Monday, May 2, 2016

Christian Unity

Christian that an oxymoron?  Can there be unity among Christians when we are a very diverse people, when we think as we will, independent of any authority figure?  Even when there is a person or board or group who speaks for a religious body, individual members of that body will think for oneself and will decide that the authority does not in reality speak for each member.

Even our Catholic friends who respect the authority of the Pope as one who speaks on behalf of God on many religious and moral issues will beg to differ with the Pope is they do not agree with something that he has said.  His authority goes as far as their right to think individually when it comes to matters that are not specifically addressed in the Bible.

Jesus' prayer in the Gospel according to St. John in chapter 17 contains the text for this last week of Easter.  Jesus prays that after he is gone back to heaven that the Father will bring unity among those who have followed him and learned from him over the years they have been together.  Jesus prayed that "they may be one, as we are one." (v.22b)  Unity with the Father was something that Jesus did not have to strive for once he was reunited in heaven in the Holy Trinity.  Unity of humans with one another was and is another matter.

The Handbook of Denominations in the United States is published regularly.  It enumerates and classifies religious bodies in the United States and gives brief descriptions of the major groups.  In the last edition of this book it contains listings for 29 different groups who use the word "Baptist" in their name.  If one wanted to research what Baptists believe so as to join a Baptist church, then one would need to read or visit or experience many different Baptist churches in order to ascertain what it may truly mean to be a Christian with the name Baptist attached to it.

Baptists are not the only group with this distinction, however.  There are also many religious groups that use the name "Church of God" in their title.  One can read over the entries in the Handbook of Denominations and get the idea that Christianity is such a diverse faith that one can never be sure what a Christian truly believes.  Followers of Jesus Christ have divided and subdivided so many times since the Reformation that no one religious group truly can describe what all Christians are like or should be like.  Being Christian, like being American, is a unique, individual experience.

Jesus' priestly prayer, however, does not ask for persons to stop being individuals, because Jesus recognized that each of his earthly followers were unique individuals with their own temperaments and personalities.  Jesus' prayer was asking God to assist these humans to be more closely connected on earth, just as Jesus would be connected to the other members of the Godhead in the heavenly realm.  Jesus knew that humans would need a lot of divine intervention if they were ever going to achieve some form of unity that would overcome the frailties of human life.

That unity is seen now and then when Christians of many different flavors work together for a common goal.  When Christians work to help persons during disasters such as floods or earthquakes or fires, they put aside their need to promote their unique theological or religious viewpoints and concentrate instead on showing mercy to those who need to feel God's love in a tangible way as they try to make sense of life once more.  What we may believe or think about one of the tenets of our faith tradition that may make our religious group unique in the world around us is not nearly as important as helping another human who has little to eat or no place to sleep or needs medical care in order to survive.  Suddenly, we are at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  Food, clothing,  shelter and safety trump religious dogma any day.  

"That They May All Be One" is one of the mottoes of my denomination, The United Church of Christ.  Even within the boundaries of this church tradition, we are a varied people.  We may have mottoes to unite around but our views on moral and religious matters are as wide as the sea at times.  Individual congregations have departed and joined our denomination because of our social views.  So, we are an ever-changing religious body from year to years.  Yet, when a disaster happens somewhere in the world, our denomination is often the first to respond with financial and practical assistance.  Our Disaster Relief Team springs into action almost immediately when a need arises.  Our offices at the national level send funds that we have gathered through special offerings from local churches to assist those in need throughout the world.  We may not have realized the goal to "All Be One" even within the bounds of our own denomination, but we do have moments when we can see a glimpse of what it may mean to live out what Jesus prayed.

Jesus' prayer for Christian unity is an ongoing effort, a project that is always in process.  As we all continue to strive for unity, we will see those occasional glimpses of what it may look like.  As we work to put aside our differences in favor of the common goal, then we will see what Jesus may have been praying for so long ago.  Let it be so, Lord, we pray.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Take Me to the Water!

