Monday, December 11, 2017

Avoiding Retirement

           I’ve retired four times.  That may sound silly or ridiculous, but it is certainly true.  In 1972, I retired from the television station that I had been working for because they ran out of money and they couldn’t pay me anymore.  I then went to seminary, became an Episcopal priest and started another career entirely.  I was the rector of two churches in Pittsburgh and loved every minute of it.  When I reached the age of 65 in 1999, I retired from my parish and went to live at a little resort community in West Virginia with my beautiful wife.  After two years of playing golf and reading, I got bored, called the West Virginia bishop and asked him if he had any work.  He told me that there were some parishes that were in need of an interim rector, but they were all in the southern part of the state.  I was eager to get back to work, so I agreed to consider these places.  Over the next several years, I served three parishes near Charleston as their interim rector, having a good time at each one and paving the way for each of them to do something with their future. 

After recovering from a menengioma while I continued to work, in 2010, our kids called and said that it was a four-hour trip to Charleston and they wondered when we were going to think about coming home.  We heard that plea from them, I again retired from the parish that I was working at, we sold our Charleston house and moved back to Pittsburgh. 

I still wasn’t done.  The bishop of Pittsburgh told me that there was a parish in need of someone to be a permanent supply priest for them.  I agreed to do this and spent the next year and a half serving that parish each Sunday and getting to know a parish full of excellent people.  The time came when I finally decided that retirement from this work was the thing for me to do, so for the fourth time, I retired.  I am probably still not done.  There is a shortage of clergy in this diocese and I am sure that there will be times that I will be asked to take a Sunday or two somewhere.  I will be happy to do that, and I will continue to write my blog every week.

Retirement is something that many people look forward to; they sometimes go to Florida or someplace else with a warm climate and they relax, do some of the things that they never had time for while they were working.  Pensions and Social Security help them pay the bills.  I tried this when we went to the West Virginia resort community.  We enjoyed it, but it still left a hole in my life, a hole that I needed to fill with the work that I had been doing.  Retiring is also something that has emerged in this generation as a stage of life that we can aspire to.  I think that if that is so, we need to discover some things that we can do that benefit those around us in our time to ourselves. 

When I look at the biblical people who speak to us in the lessons that we hear each week in church, retirement doesn’t seem to be a condition that many of them take up.  I think of Isaiah, who offered his prophecy to the people of Israel as a statement of life. His intention was to warn and to comfort his people as they lived lives that sometimes included a lot of misery. I have always loved the words that begin the second part of the book of the prophet Isaiah, the words that also make up one of the most moving arias in the Messiah.  Isaiah is getting us ready for the coming of God into the world.  He speaks to the people of Israel to give them comfort and hope:
                                      Comfort, O comfort my people,
                                                              says your God.
                                                          Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
                                                              and cry to her
                                                          that she has served her term,
                                                              that her penalty is paid,
                                                          that she has received from                                                                                                                   the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
        What beautiful words the prophet has for all of the people who are listening to him.
  These words come from a deep faith and a commitment to the work that Isaiah has been given
 to do.  His work offered promise and the blessing of God to all of the people and are the 
foundation of our season of Advent where we wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus into the 
world.

       I’m glad that I am still working and managing to avoid complete retirement.  I know that 
theLord still has work for me to do in this world and I am eager to do it.  I thank God for all of 
the things that I have been able to do and thepeople whom I have worked with.  This has been
 a blessing to me beyond any expectation. 
       


            

Monday, December 4, 2017

Listening and Learning

             
            I’ve always wondered about the argument about Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays as a greeting at this time of the year.  I know that Christians want to celebrate the birth of Jesus in this season, but it seems to me that Happy Holidays is really an inclusive term to offer good wishes to people who don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas.  It certainly isn’t an attempt to create a “war on Christmas” as some political people try to say. 

            If there was a war on Christians it was certainly waged during the days of the Inquisition, when proper belief was demanded and those who deviated were severely punished.  It was also waged when the Puritans came to America to avoid persecution in England and then began persecuting everyone when they got to this continent.  I’m not surprised by some of these “wars”, they come from the idea that somebody’s ideas are the only correct ones and that those who deviate from them just have to be wrong.  This has been the basis for discrimination since the world was founded. 

