Some Ways Hymns Are Born

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 18, 2016

Psalm 5 ESV

At the 10 am service on September 11, Ed Blakeman sang a new hymn I had recently written to the familiar tune Finlandia.  A number of our members requested that I share the words, which I did send out this past Monday as an Inspirational Moment of a different order. Someone asked how such a hymn comes about.  And as I thought about the question and an answer I might want to give, as well as the influence that the Psalms had on the composition of that hymn, an idea for a sermon evolved.

“All Through the Night” is not the first hymn I have written.  We sang another one of my hymns, “God Whose Face Shines Through Creation” (to the tune Austrian Hymn), in April in observance of Earth Day.  Like a few others at the United Church, I have also written several dozen poems.  And in many respects, writing words for a hymn is very similar to writing a poem, except in the case of a hymn you have to work within the restraints of the number of beats or measures in each line of the hymn tune that is chosen.

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself when it comes to writing words to a hymn or a poem, but for me the idea for either a hymn or a poem is born with an image that strikes me in a particularly strong way.  Once I have an image in my mind, a phrase takes shape around that image which sets the cadence and rhythm for the entire piece. To give a few examples from poems I have written, watching a cardinal out a bedroom window one cold, winter’s day inspired this image and first line:

“A Cardinal with an apple-colored coat,” a line having ten syllables (called iambic pentameter), which set the tone for each of the lines that were to follow.

The image of yellow forsythias blooming in a fence row inspired this beginning stanza:

“Forsythias blaze

With the yellow of sun

Along property lines

On this early March morning.”

One more example of an image that set the pace of a poem—spring raindrops:

“Big Spring raindrops holding fast to bare trees,” another image that developed into a phrase or line of ten syllables.

And so, to reiterate, for me most often a poem or words to a hymn are born with an image that gives rise to a phrase, which charts the course for the entire piece.

But another source of inspiration obviously can be some dramatic event or experience that profoundly speaks to the soul.  In the case of the hymn, “All Through the Night,” the image was the violence and massacre at the Orlando nightclub earlier this year, which gave rise to the lines,

“How long, O Lord, I cry and often wonder,

shall violent men, their hateful deeds impart?

And evil win over the good that men do?

And senseless killing rage throughout the land?”

And so, in that case it was an event and an image that gave rise to the hymn which expresses dismay over the growing violence in our land, but also the prayer and longing that someday things can be different.

Such brings me to the thought of the psalmist and Psalm 5 that served as today’s reading.  As I thought about the inspiration for “All Through the Night,” I had in the back of my mind the spirit of the psalmists who in several different psalms speak of evil men, violent deeds, nighttime restlessness, crying out to God, asking “How long?” and so on.  One might even say that I was channeling the general spirit of the psalmists without actually quoting any particular psalm in speaking of acts of violence.  And many of the psalms, you know, were originally meant to be sung as hymns in Temple worship.

As I reviewed some of the psalms, Psalm 5 seemed to be very close to the spirit of “All Through the Night.”  But what was it that inspired Psalm 5? we wonder.  The threat of “enemies” seems to have led to this particular prayer—and possibly hymn—of the person who penned Psalm 5.  Images that he uses to describe these enemies are evil, deceitful, bloodthirsty, and destructive.  Perhaps these enemies had posed a personal threat to the psalmist in some way.  Or maybe he saw these enemies in a general sense as enemies of God because of their evil deeds, violent acts, deceitful ways, plans of destruction, and what appeared to him to be blatant disregard for the laws and ways of God.  Or maybe the psalmist had in mind some national crisis which threatened the peace and well-being of the Jewish people.  No doubt but what some tangible event inspired the psalmist to pen these words that, by their very subject matter and nature, have had a universal appeal.  The Psalm can even be seen as relevant for us today as we think about acts of terrorism and continued violence in the news every day.

As already noted, often, a visual image coupled with some emotion-stirring event gives rise to a poem, prayer, or hymn.  For instance, a few years ago, a visual image connected to an emotional experience led me to write a little poem titled “Bird’s Nest.”  It was a terribly cold, blustery February day, about 10 degrees the best I can recall, with a stiff wind blowing, when I was assisting in the burial of a former church member in a country cemetery.  As we drove through the cemetery to the funeral tent, I spied an empty bird’s nest—completely void of life, of course—in the top of a bare, prickly bush.  The bird’s nest—empty and void of life—served as a fitting metaphor, I thought, for the lifeless body we were returning to the earth.