This next Sunday we get to pay a visit to the Pool of Bethesda, which in Hebrew means "house of mercy".  It is this pool in Jerusalem where people who were ill would lay hoping to see the water bubbling and swirling and foaming that they thought meant an angel was present to bring healing to the first person who went into the waters.  So, the people lying beside the pool hoped that they would be the first one in the water in order to obtain their healing.  Only one person would be healed so they had to be able to get in the water on their own or have a friend or relative who would help them into the water ahead of others.

When I went to the Holy Land back in the 1990s, I visited the Pool of Bethesda with the tour group I went with.  We were told that this place is directly on a volcanic crack in the earth where, from time to time, hot lava erupts causing the water to boil or swirl or bubble up.  This has been going on for thousands of years and has been noted by visitors to Jerusalem throughout the ages.  So, people had a belief that the movement of the water had a divine source.

The man who could not walk that was approached by Jesus had put his hopes on being lucky enough to be the first one into the water at the time of its eruption so that he could receive his healing.  When Jesus passed by all the sick and crippled people lying beside the pool, he singled out this one man to bring healing to his body.  We do not know why Jesus did not heal everyone who was beside the pool for the same purpose but there was a reason why Jesus wanted this man to receive his healing.

Perhaps it had something to do with what his reaction would be or how he would become a spokesperson for the marvelous works of God.  He really did not even know who Jesus was.  He simply obeyed Jesus when he told him to pick up his mat and walk.  The man who had been unable to walk for 38 years and had been seen by many as he lay beside the pool day after day was suddenly walking on this was on the Sabbath day.

The passage goes on into detail as to how the religious leaders reacted when they saw the man walking whom they knew had been unable to walk just moments before.  They were not excited that he had been healed.  They did not stop to give God praise for this man's miracle.  No, they were immediately angry that Jesus had worked this miracle on the Sabbath day when on work should be done.  Even healing someone on the Sabbath was forbidden because it was an act of work that could have been done on another day.

So, Jesus was put on the "bad list" of the religious leaders and they scolded the healed man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath (also against the rules) and they decided to further persecute Jesus for performing this act on the day of rest.  They could not see a reason to rejoice in what Jesus had done for this poor man but decided even an act of healing that benefited one who had hoped for a miracle for so long was very, very wrong.

Rules are made by many who want their rules obeyed strictly because they are their rules.  The rules do not have to make sense or benefit others.  The rules are strictly the rules because an authority figure or group decided that the rules should exist and should be enforced.  There are many rules in religious circles that exist simply because someone made up the rules.  There is often no biblical authority for the rules.  They are there just because a human wanted them to be there.

I grew up in a religious tradition that had so many rules that it seemed impossible to keep them.  I also was the type of child and teen that questioned the rules repeatedly and did not obey the rules if I did not think they were fair ones.  We were forbidden to do many things that others in society did with not even thinking about whether or not they were right to do.  We were told not to go to movies so I sneaked out with friends and saw movies under the cover of night hoping no one would see me there.  We were told not to dance so I only danced when my Baptist friends invited me to do so because they were forbidden to dance also and did not obey that rule.  I never desired to smoke or drink during my adolescence but never saw a biblical passage that specifically said that we should not do these things.

Rule keeping is something we all do in society.  If the rules make sense and serve the common good, most of us think they should be obeyed.  When a rule does harm rather than good, such as the one that Jesus disobeyed, then God's will is done through the breaking of the rule because the higher good of not obeying it benefited someone who needed healing in his life.

God will direct us in the way we should live.   God will help us to understand how to follow the ways that will lead us to eternal life.  Humans may have rules and guidelines that instruct us and many of them are very beneficial.  The ultimate authority of life, however, belongs with God who will teach us the ways we should go and speak to us in ways that will reveal God's will for our lives and for others around us.

