Reflections on the Beauty-Filled Soul

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 20, 2014

Deuteronomy 8:1-3 NLT; Selection from John Muir

Maybe you can recall a time when you were at a big family reunion, or maybe it was one of those all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants, when there was so much good food at hand and so much variety that you stuffed yourself beyond full so that you could not have taken in another bite.  Anybody care to admit that you have had such an experience?  You were filled up to the brim; to paraphrase the psalmist, your stomach almost runneth over.

Week before last, I had a similar kind of experience.  But it was not food that filled me up, and it was not my stomach that was full.  It was my soul that was filled with the natural beauty we took in at Glacier National Park in Montana.  Now, I have to admit that one of the primary reasons we chose to visit Glacier National Park was to see some of the remaining glaciers before they are all gone.  Of the 150 glaciers that used to be in Glacier National Park, only 25 remain today, and they are shrinking rapidly; and some of them are inaccessible and, unless things change, they are predicted to be gone completely in just a few short years.  But let me warn you: If you plan to go to Glacier National Park just to see the glaciers, I would caution you against going.  Because getting a glimpse of three or four of the remaining glaciers is just a fraction of what one experiences in Glacier National Park.

The greatest benefit of going to Glacier is the vast, abundant, and diverse beauty to be found there.  Practically everywhere you turn in the Park some form of breath-taking beauty meets the eye: stone mountains (no two of them alike) capped with snow against an azure-blue sky; blue-green waters cascading over burgundy-colored rocks; breath-taking waterfalls falling from giant mountain slopes; more species and colors of wildflowers than can be counted; crystal-clear lakes bordered by majestic mountain peaks.  I shot over 725 pictures myself on my camera and iPhone, and my wife shot 400-500 more on her camera and iPhone.

As we were hiking the Swiftcurrent Trail in the Many Glaciers area of the Park on the last day of our visit, I thought to myself on the return hike back out, My soul is full; I don’t think I can take in any more beauty.  I was saturated.  After awhile, you can feel overwhelmed with the abundance and variety of beauty around you.

But the truth is, our souls need natural beauty just as our stomachs need bread.  For the first reading this morning, I chose the ancient Hebrew text that says, “people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of [God].”  Both Matthew and Luke quote Jesus as saying these words during his time of temptation in the wilderness.  For the ancient Jews, “the word of God” was interpreted to be the Law, the Torah.  For most traditional Christians today, “the word of God” is interpreted to be the Bible.

But let’s think outside the box a bit.  By thinking outside the box, the “word of God” might be interpreted more broadly than written words on a page, more broadly than we might initially think. There is a sense in which creation—the natural world—can be considered the “word of God,” what is sometimes referred to as “Natural Revelation.”  Natural Revelation holds that the word, the nature, the awesomeness, the majesty of the Creator is revealed and may be acquired within the marvels of creation itself.  To open ourselves to creation is to feed upon—soulfully speaking—the living word, the nature, the awesomeness, the majesty of the Creator, in whatever fashion you might interpret that.  Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwritinga wayside sacrament.   Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.”

And in his writings, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, spoke of “sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals. . .” and “the glorious page of Nature’s Bible.”  Muir also wrote of the “natural beauty hunger” that is the common lot of humanity and that has been addressed in a myriad of ways.  As put by Muir in our second reading, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Yes, to feed on beauty—especially the beauty of the natural world—is something our souls desperately need.  To feast on the beauty of the natural world is restoration for the soul.  I cannot help but also draw on the psalmist, who said,

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).  The beauties of the natural world are like spiritual food for the soul.

Natural beauty also has the power to alter human behavior.  Studies have shown that in cities where people live near parks and natural green spaces, the rates of violent crime are lower than in similar cities and neighborhoods where no natural green spaces exist.  In one study, “public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence.”1  Time spent in nature helps people to relax and renew themselves, reducing mental fatigue, irritability, aggression, and violence.  Such data illustrate why parks as small as A.K. Bissell Park here in Oak Ridge, or large parks like Central Park in New York City, are so important.  Visiting a park or other natural green space during the lunch hour or on the weekend or as a week-long vacation can result in being rejuvenated for the afternoon or week or year of work ahead.

We are so fortunate in this country that a few of our presidents realized the importance of setting aside those beautiful spaces which became our national parks, not only as means of preserving perpetually the beauties of our natural world, but also as  places of respite for the human soul.

The beauty of the natural world—God’s creation, if you will—that we soak in through our senses becomes a permanent part of us.  As I noted earlier, we took several hundred photographs in Glacier National Park that we will cherish forever.  Soon after we returned, I made two of my favorite photographs the home page and locked screen wallpaper, or background, on my cell phone.  So now, every time I pick up my phone, I will fondly remember Running Eagle Waterfall and Avalanche Lake.

But in a greater and much more important sense, the beauty that we experienced in the wildflowers, waterfalls, mountain vistas, tranquil lakes, and so on will be a permanent and positive part of our memory and psyche.

But the good news is, one doesn’t have to travel to Montana to soak in the beauty of God’s creation, or the natural world.  There is much natural beauty to be had right here in East Tennessee.  The lesson for us is to have our eyes open.  To be observant. When life makes us weary, then we should head to the hills, as it were, or to the woods or greenway, or to a wildflower garden to feed our weary, hungry souls. Or to say it poetically,

 

Come, come away, my friends,

The beauty of the world beckons.

Look up to a mountain,

Wade in a stream,

Take notice of a wildflower, until now you’ve never seen.