In many cases, it has been an image of the senses—some moving scene witnessed with the eyes, some unsettling sound heard with the ears, some traumatic experience that struck the emotions—and event together that inspired many of the hymns that we hold dear.

For instance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was moved by the sound of church bells ringing on Christmas Day in 1864 contrasted by canon blasts of the Civil War.  Those auditory images—Christmas bells and blasting canons—inspired him with the phrase, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” the first line of a poem that has become a popular Christmas carol.  But the canon blasts was a solemn reminder that there was no peace on earth that Christmas Day, at least not in the war-torn American states or in Longfellow’s life.

Julia Ward Howe was touring Washington D.C., also during the Civil War, and as she observed the image of Union troops gathered around their campfires at night, that image gave birth to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  One has to wonder if it was the phrase, “the watch fires of a hundred circling camps” that set the entire hymn in motion.

Katherine Lee Bates was taking a train ride from New England to Colorado when the visual images of wide, spacious blue skies; fields of grain; and purple mountains gave birth to the lines,

“O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!” developing into a hymn that in the opinion of many should be our national anthem.

You get the picture—a striking image coupled with some moving experience or event has been the genesis of many a beloved hymn and poem.

And then for the most part, we want our poems and our hymns to end on a note of hope.  Such is the way that many, if not most, of the psalms conclude.  The author of Psalm 5 concludes his poetic prayer on a positive note:

“Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy,

and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.”

Such is what I sought to do in “All Through the Night”:

“At break of dawn I lift my eyes and sunward; and see the rays roll back the clouds of gloom.

A gleam of hope shines through to give assurance that kindly deeds shall in the end prevail!

That humankind can someday live together in perfect peace and harmony and love.”

And so, a striking image, that gives rise to a phrase that sets the tone for rhythm and cadence that progresses to an expression of hope—such is the way that poems and hymns take shape in my mind.  And doing such, I believe, is following a pattern we see in many of the psalms.  Of course, I would never compare my paltry writings to the beauty and majesty we find in the Psalms.  But I hasten to acknowledge the inspiration I have gained from the Psalms for over 40 years, in my life, my ministry, and the pieces I am inspired to write.

So thank you for letting me share my experiences with you.  But sources of inspiration are all around us.  May we be open to the inspiring images that life sends our way.  Amen.

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In Celebration of Church Friends

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 11, 2016

Proverbs 27:9-10; 18:24 CEB; Reading from Ralph W. Emerson’s essay “Friendship”

One of the blessings we celebrate on Homecoming Sunday is friendship.  Friendship—perhaps more so than worship style, theology, the music program, or the quality (or lack thereof) of preaching—is what brings a lot of people here, some practically every time the doors are opened.  Not only do friendships and fellowship constitute a big reason for our Wednesday on the Hill gatherings, but for Sunday morning worship, Sunday School, and Coffee Hour as well.

The ancient book of Proverbs has some things to say about friendship. And so does American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. And so, I thought it most appropriate on this Homecoming Sunday to spend just a few minutes thinking about and celebrating friendships.  As Emerson observed, “Friendship should be surrounded with ceremonies.”  And what better ceremony than Homecoming Sunday?  So today’s sermon—rather than being a deep, theological treatise—will be words of affirmation and celebration.

The truth is, it often is easier and more natural to feel closer to friends in this United Church than it is to some family members.  Some, in fact, may consider this United Church family their family, so close are the bonds of friendship that have been forged here over the years.  Truly it is here in this United Church, as Proverbs says, “there are friends who are more loyal than family” (18:24 CEB).  Or as the English Standard Version renders it, “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

Why do you think that is so?  Why is it that there can be a friend who sticks closer than a brother or sister?  Maybe one reason is we tend to forge friendships with those of like mind; with those of like outlook upon life; those of like philosophies about faith, religion, and/or politics.  My outlook upon life, my worldview, my religious views, and so on are much closer to those of my friends here at the United Church than with most of my extended family members.  In fact, it would be impossible for me to even have a conversation about faith, religion, or worldview with some of my extended family members.  We wouldn’t even be speaking the same language.  Some of you may be able to identify with that.

