As the church that serves the countryside, we commit ourselves to share Christ's love in action through our congregation, community, and the world.
Two Great Invitations
As I think forward to the God and Country celebration which we hold here at New Sweden the last Sunday of June each year I think of two invitations which we are the recipients of. The first comes from our Lord Jesus who simply gave us the invitation to "Come, follow me!". That invitation gives us a better life and a brighter hope as we look toward our futures. It is a simple and straight forward invitation which some of us have gladly responded to. Upon acceptance hope, peace and love become our constant focus. There is another invitation from a more recent time that has also brought hope to those who suffered in poverty, prejudice and bondage. It is that invitation etched on the base of the statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe
free, the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I life my lamp beside the golden door!". Like the words of our Lord, these words have invited people to change their lives and destinies.
The people who follow Christ believed that the rewards would be worth the price and they knew there was a cost associated with the discipleship. Likewise, those who cast their fate to the future of this land of freedom find that freedom isn't free. Happiness isn't handed out, and even the golden door of opportunity is one which must be pushed open.
The finding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor so that we who followed would have an opportunity to pursue happiness. To find it, is up to us. So, both invitations require something more than just wanting to be free, happy and blessed. Desire, faith and yes, "hard work" are necessary.
Gifts of Praise
There is a hunger is each one of us. It is a hunger of the heart but is no less compelling than the hunger of the stomach. It is the need for appreciation and praise. A philosopher once said, "We have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind." Mark Twain said it so simply, "I can live for two months on a good compliment."
No one can say how early in a child's life this hunger shows itself. It may even be that the first cry of a baby is the babies attempt to call for recognition and attention. The waves and shouts which every parent is so well acquainted with, the calls of "Hey Mom, watch me," and "Dad look at me," are as important to the proper development of the child as the food and shelter his parents provide.
We never outgrow this need, although as adults it may manifest itself in different forms, from the healthy accomplishments of high achievers to the sick needs of vandals and psychopaths crying out in their twisted way to be recognized.
Most of us seem to have been born with an ability to enjoy receiving praise, but giving praise may not come so naturally. There are however, a number of good reasons that we may want to develop this trait.
Most importantly, praising others takes our minds off ourselves...It has been said that a man wrapped up in himself makes a rather small package. Becoming aware of others snaps the strings of that very small package and allows us to grow.
A second benefit we reap is the healthy habit of looking for the good in the life of others. It is so easy in life for us to be critical and focus on the negative, and there are always quest
for the gossip mill if we seek to find it. There is, however, an abundance of good waiting to be gleamed.
Giving Without Thanks
The Bible recounts a time when Jesus came into a certain village and ten lepers met him and begged to be made well again. Jesus gave them instructions on what to do. They did as He instructed and they were all made whole again. Then the story grows dark. Nine of the healed lepers rushed away cheering and jubilant but self-centered and said nothing about the healing. Only one returned to Jesus to thank Him for being healed and made whole again.
Jesus is quoted as saying "Were there not ten cleansed, where are the nine?" (Luke 17:17) It was a simple and fair question, typical of a lifetime of being used and then forgotten. The gracious nature of Jesus was that He did not take back the gift even there was no gratitude shown. How many others had gotten something from Him and then hurried off forgetting their benefactor? And how many benefactors have watched and said nothing as He was tried and crucified?
Jesus said, "As I have loved you, love one another". His unceasing giving of service, in spite of lack of appreciation, tells us something about the kind of love He means. Whenever we begin to hold back our acts of love and service to other people because we do not feel we have been properly thanked and appreciated, it may be time to question our motives. Do we do our deeds and acts to be noticed and admired by others or for self-aggrandizement? Thanks and praises from others may be sweet but if we start giving the gifts of ourselves merely to receive them in return, we have lost something much grander.
Finding Value In Sadness
The feeling of sadness is a feeling which most of us feel we could do without, but of course, sadness will always be a part of life. Joy and sorrow are together mixed to make up the substance of our lives. The poet Ovid observed that, “no pleasure is unalloyed; some trouble ever intrudes on our happiness”.
“Happiness” is hailed by almost everyone as the desired state in life. What then is the purpose of sadness? The grim writer of the book of Ecclesiastes thought very highly of sorrow and he wrote, “sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better (Eccl 7:3) it certainly can be debated as to whether sorrow is better than laughter, but it must be admitted that sorrow might be often unappreciated in our lives. We can learn lessons in our moments of melancholy that would escape us if all our days were filled with sun and smiles. Those lessons are patience, long-suffering and courage in the face of adversity. These lessons, we might well ponder in our pleasure seeking world.
