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.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Time to Go Home to See Mom

Mother's Day....every year we celebrate Moms on the second Sunday of May.  Millions of sons and daughters buy the gifts and make the trek to see their mothers or at least call them on the telephone and/or send a gift if they cannot be present physically with them.  The stereotypical mother on television and in the movies is always being controlling and whines if her children do not come home often enough or if they never phone.  Mother's Day is perhaps the day when restitution can be made by adult children who seem to have their own lives to live and fail to recognize their mother's contributions to their lives often enough.

Have you ever considered how much the Church is like a mother?  Actually the Church (if it is like the ideal mother) is like a good nurturing mother.  The Church brings a child into its fold through baptism and then nurtures the child through all the years, teaching the child what she feels is important so that he or she can survive in the world.  Children are confirmed when they are young adults and begin to be a little more independent and soon they are off on their own into the world, making a living, finding relationships, and having children of their own.  Through all of this process, the Church remains faithful and supportive, allowing children to find the places in the world, but letting them know that she is always there to help in case they need her.

The Church is a good mother and she does not complain when her children do not come to see her often enough or even if they do not phone home and let her know how they are.  She simply stands ready to be there for them if they need her.  And one day they will.  They will call home and Mom will answer the phone and hear the news they have to share.  They may be distressed because of ill health or a tragedy and need the Church to bring them comfort.  They may be joyful because of a job promotion or the birth of a child or grandchild or a celebration in their lives.  The Church, as a good mom, will celebrate with them and comfort them through all of their losses, always ready to meet the needs they have, without imposing her will on them or demanding that they come home more often.  She is simply there, watching and waiting for her children to come home and visit when they can.

Our children turn into adults and we have to give them room and space to grow and become themselves as they venture out into the world.  We cannot control them or rule their lives.  We have to give them freedom to experiment and support them when they fail or fall.  We have taught them all we know so that they can make good choices in the world.  If they forget what we have taught them and make unwise choices, we are there to comfort them and give any advice they make seek, without being intrusive.

The Church is that that kind of Mother.  She is there for her children when they need her.  She is always looking out of the big picture window from the living room, for the car lights as they come out of the darkness.  She is always waiting with welcoming arms and a meal prepared to nourish their spirits.  She is always welcoming any strangers they may bring with them when they come home.  She is the kind of mother we all wanted our own mothers to be like, full of grace and truth and love.

Isn't it time for you to come home and see your mother?  She waits to wrap her arms of love around you and welcome you just as if you have never been gone.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tough Questions

There are passages in the Bible that biblical scholars refer to as Jesus "hard sayings", things that modern people have trouble accepting or comprehending.  Things such as "Love your enemies and do good to those who abuse you" or "if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other and let him slap that one too."  The words of Jesus are actually not ones that modern Christians take literally or accept as valid.  Oh certainly, we affirm such sayings of Jesus as, "Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".  We like them because we can quote them and we see them on plaques here and there in stores that import a lot of goods from China.  It is rare to see a plaque in one of those stores that has "If someone asks for your coat, give them your cloak too" or something like that because it would not sell as well as the other ones that make us feel good.

Jesus has a final resurrection appearance in the last chapter of the Gospel according to St. John.  Jesus and his followers have had breakfast together on the beach and after everyone had eaten all they wanted, Jesus looked at Peter, the disciple who had denied knowing him three times as Jesus was being tried by the Jewish authorities, and asked him a hard question.  "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"  We are not sure about the "these" that Jesus was referring to....was it the other disciples, the fish they had grilled, others they both knew?  Peter's response was quick..."Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

Jesus repeated this question three times and each time Peter became more aggravated by Jesus' questioning him in this way.  "Do you love me?"  "Yes, Lord, you know I love you."  With each question, however, Jesus gave a task to Peter to do to show that he really loved Jesus.  "Feed my lambs...tend my sheep...Feed my sheep."  The proof of Peter's love would not be in the words he said to Jesus but in the action he took to live out his love daily among those whom Jesus loved.

