christians that is Sunday, may mean doing very little and actually "resting" as the scripture says God did after God finished the busy task of creation in six days.

Sundays in Lent are reflective, worshipful days centered on the themes of covenant and cross, discipleship and duty, and offer us the opportunity to think about our relationship to God and our neighbors.  Sundays are the perfect days to allow God to speak to us as we slow down enough to hear God's voice.  Monday will come soon enough, too soon for most of us.  Enjoy each Sunday during Lent and savor each moment as much as you may savor that cake you deny yourself the other six days of the week during Lent.  Come Easter, resurrection cake will taste even sweeter and be more satisfying because you proved to yourself that you could do without it most of the time in order to enjoy the reward of it later after the 40 Days have ended.    

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Gift at the End of the Rainbow

Have you ever wondered why people are fascinated with rainbows?  If a big rain comes and then the sun suddenly comes out and a rainbow appears, people will stop walking in the street to stare and point and make remarks about how beautiful it is.  If you are driving and you see one, you may be distracted by its location and beauty.

Scientists can explain how rainbows appear and why they happen but they are still very mysterious.  They are part of legend in various cultures but the most well known, of course, has to do with the Irish culture and finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.  Leprechauns are responsible for making humans go to all lengths to try to discover the end of the rainbow so as to find the gold and they laugh with joy whenever the humans have been fooled by their tricks.  That does not make humans dream less about fortune that could be hidden at the rainbow's end.  It continues to be a fantasy to some who daydream about wealth and riches.

There is a rainbow in a story in the Bible.  The story is one of the most famous biblical stories--Noah and the ark!  Noah builds a huge boat called an ark to hold his family members and two of each kind of creatures on the earth so that after the giant flood they can repopulate the earth.  The giant flood happens because God is very angry at how violent human beings have become so God decides to just start over with Noah and his family and the creatures who are saved from the flood.

The rains stop falling and the flood waters finally begin to receded and Noah sends out a dove to see if there is dry land.  When the dove returns with an olive branch in its mouth, then Noah knows that the coast is clear, relatively speaking.  There is still a lot of water around and a lot of damage control to enact, as well as the planting of a vineyard so that Noah and his family can have wine to rejoice and celebrate the new life.

God and Noah talk and God tells him that God will never again destroy the planet with a flood.  As a sign to help God remember this promise, God tells Noah that God will place a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to God that this promise was made to humans.  The rainbow is actually a reminder for God and a sign of this covenant with Noah and the new inhabitants of earth.

God made this promise not only to humans but also to all the creatures that inhabit the earth with humans.  God grieved over the loss of human life as well as animal life and did not want this act to happen again so the rainbow was set as a reminder that God would remember the promise made.

We may never find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but we can find a sign of God's great promise to humankind that God's love and grace will be everlasting.  This is the first of three great covenants made by God to humankind--first with Noah, then with Abraham, and then with Moses at the mountain as the Commandments were given.  God's steadfast love continued to grow as humans learned about this God and how God loved humans despite their frailties.

When it looks like the sun will not shine again, remember the rainbow, a sign of promise and hope and new life to all who are seeking a better future.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Check-Up from the Neck Up!

I went to my family doctor this past Monday to have my annual physical examination.  I did not eat anything from midnight the night before and did not have my usual morning coffee which irritated me greatly but I followed all the directions given to me and arrived early for the appointment.  When I was called in, I did my duty and give them the urine sample needed, and then went into the exam room where the nurse asked me a host of questions, took my blood pressure reading, and made me read an eye chart after weighing me and measuring my height.  The scale in the doctor's office even weighed me less than my scale at home for the first time ever.  So, my visit started out in a very positive manner.

Soon, the doctor came in to see me.  I have been seeing this same doctor for about ten years now so he knows me somewhat.  I stay pretty healthy so I do not see him regularly unless I have a need for him.  He makes me come in at least twice a year so he can stay in touch since I take a small amount of blood pressure medication and he wants to be sure it is working okay.  He looked down my throat, in my ears and eyes, and listened to my heart, my chest, my back, the sides of my neck, each time asking me to breathe or hold my breath, as he desired.  Then, he did those things that doctors do to men patients that require one to drop his pants and stand in front of the doctor while he prods and pokes and does unspeakable acts.  All went well and then I went to give my three vials of blood for testing.  All in all, it was fairly painless and not humiliating at all, since I chatted with him all through it, even when I had my pants around my feet.

My doctor has joined the 21st century and sends me my test results by email so I received them yesterday.  I passed my physical with flying colors.  Everything is great in the blood department and I am supposed to carry on as usual since I try to eat healthy, get regular sleep and exercise, and try to live as stress free as possible.  Everything is moderation is my motto and I try to live by that saying.