Top psychologists and many popular clergy try to suggest to us that sadness is unnatural and that life should be a steady stream of joy and laughter. They suggest that if we are not happy there must be something wrong with us. This shallow view of life can have some real unfortunate conclusions. Young couples may seek divorce at the first sign of difficulty, not knowing that every marriage has problems. Some people go deeply into debt to buy their way out of unhappiness.
Where Are We Going - A Memorial
I write this month's message as I prepare for two funerals in our congregation, two members who were longtime members and active, contributing, faithful Christians. As I think about the funerals, I am reminded that much will be the same in the obituaries and services, yet they will be different. In our world, everyone and everything is just a little unique; almost nothing is identical, every person, flower, tree, and animal is unlike every other. However, there is something similar in all living things, they are all in motion. Nothing is this universe, that is alive stands still. From the largest planet to the smallest neutron inside an atom, nothing stands still, everything is active.
If all life is in continual motion, the next question we might ask is this, "Where is it all going?" Is all this movement just happenstance, controlled by cold, unfeeling, laws of physics going about its business?
From our vantage point, it is impossible to tell where it is all going because of our prospective and our narrow range of vision and experience. Our field of vision is so limited and short.
However, we are not left without direction in our quest for meaning in all creation. Theologians, clergy, poets, inspired scientists, musicians and others have felt the whispering of the Holy Spirit and have seen a guiding hand behind this constant movement. They have seen direction and distinction in its flow. That destination has been given different names. Wagner writes of the "Pilgrim's Chorus" with strong implications that it means more than just an earthly pilgrimage. Brahms writes of a better land we are bound for in his "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place."
The destination can be described differently but the feeling is always the same. There is a brighter hope for tomorrow, a glorious destination for human beings and for all of God's creation.
A New Year
There comes a day each year when the year looks ahead with fantastic possibilities, each day yet untouched by sadness, failure, regret and the wishes of broken dreams. We make a number of optimistic resolutions and promise to give up old habits which have plagued us, sometimes for years. It is New Years Day, the beginning of a untainted year. It is our special time to hope, dream, renew and kindle new fires. Never again will the opportunities that present themselves this year even come back in the same way again. In Billy Graham’s words
“It is the hour of decision”. So we decide that the time is now to cast aside fear and exhaustion and become the persons we want to be.
There is a story of the great artist Donte Rossetti, who was one day speaking with an elderly man in his studio. Rossetti was asked by the man to critique some paintings and drawings which he had recently done. Rossetti was very candid with the other artist and told him he could see no real value in them. At that point, the artist drew from beneath his coat another set of drawings and sketches and showed them to Rossetti. The man said that these drawings and sketches were the work of a young artist he knew. Rossetti had a completely different response to these. Rossetti mused that this artist showed real promise and that these drawings portrayed a sensitive and creative spirit. He predicted a great future for this young man. The old man said “I was that student”.
What is that gulf that lies between what we might have been and what we have become?
There are those who would say that we aim to low and others who would speculate that we all underestimate our abilities and settle for to much less than we could.
Appearance and Reality
One of the themes of really great literature, stage and screen is the conflict between appearance and reality. It was Shakespeare who reminded us that, “all that glitters is not gold”, “that not every cloud brings a storm”, and that “things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour”.
The truth of great prose is that it spans the centuries it is not limited to a time or space. We today, perhaps more than at any other time, are living in a world where it is hard to sort out reality from appearance. It is a time when a politicians untruthful campaign ad and slam on his opponent can be more important that his stand on the issues. And we can’t be assured that his stand on an issue is any more than a quote of a prevailing public opinion rather than a heartfelt personal belief. It’s a world so superficial that for some people, their best friends are those flickers on a T.V. screen. It’s a world where we put up fronts because we think people might not like us without our veneer.
The big problem in this is that we become so confused between reality and fiction that we put our faith in the temporary and fading rather than the eternal, and therefore spending a life time chasing after the wind. It is far too easy to equate the importance of a person with what we see, as a public image, rather than the knowledge of his core value. We may let those things which seem most important draw us away from those things which really are most important. We may begin to think that real power is wealth and notoriety rather than personal integrity.