That action took legs in Acts 10 when Peter had his famous dream where he saw a sheet descend from heaven filled with animals of all kinds and a voice said to him, "Kill and eat."  The animals in the sheet were some ones which were forbidden by Jewish law for Jewish followers to eat.  Peter responded that he would not eat them because he was an observant Jew.  The voice told him, however, "What God has called clean, you must not call profane."  When Gentiles knocked on his door a bit later and asked him to go with them to the house of Cornelius, a wealthy and important Gentile, Peter took the risk and went and the result was that Cornelius and his entire household was saved and baptized.

Peter's pledge of love to Jesus was acted out in his life as he obeyed the command to mix with others who were not like Peter and the other disciples, people whom Jewish law forbade them from having dealings with.  Peter fed the sheep that Jesus said he had, sheep of another fold, by obeying what he believed God had spoken to him in that dream

Jesus' words often bring comfort to us in times of trial but his words also bring challenges in the way we live.  Do we love Jesus enough to follow him in loving and serving others?  Do we love Jesus enough to choose to do something that we think God would have us do rather than choose something we would enjoy?  Do we truly love Jesus enough that we would obey his commands, even the hard ones, rather than dismiss them as not relevant today?  Jesus' words are often challenging but serving him is always rewarding when we do it for "the least of these."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Walking Through Walls and Eating Fish

We continue in the season of Easter, almost halfway through with it now.  Each week in church we read stories about the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples during that period between resurrection and ascension.  One week Jesus is walking through walls into locked rooms to appear to his fearful followers.  Another week Jesus is eating breakfast with them on the beach, asking for fish and eating it in front of them.  What kind of resurrected Jesus is he?  How can he be resurrected from the dead, changed so so his body can go through walls but also able to eat food?  Did he had a digestive system in a body that allowed passing through objects or was the food just absorbed into his new body?  We will never know the answer to these and thousands of other questions about Jesus in his resurrected state.  We call this sort of thing a "mystery."

Resurrection continues to happen daily to many people.  Each time someone dies, they are changed from the human being we knew and loved to a spiritual being with a new body that we cannot see with human eyes.  We have no idea what it looks like or how it works.  All we know is that when it happens to us, we will find out what happens.

Last week's Epistle reading from I John said, "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see his as he is." (I John 3:2)  Even the writer of the Epistle had no clue as to what lay beyond this life.  He just said that he believed that we would be like him, for we would see him as he is.

So, does that mean that my sister who died over 10 years ago can walk through walls and eat fish if it is on the heavenly menu one day?  I do not know the answer to that one either.  I guess there could be walls in the place where she resides now and perhaps fish could be served as a welcome change from angel food cake or manna.  She has never returned to tell me what it is like where she is but I am hoping she is in a good place and is happy where she is.

I have many questions about what lies beyond this life.  I have no answers, however.  I guess that is what faith and trust are about.  Trusting God to care for us in this life and beyond this life is one of the basic rudiments of the Christian faith.  Jesus talked about it all the time.  He said that God would take care of us just like God takes care of the flowers of the field (which are really beautiful in Texas right now) and the birds of the air (who sing so beautifully each day) and if God could care for them, couldn't God also care for us?  Trust....that is the element that connects the faith to what is needed daily and for the future.

I love life and living and I am in no hurry to go anywhere else but earth.  However, I trust God to guide me as I walk the planet and when the day comes to depart this life, I trust God to lead me to the place where God would have me go and that place will be one that will be pleasant and peaceful and perpetual.  If I get to walk through a wall now and then and enjoy a fish dinner with others, that would be an added bonus.  Just being in the presence of God will be sufficient, though, because God is Love.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Walking in the Light

"Trying to walk in the steps of the Saviour, Trying to follow our Saviour and King; Shaping our lives by his blessed example, Happy, how happy, the songs that we bring." (Stepping in the Light, Wm. J Kirpatrick)

How much light do we need in our lives in order to be able to see where we are going?  How much light do we need to be happy?  Our daughter and son-in-law live in the Seattle area.  I love visiting there because everything is so lush and green in color.  The temperature is moderately cool year round which is very appealing to me.  The people are genuinely concerned about the environment and are leaders in recycling and caring for the earth.  There are many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, being close to both the mountains and the ocean.  I think I would love living there and maybe retiring there.

