Nov 20, 2018

Thanksgiving is talking to God

Turkey Day is a happy day. But why do we cram so much family, food, and football into one intense celebration? – Because they represent important aspects of life. The Thanksgiving feast with all its traditions symbolizes life at its fullest. The turkey I’m about to eat is not just food but a symbol of the overall sustenance that God provides. Family and friends around the table are not just pleasant company but a representation of the heavenly feast when all God’s children will dine together in harmony. Football or shopping are typically little pleasures, but on Thanksgiving and Black Friday they get totally blown out of proportion – watching for 12 hours straight followed by shopping for 12 hours straight. Everything around Thanksgiving is bigger than life – the group assembled around the table, they don’t see each other most of the year but here they enact what harmony and closeness could look like. The Thanksgiving meal itself has an average of 4,500 calories – over two days worth of energy for the typical adult.

Family, food, and football are all awesome. But Thanksgiving is intended to be a day of prayer. People have always prayed out of gratefulness when they made it through tough times, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1) Now, praying is a habit that so often is limited to asking for stuff: health and wealth and all kinds of blessings. Thanksgiving is a reminder that prayers do not have to be on our own behalf but that we are free to pray for God’s sake. Jesus modeled that during the last supper, “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” (Luke 22:19). Jesus’s last supper was in the context for a formal Seder. So when the text says “he had given thanks”, Jesus probably spoke these words over the bread:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ
and over the wine:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן
Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth / Who creates the fruit of the vine.

Even the most mundane Thanksgiving traditions put on public display what we owe God gratitude for: Sustenance, relationships and pleasures. Now saying thank you and blessing the King of the Universe puts responsibility on us as the ones performing those rituals: We are called to make sure that all God’s children have access to the blessings of healthy and plentiful nutrition, loving and caring relationships, and uplifting relaxation and fun. My prayer this Thanksgiving: “King of the Universe, thank you for the feast, the fun, as well as family and friends. Use us to bring these blessings to those who need them more – the hungry, the sad, the lonely. Amen.”

Nov 13, 2018

How family members care for each other

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“Bigger kids, bigger problems”, or so they say. When they were little a band-aid used to be enough to cure almost anything. But as life’s worries grow, parents become increasingly helpless. Independence increases and crises become more severe: health issues, loss of a job, relationship breakups. Young adults have a hard time giving and receiving help to and from their parents. It did not use to be so complicated, did it?

Oh, the good ol’ days. Things used to be so easy. The entire family would live together on one farm. Great-grandpa started it and every generation since has lived and worked there from cradle to grave. When little ones were born, grandparents were there to raise them, because their parents were too busy tending livestock and working the fields. Everybody was useful as long as they could. And that’s were things got tricky and weren’t so good anymore. When gout cripples old hands, when worn out knees couldn’t be replaced, grandpa and grandma were no longer productive, the farm didn’t need them anymore and more often than not they neglected them and let them fend for themselves, without proper nutrition, clothing, shelter. Those were the shortcomings that the ten commandments address when they implore God’s people, “Honor your father and your mother”. Young adults have always needed the reminder to keep feeding grandma and grandpa even though they can’t work anymore!

Fast forward a couple of thousand years: The enlightenment makes people aware of their individual personhood beyond the ties of family. The industrial revolution drives younger generations away from the farms into the factories. The family is no longer an economic necessity but it becomes an emotional bond. Family are not the people you live and work with but the people you care about. But what happens when someone gets hurt or loses their job? The family farm is no longer there to absorb family members when they fall. Now it is up to the individual to find their own resources. Jesus advises, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” In this day and age we are all on our own. Family can be a resource for those who have one that is somewhat functional but for the most part we have to create solutions for every single challenge ourselves. Ask, search, knock!

Your kids have to ask for help. You cannot give them help they are not equipped to receive. Jesus did not heal people on his own initiative, but he asked for permission, like physicians ask for informed consent. Jesus asked the sick man: “Do you want to be made well?” It would be so easy to jump to fixes when we see our kids hurting. But that may not help them. Ignatius of Loyola taught that life is full of consolation (“ups”) and desolation (“downs”). What may make you feel down may actually be a time of productive challenge and correction. What may give you pleasure and feel good may actually be denial or distraction. You don’t know what your kids are experiencing just because you see them cheerful or sad. But one thing is sure: God is at work in their life! Trust God and let your kids do their own asking, searching, and knocking.

Nov 5, 2018

Veterans Day – Save a life, help a poor beggar, promote peace!