There is healing in the waters of life that God supplies to all who are thirsty.  Come to the water and drink and live and learn.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Oh, The Places You'll Go

My wife and I just returned from a 10 day trip to Europe.  This was our second time to go on a river cruise with the same cruise company and, just as last time, all of our expectations were met, and then some.  We had sailed up the Rhine River two years ago and this time we sailed up the Danube River.  We flew to Budapest, Hungary and then were picked up by a bus from the cruise company and taken directly to the ship where our luggage was taken to our room and our 7 day adventure began.  The ships used by this cruise lines are small in comparison to ocean cruise liners, only holding 140 passengers or so at their maximum.  My wife and I booked the least expensive room on board so we were at river level, where you could open your curtain and look out at the river at eye level.  It was great!

Budapest was not someplace where we had ever thought about going before this trip but we were very glad to be there and to begin our tour in this historic city.  We were given a guided tour of the city by a very friendly woman who pointed out all the historic and beautiful places to see.  We also visited the city market where the local farmers and merchants conduct business daily, selling cheese and sweets and meats and all manner of craft items.  We walked the streets of the city looking into churches before being taken to the castle area on a high hill overlooking the city.  There were excellent views of the city below us and we browsed in shops along the way as we made our way back to our tour bus to be taken back to our ship.  Doris bought a handmade colorful cloth for our dining table in a small shop full of handmade items produced by local persons.

That began our Danube adventure that would take us from there to Bratislava, Slovakia, to Vienna and Linz and Salzburg, all in Austria, to Dernstein and Weisshafen, also in Austria, and finally to Passau, Vilshofen, and Regensburg in Germany.  We left the ship after that and rode by bus to Prague in the Czech Republic where we spent 3 additional days and toured the Palace and St. Vitus' Cathedral before walking the streets of the old city led by a very friendly and fluent guide. We met many friendly and helpful people along the way and made several interesting conclusions based upon our travels.

One, people around the world are basically the same.   They want the same things in life and want to provide the best livings they can for their families.  The crew of the ship we traveled on all come from countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain, under Communist control until 1989.  People from Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia and many other countries worked as hard as they could to meet the needs of all the passengers of the ship.  They worked with a smile and were as friendly as they could be.  They all worked together as if they were friends or part of one giant family.  When I asked the cruise director about their lives as part of this cruise line, she told us that they had a much better life working on the ship than they would have at home trying to find work, even if it meant long absences from their families.  They choose this way of life because it meant providing for their families in a way that would not be possible if they were simply to stay in their home countries.

Two, people want to be of help to others, even to strangers whom they do not know.  The best phrase one can learn to say in other languages is, "Do you speak English?"  When we would say this to others, many times they would say, "a little" and when I would ask them for directions or information we needed to know they would use their English skills to help us time after time.  Rarely did someone refuse to help us except when they actually could speak no English at all and then they would perhaps point or try to do something to be of help.

Three, people are basically honest and want to do the right thing for others.  I know how to conduct transactions using the Euro, the Pound, and the dollar but the currency of Hungary and the Czech Republic puzzled me.   I did learn the number of their units to the dollar and try to translate it into dollars when buying things but finally had to resort to holding my hand out with their coins in it and say, "Take what you need."  Never did someone take all the coins in my hand.  They always choose the correct coins and told me what they were taking.  They probably also laughed silently at the dumb American who could not even count money, something their children could do.  They never openly ridiculed me for my lack of knowledge but would laugh with me as I told them embarrassingly that I did not know how to do the transaction well.

We were warned by guides and our ship personnel to be aware of pickpockets in Prague but not once did my pocket get picked.  I guess I was lucky and stayed away from the areas where they may operate.  It is wise to be on guard but one should also enjoy being where they are and not be overly afraid or you will not enjoy your experience.

That brings me to the topic of travel and safety.  We left on this trip about 2 weeks after the bombings in Brussels.  We decided to go ahead and go rather than cancelling out the trip because we wanted to see the things we had looked forward to.  We traveled by plane to London and then on to Budapest, by ship on the Danube, by tour bus all over Europe, and by foot everywhere we went and never once did we feel afraid or at risk.  We used wisdom and caution as we explored on our own in many large cities but we always felt safe wherever we were, with or without a guide to be with us.

Travel is the great educator and when we travel we learn more about the world around us than we ever could watching television or even reading a book about a place.  We launch out and see what it in the world around us and know that we will be well cared for by others and by the God who is always with us and will never leave us.