 

When you start to feel weary and restless,

When there’s an unexplained hunger in your soul,

Let the beauties of the world delight you,

The restorative power of Nature revive you,

Nourish you and make you whole.
We are part and parcel with Nature,

A piece of an interconnected whole

One with the flowers, rivers, and trees.

So, come, come away to Nature,

And experience the beauty-filled soul.

1Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Some Patriotic Hymns: Their Makeup and Messages

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 6, 2014

Leviticus 25:10a; 1 Timothy 2:1-2 CEB

Americans—in general—love patriotic songs.  And we have several to choose from.  I have my favorite, and perhaps you have a favorite patriotic song or hymn as well.  There are some interesting stories behind many of America’s patriotic hymns, stories which can serve to enrich these hymns as we sing them, when we know a bit of the history behind them.  And so today, I thought I would give a sermon of a different order, looking at a few of the most popular patriotic hymns and the messages they convey, and then draw a few conclusions.

For instance, consider the patriotic hymn “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”  A young man of only twenty-three or twenty-four (sources vary) by the name of Samuel Francis Smith was a seminary student at Andover Theological Seminary, near Boston, Massachusetts.  Samuel was studying to become a Baptist minister.  On a gloomy February day in 1831 or 1832 (again, sources vary), Samuel was looking through a collection of German hymn tunes that had been given to him by a friend and choir director by the name of Lowell Mason.  One source says that as a seminary student, Smith was very poor and took on the translation work to help make ends meet.  Mason had asked Smith to translate the German lyrics into English.

Well, Smith ran across one German tune in particular that he really liked, which happened to be the tune for a German patriotic hymn, “God Bless Our Native Land.”  Feeling that the tune itself was patriotic in spirit, Smith decided to write American patriotic words to accompany the German tune.  The interesting thing is for some 100 years, the same piece of music had also served as the tune for the English patriotic song “God Save the Queen,” which Smith later said he had never heard.  Smith picked up a scrap of paper, and in about 30 minutes he had written the words to the beloved patriotic song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” The new patriotic American hymn was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, or 1832 (still yet, sources vary), at a children’s Independence Day celebration at the Park Street Church in Boston.  Originally “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” had five stanzas.  But the fifth had a negative tone toward Great Britain, so it was later dropped from the hymn.

Samuel Francis Smith went on to become one of the outstanding Baptist preachers of the 19th century.  He later wrote other hymns, about 150 in all, but he is best remembered for his great gift to America, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”  And to think that Smith wrote the hymn in 30 short minutes!  So there was no particular incident or historical event that inspired “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as with some other patriotic hymns that Americans hold dear.

When we consider the hymn “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” perhaps better known as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” many southerners do not realize that it was written as a northern Civil War hymn.  In November 1861, just a few months after the start of the Civil War, American writer Julia Ward Howe was touring Union army camps near Washington, D.C. with the Reverend James Freeman Clark and her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who was a member of President Lincoln’s Military Sanitary Commission.  Dr. Howe was a well-known scholar in the education of the blind.  The Howes were Unitarians, fervent abolitionists, and supporters of the Union.  During the course of their visit, they heard the troops sing some of the popular war songs, including “John Brown’s Body.”  The story goes that Reverend Clarke suggested to Mrs. Howe that she should write some new lyrics to the popular tune.  She replied that she had thought about doing just that.

Early the following morning, as Mrs. Howe later described it, she “awoke . . . in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain.  I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, ‘I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately.’”  As history has it, Mrs. Howe wrote the lines of the hymn on a scrap of Sanitary Commission paper.  Just three months later, February 1862, the hymn was published in The Atlantic Monthly. 

As with many beloved hymns, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” presents some theological challenges to progressive-minded Christians.  Many of the lyrics are biblically based, drawn from a number of books of the Bible.  Phrases like “the coming of the Lord,” “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” “sifting out the hearts of men,” “his judgment seat,” and so on all bespeak of divine judgment.  The hymn links the biblical idea of the judgment of the wicked at the end of time with the American Civil War.  In other words, the hymn more or less equates the judgment day of the Lord with the destruction of Southern armies by the Union Army of the North.  And it portrays God as a vengeful God of wrath, which is interesting considering Howe’s Unitarian (and possibly Universalist) leanings.  Although she wrote much, Julia Ward Howe is best remembered for “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.”

Softer in tone is the hymn “God of Our Fathers.”  It was written by 35-year-old Daniel C. Roberts, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Brandon, Vermont.  The story has it that Roberts wanted a new hymn for his congregation to sing to celebrate the American Centennial in 1876.  And so, he wrote “God of Our Fathers” and his congregation sang it to the tune of a Russian hymn.

Some years later, in 1892, Roberts anonymously sent the hymn to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to be considered by the commission that had been formed to revise the Episcopal hymnal.  If they accepted the hymn, he would then send them his name.  They did.  The editor of the new hymnal and George W. Warren, an organist in New York City, were commissioned to choose a hymn for the celebration of the centennial of the United States Constitution.  They chose Roberts’ text, but Warren wrote a new tune for it and called it “National Hymn.” The hymn was first published in 1892 in the new hymnal.