It is good to have a complete physical exam once a year just to be sure that all continues to go well in your health.  It is good to have as spiritual physical also at least once a year, to think about what we are doing in our lives that either bring us closer to God to takes us in the other direction.  Perhaps we need to think about how often we attend worship or if we ever read the Bible or other inspirational material or how we treat our neighbors.  Maybe we need to think about making a new start during Lent that is about to begin next week.  Lent provides another place in life to start again.  We begin on Ash Wednesday by getting serious with God and perhaps making a pledge to do something positive in our life for 40 days.  That is a good way to break into a new habit or begin an old good habit once more.

I always give up something for Lent, not because someone tells me that I have to but because it gives me a good feeling to test myself to see if I can do it.  Forty days without meat or dessert does not drive me crazy with desire for either of those things.  I have given up one or both for Lent in the past and found that it helped me to live in a constructive way for that short period of time.  I learned that I could indeed be a vegetarian if I desired for a long period of time but doing it during Lent simply helped me to prove to myself that it is possible.  Giving up something does not have to include food.  Some give up a piece of technology or they give up gossip or they give up television on one day a week.  One has to decide what this sacrifice means to oneself and if it really will make any difference at all in life if they do it or do not do it.

I like Lent.  Lent gives me the time and space in my life to think about what is important to me in life.  Lent helps me to devote myself to new spiritual practices or to revive old ones that were once important to me but have been put aside for some reason or another.  I think about Lent as being just as important to me as that yearly physical exam.  It helps me to see what is going on in my life and if I need to change in any way or if things are good as they are.  Lent is like a check-up from the neck up, as it says on an inspirational poster I saw somewhere once.  Maybe it is a good thing to do for 40 days or even more.  

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Shared Strength

There is a wonderful story in the New Testament told by Mark in chapter 2 about four friends who help another friend who cannot help himself.  The friend is paralyzed, cannot walk or move without assistance from others, so his four friends put him on a stretcher and try to bring him to Jesus because they have heard that Jesus can heal people and they think that if they can get him to Jesus then their friend may be able to walk.  They encounter a problem in making their efforts fruitful, though....lots of people stand in the way.  Jesus is teaching inside of a house and the crowd is standing room only, literally.  People are packed so tightly inside the house that there is no room for another person, even if he can stand up on his own.

I can just imagine that the four friends who are carrying the man on the stretcher look at the situation and are just about to give up on their plan when suddenly one of them sees a ladder propped up against the wall and comes up with the scheme to take their friend up on the room and lower him down right in front of Jesus.  Of course, there is still the matter of the roof being in their way.  Roofs in the ancient world were mostly made of dirt so that obstacle soon is clawed and dug away as they tore through the roof to make a whole large enough to lower a stretcher by ropes into the room below.  Can you just imagine what the people who were listening to Jesus teach must have thought?  As they saw the sunshine break through into the room, perhaps they even shielded their eyes from the sunlight and from the dirt particles drifting down.

The crowd may have been amazed at the event unfolding before them and perhaps even Jesus was unable to speak for a moment, wondering what in the world was going on as he tried to teach the crowd gathered there.  When he realized what was being done, though, he responded to the need of this paralyzed man freeing him from his sins and restoring his health to him.  Not everyone there rejoiced in the new found health of the man, though.  The religious leaders judged Jesus for what he said as he healed this man.  The man and his friends did not care what those religious folks had to say though.  They rejoiced that their friend was well and could walk.

"You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I'll come running to see you again, winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call, and I'll be there, yes I will, you have a friend."  I remember James Taylor singing those words about friends helping each other and how they come running when you have a need.  We all have to have help now and then.  That's what friends are for (that's another song).  We all help each other when a need arises.  We see what needs to be done and we do it.  We get into action because someone needs our help.

The Church is like that.  We share a common bond and we share the strength that is needed in good times and bad.  We become like St. Paul who says in this week's reading from his letter to the Corinthians that he tried to be "all things to all people".  That is a hard phrase to sort out but it has something to do with finding common ground with others and realizing that we are all human beings and we are more alike than we are different.  We share this journey that all of us are on and it takes us through life in partnership.

Even Jesus needed others to help him.  Think about the fact that Jesus called disciples to help him in his ministry.  He was God's Son and as such he could have just announced who he was and worked miracles and performed his ministry all by himself.   That was not his plan, however.  He involved others in the ministry that happened and commissioned others to repeat what he had done as they branched out into the world so that once he was gone they could commission even more people to help and teach and bring healing where it was needed.

Even the Lone Ranger was not alone.  He had Tonto to help him.  We all need each other and all of us need to find the Tontos in life who can share our burdens and to be Tonto to others who may be trying to be Lone Rangers in life.  There is a shared strength that comes from living and working in community.  It is the way life works and the way we receive the energy to go on from day to day.  You are needed by others and you need them, even if it is hard for you to admit that.  Go out and find the place where you belong, and if you think you do not belong, then come join us on our journey.  We welcome everyone, regardless of where you are on the journey of life.

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."