Bon Voyage and Bon Appetit!  Travel and eat and enjoy and be safe in the knowledge of the love of God for you and all.  

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Breakfast on the Beach

Don't you just love stories that are full of suspense and surprise?  Don't you also enjoy stories set in the great outdoors with the characters enjoying times of good fellowship and good feelings?  Well, if you love that kind of story, the Gospel story for this week is just that kind of tale.  It is taken from the Gospel of John, chapter 21, where the resurrected Jesus meets his disciples on the beach of the Sea of Galilee.

Peter had just about had all he could take of the togetherness of the other disciples as they hid behind closed doors hoping the Jewish authorities would not barge in and arrest them because they were followers of Jesus Christ.  So, he and all the rest returned to Galilee, far north from Jerusalem, where they could be safe and they could return to some resemblance of life before Jesus had been crucified.

Peter told the others, "I am going fishing," and they replied, "We will go with you."  That must have seemed like the most sensible thing to do.  After all, many of them had been fishermen before they dropped their nets and began to follow Jesus as his disciples.  They knew how to fish and they had made a living doing that task long before Jesus had called them as he walked on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  They went out in the boat and fished all night, as was the custom in their day, and had no luck at fishing.  The fish were just not biting that night.

Right after the sun had begun to rise in the east, a figure stood on the beach and shouted out to them, "Children, you have no fish, have you?"  They must have wondered who this stranger was and why he would be trying to interfere in their lives.  "Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some," continued the voice.  Those fishermen must have thought, "What nerve trying to tell us how to fish!  We have fished all night but the fish just are not biting!"  But they obeyed the voice of the stranger and suddenly they had so many fish in their nets that the nets were beginning to try to break.

One of the disciples recognized who was behind the voice of the stranger and shouted to the others, "It is the Lord!"  Peter had been fishing with no clothes on at all, as some fishermen did in their day, and he put on his clothes and then jumped into the sea and swam to shore.  The others directed their boat to the shore, dragging along the net full of fish with them.  They all wanted to see Jesus who waited for them on the beach.

Jesus had prepared a charcoal fire and was beginning to cook some of the fish they had brought in.  He was fixing breakfast for them because he knew they were hungry from all their work.  They all recognized that it was Jesus who was preparing the meal for them and they were filled with so much joy that they could hardly speak.

After breakfast, as they were sitting and looking at Jesus and wondering why the resurrected Lord was there, he began to speak specifically to Peter.  "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"  Peter looked at Jesus and responded, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."  Jesus then commanded him, "
Feed my lambs."  Jesus asked him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"  Peter again said, "Yes Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus again commanded, "Tend my sheep."  Then Jesus asked Peter the same question the third time and Jesus commanded him in like manner the third time.  Peter was getting a bit aggravated at this repeat of that question of his love for Jesus but he remembered that he had denied knowing Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' betrayal and now Jesus was asking him three times to state his love for him.

Peter knew that he had sinned when he had denied even knowing the man he loved so much on that dreadful night when Jesus was on trial and then executed.  He regretted his actions and words and that was all that he could think about.  Perhaps this was Jesus' way of letting Peter know that he was forgiven and that Jesus had further work for him to do for God's Kingdom into the future.  Jesus fed his physical body with the fish on the beach but also fed his spirit as he gave him the forgiveness he needed so desperately.

All have sinned and come short of God's glory, according to the Epistle to the Romans.  Peter knew he had.  Paul knew he had.  The disciples as frail and weak men all knew that they had not stood with Jesus on the most trying night of his earthly life.  All of them needed absolution and Jesus granted it to them by appearing to them as the Lord, victorious over death and the grave.  He gave them work to do to show them they were still needed and could do something useful for God for the future.

We all are needed to continue to spread the good news of God's love through Jesus Christ to our world for the future.  None of us are perfect but all of us are forgiven as we continue to work and love and live so that others will be blessed by God as God continues to work through us to bring about peace, love, and justice in the world around us.