Many people think that another patriotic hymn, “America the Beautiful,” should have become our national anthem.  Congregationalist Katharine Lee Bates was an English professor at Wellesley College.  In 1893, she took a train trip to Colorado Springs where she was to teach a short summer session at Colorado College.  Several of the sights along the way inspired her.  One day she traveled with a group to the top of Pike’s Peak.  There, she later related, was where the words to the hymn began to come to her.  As she later wrote, “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of the fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”  When she returned to her hotel room, she commenced to put the words down on paper.  The poem, which originally she titled “Pike’s Peak,” was first published in the July 4th edition of the weekly newspaper, The Congregationalist, in 1895.  At that time the poem was given the title “America.”  For some time, the poem was sung to a number of popular tunes, including “Auld Lang Syne.”  But in 1910, Bates’ poem was set to the tune “Materna” that had been written by composer Samuel A Ward in 1882.

As I said, some would prefer that “America the Beautiful” be our national anthem instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in part because of the war imagery in the latter.   “America the Beautiful” has been called “an expression of patriotism at its finest,” since it voices appreciation and wonder for our nation’s physical beauty and abundance without any reference to war or triumphalism.

And so, we have considered four popular American patriotic hymns.  Two were written by women, and two by men.  Denominationally, there was a Baptist, Unitarian, Episcopalian, and a Congregationalist.  Two include belief in God’s direct action in national affairs, and two celebrate the beauties and blessings of America and American freedom.  But all of the hymns were written because the composers were moved, inspired, as they contemplated American history or considered the beauty and blessings of our land.

And whether we have a taste for patriotic hymns or not, we can relate to being inspired and moved and grateful when we consider the awesome and complex beauty and blessings of this great land we live in.  Amen.

 

 

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

You May Be Closer than You Think

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 29, 2014

Psalm 126; Acts 17:22-28 ESV

One year before our children got married, the four of us took a trip to New York City.  But not wanting to drive into the city itself, we made reservations at a Day’s Inn in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge.  We arrived late in the afternoon and parked our car in the Day’s Inn parking lot, and there it would stay until we were ready to leave town.  The next morning we got up real early and caught a city bus across the George Washington Bridge, which carried us to the subway station.  We caught a subway to downtown Manhattan.

We saw as many sites as we could see in one day—the World Trade Center, Central Park, Empire State building, and so on.  And then we finished off the afternoon by doing some shopping (well, more looking than shopping) at Tiffany’s, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Macy’s.  (We did find several bargains in the Macy’s bargain basement.)

Now, I had told my family, “I want us to be out of here and back to our hotel before dark.  It was summertime, and it didn’t get dark until almost 9:00 o’clock, so we thought we would have no problems.

Well, we shopped until 7:00 o’clock or so, and I said it was time for us to start toward the subway.  So here the four of us went, toting at least two shopping bags each, in search of our subway stop.  We got there and it was not running.  The subway line we needed was broken down, and they had no idea when it would start again.  We would need to walk several blocks, we were told, to catch another line to carry us back to the George Washington Bridge bus stop.

Now remember, we had walked all day long all over lower Manhattan.  And we were carrying bags of bargains and souvenirs.  But here we went traipsing across several city blocks in search of a subway line that was running.  By the time we found one and got on, it was after 8:30.  Darkness was threatening to creep over the city, and I was starting to panic.  But at least we were on a subway that was moving us in the right direction.

The subway arrived at the bus stop around 9:15 p.m. the best I recall.  We got off and walked to the bus stop.  It was dark, and very quiet.  We were the only tourists standing there with a half dozen or so other people, who didn’t look anything like us.  It made us a little uncomfortable, to say the least.  We waited, and waited, and waited for a bus to arrive.  Finally one arrived that was going to Ft. Lee, New Jersey.  We climbed on and sat down, relieved that we were still alive and finally on our way to the hotel.

Well, it just so happened that our hotel was on the opposite side of a divided, busy freeway that was separated by a tall fence down the middle.  As we approached the Days Inn, I walked up to the driver and said, “That is our hotel, where we want off.”  We drove what seemed like forever past the Days Inn.  I watched the Day’s Inn sunburst disappear in the distance behind us.  The driver pulled up to a bus stop and pedestrian crossover bridge.  We got off.

Again it was dark.  Very dark.  We walked down to the pedestrian bridge and walked across the busy highway in almost total darkness.  And then when we got to the other side, we realized there was no sidewalk!  And our hotel was nowhere in sight.  We found ourselves on the edge of a busy freeway where cars were whizzing by about 70 miles per hour.  And we were trotting up the side of the highway toting our Macy’s bags and souvenir in total darkness, except for the car lights that briefly illuminated us as black Cadillac’s and Lincoln Continentals sailed past us.  I have never been more scared in all my life.  All I could think of was mobsters rolling down the windows of their black Lincoln Continentals and mowing us down with their machine guns.  Or drug dealers looking for a buck pulling over and mugging and robbing us and taking our Macy’s bags.

We walked in terror for about a quarter of a mile until we reached one of those glass bus stop cubicles.  We decided it best to step inside and wait for the next bus to pick us up and carry us to the door of our hotel.  We waited another ten minutes or so, and finally we saw a bus coming.  The bus pulled up to the stop, the door swung open, and it was the same driver and same bus we had gotten off of some 20 minutes earlier.  I walked up to the door and looked at the driver, and he said, “That’ll be $8.00.”  I said, “But you just let us off on the other side about 20 minutes ago.”  “I’m sorry,” the driver said expressionless, “but it will be $8.00.”

Not wanting to put my family in any more danger than we had already been in, I paid the $8.00 and we sheepishly climbed on the bus with our Macy’s bags and took our seats.  The bus started up and immediately rounded a short curve.  And lo and behold, just around the short curve—less than a quarter of mile from where we had been sitting—was the shining sunburst of the Days Inn.  The bottom line is, we were much closer than we thought.