Our daughter, though, often tells me, "Oh daddy, you don't know what it is like to live in a place where it is cloudy most of the time.  We don't see the sun shine nearly as much as we see the clouds hovering over us or the rain falling."  I suppose that is true, because the land would not be nearly as green if they did not get as much rain as they do.  There is a part of me that thinks I could live there despite the lack of sunshine in order to enjoy all the other benefits.  Then, we experience a week, as we did earlier in the winter, where we did not have sunshine for about a week.  People became dismal and gloomy and longed for the sun to shine to brighten their lives.  Finally, the sun came out and people were smiling and laughing and making jokes about how great it was to see the sun.

The community of the writer of the Epistle that we call I John tells his readers/listeners in the first part of his letter that "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all...if we walk in the light as he himself is the light, we have fellowship with one another..." (I John 1:5b-6a)  John wanted his audience to know that God is revealed in the light that is given through the Holy Spirit and through the Community of Faith.  The light that is revealed shows us how to follow the teachings of Jesus as they are revealed through the working of the Holy Spirit in and through human beings.

John wanted his community to know that if they sinned, and they would, that they could confess their sins to God and receive forgiveness.  They could pray to their advocate, Jesus Christ, and forgiveness would be immediate.  Confession of sin is a cleansing act that frees us from the guilt and shame and weight that sin carries with it.  Confessing our sin to God allows us to admit our wrong and our intention not to repeat that wrong.  Such honesty is respected by God who gives us freedom to live as forgiven and forgiving people.

Light is very important to our lives.  That is why we long for it when the clouds set it.  That is why people who live in Scandinavia built "light rooms" in which to sit to soak up some light during the cold, dreary, dark winter months.  That is why people there celebrate the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice, on which there is daylight almost around the clock.  Light reveals the truth to humans and as they attempt to follow that truth their lives become better and richer and happier.

Walk in the light, as revealed to you, and pray for more light to be revealed, and the God of Resurrection and Joy will grant to you what you seek, because God grants the prayers of those who sincerely come to God and ask for blessings that can bring about good on our behalf.  Amen.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Finding the Unexpected at an Empty Tomb

Easter is almost here....this Sunday is the big day.  Today, the day when I am writing this entry, is April 1, April Fool's Day.  This is the day when you are supposed to play a trick on someone and then yell "April Fool!" Many love to fool others and many hate to be fooled.  I guess that is why this day exists--to see who you can fool and how they will respond when they find out they have been fooled.  When I was a kid, it had more to do with dropping a fake spider on or in front of someone and watching them yell.  Today the tricks can be done in many ways, thanks to modern technology.

If April Fool's Day had existed in Bible days, specifically after Jesus had died on the cross and was buried in the tomb, then I bet the women who went to the tomb on Easter Sunday would have been waiting for someone to pop out from behind a bush and yell, "April Fool" at them.  They would have shrieked, most likely, and when they have recovered from their panic, they would have asked, "Where did you take his body?"

How ironic, but that is one of the questions that the first visitors to the tomb asked on that first Easter morning.  "Where have you taken the body?"  As if, someone had taken Jesus' body elsewhere to play a trick on others.  As if, someone had kidnapped the dead body of Jesus for political reasons.  That is exactly what the Jewish religious authorities told their followers to say in reaction to the news that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Tell everyone that his followers kidnapped his body and have hidden it to make people think that he has risen from the dead.

We all need a good story to cover up the truth.  That is why people lie on the witness stand during trials even when they have taken an oath to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth".  Easier said than done at times.  So, Jesus' body was gone and no one could say where it went but the women (in ancient days women were not to be believed....today belief is an equal opportunity principle) had told a story that heavenly beings told them that Jesus had risen from the dead.  They were to take the good news to Jesus' followers who had hidden from the authorities lest they be the next ones to die.  The women became so frantic with this assignment that Mark says they "fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mark 16:8)

So, the ones given the assignment to tell the good news were hush-hush because of fear.  How long they kept quiet is not revealed by Mark.  We do know that the other gospel writers tell us that Peter and John and soon all the disciples had it revealed to them that Jesus was alive through Jesus' own appearances to them.  They experienced the risen Christ among them.  Jesus appeared in his new heavenly body that could walk through walls but still eat a piece of fish.  How amazing is that!

