The holiday season is supposed to be jolly and merry. Let me tell you that it does not always work out that way. As a matter of fact there are more deaths this time of year than any other. The sun setting so early leaves us in darkness. And the pressures that come with expectations for the festive season add to the burden.
There is a reason that most major religions have a festival of light in the winter season, because light and hope are in short supply when it is dark and cold all around us. You may call it Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Christmas. The point all these festivals make is: Light a candle in the darkness.
Dr. Martin Luther King Junior expressed it most beautifully:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
In 2015 I have worked on five suicides. On the Army Reserve side of my ministry two Soldiers killed themselves. On the local church side I know of three families who had people commit suicide. The military has an aggressive strategy where us chaplains regularly teach suicide prevention and suicide intervention. In the church we do not have such a thing. But since 2015 has been so deadly I intend to change that. I will speak up about suicide on a regular basis. You may call it my new year resolution: In 2016 I will work harder on training the church in suicide prevention and intervention.
Yes, you read that right: Suicide can be prevented. It is not a tragedy that strikes from the outside but it is human behavior that can be changed. It can be done. It is hard but possible. And to get one thing out of the way: Suicide is not a sin! The person who kills themselves is not bad for doing so. When the Psalmist talks about walking through the darkest valley, that is where that happens. If you cannot find a way out of the dark you may end up killing yourself. Yes, you too, as you read this right now.
If you feel that happening to yourself, please snap out of it and ask for help!
If you see that in a family member, friend or coworker, wake them up and show them the light!
In the epic battle between the empire of darkness and the rebellion of light the good guys always win. The death star will be destroyed. And make no mistake, I am not talking about a galaxy far far away. That struggle is happening right here, right now, in every heart.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
What if there is no big difference between the living and the dead? First off: There is a huge difference! If you have ever lost somebody you know the void, you know the pain and you know that nothing can ever fully replace them. When somebody dies life changes for the rest of us in a dramatic and sustained way. The day of their birth or their death will remain special. The holidays make obvious that the seats at the dinner table are now arranged in a different way. Nothing is the same anymore.
But again: What if there is no big difference between the living and the dead? All it takes is a change in perspective. Most people die within a century of their birth. That is our nature. But if we look at death from God’s eternal perspective things change dramatically:
“For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4)
What if our lives, what if all of human history, what if all of time and space just last for a blink of God’s eye? A few generations up or down the family tree turn into nothing. Ages become seconds. Every person that has ever lived and ever will live can be together in one moment of God’s time.
All Saints Day tries to stress that unity of both the living and the dead.
Is that supposed to tell me that my pain is irrelevant?
– No! Grief is our human reality here and now for us who are left behind.
Is that supposed to mean that my parent, spouse or friend is not really gone?
– No! Death is as real as life is. But when we say that we hope for the Resurrection to Eternal Life it is only fair to assume that this is already a reality for some of us.
All Saints Day is an invitation to relate to the ones you have lost both in loving remembrance of a shared past and hope for a future reunion. And maybe in God’s eyes both are taking place at the same time: Right now!
A sermon on the joyful and the hardened church, the reality of death and the hope for resurrection. Featuring Lt. Gen. Jim Pillsbury promoting the spirit of acceptance and inclusion. And a look at this year’s college freshmen through the lens of the Beloit Mindset List.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
(Psalm 51:10 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 22 March 2015)
Me, me, and me! Unapologetically me! The Psalmist is not afraid in just one verse to three times refer to himself. He doesn’t care about the interconncetedness of all beings. He’s not worried about the state of the church or the state of the nation. He doesn’t want to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, or to care for the widow, or the alien or the orphan. He prays for his own benefit. He doesn’t ask for kingdom come and thy will be done, no, it’s all about me, myself, and I!
That’s where religion takes place: In an individual’s heart. It’s a place where God has spoken from the beginning. Individualism is not a bad thing. God calls prophets and apostles, not committees and representatives. No corporation, no institution, no state, no church, can live if it does not have individuals that take care of the logs in their own eyes before getting into everybody else’s business. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” also means: I am in desperate need of cleaning because it’s not pretty in there. Give me a fresh start this Lent – like a spiritual spring cleaning.