But isn’t that the way it often is in life?  Often—at times when we feel lost, bewildered, so far away from our goal—it turns out that we are much closer than we thought.

I have shared how that about this time last year, I was looking for a retreat center where I could spend a few days focusing on Earth-related issues, the environment, and Nature.  For weeks I searched the Internet, and considered retreat centers in Nashville, North Carolina, and as far away as Pennsylvania.  When I was about to give up, I stumbled across the Naturalist Certification Program at Tremont in the Smokies, just an hour’s drive from here.  Without realizing it, I was much closer to what I was looking for than I had ever imagined.  Like the Hebrews who sang the 126th Psalm after being able to return to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile, and whose good fortune was an unexpected joy, it was like a dream.  I was filled with laughter and joy.

But, there can also be a bit of theological truth in this idea of you may be closer than you think.  Some folks go through life trying to find God, or trying to appease an angry God, or feeling alienated from God, when all the time, the loving God they seek has been right there all along.  As Paul preached to the Athenians, “he is not far from each one of us . . . in him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  Or as the poet Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, put it, “Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.”

A good case in point was the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther.  For years Luther longed for and sought the experience of a loving, forgiving God.  Luther practically ruined his body, his digestive tract, through self-mortification and extensive fasting, trying to appease God for his sins and find a sense of spiritual peace.  And then one day Luther had the revelation that the loving, forgiving God that he had been seeking all along had been there all the time.  The window of enlightenment that allowed the darkness to be dispelled and enabled him to see this loving, forgiving God that Luther had been seeking was the window of grace.  Luther had been much closer to the God he sought than he had thought, had ever imagined.

And so it is in so many aspects of our lives.  The good news for us when we are searching, when we find ourselves in the midst of a major life transition, when we may feel alienated, or when we may think that goal is far out of reach—the good news is we may be closer than we think.   We should never give up hope.  Or to put it another way, that shining sunburst that we may be looking for may be just around the dark corner of our current experience—closer than we think.  Amen.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Why the Caged Bird Sings: Some Lessons from Maya Angelou

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 22, 2014

Psalm 102:1-8 ESV; “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou

She was only three years old when her parents divorced.  From that time on she was shuffled from one place to another—Chicago, California, and Arkansas.  As a child of eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.  After her uncles murdered the man who had raped her, she became virtually silent until she was twelve, speaking only to her brother.  By the age of 17 she was an unwed mother.  She was a high school dropout.  In the course of her life she would work as a madam in a brothel, a dancer, and as the first female and first Black streetcar conductor in San Francisco.  She would prove to be a self-taught, self-made person, going on to become an actress, poet, director, playwright, composer, singer, college professor, speaker of six languages, recipient of more than 30  honorary college degrees, and author of 36 books (including poetry, advice books, cookbooks, children’s books, and prose).

Her breakthrough as an author was her 1969 debut autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  She achieved worldwide fame when she had the distinction of being only the second poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration.  She would receive an Emmy nomination for her acting in the mini-series Roots, a National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maya (MY-uh) Angelou (AN-juh-loe), who died on May 28th at the age of 86, may not be remembered as one of the best poets that America has ever produced.  But she certainly will be remembered as one of the most famous Black writers and one of the most influential African Americans of our time.

There is much to be learned from the diverse life that Angelou lived, the speeches she gave, and the writings she left us:

One lesson has to do with the way we relate to others.  Angelou was an activist for equality and tolerance.  In remembering her, Angelou’s son, Guy B. Johnson, noted, “She lived her life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being.  She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.”  Angelou contended that parents should instill within their children early on the importance and goodness of diversity.  “While I know myself as a creation of God,” she said, “I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”  One of Angelou’s most-remembered sayings is “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  In her adult life, Angelou demanded respect from others.  But she also demonstrated respect for others in return.

A second lesson has to do with courage.  When asked by a friend what she considered the greatest virtue, she stated it was courage.  It took courage for Angelou to rise from her troubled childhood and caged station in life to step out and become the person she became.  In the first part of her extended autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou recounts how as a child it was difficult for her and her brother to understand why their parents divorced and then gave them up to their grandmother to raise them.  As an African American girl growing up in the depression years and a time of extreme segregation, she felt like a caged bird. But even a caged bird can learn to sing.  And that is what Maya did.  But it took extreme courage for her to overcome the harsh and bitter circumstances of her early years to do so.

Courage is one of those emotional staples of life that each and every one of us has to draw on every now and then.  For example, it takes courage for a child, teenager, or adult even, to go to a new school.  One of our grandsons had attended preschool, kindergarten and first grade at a wonderful church-related private school where he had thrived in an affirming, caring atmosphere and the class sizes were small.  But then last year when our kids moved, he had to switch to a big public school with a different atmosphere and where class sizes are much larger, more like twenty-eight.  It takes courage for a child to do that.  And it takes courage for a child to transition from middle school to high school, and from high school to college.  But it also takes courage for an adult to go back to college and make a career shift after years of working or staying at home.