And friends are available in the hour of need.  When we have a personal or family crisis, it is our friends here at the United Church who are there for us to support us and walk through the crisis with us. Whereas for many of us, family members live far away and often aren’t even aware of the severity of the situation we are going through.

A few years ago, when our family faced some real crises, it was some of you—members of this United Church—who were there at the hospitals and stepped forward in other ways to show your support.  As already noted, for many, this United Church is a family away from family.  For others, for all practical purposes, it may be their only family—period.

Another thing about friends is they are the ones who allow us to be ourselves.  Or as Emerson put it, “A friend is one before whom I may think aloud.”  A friend is one with whom we can pour out our souls, share our deepest fears or inner pains or greatest disappointments, or reveal our wildest dreams.  We allow true friends to see that side of us that no one else may ever see.

True friends become our confidants, our advisers, our sounding board, or just a good listener as we pour our hearts out.  Most of us probably could think back to times in our lives when talking with a friend proved to be a crucial help at a difficult time or turning point in our lives.  I could name several friends, but I think of my good friend, Lawrence, who is a retired minister and pastoral counselor who lives in Smyrna, Tennessee.  When I was struggling with the decision of changing denominational affiliation, and which denomination would be the best fit and best move for me, time after time Lawrence was there to listen and gently ask questions and try to assist me in discerning the path I should follow.  That is the nature of true friends.

And friends are one primary measure of our personal wealth.  I once titled a funeral homily “The Wealth She Had,” noting that the person whose life we were celebrating died a wealthy woman.  And in saying that she was a wealthy woman, I was referring not to material wealth or monetary holdings.  Because I had no idea how much financial wealth she left behind.  There are many ways to measure a person’s wealth, you know.  Remember that Jesus said, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12;15 ESV).  I noted in that funeral homily that one way that her life was enriched was by her friends and neighbors.  In another place Emerson said: “God evidently does not intend us all to be rich, or powerful, or great, but He does intend us all to be friends.”

A poet put the same sentiment in verse, when he said:

“Of all the many blessings that our gracious Father sends,

I thank Him most of all today for loyal hearted friends.”

The bottom line that really matters, when all is said and done, is the quality of friendships we have nurtured and the wealth of true friends we have in our lives.

And so, with all of that having been said, if a church is being what it ought to be, it will do whatever it can to foster friendships.  It is a proven principle in church growth studies that many people will not stay involved in a church if they do not make and enjoy  the company of friends in that congregation.  And there is only a window of opportunity for those friends to be made.

As often happens when I am working on a sermon—coincidentally or providentially, you decide—an article comes my way that speaks to the topic I have already chosen.  This past week it was an article in The Washington Post on how to attract young people to your church.  I printed off the article to see what it had to say, but as I started reading it I soon realized that it also speaks to today’s sermon about church friends.

As the article points out, “it turns out cool [rock bands, flashy worship services, etc.] isn’t what young people want. . . 1,300 young churchgoers, ages 15 to 29, told us what they want: authenticity and connection.”1  When the authors of the article analyzed “the terms that young adults used to describe the churches or parishes that they chose, we [the article’s authors] noticed repeated words: welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable and caring.”  And “warmth is more than superficial community.  It’s ‘like family’” young people told them again and again.

The authors cite five ideas to help churches become warmer communities: meals, intergenerational worship, envisioning your worship space like a family room, peer friendships, and helping newcomers assimilate.

So the bottom line is, when it comes to church, and when it comes to life in general, nothing compares to, and nothing can take the place of, true, genuine friendships.  Perhaps Emerson said it best for all of us: “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends.”  Isn’t it so on this Homecoming Sunday?  Amen.

 

1Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin, “To attract young people to your church, you’ve got to be warm.  Not cool.”   The Washington Post, September 6, 2016.

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Work with a Purpose

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 4, 2016

Genesis 29:15-30 CEB

As I thought about a sermon for this, another Labor Day weekend, I decided I wanted to depart from the usual, traditional readings I have chosen in the past from the book of Ecclesiastes and such.  The book of Ecclesiastes is full of comments and advice about work, and it is the old “standby” when it comes to sermon texts on the topic of labor.  But I also wanted to speak to work as it applies to each of our lives.

So as I thought about the idea of labor in the Bible, I remembered this delightful story in the book of Genesis about Jacob and his sister-wives.  (As a side note, had there been television back in Jacob’s day, he could have hosted the original tv reality show called “Sister Wives.”)

