Friday, August 30, 2019

Now You See It . . .

Now you see it . . .  now you don't!  That's the way it works with Mount Rainier in Washington State.  While it is only eighty miles from  Seattle, and over fourteen-thousand feet in elevation, it is visible from the city a mere 90 days a year.  Pollutants, fog and other atmospheric realities obscure it the rest of the time.  It is very similar with Mount Hood, outside of Portland, Oregon.

Linda and I had the good fortune of viewing both mountains on our trip this week to the Pacific Northwest.  But we just as easily could have missed the sight of either or both and their magnificent, snow-covered peaks!

I got to thinking the simple yet profound theological statement both mountains seem to be making--at least analogically.  For God seems to often work in exactly the same way.  Now you see him (her) . . . now you don't.  Some days the hand of a good and loving God is readily apparent as one makes her or his way through life.  Those times when one sees a beautiful sight like Rainier or Hood is a good example of such days.  Clearly, there is a creative force behind such wonders!

Yet other days, when the human tendency to obscure and abuse the planet is most obvious, one can't help but wonder, where is divinity in all this?

But here's the kicker.  Even if we had not seen either of the mountains, I would have believed they were both there.  And so it is with God.  Even when God is obscured, seemingly absent, not in my line of vision, the mountains remind me that God is present.  And that, in a word, is faith.

I look unto the hills--
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord
who made heaven and earth!
--Psalm 121 

Monday, August 19, 2019

I Was a Teenaged Evangelist

I was a teenaged evangelist.  I know, for some of you that is scarier than if I had said I was a teenaged werewolf.  But it's true.  I was a teenaged evangelist.  A street evangelist, to be more exact.  One summer, back in the late sixties, I was part of a group of high school and college aged kids who went at at nigh to witness to their faith.  We would first gather at the beachside cottage of a youth pastor named Dick and hear a word of encouragement.  Then we would pray that God would lead us to those who needed to hear the good news on that particular night.  After that we fanned out in pairs, walking up and down the boardwalk at Hampton Beach, looking for souls who looked in need of our message of salvation.  And when we had identified such a person, when we felt we were being nudged by the Spirit in a particular direction, we would walk up to them and ask if they knew about Jesus.

Fifty years later, as I look back on that summer, I am both dismayed and impressed.  I am dismayed about the nature of my theological understandings, so simplistic, so na├»ve, so exclusionary.  So unaware of the broadness of God's love and grace!  I assumed that if someone wasn't able to say Jesus was their personal Lord and Savior, they were doomed, and it was my job to save them from perdition.  But I am also impressed.  Impressed by that pimply faced young man who had the courage of his convictions.

Today, I can't imagine walking up to a complete stranger asking about their spiritual walk!  Even under the protection of my professional role and title I sometimes am hesitant to speak to people about such matters.  Yet I firmly believe one's relationship to the Holy is at the very core of life!

Yes, many of us are often uncomfortable with religious talk.  WE are OK talking about it in an academic way, even discussing the impact of religious diversity on American society.  But when it comes to talking about our personal beliefs and practices, many if not most of us hem and haw and change the subject.

I suspect for those of us that are mainline Protestants, progressive Roman Catholics and Jews, there are many reasons why we do that.  For some of us testifying to our own faith smacks of a fundamentalist approach to religion, and God forbid any one mistake us for one of those type of people!  For others our hesitancy is rooted in a belief that religion is a private matter--it's nobody's business what I believe!  And it's none of mine what convictions they may hold.  Still others don't speak about their faith because they feel inadequate, that they aren't up to the task.  That's they job of ministers and priests and rabbis--not a mere layperson like me, they say.

\But if people make the assumption that anyone who talks about their faith must be a fundamentalist, we have no one to blame but ourselves. If the only people who talk about their faith are those who hold literalist, ultra-orthodox beliefs, then it makes sense that people will make such an assumption!

IT is a personal matter--but that's different from being private!  And, yes, clergy have a special obligation to speak about their religious and spiritual beliefs, but that doesn't mean others can't or shouldn't.