Many are the scenarios in life that call forth courage from within us.  And Maya Angelou can serve as a good example of one who exercised courage in the most adverse circumstances.  In  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she tells of how as a teenager she walked into the employment office in San Francisco, demanding to be considered for the job of streetcar conductor they had advertised.  It took courage for her to do that.  “Courage,” Angelou said, “is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.  You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

A third Angelou lesson has to do with paying it forward.  “When you learn, teach.  When you get, give” is one of the most important lessons Oprah Winfrey gained from Angelou.  This is a quote, in fact, from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Angelou said, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

One of the maladies of our time is so many people are only interested in what life and others can give them, and they give no thought to what they can and should give to others in return.  In my years of being a pastor, I have found it to be true in churches as well.  It is tempting to seek out a church where I can get all my likes and needs met, without being willing to give of myself in return.  I suspect that is one reason that so many people are attracted to mega churches where numerous support groups, sporting activities, exercise groups, and so on are offered, where those who attend can pick and choose what appeals to them most without making a commitment to the whole or giving anything back.  But churches or any other organization cannot survive if everyone comes with open hands seeking what they get, without offering anything in return.  “To whom much is given,” Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “much will be required” (Luke 12:48).  Maya realized this.

A fourth lesson we gain from Maya Angelou is there is always hope for a fresh start.  In her now famous poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, Angelou included the line, “Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings.”  Certainly, with the many new beginnings that Maya experienced in her life, she proved her words to be true.

In her poem, “Still I Rise,” that served as our second reading today, she concludes by saying,

Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise

……………………………………………………………….

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

And so, courage.  Tolerance.  Grit.  Determination.  Perseverance.  Self-confidence.  Such are some of the personal attributes that molded and helped make Maya Angelou the person she was.  When you think about how a young, Black girl who was shipped across the country to live with her grandmother at the age of three, raped at the age of eight, dropped out of high school and became an unwed mother by the age of 17, worked in a brothel and as an exotic dancer, then rose to become a respected world-renown figure, example, and mentor to many other successful figures of our age like Oprah Winfrey, it is pretty astounding.

Whoever we are, whatever our life circumstances, whether we like poetry or not, we have to admire Maya Angelou and be grateful for the example she left us, the lessons she taught us, and the legacy she leaves behind.  Amen.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

If We Had Only Known Then What We Know Now

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 15, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21 GNT

Abraham.  Father Abraham.  Father of many nations.  Revered as the father of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.  Natural father of at least two children—Ishmael and Isaac.  So from all indications, a story involving Abraham would be a perfect passage for Father’s Day.  But we all know that there are no perfect fathers.  All fathers have their weaknesses, and all fathers sometimes err in their judgment.  So it was, I believe, even with Father Abraham.

AFTER YEARS of tryingto have a child, Abraham’s wife Sarah finally gave up and decided to give her servant Hagar to her husband as a second wife in hopes that she could bear him a son. Hagar conceived and bore Abraham a son whom they named Ishmael, a name meaning “God hears.”  Then as the story goes, some years later, Sarah, in her old age, finally conceived and also bore a son whom they called Isaac, which means “laughter” or “he laughs.”  It was inevitable, I suppose, that jealously would develop between the mothers of the two sons who would both vie for Abraham’s attention and blessing.  And so, Sarah, Abraham’s first and natural wife, considering Ishmael to be a threat to her own son, Isaac, asked that her servant Hagar and her son, Ishmael, be sent away.

At this point the story gets complicated and a little disturbing.  Abraham doesn’t want to send Hagar and Ishmael away.  He has love for Ishmael just as he has love for Isaac.  The point that disturbs me is that the biblical writer states that God went along with Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Ishmael be driven away.  Honestly, I find that hard to digest, as the God later revealed by Jesus is not the kind of God that would find pleasure in sending a mother and her son away with nothing but a meager amount of food and a water bottle strapped to her back.  Sometimes the biblical writers, who often wrote hundreds of years after the fact, wrote their own interpretation into the ancient stories, attributing to God words and deeds in order to rationalize the outcome of history.

At any rate, Abraham, I believe, in a temporary lapse of judgment, gave into Sarah’s whim and sent Hagar and his son Ishmael away into the wilderness.  Even though Abraham was told that a great nation would come from Ishmael too, I don’t think he fathomed how history would play itself out.  Both Jews and Christians trace their faith history back to Father Abraham through the line of Isaac.  But let us not forget that nearly 1 billion Muslims also trace their roots back to Father Abraham, but through the line of Ishmael.  For centuries there has been discord between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.  A question for us to consider is, How will we seek to relate to our “cousins in the faith” who are also children of Father Abraham?  Can we not arrive at a place in our world when all of us can learn to love each other and get along, so that no one is cast out?  But here is the point of the sermon: Had Abraham been able to see into the future, do you think he might have done things differently?  That he might have tried to deal with Ishmael and Isaac in such a way that there was no jealously, but rather, mutual understanding and respect.  That history might have played out differently?  If Abraham could have only known then what we know now!

BUT ISN’T that the way with human natureand with being a parent?  As we look back on the years of parenthood, if we could have only known then what we know now.  How often have we said that—if I could have only known then what I know now?  As a father myself, I know I have said it many times.  There have been times when I have wished that we could go back to when our children were young, knowing what I know now.  Though I feel I was somewhat successful as a father, there are some things I would do differently if I could go back, knowing what I know now; things like:

  • Letting my studies slide some and spending more time playing with our kids when they were young;
  • Being more patient and trying to understand things from a child’s perspective;
  • Not expecting our children to act as adults;
  • Spending more time talking with our kids and learning from them what they had to teach me.

But we can’t go back.  We can only start where we are right now and go forward.

AND SO, as we think about fathers and realize that all fathers are imperfect, what might we need to do?