            The cure for this, it seems to me, is that we need to listen more and talk less.  When we listen, we learn.  That is increasingly important in a time when certainty seems to be in vogue and those who don’t agree with the prevailing ideas are told that they are wrong.  Certainty is very common in our politically charged world.  It has been made more so since our political parties have drawn away from each other in an attempt to gather power.  The keeping of gathered power seems to account for more and more outrageous claims of whatever they project “truth” to be.  There is less and less listening going on in the halls of power these days and an excess of talking.  Finding solutions requires people listening to each other to find compromises that really help people in their lives.  The final stage of not listening is an autocracy that simply dictates what will happen and fails to take into account the negative effects that their proposed actions will create. 

        In the Old Testament, Isaiah is talking about a time of crisis, when the people have gone on their own way and have become lost in this world.

                      Isaiah says:
                                               We have all become like one who is unclean,
                                                  and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
                                              We all fade like a leaf,
                                                  and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
                                              There is no one who calls on your name,
                                                  or attempts to take hold of you;
                                               For you have hidden your face from us,
                                                  and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity

             The prophet calls upon God to come down, to make the mountains quake and to make the world new again so that the people who have strayed can again be happy.  This is a great cry here at the beginning of the Advent season as we wait for the coming of Jesus again with our own hopes that our Lord will help us to make the world right again after all of our certainty has faded and our sins that have erupted because of it have overwhelmed us.  Isaiah’s cry to God can mirror our own yearning for justice and hope in this world where so much seems to have gone astray. 

            That, for me, is the power of this wonderful season leading up to Christmas.  Our desire is for God’s hope for humankind to be restored and for us all to live together in the harmony that our Lord wants for us all.  As we once again wait for the birth of our Lord Jesus at the great moment of Christmas, let us try to listen better to each other and to learn rather than dictate our certainty in this world.  God bless us as we work together on helping our God to renew our culture and our lives.




Monday, November 27, 2017

Finding Our True Religion

   
            We live in a time of great turmoil.  There are arguments going on all around us.  These are not only political arguments that separate us, even our religious organizations are having trouble staying together.  This is a time when churches are losing members, small churches are foundering and some of them are closing.  There is an obvious struggle in many churches to stay viable.  I’ve been almost astounded to watch the Roman Catholic church merging parishes and closing others.  This has created agony among many people of faith who have looked to their churches as places of community where they knew their neighbors and found their friends. 

            It is necessary that we get all of this sorted out.  To help people of faith gather together in places where they can feel secure and practice their faith with some certainty that the institution in which they worship and know their neighbors will continue to flourish and be able to support them in their work and the ministry that they are anxious to continue to work.

            After Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles founded small churches in their homes.  These congregations were composed of 40-50 people all of whom wanted to celebrate the new life that had been given to them by their Lord.  These were joyful communities who did a lot of good in the world around them.  Care for the poor and the outcast was primary in the life of these newly created Christians.  This was probably the primary command of Jesus during his ministry: to love one another as we have been loved by our God and to take care of the need that we find around us with all of our resources.  I can’t imagine a better cure for the turmoil that I see in our society than this: to keep our eyes open for those in need and to do what we can to make them comfortable.  This is the mission that our God has set before us. 

            Look at Jesus ministry.  He constantly went out of his way to cure, to lift up and to help those who were in terrible need.  He even learned to go outside the bounds of belief to do this.  I think of the woman that he met on the road to Tyre and Sidon who had a sick daughter who asked him for a cure.  He told her that it wasn’t right to give the food on the table to the dogs.  She answered him by saying that the dogs eat the crumbs that fall to the ground.  Jesus immediately knew what he had to do and told her that her belief was remarkable and that her daughter was immediately healed.  Jesus was here for all of us.  His love and concern for our welfare extended to the whole world.  We are the inheritors of this mission.  What is necessary for all of us is to look around us to find those who are in need and to care for them.  When we do that, we follow our Lord’s instructions and create the kind of world that God intended from the beginning.