God still needs you to be active in the world.  How will you answer the call?  How will you help to feed the sheep and tend the lambs, even as Jesus commissioned Peter to do the same?  

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Week After Easter Sunday....Easter Continues!

"It was all over! The Lord was dead! It he had been sick, they would have cared for him.  If he had been imprisoned, they could have waited for his release and started over.  It they had been persecuted, they could have gone underground and kept the course alive.  But he was dead--finally, unchangeably dead."  From Living Witnesses, musical of the 1970s.

Easter Day...for many of us that is the entirety of Easter.  One day to celebrate, to hide and hunt eggs, to have a big dinner and sit and visit and talk and then go home wishing we had more time to unwind before going back to work on Monday.  On the Christian calendar, though, Easter is not just one day.  It is actually an entire season and it lasts seven weeks until the day we call Pentecost is celebrated.

On Easter Day we read the traditional resurrection story of Jesus from one of the Gospels and we proclaim:"He is risen! He is risen, indeed!" The story does not end there, though.  For the next six weeks we will hear more stories of Jesus' resurrection appearances to his disciples.  We will see Jesus walk through walls to rooms with locked doors.  We will hear Jesus teaching disciples as they walk sadly toward Emmaus.  We will witness Jesus appearing in the fog on the beach as the disciples have gone back to a life of fishing and preparing breakfast for them as they gather on the shore.  We will give Jesus a proper send-off as he gathers his followers together once more and tells them that they are in charge of his mission to the world and they see him go upward into the heavens.  Jesus returns to be with God the Father and leaves the mission of making the world a better place in the hands of those who he taught and all who would follow them on the Christian journey.

This second Sunday of Easter we have to get out of the locked room where the disciples are hiding for fear of their lives so we can begin to spread the good news.  Jesus had been murdered and they had been witnesses to his violent death and they figured they would be next.  After all, if the Jewish authorities hated Jesus so much that they would insist on his death to silence his message, then perhaps they would push the Roman authorities to also kill Jesus' followers just to be sure that none of them would continue to teach what they could not agree with.

So, they found a hiding place and decided to lay low.  They waited quietly and tried to console one another as they recounted again and again the terrible events that surrounded Jesus' trial and execution.  For some reason, Thomas left the group and went out into society.  Perhaps he went to find food for everyone or he started getting cabin fever and had to get some fresh air.  Whatever the reason for his absence, it was during the time he was gone that the resurrection Christ appeared to the others locked away and revealed his wounds to them so they would believe that he was indeed alive.

Many of us need to see and experience things for ourselves.  We may hear of the experiences of others but do not truly understand what they are until they happen to us.  I have heard of many people who have been struck by lightning and survived.  A cousin and a friend of ours both have had this experience.  I have never been struck by lightning, thank God, and cannot truly relate to what they must be like but these two men I know who say they have been struck by lightning can truly testify to what it feels like to have that experience.

When Thomas returned to the disciples in the locked room, they immediately shouted to him, "We have seen the Lord!"  As they told him of the visit of the resurrected Jesus, he could only say that he would not believe until he had the same experience they had had.  Thomas was not being so much of a doubter, as he is often called, as a realist.  He could not believe in resurrection because he had never seen a resurrected person (except Lazarus, and that must not have made a huge impression on him) but he needed the same experience the others disciples had if he was to believe that his friend Jesus was truly alive.

So, a week later, as the disciples continued to be in their secret hideout, Jesus again walked among them without opening the door and showed his hand and side to Thomas to which Thomas exclaimed his confession of faith--"My Lord and my God!"  Not only did Thomas believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead but he also believed that Jesus was truly the Son of God, who could not be truly killed.

Jesus' reaction to Thomas' confession of faith was not to belittle him or scold him for not believing what the other disciples had told him about their experience.  It was simply to say that those who can believe in things without having to have rock solid evidence are often happier than those who demand proof.  Such people are often happier because they are not tormented with having to have explanations for everything in life.  They often just benefit or enjoy what life provides without having to know how everything works.

I am always amazing at air travel.  I know if I board a plane and it successfully takes off and then lands without incident that I will be in a new place when I step off the plane.  I have had people describe aerodynamics to me and why such a heavy thing as a multi-ton piece of metal can be lifted into the air but I still cannot truly understand it.  It just does not make sense to me.  I benefit from air travel and plan to continue to do so as long as I can but I do not have to understand how it works in order to enjoy it.

Resurrection is a bit like air travel.  I do not have to understand how it works to believe in it.  I just believe that Jesus died and came back to life three days later.  It is just something I choose to believe.  If others must have proof in order to understand, then I congratulate them on their curiosity and inquiring mind.  It is enough to me that just believe that Jesus rose from the dead and has granted me and all eternal life because of the miracle of his resurrection.  I choose to proclaim--"He is risen! He is risen, indeed!"

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Day 36 of Lent: God's Love Embraces This World and the Next

This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  John 17:3

"This is my father's world, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres."  (words by Maltbie D. Babcock)  God's presence is proclaimed in this world and the next.  Every place can be a "thin place" where God is revealed in the tasks of ordinary life.  Every landscape reminds us that God is everywhere we are, even when we are most oblivious of God's presence.

All life is interconnected--that includes the relationship between heaven and earth.  Our image of heaven expresses our hope that God will transform our lives within an environment where grace and growth are constant companions in an adventure toward wholeness for all things.

We are created to live this lifetime in our spiritual journeys and we are creating eternity by what we do today.  We seek justice in this lifetime because it promotes well being for others.  As we live and work to love God and neighbor we find God's presence in the world around us and in the people around us whom we serve.

God loves the world, both the world we live in and the worlds we cannot even imagine.  In this lifetime, we are fellow adventurers together in bringing beauty to this good earth.  God entrusts this planet and its inhabitants to us and guides us as we work together to bring about good.

Affirm for yourself:
God loves this world and all that is in it.
My life is an eternal gift from God.
My loving actions bring joy to others in this life and the next.
I rejoice with God in the beauty of the earth.

Loving Creator, artist of galaxies and planets, and world to come, help us to trust your love for this world and this life.  Help us to create beauty that endures as we celebrate the passing moments. Help us to see holiness in all things and glimpse your everlasting life in this world's most unlikely places.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Day 35 of Lent: We May Forget Ourselves, but God Will Never Forget Us

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
 Isaiah 49: 15-16

Our longevity has led to the growing challenges of maintaining quality of life amid the many chronic illnesses we have such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.  Many persons fear becoming victims of the technology intended to sustain and support life.  Words that were unknown to our grandparents strike terror in our hearts as we imagine our helplessness, vulnerability, and forgetfulness.

In many ways, Alzheimer's disease embodies many of our deepest fears--the loss of memory, reason, speech, and self-awareness.  Tragically, the progression of Alzheimer's disease eventually robs us of our self-awareness and the ability to remember our own personal stories.  We may forget who we are and who we have been in the course of our unique personal adventure.

God never forgets us, nor does God quit working in our lives.  All things are treasured in the divine memory.  As the one to whom all hearts are open and all desires are known, God experiences each moment from the inside as well as from the prospective of its external relationships.  If God is truly omnipresent and active, then God is also present within the experience of persons with Alzheimer's disease.

We often experience God in our sighs too deep for words.  God is loving and faithful, even when we can no longer remember who we are.  God's enduring love and unfailing memory remind us that we can believe on behalf of others, and others can believe on behalf of us.  We can heal them with our healing words and touch and by singing hymns of faith with them.  With awareness that God never forgets, we can accept our fears of the future and experience God's healing touch when we are most fearful of what tomorrow may bring.

Affirm for yourself:
Regardless of state of mind, God loves me.
I am God's beloved child in every season of life.
Regardless of health conditions, God loves me.

Holy companion, help me to experience your unfailing love in health and illness, in success and failure.  Help me to listen for your presence in my inner voice, through unexpected moments of inspiration, and through the care of others.  Help me to know that you are always with me and that  nothing can separate me from your love in Christ Jesus, our Savior and Healer.  Amen.