  • Well, those of us who are fathers (or grandfathers or parents in general, for that matter) can make the changes in our lives and relationships that we wish we had made years ago, changes like spending more time with our children (or grandchildren), regardless of their age.  There was a long article in this past week’s Wall Street Journal about the importance of fathers and their rough-and-tumble play with their children, and how important that is to a child’s development
  • We can strive to be more understanding and try to see things from our children’s perspective;
  • We can be ready and willing to listen and learn from what our children and grandchildren have to teach us (if you want to know something about electronics, ask your seven-year-old grandson);
  • We can be careful to not favor one child over another.
  • And you could probably add some things of your own to the list.

SOMETIMES FATHERS make mistakes, you know, even when they have the best intentions and are trying to do what is right.  There is an old story about a father and son who had a falling out, all because of a simple misunderstanding.  The son was ready to graduate from high school.  He had worked really hard throughout high school and had made good grades.  Part of his motivation was to impress his father.  The son had his heart set on a car as a graduation present, and when his father asked him what he would like for his high school graduation, the son told him the exact car he had in mind.

The day of his high school graduation arrived, and when they returned home to celebrate, the father presented his son with a box.  The boy opened it to find a brand new Bible.  He opened the inside cover of the Bible to the dedication page, and the father had written, “Son, I am very proud of you.  I hope this gift will help you and give you guidance throughout your life.  Love, Dad.”  Well, the son was crushed.  And he was disappointed.  And he was angry.  He had his heart set on a car for graduation, and he thought that is what he was going to get.  Instead, his father had given him a Bible!

In anger the boy packed a quick bag and left the house with the unwanted Bible in hand, ran to the railroad tracks, and caught the next freight train leaving town.  For some time, the boy bummed around the country, still hurt and angry at this father for disappointing him.  No one knew where to find him.

Then, not unlike the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable, the boy fell upon hard times.  One night in desperation, he opened the Bible in hopes of finding help and guidance, as his father had written.  This time the boy turned to the back of the Bible looking for an index.  And there he discovered, taped between the back pages of the holy book, a slender key with the words written down below it:  “Here is the key to the car you wanted for graduation in appreciation for all your hard work in high school.  May you drive it with pride.  Love, Dad.”  The boy’s heart sank.  His father had not disappointed him after all.  In fact, it was just the opposite: his father had exceeded his expectations.  Filled with humility and joy, the boy returned to his father who received him with open arms.

The lessons we can learn from this story are many.  But the lesson pertinent to today’s thoughts is that as fathers, even though we may have the best intentions, sometimes our best intentions are misunderstood or we don’t go about our best intentions in the best way.  Certainly it was so with Father Abraham.

LOOKING BACK, maybe we can learn from Father Abraham’s mistakes.  We can be more careful as parents and grandparents in the way we relate to our children or grandchildren, not favoring one over another; we can be careful to really communicate with our children and grandchildren and let them know we are listening; we can strive to better see things from our child or grandchild’s perspective; and, as much as possible, we can try to consider the long-term consequences of how we relate to and raise our children.

There is no perfect parent; that is a given.  And hindsight is 20/20 vision, as they say.  But we can learn from the mistakes of others, and from our own mistakes and determine to do better in the future.  Amen.

1Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2014.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Capital Punishment: Some Things to Consider

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 8, 2014

John 8:2-11 ESV

I have been avoiding tackling today’s topic for some time because of the sensitive and potentially controversial nature of the subject.  But with the recent action of the state of Tennessee in reinstating the electric chair as a primary means of capital punishment, I felt it was time to consider it.  In case you missed it, on May 22, our Governor signed into law Tennessee legislation that would allow the state to return to the electric chair as a means of capital punishment against any current or future death row inmate, if lethal injection drugs become unavailable.  In other words, this new law could make everyone on Tennessee’s death row subject to the electric chair.  The electric chair was considered a more humane form of capital punishment when it was first introduced in New York in 1890.  It was first used in Tennessee in 1916.  But because of a number of botched, prolonged, and horrific executions, the electric chair was some time ago deemed less humane in favor of the needle and lethal drugs.  Only eight U.S. states still hold the electric chair as an option for death row inmates.  Currently there are 74 prisoners on Tennessee’s death row.  On May 27, several protestors to the new law gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol.  Some held signs reading “Execute Justice, Not People.”

Lethal injection—the primary means of execution of late—has come under fire because of a number of botched executions with that method and because of the shortage of European-made lethal chemicals and the boycotts surrounding them.

Some states are considering other methods of execution that are deemed by many to be even worse than the electric chair.  Wyoming lawmakers are considering the firing squad, whereas Missouri has considered returning to the gas chamber.  One Tennessee lawmaker said he would support returning to hanging.1  States that continue to enforce the death penalty are largely concentrated in the south, whereas several states have abolished the death penalty over the past ten years.

Now, I know that capital punishment is a complex and a hot button issue.  So I realize I may be treading on shaky ground in addressing the issue.  But I do so from my own faith perspective, and following years of study and reflection on the issue.  I have a thick file of articles on the death penalty that go back over 20 years.  And I have never been one to insist that everyone has to agree with my position.

