Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I Think When I Read That Sweet Story of Old

each advent season i begin to think of the beauty of the story of the birth of jesus in matthew’s and luke’s gospels.  i am reminded of the visits of the archangel to mary and joseph, the search for a place to rest when mary and joseph travel to bethlehem, the visit of the angels to the shepherds which leads the shepherds to the manger to worship the child, the travel of the magi to bethlehem and their encounter with herod.  it’s a beautiful story, and i wonder if the insistence that it is literally true—that all the debate about the virgin birth, the questions about who the wisemen were and how to explain their guiding star, the lack of evidence in the historical records of a slaughter of innocents in herod’s attempt to eliminate a potential rival, and all the need for proofs that a literal reading of the story entails—obscures the real meaning of the records of jesus’ birth.

what if we look at the accounts as a way of understanding that there is a God who cares about us collectively and individually?  isn’t that what jesus’ birth, life of ministry, death, and resurrection are all about: that a loving God desires a relationship with us that compels us to love one another?  as i think of the story with its theme of God coming into the world through the person and teachings of jesus, i am not concerned with the question of whether jesus is the embodiment of God or whether each incident reported in the gospels is literally true.  instead, i am looking for the lessons that these stories teach us about who God is and how God relates to all of creation.

here are some things that stand out to me in the stories of jesus’ birth:  first, God is not just a God of an obscure tribe in asia minor, rather God is the God of all creation.  second, God can use the humblest of God’s creation to show us how to embody loving-kindness.  third, “peace on earth” is a central mission that God challenges us to make real as we let go of the need for power and wealth, looking instead to the needs of others.  finally, just as the star shed its light, so we can shine light into the darkness of the world by the way we live our lives.

my prayer for myself and others this season of light is that we set aside the need for proofs and certainties, and look instead in our hearts for the truth that God places there.  May we truly love one another, seeking peace and understanding that transcends ego and self.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Heart Is Warm with Friends I Make

i continue writing about relationships that are recalled each year as we prepare our christmas cards for mailing.  we have dear friends who moved away several years ago to be near their children and granchildren.  even before they moved, we had little time to spend with art and elaine, as both they and us cared for aging parents whose needs took up more and more of our time.  it was not that we chose not to spend time with each other as we had earlier, but rather that once the needs of our parents were met, we had little time left to spend with friends.

we visit each other once or twice a year, and each time we are together, the friendship seems as strong as ever.  our time together is precious, and this couple fills a void in our lives that no other friends have ever filled.  though our lives have taken different paths, our friendship endures; the physical separation and the demands that are made on us in our day-to-day lives have not dimished our love for each other.  when we need  sympathetic shoulders on which to figuratively rest our heads as tragedies and setbacks come in our lives, we turn to art and elaine, knowing that they will listen without judging us or even thinking an “i told you so,” and i hope they feel the same way about us.

i wish that we could spend more time together, that we could enjoy a meal and game of cards once a week as we once did, that we could see each at church and community activites and visit by phone several times a week.  our lives have taken us along different tracks, and so we make the few visits we have count.  each year as i write a note on their christmas card, i think of how much this long-distance relationship means to us and look forward to our next time together.

my prayer today is that each of us have such friendships that stand the test of time, distance, and circumstances.  may we each value these friendships and do what we can to nurture them.  shalom.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

For Hate Is Strong

a few days ago, we listened in horror as the events in connecticut were reported on television.  we were guests in the home of relatives, one of whom watches a 24-hour news source that is, to my mind, quite biased.  in the afternoon one of this news network’s commentators had another of the network’s “stars” as his guest.  this guest on the show is an ordained minister, a former state governor and presidential candidate, and is now a media personality with a nightly talk show on this particular network.

as i listened while passing through the room where the television was playing, i heard him say it was inevitable that we would have such violence in school since “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”  the fact that the shooter was not an employee or student of the school, but was instead someone that had been admitted to the school as a guest, was somehow connected to this “systematic” godlessness in our schools.  never mind that this commentator/“expert” is an advocate of measures that would dismantle the system of pubic education in this country.

as i thought about his statement, i recalled my own education when “God” was supposed to have been present in public schools.  we had our share of fights in school, we had just as many bullies (perhaps more), the artificial “popularity contest” was rampant, and those who were “odd” in any way were ostracized, just as they (we) are now.  where was this “God” then?  certainly, we didn’t have instances of such violence as we saw in connecticut, which appears to have nothing to do with the school in which it took place, except that the school was a convenient place for this person to wreak mass havoc.  had a shopping mall been handy, as it was only a few days ago in oregon, that mall might have been his target.  i suppose the violence in the oregon mall was a result of the “systematic removal of God” from our christmas shopping experiences!