            It isn’t easy to do this.  We have to keep our faith and our religious life intact and to continue to follow our Lord’s teaching, wherever it leads.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that they enter into his Kingdom when they fed him when he was hungry, gave him water when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, gave him clothing when he was naked and visited him when he was in prison.  They asked him when they had done any of these things and he told them the wonderful truth: When you did this for the least of those who are members of my family, you did it for me.  As we know, the members of his family are all of the people on this earth.  When we care for each other, we care for our Lord.  I can’t imagine a more perfect religion.   

               
                     

Monday, November 20, 2017

Living With Compassion

             
            I’ve never been particularly fond of the parable of the servants who were each given a sum of money by their master.  Two of them invested the money and doubled it and received the praise of their master when he returned.  The third one was afraid and buried his money and then gave it back to the master when he came back.  The master rewarded the ones who doubled their money and punished the servant who only returned what he had been given. 

            The reason that I don’t like this story is because it seems to me to be devoid of compassion, which I think is the quality that Jesus brought to all of us by his life and ministry.  I would rather have had the master take the frightened servant aside and thank him for giving back his money and sharing with him some possible ways that he could have used the small amount that he had been given to make a difference in the world.  That would have been preferable to seeing the poor man get punished.  

            Compassion isn’t always easy.  Sometimes we are frightened by misery.  When we see large groups of people who don’t have enough to eat or places to live, we sometimes are tempted to retreat from it and wonder if somebody else can do something to help them.  Our role in taking care of each other is the essence of compassion.  Once when we were on our meals-on-wheels route, a woman came to us and asked if we could give her a dollar.  She wanted to buy a hot chocolate and didn’t have the money to do that.  I gave her five dollars and watched the tears well up in her eyes.  She said that her house had burned down and that she was trying to find a place to live.  She left us and went to get her hot chocolate.  I certainly didn’t do much to help her, but those tears of hers after getting a small amount of money stayed with me.  She certainly needed more help than I could give her at that moment, and she was only one of a number of people on the street who are left behind by the rest of us.

            Finding ways that we can reach out to those in need is the essence of our religion.  God created us, loves us and asks us to love one another.  That isn’t something that is just said, it is what our creator wants of us all.  There is more than enough wealth in this world to take care of all of us.  The fact that it accumulates with those who are wealthy isn’t new.  It has been going on since the world was created.  Jesus came to teach us how to care for each other and to spread the wealth around so that we can all be cared for.  One of the best pieces of art that I think that I have ever seen is a sketch of Jesus sitting at the base of a lamppost with his arms around two obviously homeless people who are leaning on him.  That sketch says it all.  Jesus caring for those in need and asking us to join him in that effort.  Compassion is a great gift that we have been given by our Lord.  Let us not forget to use it.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Helping Others

            We have heard Moses give us the Ten Commandments, Jesus offered the beatitudes and in Matthew’s gospel, he tells us about the bridesmaids who were waiting for the bridegroom.  They all had lamps, some of them had oil for the lamps and some didn’t.  When the bridegroom arrived suddenly, those with oil were able to light their lamps and accompany him.  The others were out of luck and couldn’t do much of anything at all.

            Jesus uses this parable to tell us that we need to be ready—not necessarily for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, or for Jesus’ second coming, but simply ready in our lives for what is going on around us.  I think of this when I am at the store, or walking around downtown, or simply driving on the roads around town. We never know what we are likely to encounter when we are living our lives.  Sometimes it is a beggar on the street; sometimes it is somebody in serious trouble who needs our help.  What this parable is telling us is to be ready to do whatever it is that is needed to help people in their lives. 

            Our local paper had a column every week called Random Acts of Kindness, where people tell stories about how strangers helped them out of some kind of trouble.  They always do this to show their appreciation for what random strangers have done to help them.  Often, they don’t know the names of the people who have helped, they just are pleased that somebody cared at a moment in time when they needed help.  I suspect that a lot of the help that is provided to people on a day to day basis goes largely unreported and just anonymously helps whoever needs it.  I think that is what God has in mind for all of us as we live our lives.

            Families are one place where help is often provided.  We are more familiar with each other’s needs in our families.  For people whom we don’t know at all, we need to be able to see the sometimes subtle signs that help is needed.  When we are able to do that, the Kingdom of Heaven comes a little nearer.  I think that is what Jesus is trying to teach us not only with his parables, but with his life.

