Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Transitions

O how well I remember those Thanksgivings of my childhood when we would spend a lazy morning around our house watching the Macy's Parade and smelling the good food cooking that my mother was preparing in the kitchen and that we would not enjoy until early afternoon.  Those seem like the "good ole days" now that I am older and my family of origin has slowly disappeared over the years.  First, it was my sister who died a decade ago.  Then, my father died four years later.  Then, my brother and sister in law died only last year.  Now, I have an elderly mother and myself as the only ones of our family of origin remaining.  So, Thanksgiving now consists of going to Luby's Cafeteria on Thanksgiving Day along with my wife and our grown nephew whose parents left him with few usable practical skills so he is fairly dependent on others.

Going to Luby's on Thanksgiving Day is not bad but it is not Thanksgiving as we knew it in the past.  My wife and I are officially middle aged, both of us having elderly mothers who are widows and grown children who live in other states so far removed that they never come home for Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving Day has lost its cultural identity for me.  It is no longer a gathering in a home with lots of food weighing down the table to the point that one cannot squeeze another dish on it---a literal representation of a feast.  Now, it is waiting in a line along with others who will not eat at their homes either on this special day and then eating the plate lunch that Luby's sells as their own version of the Thanksgiving Feast.  A piece of pumpkin pie accompanies the package deal if you want it but another dessert will cost you extra.

Luby's is a fine place to have a meal if you enjoy cafeterias and I grew up going to Luby's on a fairly regular basis with my family so I have nothing against eating there but if I had my choice of spending Thanksgiving Day at my home or another home with friends and family rather than going to Luby's, I would certainly chose that more nostalgic representation of what Thanksgiving is supposed to be like.

Many of our friends have grandchildren and that is an immediate lure for people to get together at holidays.  Having none, then that magnet does not draw us anywhere for the holidays.  Our children have their own busy lives and although they knew they have a standing invitation to come home anytime they wish we are not insistent about pushing our holiday agenda hoping it will be their idea to come home for the holidays rather than be urged by their parents to do so.

So, Thanksgiving is what it is.  I have learned in all things to be content, so said the Apostle Paul, and if he was around today and celebrating this American holiday along with us, you may find him standing in line at Luby's too since we have no record that he had a family of any kind.  Perhaps he would have ordered the Thanksgiving Feast with the accompanying pumpkin pie or he may have just had a big bowl of gumbo instead because it is the holiday that brings us together and whoever is around our table is more important than the food, regardless of what it is, that is on that table.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The joys and challenges of being a Protestant

"Freedom, O Freedom....Thank God' Amighty I am free at last..."  (taken from an African-American spiritual).

As Americans we have milestones in our history that we celebrate annually.  The Fourth of July or Independence Day is probably the biggest celebration where we think about what it means to be Americans and to have the freedoms we enjoy.  After that, most likely it is Thanksgiving that captures our attention as to how our collective history has shaped us into the people we are.  We remember those brave people who boarded that boat we call the Mayflower to come from England (by way of Ireland) to the shores of a continent that was still very unknown and considered dangerous.  Savages (that is what they called the Native Americans who lived on this continent) were there and they soon learned that was the least of their worries and those very ones they feared became the source of their salvation when they got to know them and learned from them so that they could survive in this harsh and forbidding land.  Being free from the religious and political oppression they believed they endured in England was a greater motivator for them than enduring the challenges they would endure in the new land they would claim as their own.

The Pilgrims (as we call those hardy folk who made that voyage across the Atlantic) set up their own little kingdom in Massachusetts and created a religious order or sorts in which they were now in charge rather than any other religious authorities.  No longer would the Church of England or the British government impose their rules upon them but they themselves would act as rule maker and enforcer.

Things began well with everyone pitching in just to survive but soon as they were established and had time to do other things than just build and plant and gather in order to live they had time to do other things and those in charge who were very religious determined that the only things that could be done in one's spare time was reading the Bible, praying, and conducting oneself in religious activities of piety and charity.  Those who chose to pursue other activities soon found that they faced punishment.  Those who questioned the authority of the leaders of the group also faced punishment or exile.  The Pilgrims had traded the perceived harshness of the British system for their own system that offered similar harshness only in a new setting.