how absurd it is to suggest that God can be removed, systematically or in any other fashion, from any place if one believes in a God who creates and is present in everything.  we are a nation founded on the principle that the state and its institutions, like public schools, should not be agents to advocate any religion, that all government entities should be religion-neutral.

violence anywhere is the result of the evil that lurks in our hearts along with the good.  perhaps we make gun violence easy by our insistence that any gun control laws impinge on our citizens’ right to keep and bear arms, despite the widespread evidence that limiting ownership of non-hunting, non-self defense weapons reduces gun violence of all kinds.  it is unfortunate that we live in a society that seems prone to violence of all sorts, but there is no evidence that religious belief or the lack thereof has a bearing on the propensity for violence.

the antidote for this violence is learning to see others as being worthy of love.  respect for life and placing the desire to do good for others ahead of one’s own desires for meaningless possessions and prestige will counter the savage impulses that permeate american society if we make those more worthy parts of nature a higher priority than the promotion of a ruthless individualism.

my prayer is that we will eschew those qualities that promote ruthlessness, selfishness, and egotism and espouse qualities that flow from loving-kindness.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Unto Your Mission Be True

as my wife and i finished up our christmas cards for this year, she asked me to write a note to our friend clara.  clara was a member of the choir in the church where i was organist before we moved to our present home.  she had a lovely soprano voice and was often called on to sing solos in church.  clara is a lovely person, too--kind to a fault, always thinking of others.  she has not a hint of the egotism that often comes to those who are blessed with exceptional musical talent.

after we moved away, clara retired from her job as an elementary school teacher and her husband retired from his job as a pilot for an oil company.  soon after retiring they moved to be near one of their sons and his family.  we were surprised one afternoon when clara called us.  she and her husband were on a train trip that brought them through our town, and they had a short layover here.  we went down to the train station and brought them out to our house for a short visit.  it was wonderful to catch up on the news of each others' lives, and we were thrilled that they thought of us when they arrived here.

we've not seen clara since then, and the only time we communicate is at christmas.  last year clara's husband died, and we learned of his death through clara's christmas card.  as i wrote her a note in this year's card, i thought of the many happy times of making music together and of pleasant times we spent in her home.  i remembered her many kindnesses and her caring spirit that always thought of how to help others.  i recalled what a wonderful teacher she was and of the many years she worked with the children of our church as the director of the children's choir.  she touched so many lives, as she did mine, and everyone she touched is better off for having known her.

my prayer today is that each of us will have a "clara" in our lives showing us by what it is to be a truly caring, generous person.  may we be filled with gratitude that such people exist and may we emulate the wonderful qualities that they demonstrate.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Love Shall Be Our Token

during this advent season, i am writing about some of the people that have influenced me during my journey.  most of these are friends with whom i didn't continue to communicate frequently once my circumstances in life changed, and i moved on to other jobs or other towns, but at christmas as i wrote notes on christmas cards, i was reminded of their roles in shaping my life.

one of these was "bill."  a friend had asked for me to fill in for her as organist at a church in our town while she took some summer school classes.  during the course of the summer, bill called and asked if he could come by my house and visit with me.  i didn't know bill, and in the course of our phone conversation he introduced himself as the chair of the search committee for an organist in a local church.  we arranged to meet, and he came by my house at the appointed time to interview me and see if i was interested in applying for the job.

i had never worked as a paid permanent musician for a church before, except for a brief period in college, and in that case i knew the job would not last more than a few months because of my status as a student.  as soon as i met bill in person and we began to talk, i knew that he was a person on whom i could depend.  i liked him immediately, and the feeling was mutual.  soon an interview and audition with the full committee was arranged, and bill's encouragement gave me the confidence i needed to favorably impress the other committee members.

within a few days, the job was offered to me, and i excitedly accepted.  bill and his wife, both of whom sang in the choir, became close friends of my wife and me, as did their best friends, a couple who were also members of the choir.  The six of us spent many happy evenings together over food and games of cards.  one of the saddest days of my life was the day bill died, and one of the most difficult services i ever played was his funeral.  his favorite piece was by handel, and i will never forget playing it with tears streaming down my face.  for several years afterward, i could not play that piece because i always cried over losing bill when i played it.

a couple of years later, we moved away, and bill's wife soon went to live with one of her daughters.  for years, we exchanged notes at christmas, and my wife and i always loved hearing from her.  one christmas, though, we got a note from her daughter thanking us for our friendship with her parents and for staying in touch with her mother.  bill's wife had passed away, too, and there would be no more christmas notes exchanged between us.

this advent, i give thanks for bill and sue for believing i could do the job bill was responsible for filling, for being our friends, for their faithful service to our church, and for giving me wonderful memories of two wonderful people who made my life better.  my prayer today is that each of you has wonderful friends like bill and sue and that each of us can be such a friend to others.  shalom.