Why do we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11?
Last week I posed this question to a Bible Study group at Del Webb Sweetgrass. They did pretty well. They remembered that Veterans Day was initially called Armistice Day. Then it got a little more shaky: Was it to commemorate the ending of World War I or II? A slight majority got it right and settled for World War I.
– A great way to commemorate Veterans Day is to promote peace!

Why did the 1918 Armistice take effect on November 11?
Negotiating and drafting the Armistice took well over a month. So what made them decide to let it take effect on 11/11? This day is dedicated to Saint Martin, the patron saint of soldiers. Saint Martin was famous for using his sword for charity. Martin was a soldier in the army of the Roman Empire and he was stationed in Gaul (modern-day France). One day he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens, where he met a scantily clad beggar. He impulsively cut his military cloak in half to share with the man.
– A great way to commemorate Veterans Day is to promote charity!

So, Veterans Day is a day that remembers peace-making and charitable giving. In 2018 Veterans happens to fall on a Sunday. That will be a special weekend at St. John’s UCC. On Saturday, November 10th, 2018, Young and Old with self-made paper lanterns will follow Saint Martin on his horse through the neighborhood around St. John’s United Church of Christ. It all starts with the making of the paper lanterns at 6:00 pm. On Sunday, November 11th, at 10 am, the Rev. Mirjam Haas-Melchior will lead the worship service at St. John’s UCC where pictures of our veterans will be prominently displayed. I will be bringing my presentation on suicide prevention to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Needville that Sunday. So much is heard of veteran suicide, but it is really an epidemic that affects all our communities – including churches.
– Save a life, help a poor beggar, promote peace!

Oct 30, 2018

Stay vigilant!

They were not just eleven Jews. The worshipers killed in Pittsburgh were persons:
Joyce Feinberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69

I heard their names read out loud at a vigil at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston. I had been choking and fighting my tears all through the vigil because the moment we arrived a lady walked up to us, recognizing us as Christian clergy and she opened her heart, “Thank you for coming. I am sorry. I am so sorry because I am so angry. My parents fled from South Africa to the Congo and eventually to America. We thought Jews were safe here. Here in this country. I am so angry”. Her tears became my tears.

We gathered with well over 1,000 people – Jews, Christians, and Muslims and we sang, “Hinneh mah Tov umah naʿiym sheveth aḥiym gam yaḥadh”, the first verse of Psalm 133, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” All the speakers stressed our unity against hate and violence, the Muslim representative being the most powerful, “the entire Muslim community stands with our Jewish brothers and sisters.” Let that sink in! That’s how peace-making works!

Mayor Sylvester Turner had a sobering thought, “It will happen again.” And he is right. That’s why vigils matter. Because we have to stay vigilant! We have to stay awake and alert! Wherever hate speech gets normalized, wherever one group is pitted against any other, people of faith need to find the strength to stand up for love. If you weren’t there on Sunday, do not dismay. There is another vigil on Thursday, November 1st at 7pm. And it’s even closer to home at Congregation Beth El, 3900 Raoul Wallenberg Ln, Missouri City, Texas 77459. Come out and stay vigilant!

Oct 9, 2018

Church, Vets, or Pets?

Between my wife and I we juggle three jobs, two major educational programs and three kids each with a different sport. Our schedule is crowded and we embrace it. However sometimes it is hard to set priorities. I am inviting you into a glimpse of my Saturday schedule for this coming weekend.

For about six months I had planned to attend the Fall Meeting of the Houston Association of the United Church of Christ. Our denominational family has 16 congregations in the Houston area. We meet twice a year. 5 lay members plus the clergy of all our churches are invited to come and live our covenant commitment with one another. This meeting is being hosted by St. John UCC, located at 4606 Mangum Road, Houston, TX 77092. Lunch will include spaghetti, salad, kimchi, garlic bread, and dessert and will cost $5 per person. Please RSVP to Registration begins at 8:30 AM and a short worship begins at 9:00 AM. Following worship we’ll have a business meeting that will include approval of the minutes from the Spring Meeting, a 2018 Financial Report, the 2019 Budget, and a presentation about the grant given to the association by Bethel UCC. St. John will present a program entitled “Local Church Leadership Points.” It will deal with a variety of leadership needs within the local church and include questions and discussion from those present. The association meeting will conclude with lunch. This is an inspirational time and for me also a professional obligation. High priority on the scheduling scale.

