As the church that serves the countryside, we commit ourselves to share Christ's love in action through our congregation, community, and the world.
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.
Planning a Life
The Greek philosopher Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Aristotle said that the unplanned life was not very productive. If a life does not have some kind of plan or purpose, the individual living it will not know what he’s doing or why and will not know where he’s going or how to get there. Other great thinkers have said pretty much the same thing that we do need to think about our futures.
If we fail to plan, life becomes pretty much a jumble and a sea of confusion. A good share of people live day by day, concentrating on the pleasure of the moment, caring little for the effort that a distant goal demands. The natural tendency of a human being is to be self-interested, but most people don’t pursue their own best interest. An unexamined or unplanned life will follow illusions, momentary desires and mutually conflicting wants. We can be swayed by whim rather than purpose and seek pleasure rather than perfection. We can be too influenced by the world around us and can choose short term gratification rather than long term fulfillment.
More often than not, we find that moral errors are the consequences of shortcuts – attempts to get results in the wrong way. No result of any importance can be achieved in an instant.
The younger the individual is, the more likely it is that they will not have a plan for living. To the young the more immediate goals are the most important – things to do, things to get, things to be enjoyed today.
As we age, we should be more likely to search for a purpose for living. We know we cannot do it all at once, and we learn to be flexible in changing conditions to fit our most important goals.
A New View of Aging
One of the things I catch myself saying when I purchase some major item is “this is probably the last time I’ll be buying something like this”. A statement like this sort of betrays a certain resignation that time is limited and I am limited in experiencing future joys. When this thought invades my mind, I have a certain melancholy feeling. However, when I look at something and say “that will be a new experience, I should try it”, there is an immediate excitement that touches my soul. It takes a lot of trust in God to make it through a life time. There are many people who fear aging and think it is a time they will be bored, useless or ill. Old age is not necessarily that way for most people. I would say a majority of seniors at or beyond retirement have a life that is definitely worth living.
Contrary to popular opinion, old age doesn’t bring many surprises. People who are psychologically well adjusted in middle age tend to be well adjusted seniors. In fact, there is a certain joy which comes with aging. It is no longer necessary to strive for personal recognition. These individuals have earned a chance to relax, to savor life and do some things they’ve always wanted to do. Some have created a “bucket list” of new things to experience in their later years.
“Enduring to the end” as God instructed, does not imply laying back and doing nothing. It does mean setting new goals, working at new tasks, to contribute insight, prospective and experience. People who are aging should not be saying they are doing things for the last time but instead, for the first time. If we keep looking to do things for the first time, regardless of age, we will have an effective antidote against growing old.
Discipline or Freedom
Whether it starts as a young child or later in life, sometime in our life we must learn to discipline ourselves. So many lives have been ruined by uncontrolled desires. There seems to be an increased desire for more thrills, more indulgence and more possession of material things.
The crazy thing about discipline is that it seems, in modern times, to carry somewhat of a negative connotation. Many people of our present age seem to think that discipline is done at an expense of limiting our freedom. We think that the more discipline that is done, the more individual freedom is lost. However, if we stop to think about it intelligently, freedom and discipline are not trade-offs. There can, in fact be high freedom, coupled with a high amount of discipline. In fact, freedom happens when we voluntarily impose self-discipline, when we set goals, when we impose order on ourselves.
Self-discipline is essential for self-renewal and we need to renew ourselves spiritually, emotionally and mentally. The great majority of us go through our lives only partially exercising our abilities. Getting to know ourselves is one of the most difficult things we can do -as well as the most inconvenient. We spend much of our time running away from ourselves. The author John Gardner said, “More often than not, we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t’ want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By the middle of life most of us accomplished fugitives from ourselves.”
If we have no discipline, there will be no order in our lives. The most self-reliant human beings will always be self-disciplined. The higher the self-discipline, the higher will be his moral and spiritual condition. As we start a new year, please take some time for personal reflection. Hopefully, the personal reflection will create some self-mastering – the ability to govern ourselves properly through self-discipline – the only road to true freedom.