Freedom from British rule may have seemed like prison to some who suffered at the hands of the religious leaders of the day and some did suffer and die, convicted of witchcraft or other severe offenses, and others who chose to set out on their own and establish their own rules (such as Roger Williams who made his way to what became Rhode Island) rather than be subject to what the Pilgrims may do to them.

Personal freedom as always been a precious commodity.  Some will go to great lengths simply to be free of the oppression of others who impose their rule and will upon them.  What do we do, though, when left to our own devices, when we are totally free and can make up our minds for ourselves?  Greatness or Disaster can emerge from lives with no order or structure.  Some can know how to handle the time and space given to them but some have no idea of what to do with their lives without a structure surrounding them.

The Reformation had set the world free from the rules imposed upon society by the Roman Catholic Church.  Persons had a choice as to how they would live and what they would believe because of Martin Luther's bold statement that faith rather than works brings salvation.  Henry VIII made the same kind of move, but for other purposes that were selfish on his part involving a certain woman he wanted to marry, and the Church of England was formed.  No longer did they need the Pope's approval to do anything.  Suddenly the word of the King or Queen of England carried more weight than someone who resided hundreds of miles away in Rome.

Freedom became the rule of the day.  No longer were people required to do anything much unless they wanted to.  Yes, they would still pay taxes to the church to support its ministers but church attendance was not really required and the ministers being paid by the church could drone on for hours and put everyone to sleep and rarely did anyone question the method or the mode of what happened in religious institutions.

Now....we are totally free in America.  Persons can do as they please in their lives unless they hurt another person, and even then that pain may or may not be considered justified, depending on the jury one gets.  When it comes to religious training or worship or involvement in anything to do with religion, it is totally optional.  Some religious institutions may try to coerce involvement through the use of guilt or shame or the threat of hell.  That does not work with Protestants, mainline ones usually, though.  We have freed people from the threat of hell (many of us no longer believe in it) or the imposition of guilt.  We had allowed people to make up their minds and decide what they would do and now all are free to decide for themselves if or when they may be involved in any way in religious life or if that is a relic of the past to be forgotten.

The loud singer of the 60s-70s, Janis Joplin, sang her most famous song that contained the line..."Freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose..."  Who knew that she would be remembered as a theologian beside a drug addict and rock singer?  When freedom sets us free from all the past and its teachings and traditions that once informed us of who we are, then what is left to lose?  Life once had meaning within the contexts of things that we felt were important but when people live without goals or directions given to them by something greater than themselves, where does the meaning of life come from?

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free..." words of Jesus that are quoted often.  But is the truth that Jesus talked about truth that frees us from responsibility or concern or care for others.  That is not what he said in so many other places when he challenged all who would follow him to care of others in society who could not care for themselves.  That became the defining attribute of what it means to truly be free through the truth that he offered humanity.  Freedom to be involved in a world that needed to receive the love that only God could give through the followers of those who would claim that mission as their own for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Will you have the carrot or the stick?

I have decided on a new plan in order to boost attendance at our church.  Since so many cannot get motivated enough to come to church on many Sundays, I have decided that we are going to give away a brand new 2015 car or truck next year.  We will begin on the first Sunday of 2015 and each week that a person is present in church, they can put their name in a basket from which we will choose the winner of the vehicle on the last Sunday of the year.  So, each person has 52 chances to win in this big attendance extravaganza.  Couples can have twice as many chances if both of them can get to church on the same Sunday.  We will emphasize this drawing over and over again each week in order to build enthusiasm and when the fall comes we will begin telling everyone that the time of the drawing is nearing.  I bet we will have a full house on the last Sunday of the year despite the fact that it is usually one of the lowest attendance Sundays since it falls just after Christmas.

Isn't that a great plan?  I wonder if people would actually attend more if they thought they may win a huge prize after a certain time period OR would they fall back into their old habits and begin to rationalize it telling themselves that the vehicle being given away is not that good after all or that they could buy it themselves and not have to worry about attending church so much.  Would the chance at winning a big prize such as a vehicle be a motivator enough to encourage people to attend church more often?