None of that means you have to become a street evangelist--but I think it does mean we all need to rethink the matter of sharing our faith--whatever our faith may be.  Maybe we can all pray for the courage of a teenager on the beach!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Coasting through the School Year--Training Wheels and Trust

Do you remember your first bike?  I do.  It was bright red, with chrome fenders.  It was a gift from my grandmother, the year I turned six.  My folks didn't have very much money back then, and so the really cool gifts often came from Grandma.  In fact, it was the first and last brand-new bike I ever got as a child.  When I outgrew it and passed it down to my younger brother, I graduated to a used Stingray with a banana seat and those really high handlebars.  But that first bike, the brand new red one from Grandma, that was something else!  It even had a horn.

It also came with training wheels, for I had yet to learn how to ride a bike.  I hadn't mastered the art of balancing on two wheels--I didn't trust that when I was in motion the bike would hold me up--and so attached to either side of the rear wheel were those extra little wheels that mark a beginner.

In time, with help from my parents, I was able to remove first one and the other of the training wheels.  But first there were some spills and fall.  A skinned knee or two.  And lots of encouraging words.  "You can do it, John!  Keep going!  Don't be afraid!  That's OK!  Get back up!"  And in time I could do it.  I could keep balance without even thinking about it.  What's the popular expression, "Once you learn to ride a bike you never forget"?

When you are a kid, of course, you can't wait to get rid of the training wheels.  They are a source of embarrassment.  You're eager to go out on your own and tool around the neighborhood.  And once you have shed then, you quickly forget how essential they were to your learning how to balance.  First you trust the training wheels themselves, the person holding the back of the bike while you ride, and finally you learn to trust the bike itself, and your own ability to stay upright.  But while the training wheels' contribution to your bike riding skills may be forgotten, the truth is you probably wouldn't be upright unless they'd been there in the beginning.

Our church's week day preschool opened for the school year today.  And like training wheels, it is designed to help create that ability to trust.  It is firmly rooted in the idea that God loves all children, indeed all people.  It is firmly rooted in the idea that God's love is unfailing, that God can be trusted.  And that love is mediated, made known, through the caring actions and supportive lessons offered up by our staff.
Our preschool is not designed to take the teaching role away from parents.  It is not designed to supplant the church as the only source of spiritual nurture.  Rather it is designed to work alongside parents, the church and many others in the vital task of nurture.  The preschool, if you will, provides the training wheels, but is
parents and others who run alongside offering words of guidance and support.  "You can do!  Keep going!  Don't be afraid!  That's OK.  Get back up!"

I pray that all our students, and students everywhere, are supported in ways that will help them learn to trust enough to be able to ride through the journey of life!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Gun Violence or Trombones?

So now we add three more names to the list of places impacted by mass shootings:  Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton.  A day at the Garlic Festival.  Some school shopping at Wal-Mart.  A night out on the town.  Everyplace, every event, a so-called soft target.  Events and places which are especially vulnerable, especially subject to the possibility of such violence.

According to the experts I spend a lot of my time at a spot deemed a soft target--church that is.  Though we've taken some steps to tighten up our security, things could still go awry here.  I think one of the lessons from this past week (not that it is a new lesson, just that it seems even more obvious at this point) is that such violence could (and does) happen anywhere we gather as a community.

There is little that I can write here that is new.  I have said much of it before, as have so many others.  Things like, we need to tighten up gun control with better, more thorough, more comprehensive background checks.  We need to ban assault weapons of all kinds.  We need to tone down the rhetoric when it comes to talking about people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and so on.  We need to deal with racism and xenophobia. We need to fund research into gun violence.  We need to address the holes in our mental health systems.  We need to consider the impact of violent video games, movies and television shows.

The problem is this:  we know what to do.  Yet for some reason we just don't do it.  I don't mean to be negative here, but give this all a week or two and we will probably move on to other things, other concerns.  And we will leave this one unresolved. I hope not.  I will still write my legislative representatives and once again encourage them to take action.  But I've done that before.  Many times.  I will consider positions on gun control when I vote in the upcoming elections.  But I've done that, too.  I will send money to support groups working on the issue, groups addressing mental health concerns and so on.  But I've done that, too.  And, of course, I'll keep speaking out.

I really wanted to devote this week's blog to telling you about the fabulous 280 piece band my granddaughter is in, and the great presentation they offered up for families after a two-week intensive time of preparation.  I really did.  They even have nineteen trombone players!  (My band had three!)  But instead, I've felt the need to address, once again, the gun violence in our nation.  My prayer is that one day we will be able to concentrate on kids making music, instead of worrying so much about their safety.