All of that having been said, I would like to suggest that the following considerations be kept in mind when thinking about the issue of capital punishment:

  1. There are studies that show that the death penalty does not deter crime any better than a life sentence without the possibility of parole does.  We have all head the old adage, “You cannot fight fire with fire.”  If the state kills someone for having killed someone else, doesn’t that just legitimize and perpetuate the practice of killing?  It just doesn’t seem right, humane, and enlightened for the state to commit a pre-meditated killing of someone.  There are those who contend that instead of being a deterrent to violent crime, it perpetuates the use of violence as an acceptable way of dealing with human problems.
  2. Several issues such as the decades-long appeal process, exorbitant legal fees, housing inmates on death row, and so on make the death penalty several times more expensive and costly to the state than comparable cases where the sentence is life without parole.
  3. There is a high risk of executing prisoners who were falsely accused or are later found to be innocent.  As of December 2013, at least 143 people in Missouri had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death since 1973, but before their executions they were found to be innocent and released from prison.  What if those 143 innocent people had been executed?  Some years ago, a University of Florida sociologist’s research had documented 420 death-penalty convictions of innocent people.  There is no question that innocent people have been executed over the years in the United State.  How many people over the years who were wrongly convicted were actually executed, no one will ever know.
  4. In some cases, capital punishment is a reward instead of punishment.  In other words, some who commit horrific crimes such as mass murders seek capital punishment as a means to martyrdom or infamy.  For instance, Timothy McVeigh, who master-minded the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing in 1995 sought the death penalty.  I said way back then he should not have been put to death, because that is exactly what he wanted.  How much better if McVeigh had been sentenced to life in a work prison—making road signs or doing manual highway work—without the possibility of parole.  Another example was Nidal Hassan, who in 2009 went on a killing spree at Ft. Hood, Texas, taking the lives of 13 innocent people.  He, too, sought the death penalty for what he had done.  Why should such people who perpetrate such crimes be rewarded with the exact thing they want?
  5. Killing someone as a means of punishment is based on a 3,000-year-old cultural practice that believed in “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21).  Have we not progressed any beyond that type of mentality?  The primary biblical basis for capital punishment is the Old Testament, or ancient Hebrew scriptures.  But while basing the argument in favor of the death penalty on those ancient texts, no one is willing to carry out the prescribed punishment of death for other offenses like Sabbath breaking (Exodus 31:15) and community stoning of children who curse their parents (Exodus 21:7; Deut. 27:16).

The truth is, killing someone is not attractive, no matter how you look at it.  In Pakistan, a pregnant woman was stoned to death outside a courthouse on May 27 by nearly 20 members of her own family, including her father and two brothers.  What was the woman’s crime?  It was marrying the man she loved without her family’s permission.  But the truth is, hundreds of Pakistani women are murdered every year in so-called “honor killings” as punishment for alleged adultery or other illicit sexual behavior.5   We are appalled at such stories, just as we may be appalled by the story of the woman accused of adultery who was brought to Jesus and was liable for stoning according to the religious law of that day.  So why should we not be appalled when our government kills someone, or even considers killing someone, by way of electric chair, lethal injection, a firing squad, gas chamber, or by hanging?  We should take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus would have no part in a community-sanctioned execution.  I, personally, do not believe Jesus condoned the death penalty.  And my personal conviction is that followers of Jesus should not condone a community-sanctioned death penalty either.

I will share a personal story with you.  In 2002, I changed my denominational affiliation, as I aligned myself with the New England Congregational tradition and the United Church of Christ.  The last official church meeting I attended in my former denomination was the annual denominational gathering, to which I (ironically enough) had been elected as a regional delegate.  One of the issues that was debated that week was capital punishment, and whether or not the denomination would go on record as opposing the death penalty.  The issue was hotly debated for quite a while. I simply could not believe some of the comments of some of the other delegates who rose to speak in support of the death penalty!  I sat as long as I could, and the longer I sat, the more I fumed.  Then I stood and asked to address the Assembly.  And when I did, here is what I said: “I am a Christian, a follower of the Christ.  The life of Jesus was a life of love and forgiveness.  I do not believe Jesus approved the death penalty, and I do not believe any follower of Jesus should approve or support the death penalty either.”  Then I sat down.

My conviction—based on reason and my own faith perspective—is there are much, much better ways than capital punishment to seek justice and deal with those who commit the worst of crimes against humanity.  The death penalty just has too many negative issues surrounding it (as I enumerated above, the most serious one involving innocent people who have been executed then later found to be innocent) that call for a change in the way we deal with criminals.  Some years ago, Fred Cloud wrote in the Tennessean newspaper, “Why should the death penalty be abolished?  Because it is wrong to kill.  It’s wrong for individuals and it’s wrong for the state.  We can use imprisonment-without-parole or other remedies for our most violent offenders.”I tend to agree with him.

One of the articles in my files includes a detailed account of what happens when someone is killed in the electric chair.  It is nauseating to read.  My gut reaction to the state of Tennessee’s return to the electric chair is that, instead of evolving to a more enlightened, humane, and rational way of dealing with society’s criminals, we have regressed to a more barbaric past.

After the manner of Jesus, I am not ready to pick up a stone or help pull the lever and participate in a community-sanctioned killing of anyone.  And I would wish that the State not do so in my name either.  Amen.

 

1Erik Schelzig, Knoxville News Sentinel, May 24, 2014.

2Jess Bravin, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2014.

3Peter Applebome (The New York Times News Service) The Tennessean, May 24, 1992.

4Drew Johnson, Knoxville News Sentinel, December 1, 2013.

5USA Today, May 28, 2014.

6Fred Cloud, “Nashville Eye,” Tennessean, September 1, 1994.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Speak No Evil

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 1, 2014

James 3:4-10 CEB

Most of us, as children, learned about the three wise monkeys that represent the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”  Allegedly, the source of the popular representation of the three wise monkeys dates to a 17th-century carving over the door of a famous Shinto shrine in Nikko, Japan.  It is believed the saying is based on the writings of Confucius, as a similar phrase can be found in the Analects of Confucius that dates back to the 2nd to 4th century BCE.  Confucius said: “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.”  It is also said that the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who lived a life of non-possession, made a notable exception in that his only possession was a small statute of the three wise monkeys.