When we experience the unexpected, we often do not know how to react.  Some believe that the unexpected has a supernatural source.  Some doubt.  Some have fear.  Some seek more truth and explore what could be behind it, seeking a reasonable and rational solution.  Some decide to just leave it up to God and trust God for the truth to emerge.  Whatever our reaction to what we cannot explain, we can depend on God to bring us reassurance of God's presence with us.  That presence was the spirit of Jesus with the disciples after his resurrection.  Nothing less than the presence of Jesus could satisfy those who had known him in his bodily presence.  God gave to each one what they needed to satisfy their emotional needs.

The resurrected Christ is among us through the Holy Spirit that ministers to us.  The Season of Easter begins on Easter Sunday and continues until Pentecost and during that season we learn what it means to be followers of the Christ who lives among us daily.  May the blessings of Easter be yours both this Sunday and throughout the days to come as we live and rejoice in the truth of the resurrection revealed through Christ for each of us.

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I Love A Parade!

I was watching PBS last week when they featured a program about the life of Judy Garland.  I learned a lot about her that I did not know.  Most of it was about the tragic short life she had (she died at 47).  She suffered through many incredibly sad experienced, some of which were visited upon her by the movie industry who wanted to make millions of dollars off of her talents.  They forced her to have an illegal abortion when she found herself pregnant at a young age (married the first time) because it did not fit into their plans for her.  They give her pills to pep her up so she would work longer and then to put her to sleep for about 4 hours nightly before she would begin again.  She was set to start in the movie production of "Annie, Get Your Gun" when she collapsed from exhaustion due to the abuse they put her body through.  Finally, when they no longer had need of her, they fired her, telling her she would not work in movies any longer.  That did not end her career, though, because she formed her own movie company and produced, "A Star is Born" which seemed to mirror her own life experiences.  She worked as a singer and television star until finally she died from a drug overdose at the age of 47, far too young.

Despite her sad life, we will always remember her as a teenager in her most famous role as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."  Her young smiling face is imprinting in our brains and we can seem to her her voice each time we hear the song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  Another movie she made that was not as famous but for which she sang and danced with Fred Astair was "Easter Parade".  The title song became one which is played and sung each year at Easter.  It is all about people dressing up in their Easter finery and parading down the streets of large cities to show off their clothes.  Still today, many people buy new clothes at Easter to look their best for the holiday.

Easter customs are special and are part of why the traditions of Easter continue to exist.  Decorating, hiding, and hunting eggs remind us of our own childhood memories.  Buying and wearing new clothes make us feel special for that special Sunday.  Enjoying a large dinner with family and friends also helps us celebrate that big day.

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week which leads up to Easter.  The first Palm Sunday featured a parade also, but not one that would lead to joy and celebration.  That parade led to Jesus' death on the cross on Good Friday.  People gathered on both sides of the street as Jesus rode on the back of a donkey and the people shouted "Hosanna!" which means "Save us".  They wanted to be saved from the cruel domination of the Roman government that occupied their land.  Many saw Jesus as a political leader who would arm an insurrection against the Romans despite the fact that he had never held a sword or talked about leading a rebellion.  In fact, he had described a kingdom again and again based on love and forgiveness, even of enemies.

Palm Sunday is the event that launched Jesus into the spotlight and created the political mood that would lead to his death.  The religious authorities of Jesus' day would not rest until they had him murdered to get him out of their way so they could be fully in charge of their religious institutions.  As long as Jesus was living, his followers would always be publicizing the fact that Jesus was very special, so special that they could not live with his being in the spotlight.

So, this Sunday is called Palm Sunday because Jesus' followers waved palm branches, a symbol of rebellion, and shouted "Hosanna!" or "Save us, Jesus!" as Jesus rode in on the back of a small donkey, a very humble scene.  They could not understand that the man they saw before them could not bring about any political change because his kingdom was not of this world but was a heavenly one not to be realized in this life.

We will wave the palm branches and say "Hosanna!" this Sunday during our worship service.  We will remember Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem as Passover was about to begin.  We will leave to continue our own lives during Holy Week perhaps pausing on Thursday to remember Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples.  Then comes the end....Good Friday...a day to stop and remember and reflect and prepare for the quiet that leads us to Easter....but that is a story saved for the next week to come.