                  

Monday, November 6, 2017

Let Mercy Rule

            There have been so many tragedies recently.  All of the storms that plagued the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas not to mention Ireland and the British Isles; the earthquake in Mexico and the terrible fires in California that have left so many people without homes and possessions.  We had the horrible shooting in Las Vegas that killed so many people who were simply attending a country music performance; the terrorist driving a truck into the bike lane in New York, killing eight people and injuring a number of others, and the shooting at the church at Sutherland Springs, Texas that killed 26 people. The grieving over all of this has taken us over as a nation and has caused such pain in so many lives.  It is as if we have embarked on a new era, an era of hatred and misery enhanced by egotism and people who just don’t care about law and order and want to create chaos wherever they are.  This is also applicable to the natural disasters that we are seeing since we don’t seem to care about climate change and continue to permit inordinate pollution of our atmosphere.

               In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins his sermon on the mount by telling his apostles the beatitudes.  These are great phrases that really sum up the expectations that God has for all of us. One of them reads: blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Mercy isn’t an easy thing to either give or receive.  Often when we pass a beggar on the street, we do just that:  pass them.  We ignore their signs, their position on the street, frequently sitting down against a post, dressed in shabby clothes and all of the things that tell us of their difficult position in life.  We don’t really think of mercy in these moments, we think only of getting on with what we are doing. 

            Mercy is a two-way street.  I love the verse that goes:
                       
                                                Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
                                                Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat.
                                                If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do
                                                If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you!

Here is mercy coming back from the beggar.  We really don’t think of that most of the time either, we are still set on doing what we are about.  But this is the reality of mercy.  It is the interaction that we have with each other, caring for each other, paying attention to our needs, and being aware of the condition that each of us are in.  It is fairly easy to do this with our friends and our relatives, but when it comes to strangers, it is a bit more difficult.  I know that our Lord wants us to care for each other, to be merciful and loving to each other.  When we do this we lessen the amount of stress and hatred in this world and make it less likely that events such as we are seeing in the news will keep happening.  Love one another as I have loved you, said Jesus to all of us when he expressed the commandments of God.  That is our mission as the children of God.  God loves every one of us.  Let us try as hard as we can to love one another.


           

           

                

Monday, October 30, 2017

Love Triumphs

             
            There is a great verse in the hymn Amazing Grace that says:

                        When we’ve been there ten thousand years/bright shining as the sun;
                        We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise/than when we’d first begun.

            That to me is an excellent way to describe the relationship that we have with our God and this world.  We all grow up, grow older and live out our lives doing what we can with our faith.  Sometimes we don’t do very well with our loving.  We neglect people who are in need and marginalize others.  There is a constant argument going on in our society about how those who are in categories that we have created ought to live.  If you are African American, gay, female, Muslim, Latino or Native American you will certainly encounter barriers that might prevent you from living your life in full.  Periodically, we come up with ways to bridge these barriers, but the rhetoric that emerges from the argument is always hurtful and demonstrates how hard it is for us to love one another as our God has loved us. 

            That commandment to love, is the foundation of all scripture.  When Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment, this is the one that he offers to the Pharisees who have asked him the question.  He offers it in good faith because it is true and is the basis for all of the rest of Holy Scripture.  If we can’t love one another, not much else is really possible.

            What gets in the way is our narcissism, our ego centered attitude toward others that comes from our desire to get our own way in most things.  When we can put this aside and care for others and their needs, love has an honest chance to work.

            We live in a time when hate has erupted in almost incredible ways.  A man shoots a large number of people in a crowd watching a country music festival in Las Vegas and we can’t find any reason why he would do this.  The social media platform called Twitter is increasing being used to call people names and pump out false information to the country.  The label fake news is used over and over again to deflect claims of real truth in some of the reporting that is going on in this country.  It is harder and harder to know what is true and what is false in what we are reading and hearing every day in our media reporting and the political response that we receive to it.  There is a design to this.  The deflection of  reporting on real events by those in charge is a way to make us all pay attention to other things rather than what is being said.  Deflection is a great strategy to keep us from looking deeper into the events that are being reported.

            The only answer to hate is love.  That is why Jesus made it the most important commandment; and the one that brings us all closer to God.  Without love, hate triumphs and this world loses a great deal of meaning and hope.  We have a mission to spread love in this world and to defeat the forces of hate.