As a military chaplain I make it a point to stay involved with veterans organizations in the community. Our local VFW Post 3903 also has a good portion of our church membership in its ranks. They are my second option for this coming Saturday: VFW Post 3903 will be having a breakfast for Veterans 7-10am at 1903 1st St., Rosenberg, Texas 77471. All veterans in the greater Fort Bend county area are welcome to join them for a time of food and fellowship. With free food and good company, this one is hard to pass by. Also there will be booths from other vet organizations educating about benefits. This one is sure to be yummy and important.

Finally there is Bark in the Park. A church member is heavily involved with the local arts community and she is in charge of the dog festival in downtown Rosenberg. Besides the dogs in the park, this event will feature a street fair with lots of live music, food trucks, vendor booths, art cars, art receptions, puppet shows, jugglers, and special appearances by both an autumn faerie and an autumn queen. I find it crucial to get involved with our thriving downtown community. It’s such a fun place to be.

To be honest, I haven’t decided where I’ll be yet. Discernment is an important spiritual exercise as Paul reminds the Corinthians, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33) It almost sounds like Paul would be pressuring me into the following madness: Be at the VFW at 7 am to eat breakfast. Rush into Houston to make it on time for the Association meeting. After lunch head to downtown Rosenberg and relax with the puppies. If I wanted to please everybody I could try to pull that of. But honestly, I would not be fully present anywhere because my mind would always be in the car already, driving to the next thing. So I’ll stick with Paul’s first phrase there, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” I will probably do one thing and do it right – to the glory of God. I still haven’t decided which one. But where are your priorities: Church, Vets, or Pets? I look forward to seeing you on Saturday wherever that may be!

Oct 2, 2018

Be a Responsible Citizen

The deadline for voter registration in Texas is fast approaching on October 9th. Please check with the secretary of state that you are properly registered. Why would a pastor have to remind me of that? Church is not supposed to be political! Well, I am following the example of the Apostle Paul reminding the Romans to be responsible citizens:

“Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear. Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live. That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.” (Romans 13, The Message)

The greatest danger to our system of government is when citizens do not do their part and the most formidable thing you can do to fulfill this commandment is to vote. You know the consequences of what happens when you don’t:

There is a biblical example of that as well. If you don’t follow Romans 13 and check your voter registration you may end up with worse than Taco Bell – the beast of Revelation 13:
“The Beast had a loud mouth, boastful and blasphemous. It could do anything it wanted for forty-two months. It yelled blasphemies against God, blasphemed his Name, blasphemed his Church, especially those already dwelling with God in Heaven. It was permitted to make war on God’s holy people and conquer them. It held absolute sway over all tribes and peoples, tongues and races. Everyone on earth whose name was not written from the world’s foundation in the slaughtered Lamb’s Book of Life will worship the Beast.”

Sep 2, 2018

Always review your Amazon Subscribe & Save Subscriptions

We mostly drink home-made lattes. So finding a good deal on espresso is important in our house. Amazon absolutely outdoes local retail. So for quite some time I had a coffee subscription with them.

Today I got an email with a price alert:
The new price for four bricks of Lavazza was supposed to be $20.89 (after 5% discount). The price has increased from $17.20 since my last delivery. Now with inflation I found a price increase acceptable but still wanted to double-check if I got the best deal available. So I looked the item up and a one-time purchase was $19.29 and a subscription $19.66.

I sent this dilemma to Amazon Customer Service with two questions:
Why is my subscription more expensive than a new subscription?
Why is the subscription more expensive than a one-time purchase?

I received a prompt reply but it is even more disturbing: “In this case, you can cancel this subscription and resubscribe at lower rate.”
I did and now I got it at $18.31. All of a sudden the subscription was cheaper than the one-time purchase. So a little negotiating saved me roughly 10%. No big deal, you may say whether I pay $18 or $20 for my coffee. But please keep in mind: Amazon has 310 million active customers. If every subscriber is overcharged 10% it becomes a big deal really quick. Lesson learned: Always review your Amazon Subscribe & Save Subscriptions.

Aug 23, 2018

The Mindset List: Class of 2022

At the beginning of every school I go looking for the new edition of the Mindset List. The list was initiated in the early days of the internet and has been a popular component of back-to-school talks, faculty orientations and sermons for two decades.

This year the following items caught my special attention:

“Among their classmates could be Madonna’s son Rocco, Will Smith’s daughter Willow, or David Bowie and Iman’s daughter Alexandria.”
– That makes me feel really old! I mean seriously, the Fresh Prince is old enough to have a college-aged daughter. Ouch!

1. They are the first class born in the new millennium, escaping the dreaded label of “Millennial,” though their new designation—iGen, GenZ, etc. — has not yet been agreed upon by them.
– Labels! Isn’t interesting how we find it comforting to put everybody in a tiny little well-defined box? How do you talk about yourself? How do you talk about others?