But the pertinent point for today’s story has to do with Jacob and his work and the fact that he was willing to work seven long years in order to gain the hand in marriage of the beautiful young woman Rachel with whom he had fallen madly in love.  The story says that even though Jacob worked for his future father-in-law Laban for seven full years, “it seemed like a few days” because Jacob loved Rachel so.

But wait—there is more!  When Laban tricked Jacob on their wedding night and sent the older daughter Leah to the honeymoon suite, he asked Jacob to promise to work another seven years, and he would give him Rachel to be his wife as well.  Now, there is a lot going on between the lines in this story, and some of it causes us to question.

For instance, one thing that is going on in the mind of the storyteller is the fact that all his life Jacob had been the trickster—the deceiver.  He had been the one to trick his brother Esau, taking from him his birthright and their father’s final blessing.  So strained had the relationship become between Jacob and his twin brother Esau, that Esau was ready to kill him.  So their mother sent Jacob away to dwell with relatives to avoid his brother’s wrath.  And it was in the company of their relatives that Jacob the trickster met and fell in love with Rachel.  But in an ironic turn of events, the trickster—the deceiver—now becomes the one who gets tricked, deceived, by his father-in-law, who takes advantage of him the way Jacob had always taken advantage of his brother Esau.

And then we ask, “Well, how could Jacob have not known that it was Leah in his honeymoon suite instead of Rachel?”  Well, wedding customs in that day helped conceal the deception, including the use of heavy veils worn by the brides and possibly heavy drinking before and during the wedding festivities.  Such may have contributed to Jacob not really knowing who he was marrying or honeymooning with.

But the primary point of today’s sermon has to do with work.  And the fact that Jacob was willing to work seven years for the one he loved, and then an additional seven years when his father-in-law took advantage of him.  In short, Jacob’s work was work with a purpose.  And in that regard it was not a burden at all for him.

Work can become quite monotonous and burdensome when there is no perceived purpose involved.  It is sort of like being in a detention camp or on a military base where you are forced to dig holes in the dirt every day, only to fill them back in and do the same thing the next day.  What purpose is there in such activities?

But most of us have probably been there at some point in our lives—not digging literal holes, but feeling like we were working with no perceived purpose in view.  And sadly, there are too many people in our world today who do such day in and day out.

When there is no purpose attached to our work, one of the dangers is burnout.  I remember reading a book that a friend loaned me several years ago by Harold Kushner who observes that a person can work long hours each week if there is a sense of enjoyment, accomplishment, or some positive reward or purpose involved.  But burnout can occur when we work and we don’t have the feeling that our work is making any difference.

A few years ago there was a lot written on the subject of clergy burnout and how a lot of ministers were experiencing burnout by working and being on call long hours each week and feeling that what they were doing wasn’t really making a difference.  You could go into a Christian bookstore and find any number of titles on clergy burnout.  But burnout certainly isn’t limited to clergy.  Whatever one’s job or profession, if one feels that all the long hours and hard work aren’t really making a difference, then the propensity to burnout is much greater.

In his book titled When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Kushner observes, “the key to our happiness, to our being able to find pleasure in our work, is the sense that we are using our abilities, not wasting them, and that we are being appreciated for it.”1

So then, when one is engaged in work with a clear purpose attached, and the feeling that our work is making a difference, the work becomes much more enjoyable, rewarding, and worthwhile.  So the father or single mother who not only works one but possibly two jobs with the purpose of supporting a spouse and/or sending children to college so they can have a better life than they had may have a real sense of satisfaction in their hard work because they have a noble purpose in view.  We have all read of the single mother who may spend her days mopping floors in order to send her children to college, and is happy to do so.  One who can see work as a labor of love—as the Prophet Gibran noted—will find much greater satisfaction in it.

But yet another by-product of work, in addition to providing satisfaction because of the greater purpose attached to it, is providing meaning.  Kushner goes on to say in that chapter I quoted from earlier, “We work so that our days will not be empty of meaning.”2  There is the key, isn’t it?  We may gripe and grumble about going to work day in and day out, but the truth is work gives our lives meaning as well as purpose.  One of the basic human needs is to feel like our life matters.  And one big way that our lives matter is through the work we do, whether that work be a paid job or profession, volunteering, or taking care of a family or other loved ones.

And many people, when they retire, have a difficult time and may even fall into depression because that thing that they often grumbled about and sometimes loathed was actually what gave their life meaning.  And without that work and life’s meaning, they feel lost.  I could name people who worked for 40 years at the same job, and when they retired fell into mild depression because they didn’t know what to do with themselves.  A good way to address that problem is finding a way to do some part-time consulting work or volunteering and utilizing those work skills to help others, as several members of our congregation have learned to do.

Naturalist John Burroughs observed, “The wealth that comes to a man through his efforts in furthering the work of the world and promoting the good of all is the only worthy wealth.”3

And so, Labor Day weekend gives us the opportunity to think about and possibly ask some questions about the work we do, whether that work be to earn a living, take care of a family, or volunteer for some charitable organization that seeks to meet human need.

Is there a worthy or noble purpose in the work that I am doing?

Can I view my work as a labor of love for others?

Does my work (or consulting or volunteering) provide my life with a sense of meaning and purpose?

If we can answer in the affirmative to these questions, then maybe those answers will provide a different—and more positive—lens for viewing the work we do week in and week out.  Work with a purpose—may it be so.  Amen.

 

1Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.  New York: Pocket Books, 1986, p. 149.  2Ibid, p. 150.

3John Burroughs, Leaf And Tendril.  Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1908, p. 258.

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All Through the Night (a new hymn)

“All Through the Night” words (C) Copyright 2016 by Randy K. Hammer -Tune: Finlandia

All through the night to God I raise my pleadings;

through tears of pain I suffer through the hours.

How long, O Lord, I cry and often wonder,

shall violent men their hateful deeds impart?

And evil win over the good the men do?

And senseless killing rage throughout the land?

 

At break of dawn I lift my eyes and sunward;

and see the rays roll back the clouds of gloom.

A gleam of hope shines through to give assurance

that kindly deeds shall in the end prevail!

That humankind can someday live  together

in perfect peace and harmony and love.

 

“All Through the Night” (C) Copyright 2016 by Randy K. Hammer.  Inspired by the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre.

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Religious Reverence Rather than Rightness

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 28, 2016

Job 15:1-10 GNT; “Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver

Are your beliefs, convictions, and attitude toward life and faith the same that they were 35, 25, or even 5 years ago?  Or have your beliefs, convictions, and attitudes changed over time?

It might surprise some members of our United Church to learn that my own personal beliefs, convictions, and attitude toward life and faith have changed dramatically from what they were some 40 years ago when I took my first steps toward preparing to become a minister.  I began my spiritual journey on the extreme right end of the theological spectrum, because that was the climate in the part of the country I grew up in, and that is really all I had ever known.  It was a climate that said you need to know what you believe, and you need to be sure you believe all the right things.  I was influenced both by certain individuals and churches who insisted that if you didn’t believe certain tenants and verbally confess those tenants in just the right way, you were doomed to hell.

Part of being sure that you knew and believed all the right things was closely studying the Bible so that you knew what the Bible says and then applied that to your daily life (and there is nothing at all wrong with that).  But at least one congregation I served in those early years of ministry had a practice of not only keeping a weekly tally of Sunday school class attendance, but also keeping a weekly tally of how many chapters in the Bible that were read each week.  So the Sunday school superintendent went around to every Sunday school class—children and adults alike—and everyone present had to report how many Bible chapters they had read the previous week.  Such meant that if you didn’t want to be embarrassed on Sunday morning, then you read a lot of Bible chapters each week.  A weekly total was reported to the congregation at the close of Sunday school.

Then when I went to seminary, one of the classes required for graduation was Systematic Theology.  This  year-long (or two semesters) class sought to put all the pieces of Christian theology together in an orderly, systematic fashion so that it all fit neatly together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.  As you might imagine, I looked forward to my second year of seminary when I could take Systematic Theology and the prospect of fitting all of “the truth” and what I believed into a neat, unquestionable package.  But what I would eventually discover was that the interpretation of the Bible and the pieces of Systematic Theology changed depending upon who you were reading and the theological framework they were working from.

Yet, a  couple of decades later, when I was considering changing denominational affiliation, I again felt the need to clarify in my own mind, as well as convey to those I was appealing to in order to make the transition to a new denomination, what I believed.  Now, all of this is to say that there was a time when for me religion was tied to rightness—right beliefs, right practice, and having all the pieces of Christian doctrine and theology rightly fit together in one complete puzzle.

