Monday, July 6, 2015

Do I Have to Forgive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Our Place in the World

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Basic Auto Mechanics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Rough Seas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Truth Found on a Cereal Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding a Source of Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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