Well, certain celebrities who have been in the news lately probably wish they had been more careful to heed the wisdom of the three wise monkeys, especially the one admonishing “Speak no evil.”  Take, for instance, Don Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball team, who has been in the middle of a firestorm the past weeks for a few racially-charged remarks he made to his girlfriend.  The NBA immediately opened an investigation, and there have been demands that Sterling be banned from NBA games and forced to sell the team.  Speaking a few ill-chosen words has turned Sterling’s life upside down.

About this time last year it was celebrity Paula Deen who was in the news, whom USA Today described as “a Southern cooking icon.”  Deen’s empire included restaurants, cookbooks, kitchenware, furniture, a Food Network cooking show, and public appearances.  Yet, Paula’s empire began to crumble last year when it came to light that she had uttered racial slurs and tolerated racial jokes in the workplace.  When she saw the writing on the wall, Deen posted tearful online videos apologizing for her mistakes and begging for forgiveness.  Though Deen has recovered somewhat, some have predicted that she will never again know the success that she once did.  Howard Bragman, of Reputation.com, stated, “When her obituary is written, this will be a significant part of it.”1

I am reminded of a verse attributed to Jesus where he is quoted by Luke as saying, “whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3 ESV).  In other words, be careful that you speak no evil!  It may someday be repeated so the whole world can hear.

I have read for this morning’s text that familiar passage from the book of James where he talks about the power of the tongue.  Though a very small member of the human body, the tongue is like a flame of fire that can set ablaze “the circle of life.”  With the tongue we both bless the God and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.  “Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth.  My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!” (James 3:9-10 CEB).  How Paula Deen and Don Sterling probably wish they had controlled their tongue a bit more and avoided the firestorms their tongues started.

But who of us hasn’t allowed our tongue to get us into trouble as well?  Who of us hasn’t at some point in our lives uttered an inappropriate or insensitive remark, or maybe even told a politically incorrect joke, or maybe even uttered a racial slur?  If there is anyone who is truly without offense, I would like to meet them. And if there is anyone who has completely tamed their tongue so that it never utters an inappropriate remark, I would like to know your secret.  Most of us stand in need of some perfection, do we not, when it comes to controlling the tongue and speaking no evil.

In the wedding ceremonies I conduct, I always give a short homily, seeking to give the bride and groom some wisdom or advice about how to have a more successful marriage.  And one of the homilies I often use is titled “The Words We Speak.”  And I often say something like this: “As you begin your lives together as husband and wife, I would encourage you to always remember how powerful—how important—are the words that we speak to our spouse, our best friend, and our lover. May it be determined today that we will not allow degrading words, hurtful words, belittling words, or harsh words to ever escape from our mouths.  The words that escape from our lips in anger or haste have the potential of cutting like a knife and causing much hurt.  But the other side of the coin is that the words that we let go can also sooth like a gentle touch and make for a heaven on earth.”

Yes, the good news is our tongues can also be used to accomplish much good.  James compares the tongue to a fire.  A fire out of control can quickly cause massive devastation.  But fire is also good—when used properly.  Properly used and controlled, fire enables us to cook our food and warm our bodies in the winter time.  Fire can be used to give us light when it is dark.

So it is with the tongue.  When used correctly, our tongues and the words we speak can bring about so much good.  Carefully chosen words can provide encouragement, offer much-needed hope, promote healing in those who are ill, and even turn someone’s life around.

A timely word spoken at just the right moment can often be the encouragement that someone may be needing to turn their life in a whole new direction.  Maybe you can think of someone from your past whose words made a profound difference in your life.

I never really had much confidence in my writing ability until near the end of my college education when I took an Expository Writing course.  Dr. Hollingsworth is the first person I can recall who applauded my writing efforts and opened the door to the possibility that I might actually be able to write something of significance.  Then my senior year, Dr. Burton, my Shakespeare professor, sometimes read out loud to the entire class some of the exam essays.  I was quite surprised and thrilled one day when the professor read my essay to the class, citing it as a well-written essay.  Dr. Hollingsworth and Dr. Burton used their words to bolster my confidence and encourage me to pursue the writing craft.  And the day I graduated, as I walked up the aisle at the beginning of the graduation ceremony, Dr. Hollingsworth shouted, “Way to go, Mr. Hammer!”

I have made mention in the past of the great artist Pablo Picasso.  Picasso testified as an adult, “My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”  Words have the power to change lives for the better.

And so, in gratitude we remember those people in each of our lives who used their words to encourage, edify, bolster our confidence, and help us to believe in ourselves.  But may we also survey our lives and relationships and ask ourselves, “Who is it in my life among my family, friends, or associations that needs a word of encouragement or word of affirmation?  In what ways can I use the power of my words to bring about good or maybe even help turn someone’s life around?”

There is a verse in the book of Proverbs that says, “To give an appropriate answer is a joy; how good is a word at the right time!” (Proverbs 15:23 CEB).  May we not only determine to “speak no evil,” but also determine to use our words to bless the lives of others by seeking opportunities to speak words that are encouraging, affirming, uplifting and good.  Amen.

 

  1Lorena Blas and Cindy Clark, “Experts: Paula Deen is done,” USA Today, June 24, 2013.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment