Monday, December 15, 2014

The Old Becomes New Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sweet or Unsweet?

The South is one of the places in this country where when you order iced tea in a restaurant they may ask you, "Sweet or unsweet?"  That, of course, means do you want sugared tea or tea to which sugar has not been added.  If one travels away from the South, one will not usually hear this question.  Tea, if it is brewed and not canned or bottled or instant, is normally served without sugar being added to it in the rest of the United States.  Finding iced tea that is not bottled or canned or instant is very difficult when one has left the United States behind and traveled into other countries.  Even our friendly Canadian neighbors to the north rarely have brewed iced tea in restaurants.  If you order iced tea, most likely they bring a can or bottle to your table and a glass you can pour it into if you are lucky.

When we lived just west of Tyler, Texas in the hamlet of Edom for three years back in the early 90s, we would often dine at a restaurant just across the street from our house called The Woodshed.  It was a country cooking kind of establishment in those days, famous for its mile high pie.  When you ordered your meal, you always ordered the pie at the same time, if you wanted pie for dessert, because it may not be there at the end of your meal if you did not reserve it early.  The Woodshed had many servers but our favorite one was a young woman who had a sparkly personality and was the daughter of the owner.  When she took your order for iced tea, she would ask the question, of course, "Sweet or unsweet?"  After she brought you your first glass of tea, though, she would remember what kind of tea you were drinking but she would usually say, "You're sweet, aren't you?  I thought you were sweet" or "You're unsweet.  I know it."  She was a lot of fun and was always ready to help you in any way when you were her customer.  That usually brought her very good tips.

Sweet or unsweet is the question that talks about extremes.  Do you want tea that has sugar in it and you do not have to add any or do you want tea that is plain, sugar-less to which you can add artificial sweetener if you desire?  The question asks about involvement or the lack of it when it comes to tea.  Do you want tea that you have to stir and do something to or do you want tea that is already prepared for you as you need it to be?

Tea is a bit like church at times.  We may not ask, "Sweet or unsweet?" of members but we often do ask, "Active or inactive?"  Are you involved with the church or do you just like it there and you do not have to do anything with it?  Some people just like the idea of the church existing.  They like the idea that it exists but they really do not want to go or participate in its ministries.  They like to know that it is there in case they may need it at some point in life but do not want the church to interfere in their lives until they decide they need it.

Some became church members and said that they would attend regularly, give to the church to support it, and volunteer to help out where needed.  Perhaps they did all of this for a while but for some reason they lost the desire to be a faithful, active member.  So now, they fit into the "inactive" category when it comes to church membership.  Their name is on the church roll but they are hardly ever seen at worship or church functions.  Some churches have solved the problem by creating an "inactive membership roll" on which they write the names of members who joined in the past but are not around in the present.  That roll is there to remind the church that those people exist since they are not seen in person.

Being an active or inactive member of a church is not as easy as deciding what kind of tea one wants.  It does not usually happen immediately.  It usually happens over a period of time as members decide that other things are more important to do on Sundays than attend worship, that they do not have enough time to participate in church activities, and that they do not need to keep the vows they made years ago when they became members through their inactivity.  Once someone has been absent from the church for a long period of time, it is hard to return due to embarrassment or the presumed need to explain one's absence.

One church advertised for its long, lost members to return to the church with a clever ad that said: "Missing Persons needed to return.  No questions asked.  Come home."  What success they had with the campaign is unknown but the truth behind it remains.  We do not need to know why someone has stayed away from the fellowship of the Body of Christ.  We only want them to return and rejoin the camaraderie they have been missing.  They are needed so that the Body will be complete.  As long as they are missing, we will never be complete.

Come home for the holidays!  No questions asked.  You are missed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Riverside Revival Meeting

When I was a kid, my mother was very taken with tent revivals.  Most modern people have no clue what those were but traveling preachers would pass through town and erect a tent someone in less than favorable neighborhoods because those were the only ones that would allow a tent to be erected in their area.  The tent would be equipped much like a church, with folding chairs, a speaker system so that all could hear, and, if it was winter, big heaters that would blow from the back of the tent toward the front so that people would not freeze while receiving their dose of religion.  The ground under the tent would be covered with sawdust so that the shoes of all would not be covered with dirt or mud from the ground.  The preacher sponsoring the revival would put out ads in the newspaper and many seeking miracles or salvation would flock to hear what the visiting preacher had to say.

Even though my mom faithfully dragged us to church every time the doors were open, she still insisted on going to tent revivals to see the visiting preachers.  It was not enough that she went but she took her three children with her on these religious escapades.  I remember falling asleep many a time on those hard wooden folding chairs and being woke up when we finally could go home after my mom had received whatever blessing she had come to find at the tent revival.

Most tent revivals were of the Pentecostal style, featuring lots of theatrics presented by the preacher along with music that would be more acceptable in some of the nightclubs of the area.  Worshipers were encouraged to "let go and let God" so it was not unusual to see people falling on the ground or dancing around the tent area to the beat of the loud music.  My mom was not one of the dancers or fallers but she did stand at her chair and did a little gospel jig as the music droned on and on.  Finally when the preacher got started he usually did not stop for about an hour.  His message was punctuated with a lot of guilt and his purpose was to make those present feel about as guilty as they could be so that they would "get right with God" and "walk the sawdust trail" to the altar to pray.  Many a man and woman ran down the aisle to find relief when the preacher described how disastrous life and death would be without knowing God was there to save you.

I mainly slept through the sermons but sometimes I would watch the participants (I was an unwilling one, dragged there but not old enough to be held responsible for actually being a part of it) as they would dance or shake or fall and wonder why this traveling preacher should have such an effect on these otherwise seemingly civilized people.  If you had met them on the street in Beaumont, most of them would not have behaved as they did under that revival tent, but there was something magical about being under the spell of the traveling preacher.  He would shout and he would pace back and forth and wipe his sweaty brow with a big towel he brought along for the purpose and people would shout back at him and the entire experience was one of sound and light and electricity that could not be found anywhere else in society in those days.

Maybe it was that way with John the Baptist when he stood on the banks of the Jordan River and told people to repent of their sins and to be baptized to show they were serious.  That traveling preacher was as odd as they came--dressed in animal skins and eating all manner of things that others in that place and time did not eat.  He yelled at those gathered and compared them to snakes and told them that their religion was nothing special.  He told them to repent and to be baptized and that he was there preparing them for the real messenger of salvation who was to soon come.  We do not know the result of his preaching except that it eventually got him killed when he accused Herod of all manner of things, something that was not very wise.

Still, John the Baptist made waves and the waves swept across the the kingdom until finally John met the one whom he had been predicting would come, none other than Jesus of Nazareth, his cousin to whom he gave great homage.  Repentance was the theme of John's message to those who would be baptized but Jesus willingly accepted baptism even though he had no need to repent.

Sometimes it takes something so out of the ordinary to make people think that they will go out of their way in order to see it.  Maybe it is a traveling tent revival or a screen door or pancake with the image of Jesus on it.  Maybe it is a story that the Virgin Mary appeared to various people around the globe.  Maybe it is something that cannot be explained and that very fact causes thinking people to think and emotional people to feel something that they had not felt before.  Sometimes people are seeking an answer to their questions and they go to any place to see anyone whom they think could have the answer.  If they have to fall down in some sawdust in order to receive what they were looking for, well, there have been higher prices to pay for wisdom or emotion somewhere in the world in the past.

Repent....the message of John the Baptist for Advent this week.  Repent and turn again and be ready for the coming of the Messiah.  Repent and start again and be made new in the season of newness and light.  Repent and decide to be more involved and more alive through the grace of Jesus Christ given to all who would believe.

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 motivation....one 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, decisions....how 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.