The Uncommonness of The Common
One of the things I’ve learned as I grow older is that many of the things I value most in life are those things which are most common, the everyday things of life. One author wrote, “Genius is recognizing the uniqueness in the unimpressive. It is looking at the homely caterpillar, an egg or a selfish infant and seeing a butterfly, an eagle and a saint”. If that is the essence of geniuses, then perhaps all of us have quite a bit of geniuses within us, or at least, the potential of geniuses. It is that natural curiosity of a child which makes them stare at a bug or watch the clouds drift by and be awed by it. Those little, common things of nature amaze us when we are young. As we grow older, we find our lives becoming more complicated and then we began to lose sight of some of life’s most valuable and lovely things.
The artists and creative people make a life out of digging deeper into the sights and sounds that so many of us pass over as being too familiar to concern us. The poet, Robert Frost, stopped at various places in his travels, a fork in the road, the edge of a grove of trees, a snow covered field and drew marvelous symbolism and messages for all mankind. Every one of us could do the same and create our own creative experiences if we only would sensitize our spirits to the goodness and beauty around us.
Perhaps no area of our lives do we need this appreciation for the common things as we do in our relationships with each other. Often the common things people do are what make people uncommon, special, caring and appreciated. Their common care and concern for everyone makes them uncommon. Also, in terms of our spiritual lives, the common practices of regular Worship, Prayer and Bible reading make for uncommon Christians.
Once again we celebrate our nationhood. On this day when we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we begin to think once again of our patriots, to the brave men and women who saw past the security of the moment to the greatness of the future: We owe so much to all of them, some known and some unknown, who have sacrificed their dreams and sometimes their lives for the greatness and security of this country. We are beneficiaries of their sacrifices, and our gratitude must extend beyond the picnics, the barbecues and the fireworks display. We must return in kind, sacrifice for sacrifice, contribution for contribution and patriotism for their patriotism. Patriotism is not the right of a few but, instead, the responsibility of many. It is a moral imperative of all those who call ourselves “Americans”.
To be a patriot now is not that different as it was in the early periods of our history. The world has changed a lot since 1776. The wonders of improved communication has given us a new appreciation for the worlds many contributions and ideologies of the world’s many races and nationalities. Being a patriot, however, has never meant that we were to be enemies to the rest of mankind. Patriotism, at its finest is not based on hate and bigotry. Love and faith are the building blocks of true patriotism. The love of which we speak is that love for our fellow countrymen to whom we are bound by common sympathies, needs and aspirations. The faith of which we speak is that faith in the American ideal of democracy, an ideal that has brought happiness and prosperity to a multitude of different people and nationalities.
Being a patriot is not just a momentary thrill as the flag passes by. Perhaps it is said best by a dedicated public servant. “I venture to suggest that patriotism is not a short but frenzied out burst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime”.
There are people who are always pointing out that there are two kinds of everything. There are those who believe and those who don’t. There are those who are self-centered and those who are generous and look out for others. A recent quote from an actor in a film was, “there are two kinds of people in this world, those who like Neal Diamond and those who don’t”. Two kinds of everything in terms of people, even such a thing as gratitude comes in two flavors.
One form of gratitude was observed by a critic who said “in terms of human beings, gratitude is merely a hope for greater favors”. This, of course, isn’t gratitude at all. It would be ingratitude, favor seeking disguised as thanksgiving. It is usually showered on people of power and influence. It can even become a part of our prayers. It is a glib imitation of thanksgiving which flows very easily from our mouths.
Real, true gratitude, one writer quipped “is one of the least articulate of the emotions, especially when it runs deep”. It usually is expressed better in what we do and how we act instead of what we say. This kind of gratitude is not so concerned about repaying those who contributed something to your life, as imitating them by extending blessings to others. When I was in my first parish, a couple had been extremely good to me. I asked them at one point how I could even thank them for all they had done for me. They told me I could best show my thankfulness by giving something to others as I passed through this short life. It was that command of Jesus “go and do likewise” that demonstrated the true seal of gratitude in a humans life. One kindness begets a hundred others. “Pass it on” should be our mantra.
In summary, we cannot pay back all the people to whom we are indebted in our live; parents, teachers, clergy, soldiers, statesman, inventors, dreamers, and grandparents. They have all built a wonderful life for us.