When I was preparing to be an educator back in the early 1970s, I remember taking a psychology class in which we discussed intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  The topic has to do with what it takes to get a person to complete a task.  In education classes, of course, it was about what could we as teachers do to encourage students to complete the work assigned to them.  The thought behind the lesson was that some people just have a natural motivation to complete a task; it is just part of who they are genetically.  That is called intrinsic motivation.  When you do what is required just because it is required, you are intrinsically motivated to do it.  No outside force is making you do it.  If, however, you need an outside stimulus to get you to do what is required, then that is called extrinsic motivation.

Motivators comes in many forms but generally they can be positive or negative.  Giving away a car in order to get people to attend church is positive motivation.  People may respond because they think there is a reward tied to their behavior.  Threatening a punishment for not attending church is a negative motivator.  Churches have used the threat of punishment to get people to do what they want for centuries and it sometimes works but it rarely works in today's world.  The threat of hell or divine retribution does not motivate people as much as it did back in the Colonial Period when people would shake in their boots when a preacher described God holding them over the flames of hell wanting to drop them into eternal damnation.  People do not really believe in that kind of God anymore and most of us have no use of hell in our theology. Even if we do, the threat of hell rarely changes behaviors.  It just caused guilt.

So, will you come to our church every Sunday in 2015 in hopes of winning that new car or truck?  Will the hope of that prize make you want to get up every Sunday and put your name in the box at church so that you can have more chances at winning the prize?  Or will you get excited about it for a while and then give up on it because it does not really motivate you to do something you would rather not do?

Perhaps that is the biggest question in this discussion.....if people do not attend church regularly, why don't they?  If the carrot or the stick does not work to bring about the desired behavior (attending church) then what would?  Perhaps an internal change is all that brings about intrinsic has to desire to do what one wants to do in order to make oneself do it.  Perhaps asking God to give us the desire to be with God's people and to learn God's will and way for our lives can bring about the change we need even more than a brand new 2015 automobile.

PS.  There is not going to be an actual automobile given away at church in 2015.  That is what we call playful fantasy in writing to make a point.  Just in case you may have wondered....

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Make Your Choice

Decisions, do we decide?  Some things are hard to decide, some are easy.  Sometimes you think you have made the best choice and then you have second thoughts.  I have officiated at many weddings over the course of my 23 years of being a pastor.   I have yet to see a person decide not to get married on their wedding day.  Yes, we see that happen in movies.  In fact, some movies are about that very idea.  "The Runaway Bride" was a movie about a woman who decided not to get married.  "In and Out" was another one about a man who decided not to get married.  In real life, though, think about how hard it would be not to get married on your wedding day once all the plans have been made, the reception has been paid for, the guests have all gathered.  Think about how much courage it would take to not get married when everything has been done to prepare for the wedding and you are about to walk down the aisle and make it happen.  One person told me that he married his fiance even though he knew that he was making a terrible mistake, and he did, by evidence that the marriage ended in divorce only 2 1/2 years later.

Decisions, big important ones, need to be carefully thought over and the decision made is one that persons must live with for the rest of their lives.  Those decisions affect the rest of your life....the college you will attend, the person you will marry, where you will live, whether or not you will have children, the profession you choose.  All are life changing decisions.

Joshua challenged the People called Israel to think carefully before answering the question he put to them in the 24th chapter of Joshua.  "Choose this day whom you will serve...will it be Yahweh the God of Israel or will it be the gods of the surrounding area" (paraphrased).  Then, the old grizzly commander in chief (he was 110 years old at the time) questioned their sincerity and whether or not they could really fulfill their commitment to serve Yahweh.  "You cannot serve Yahweh, because if you make a promise and do not fulfill it, then he will turn around and do you harm rather than good."  They believed that God would punish those who went back on their word or promise to God.

The people insisted that they could serve Yahweh alone and not worship the idols of the Ammorites, Canaannites, etc in the land where they lived.  Joshua made them give their word and then wrote down their promise in the book of statutes.  He also said that nature bore witness to their pledge and set up a rock as a monument to remind them of what they had promised.  Then, he sent them out to get to work.  Their promise did not last long, though, because the next book of the Bible, Judges, describes how they began to find idols in the land to worship along with their worship of Yahweh.

Making promises is easy...keeping them is much more difficult.  Keeping promises to be faithful to a spouse or a church takes work on our part.  People make promises but time and obstacles get in the way and they forget the promises they make.  Sometimes I blame the church for making it so easy for people to become church members.  We ask one simple question, if people will be faithful and support the church they are joining, and then we do not spell out what we mean by being "faithful" or to "support" the church.

Perhaps we should use some of ole Joshua's reasoning.  Maybe when they say "Yes" to our question about their faithful participation in the church, I should say, "Are you sure you can do this?  Do not promise if you cannot fulfill it?"  We are too polite to do such things, though.  We just shake their hands and welcome them in and then leave them to their own devices, never expecting much of them but hoping they will attend church and give of their resources to support the church and participate in the activities of the church.  Then, years later when we do not see them again, we scratch our heads and say, "What ever happened to them?  I hardly see them."  Perhaps the old saying is as valuable as scripture, "To whom much is given, much is required."  Or to rewrite it, "When little is expected of someone, that is what you get in return."

 Perhaps a new commitment is needed now and then as a refresher course in what it means to be a member of a church just as it is often done for marriages, something to refresh our memories as to why this is important and what we said to get into this relationship in the first place.  A lot is riding on both of them so putting a little effort into it may bring a good return in our investment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches

When I began my life in ministry back in 1991, I served as pastor of two small rural churches in northeast Texas, Edom United Methodist Church, which is about 17 miles west of Tyler, Texas and Sexton Chapel United Methodist Church, which is about 6 miles north of Edom.  At the time of my pastorate there, Edom UMC had about 200 members and about half that in worship on a good Sunday while Sexton Chapel UMC had about 25 members and about 12 on a good Sunday.  I was one in a long line of pastors who had served both congregations for many years.  We were part of those called "Circuit-Riders" in Methodist tradition, pastors who served more than one congregation and who often officiated at services at both each Sunday.  I did that for the three years I was pastor there.  I would drive out to Sexton Chapel, in the Primrose Community, and have service with 10-12 people at 9:30 each Sunday morning.  Then I would return to Edom UMC and have service there with 100 folks, more or less, at 11:00.  We would finish up by about noon so that we could have lunch with the tourists in town (Edom is an arts community and hosts an Arts Fair each year) at the Woodshed Cafe across the street from the Edom church most Sundays.

The church at Edom continues to grow slowly but surely, replacing those who pass away with others to continue to carry the load.  The church at Sexton Chapel closed its doors in 2009 and was merged with Edom as its stronger neighbor six miles away.  At one time, the church at Sexton Chapel was as strong as its neighbor church with over 100 members and was very active.  During my tenure there, once a year there was a reunion with singing and dinner after worship when the children and relatives of members would drive in from Dallas or Shreveport or other cities to reminisce about the good ole days of the church.  Other than that one Sunday each year, however, there were so few people in worship that the congregation could barely pay its share of the pastor's salary and keep the lights on.  Finally, they could no longer function because most of the active members had died and no one was left to continue the job of keeping the church alive.

Those of us who work in ministry often worry about what will happen to churches when its members are no longer active in the life and ministry of the church.  When people have their names on a church membership roll, and that is enough connection to the local church, when they stop attending church except for holidays or special days such as baptisms or confirmations, when they stop giving to their church because they rarely attend and they only give when they are present, when they no longer care to serve on a committee or work at a church clean-up day or visit the sick or shut-ins, what will happen to the church?  Will it have a future?

Churches exist to provide a vision to people as to how their lives may be better because of the message that the church has to offer.  It is not there simply to baptize, confirm, marry, and bury its members, although those are functions of a church, but it exists to offer something better to people than the culture can offer so that their lives will be better lives than they could have without the influence of the church in their lives.  Churches exist to give meaning to the lives of all who come under its teachings and activities, whether they "belong" to a church or not.

Without "active" members a church cannot continue to live.  Names on a church roll do not contribute anything to the life of a church.  Only living bodies, people who can think and create and work, can make a church come alive.  Even if a church has a long history, that is not what is important today.  It is the people who presently make the church to be an active one that brings life to it.  Otherwise it is just a building in a place that could function as a museum, as do many churches in Europe that have closed due to no one caring to continue to make it a living entity.

When people become members of the church I serve now, we ask them if they will be "faithful members" and "support its ministries".  That is all that is required of people who call themselves Christians to join our church.  I guess we should be more specific as to what it means to be "faithful" since that word seems to have lost some of its meaning over the years in society.  Some churches ask if persons will give their prayers, presence, gifts, and service....that is helpful.  Others ask if people will give of their time, talent, and treasure.  That is also helpful in defining what is needed from church members.  Maybe we need to be even more explicit.....Will you choose to come to church most Sundays except when you are ill or out of town, even when there is football on tv or sports to participate in otherwise?  Will you choose to come to church when it is hot or cold or rainy or cloudy unless a flood or hurricane or ice storm prevents you?  Will you choose to give of your resources to the church so that we can pay the pastor and staff and keep the air conditioning and heat going and pay the church insurance?  Will you pray for your church and pastor and ask God to lead you into thinking about ways to be involved and active in your church?  Will you serve as you are asked, knowing that God and others will help you in whatever you are asked to do?

Those would be good questions to ask of prospective members.  The only thing is, if we asked straightforward questions such as those, as people considered church membership, we may have many less members than we do now.  Church membership is very easy and the cost of being one is not explicit.  It is easy to become a member and stay one until we die.  Laying out the expectations of what it really means to be a church member, a difficult thing to do.

Without active and involved members, though...any church can become like Sexton Chapel church...closed with no future because no one really cared to continue its ministries.      

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Good Ole Martin Luther

This Sunday we will have a special worship service at our church to remember the beginnings of the Reformation, which happened nearly 500 years ago.  The man at the center of the Reformation, of course, was our good friend Martin Luther.  He was a very troubled man, to say the least.  He wanted to do right but felt like he was always sinning (and he was a monk who was supposed to devote his entire life to prayer and study and teaching, to boot).  He made pilgrimages, climbed up the steps in Rome on his knees, beat himself with a rope whip, and got so mad at the devil that he threw his ink bottle at the wall making a stain that supposedly can be seen to this day.  He challenged the institutions of his day that he felt were taking advantage of the poor and uneducated, which was nearly everyone except the rich, so on October 31 (yes, that is Halloween), 1517 he made a list of things he thought was wrong with his employer (The Roman Catholic Church) and posted them on the door of the church in the village where he lived, Wittenberg.  There were 97 things on this list so they became known as the 97 Theses.  That act of nailing them to the door of the church (which was the ancient equivalent of a bulletin board) was revolutionary and it began a movement that expanded and spread like wildfire across Europe.  It became known as the Reformation.

Luther did not actually intend on leaving his beloved Church, at first, but just wanted others to straighten up and stop what they were doing that he considered to be wrong but the authorities in charge took offense at what he wanted them to do and instead began proceedings against him to accuse him of crimes and to excommunicate him from the Church, which in their day was equivalent to banishing him to Hell.  Luther stood up for what he believed in and spoke to the authorities about his ideas resulting in his having to run for his life, literally, because there were people who wanted to kill him because of the ideas he taught.

Eventually, Luther found safety and a wife after he stopped being a monk.  Today, if you go to Wittenberg, Germany you can visit the place where Luther lived and the church where he nailed the 97 Theses.  You can hear an organ concert in the church and see a statue of Luther on the street.  The citizens of Wittenberg are preparing for the huge crowd of people to come in 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  Everyone has forgiven Luther for speaking out so long ago and now see him as their favorite son (since he brings so many tourists to town).

Luther's lesson in speaking up is one that all of us must consider when we see injustice around us.  Questioning authority seems easy to do today when we live in a country with freedom of speech but often we are afraid and do not speak out when injustice is around us.  Luther faced death by speaking out for what he believed in and finally had to give up his job in order to live in peace.  We remember Luther at this time of year for his courage and ask God to also give us courage in the face of modern challenges.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sabbatical Journal, Day Twenty-Eight


            I am going to miss these cool summer mornings that happen regularly in Parker’s Cove.  The temperature was 56 degrees this morning.  There was a beautiful sunrise with the copper colored morning giving way to the bright blue.  When we got up the tide was out and the little fishing boats lay in the mud and rocks.  There were many seagulls, crows, and cormorants around making their usual noises.  Some sat on the rocks just offshore as they do when the tide is out, populating the area where water once stood to see if they can find anything to eat that may have been left behind by its receding. 
            It was a lazy feeling Saturday morning but we were up early and had coffee and sat on the sofa looking out the window at the view.  We decided to have only toast this morning as we were going into Annapolis Royal for the Saturday Market one last time.  We do not really need anything in particular and cannot bring fruit or vegetables across the US border so we could only buy things we may want to bring home with us to remind us of our time here. 
            The market was busier than usual, thanks to the motorcycle rally that is going on over in Digby.  It is one of the largest ones in the Maritimes bringing in an estimated 50,000 participants.  Some of them ride around the area during the five days of the rally and know that the Annapolis Royal market is a large one.  Parking places on market days are rare but luckily we found a car backing out just as we pulled in the parking lot and parked close to where the vendors begin selling their wares. 
            We have brought Bo with us each time we have gone to the market and he is always a big hit with people.  Doris carries him around in her arms and people stop us frequently to ask us about him and to pet him.  He must not mind the attention because he allows all to pet him and he never growls at anyone. 
            We bought potato pancakes from a German woman who is at the market each week.  Finding some empty steps at a nearby building to sit on, we ate them as we watched others pass by.  Bo would bark at other dogs going by but he never barks at their humans.  Soon, I went to buy some coffee for us and we found a pastry to go alone with it. 
            We looked around; walking here and there to see all that was being offered.  Lots of fruit and vegetables from the farms in the area were being sold.  Crafts made by local craftsmen—wooden, pottery, stained glass—proudly displayed by their makers.  Breads, pastries, sausages—all made in local shops nearby to be sold at markets throughout the area. 
            I had bought a coffee cup in Digby made by a local potter, a German man who is originally from Bavaria.  He was at the market with his wife and son and we talked with him a bit.  He remembered us being in his shop earlier this week and he remembered Bo coming with us. 
            We had bought some delicious almond croissants at the market in Kentville last Wednesday.  They were made by a bakery called Marie and Guy’s, French people who have immigrated to Canada from southern France near the Spanish border.  We saw her at the market today and told her hold delicious her pastries were, asking if she had more with her today.  Alas, she said she had already sold them but did have others.  We looked them over but did not choose any from her to purchase.
            Rounding the corner, we found the booth of another baker from whom we had bought pastries and bread two weeks ago.  They had some delicious looking blueberry tarts so we bought a few from them to take with us for our trip home. 
            A woman who knits had sold us a sweater for Bo on our first trip to the market.  We stopped at her booth to see if she had a larger one for our granddog Kiwi.  She had a light green one that was larger than the one we bought for Bo so we bought it to send it to Laura for her to try it on Kiwi.  We told the woman goodbye and that we would be returning to Texas soon.  She wished us safe travels. 
            Back at our cottage, we began preparations for traveling back home.  We had one last lunch, trying to use up the remainder of the fresh vegetables we had in the refrigerator.  We cooked one more batch of fish we had stores in the freezer.  We finished off the loaf of homemade bread we had bought at the Kentville market earlier this week.  Little by little, we are closing up our home away from home we had shared for the past four weeks to begin the process of going home to where our real home is, about 3000 miles from here. 
            Having a time away is wonderful.  It is very enjoyable and relaxing to have new experiences in a new place, to meet new people and learn about them.  It is relaxing and energizing to breathe in the clear, pure air that is part of the natural environment in a beautiful place and to have cool, refreshing air daily as a wonderful gift.  As the saying goes, all things must come to an end, and being away must also end if one is to return home. 
            I am not looking forward to the long drive home, through many states, over many miles of mostly interstate highways but I know the end result will be that the road will lead us home once more, back to where we have friends waiting who we look forward to seeing again.  What a blessing it has been to have an extended time away to enjoy all of these unique things but home calls once more as it always does to bring us to where we belong. 
            “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven;”

(Ecclesiastes 3:1)