3. They have always been able to refer to Wikipedia.
– Truth! What is wisdom and where do you find knowledge? Yes, Wikipedia has done a great deal of making solid information available to the masses. But where do you find solid education and profound critical thinking these days?

9. Same-sex couples have always found marital bliss in the Netherlands.
– LBGT! Let that sink in. This generation has never known a world where marriage equality was not a reality. It is not new, it is not radical but a proven reality for 18 years.

14. They’ve grown up with stories about where their grandparents were on 11/22/63 and where their parents were on 9/11.
– Shared trauma! Every generation has its shared trauma. This one brings home what generation you belong to. Our common pain is what defines us.

18. The Tower of Pisa has always had a prop to keep it leaning.
– Resilience! The tower of Pisa has been leaning forever. But for this entire past generation it just could not hold its own weight anymore and needed to be propped up. Every person’s perennial wounds are like that. We may need pain management, crutches, anti-depressants, anything, to keep us going. And that’s okay.

34. Starbucks has always served venti Caffè Lattes in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
– Openness! I must admit, this one convicted me of closed-mindedness. I still have this image in my head of China being a protectionist totalitarian regime. The mental image of coffee in the Forbidden City opens my mind. This generation has only seen an opening culture in China for their entire lives. Let me learn from them how to see goodness.

42. Mass market books have always been available exclusively as Ebooks.
– Newness! I love my Kindle but for me it still feels like a recent thing. College freshmen grew up on Ebooks. It takes time to adjust to a new normal. The Mindset List is a powerful tool to bring awareness to what has been normal for an entire generation. Is surely changes my perception and I hope it changes yours.

Aug 18, 2018

Rules rule according to Ignatius

I’m oddly attracted to Ignatian discipline and Catholic tradition. Since my dad went to a Catholic boarding school you could say I am reliving my father’s cloister days. I thrive in highly structured environments. I like rules and Ignatius of Loyola is the Master of rules. He wrote his “Spiritual Exercises” in 1522-1524. That was a pivotal in his life. He had just converted to Christianity and had not received any formal education yet. At the time Ignatius had a raw, uneducated faith. His soul and spiritual was full of passion but still raw material. He was longing for clear guidance and reliable boundaries.

On the 161 pages of the Exercises the word “rules” appears a whooping 121 times. Along the way Ignatius provides prayer schedules, rigid examens and a best of the Bible. His program is designed for thirty days. It is supposed to be a full-time engagement. Most people are not able to take a whole month off to reexamine their lives. That’s why Ignatius was gracious enough to write a rule providing an exception to the rule for busy people. According to the Nineteenth Annotation, “A person of education or ability who is taken up with public affairs or suitable business, may take an hour and a half daily to exercise himself.”

You should give this traditional spiritual exercise a try. Examining yourself, praying, discerning, relating to the Gospel, those are all helpful things to gain some perspective.

Jul 18, 2018

In the Louvre and in the Image of God

We just came back from a two-week trip to Europe full of family celebrations with birthday parties and a wedding. Also we took a two-day trip to Paris. Please keep in mind that Paris is as far from my German hometown as Dallas is from Houston, it’s really not a big deal. I have been to Paris multiple times before but this trip was the first time for me to actually go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and inside the Louvre Museum.

The Louvre is huge. It houses 35,000 pieces of art on 652,000 sq ft. But most people just come for one painting: The Mona Lisa. The Louvre has giant wall paintings, hundreds of sq ft big, telling entire dramas of human history. The world’s greatest artists are represented. The halls are lined with billions and billions of dollars worth of the finest art. But for one reason or another, the biggest crowds are drawn to that one room where you have to elbow your way to the farthest wall just to catch a brief glimpse of this letter size painting of a young woman looking at you.

That’s all the Mona Lisa is: a young woman looking at you. But that’s also where her magic comes from. Depending on how you look at her, she will look back at you. Some say she looks friendly, some say she looks mad. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Humankind has known that since the beginning: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

You are a different piece of art, unlike the Mona Lisa. God is the artist who created you. Mona Lisa will just look back at you the way you look at her. What goes around comes around. The invitation from God is a different one: See yourself as the image of God. That way you cannot discard yourself. That way you cannot bow before any idols, because you are created in the image of God. You are wearing God’s face on your face. You are God’s beloved creation. Your image is worth more than the all the artwork of the Louvre combined. Pick up a mirror, look at yourself, and behold the image of God.