Sometimes the shortest word in a verse has the biggest impact. Here it is certainly the humble a: “put a new and right spirit within me.” It implies that there is a multitude of new and right spirits to be had. For me, I need only one of those for myself. My way is not the highway and if I think my path is the straight and narrow I can be certain that the God of hosts has a host of other paths that are just as viable. The me right next to me, the me across the street or on the other side of the globe has their own journey just as I do.
How hot does your faith burn?
Is your sense of calling as strong as Martin Luther King’s?
When I drop off the kids at school in the morning I drive past two churches that could not be more different: One has a full fledged sanctuary with educational buildings attached. The second rents a store front in a failing strip mall. And I must admit I am partial. I have a hard time envisioning church life in a store front. I know the church is first and foremost the body of Christ, second the congregation and the people it is comprised of and only in the third place the church is the church building. But in my little thinking all three go hand in hand. I need a sense of sanctuary to connect me to the ancient roots of our faith. I need the sound of the organ to lift up my spirit beyond what I can hear on the radio every day. I need ancient canticles, time-tested rituals and historic places. No, I am not against change. The church has always evolved: From a radical preacher healer whose gang of twelve was persecuted and prosecuted to the established religion of the greatest empire the world has ever known. The house church has been the go to style of worship from the beginning and still has its merits in a variety of settings. But this week’s watchword is a nice reminder that God wants a nice place:
“Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.”
(Psalm 29:2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 11 January 2015)
It makes sense to invest into the church building and put on a new roof. It makes sense to upgrade the Hymnals. It makes sense to tune all the pianos scattered around the buildings. It makes sense to change the paraments and restock candles and tapers. For worship we use things and words and gestures that are not necessarily part of everyday life. They are special, they are set apart, they are holy. I would not want an elaborate candelabrum at home but it serves its purpose in the sanctuary. Are all those bells and whistles really necessary? It depends! Do they prepare our hearts and minds to listen to the still speaking God? That is my litmus test. Tradition only makes sense as long as it accomplishes its mission to make straight the paths of our God.
All this tells you more about me than it tells you about the nature of the church. I hunger for the connection to the ancient roots of our faith and since you all have chosen to worship in this place in this style it is safe to assume that some of my reflections resonate with something inside of you. But how about the storefront worshipers? Their faith journey is just as sacred and valid. God does not need a traditional setting to reach hearts and minds. It just may be the case that people there do not need the deep roots of faith but are better at enjoying the moment and facing the challenges of the here and now. Maybe I envy them after all for being able to live life without the constant reminders that keep me rooted.
According to the latest numbers from the World Health Organization a girl born in the US in 2014 can expect to live an average of 82.2 years. For her twin brother it is 77.4 years. Those are some good numbers yet we all know that averages don’t mean a whole lot when you talk to a healthy 101-year-old or when you have a baby die in your arms. The truth of the matter is: Most people I have worked with didn’t grow older than 150. That means there is a Psalm in the Bible for every birthday. 150 songs that sing God’s praise and each single one has its own focus like this one:
“So teach us, O God, to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
(Psalm 90:12 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 16 November 2014)
Age 90 sounds like a good time to see how wise you are. Every age has its own challenges and questions. So a birthday is a good day to grab that old book and flip to the Psalm that matches you new number.
Is there really such a thing as a correlation of age and wisdom?
I asked y’all for brainy quotes on Facebook and here is what I got:
– Old age and experience will always overcome youth and enthusiasm.
– “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now” Bob Dylan
– The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitution for experience, while the error of age is to believe that experience is the substitute for intelligence
– There is nothing wrong with the younger generation that 20 years won’t cure!
– Growing old is not for sissies
– The older I get, the better I was!
– Stay young, stay foolish. -Steve jobs-
– “Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.” ― Albert Einstein
Every old song used to be a new song. Karl Vaters wonders who the first worship director was who said “hey, I like that new song John Newton wrote,” before introducing Amazing Grace to the church. Whoever it was, he probably had to deal with complaints from church members who didn’t think it was as good as the hymns they were used to singing. “In six verses the name of Jesus isn’t mentioned once, but it says ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘I’ thirteen times! Today’s songs are so self-centered and shallow!”
The 1941 hymnal that we use at St. John’s United Church of Christ is kinda like that: It has countless numbers of hymns from 1930s and 1940 because they were the most popular songs back then. The church has a long tradition of hiring the greatest musicians of the time and commissioning the most extravagant compositions. And every time the “new hymnal” is introduced the generations who grew loving the previous ones get up in arms. Remember what that was like when the 1941 Hymnal was new? It was a radically new approach! Nobody could have ever imagined that Evangelical Christians and Reformed Christians could ever merge into the one Evangelical and Reformed Church. Well, they did and they even came up with this new 1941 hymnal celebrating their unity combining favorites of both traditions for a new era. After all that’s what the Psalmist charges God’s people to do:
“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.”
(Psalm 96:1-2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 19 October 2014)
St. John’s United Church of Christ has been working toward getting a new hymnal for quite some time. A group of musical experts has been assembled and charged with giving the congregation a feel for what is out their until we come closer to a phase of deliberation and a process of decision making. Stay tuned.
When I sneeze one thing really gets me every time – someone responding with a big, fat, friendly “GESUNDHEIT!” In a context where I do not expect to hear my native German I am caught by surprise. Most people will say “God bless you!” anyway. After a little research I found that the ritual of blessing someone after a sneeze dates back to the plague of 590 AD. Pope Gregory I ordered that everyone receive an instant special blessing after they sneezed. A sneeze was one of the early symptoms and so the church tried to do its part in containing the epidemic. The blessing after a sneeze is – not surprisingly – a prayer for Gesundheit i.e. health.
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.”
(Psalm 103:2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 14 September 2014)
Blessing one another sounds like an easy thing to do but this word commands us to bless God. How can we do that? Shouldn’t that be the other way around? We need God’s blessing! God is Almighty! How could we tiny, imperfect creatures possibly bless the Creator of heaven and earth?
What is it we actually do when we bless one another or when we ask God to bless us?
It’s about wishing someone well: May your health get better.
It’s about hoping the best for someone: I wish you luck.
It’s about supporting someone: That’s a good cause. I’ll help you.
Can you see the picture? God really does need our blessing. We are God’s hands and feet in this world. If we are not here to spread faith, hope and love, who is? We need to help God and support God’s ministry. And we should also want God to feel well. After all can you imagine what that would look like if the creator of heaven and earth were to sneeze? Bless God!
The way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. Yes, I do believe that is true for all genders alike. Who wouldn’t enjoy a nice dinner? God has known that for, well, probably eternity. The love relation between Jesus Christ and us has always had food in its center: the wedding at Cana, the 5000, the last supper, you name it. God’s love has been brought to us through our stomachs. The lesson learned here is this: Body, mind and soul are one. Loving relationships depend on all three to flourish.
At times the church has forgotten that and started singing: “Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart!” Jesus is being reduced to a feeling. “As long as I have Jesus in my heart…” or so goes the excuse. That heart-felt faith all too often serves as an escape from the harshness of life. That Jesus is sweet and provides sanctuary. That Jesus is there to fill an emotional gap when life doesn’t give the satisfaction people were hoping for.
In Western culture we have gotten used to separating body, mind and soul. Aristotle introduced us to a distinction that was never intended to turn into a division. No, love is not limited to stomach and heart. By the way, when you read “heart” in the Bible you have to keep in mind that the Hebrew really refers to the seat of the intellect. So heart really means brain the way we understand it today:
“Give me understanding, O God, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”
(Psalm 119:34 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 7 September 2014)
Give me understanding, O God! That’s what God does: to provide us with understanding, resolve and courage. Taking heart is not just about a warm fuzzy feeling but clear analysis and action as well.
That’s why we are invited to at the Lord’s table: through bread and wine Jesus Christ seeks to enter our hearts, our minds, our bodies. Join us for Holy Communion on Sunday.
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