Well, my focus has changed over the decades.  Though I still have beliefs and hold to certain convictions that help dictate the way I approach and live my life, religion for me is no longer so much about rightness and having everything cut and dried and spelled out on paper.  The older I get, the more religion for me is about reverence rather than rightness.

Thus, I love the passage in Job 15 where Eliphaz questions the idea that anyone could claim certainty or absolute rightness when it comes to questions about life and faith.  In beautiful poetic fashion, Eliphaz cross examines Job:

Do you think that you were the first person born?

Were you there when God made the mountains?

Did you overhear the plans God made?

Does human wisdom belong to you alone?

One of the common themes throughout the Book of Job is that neither Job nor anyone else should think that he has an ultimate grasp on the truth.  The ways of God and the mysteries of God are beyond human understanding or finding out.  I have always loved the Book of Job because of the way that it puts its finger on so many aspects of the human predicament, including exposing the folly of thinking we can claim a hold on the truth, or religious rightness, if you will.

And then I remembered the poem “Mysteries, Yes,” by Mary Oliver in which she says,

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.” (And, I would add, “in reverence.”)

As I resonate with the Book of Job, I also resonate with many of the poems of Mary Oliver, because she, too, celebrates life, the natural world, and faith as an arena for experiencing sacred mystery and evoking an attitude of reverence.  Oliver realizes, I believe, that we don’t have to have all the answers to the marvels and mysteries of life in our universe or of faith.  But what is called for as we consider life, the natural world, and faith are curiosity, amazement, respect, and reverence.

You see, in my estimation it is the insistence on religious rightness that gives religion a bad name among many who claim to be non-religious. And such is also the cause of so much fighting and violence in the world today.  An insistence on religious rightness can foster conformity, prejudice, exclusivity, disrespect, and violence.  An attitude of “rightness” can breed a sense of superiority, contempt, arrogance, and a holier-than-thou air that tends to look down upon, belittle, and sit in judgment upon others who don’t believe the “right way;” that is, the way that I do.

I don’t need to tell you that so much of the problems we see in the world today—and have always seen in the world—result from disagreements over rightness—right religious beliefs and right religious practice.  The attitude of many is that the things I believe about God and religious faith and religious practice must be the right way, so if your beliefs about God and religious faith and religious practice are different from mine, then you must be wrong.  And if you are wrong, then it is my religious duty to change you, and if I can’t change you, then it is my duty to persecute or even get rid of you.  Such is the attitude of much of the world today.

Permit me to digress with a personal illustration.  A couple of weeks ago, Mary Lou and I enjoyed an overnight trip to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. As we walked down the main street in Gatlinburg on a Friday evening, we saw something we had never seen in Gatlinburg before—an evangelical, fiery street preacher who was preaching his lungs out right there on the curb in the middle of town in an attempt to save souls.  Having to pass by him and his comrades made both of us quite uncomfortable.  That is one of the by-products of religious extremism and the certainty of religious rightness—it can lead to an imbalance in society and the world at large—if not something worse.

Religious reverence, on the other hand, tends to foster openness, acceptance, inclusivity, respect, and peace.  If I approach life with a spirit of reverence, in the way that someone like Albert Schweitzer did, for example, then I am open to and respect all forms of life, as well as all walks of people, and seek to live and work in harmony rather than hatred and conflict.

You see, religious reverence leads us to respect the natural world around us, and it keeps us from misusing, abusing, and using for our own selfish benefits without thinking about the wider and long-term consequences of our actions.

Religious reverence leads us to respect all forms of life and all walks of life, and we want the best for all people, and we can’t forget the plight of the disabled, disadvantaged, oppressed, and all the least of these that Jesus cared about.

Religious reverence leads us to be respectful of and learn from all worthy religious traditions and keeps us from believing that the narrow religious tradition that we were raised in is the only worthy religious tradition.  We can be progressive or liberal Christians, but still respect, appreciate, and learn from other Christian traditions, as well as other world religious traditions.

This has been a personal testimony of sorts.  But I am so grateful for all those people I have known, and all those writers I have been privileged to read, from so many different religious traditions and perspectives who have helped open my mind, thinking, and my heart to different religious interpretations and different perspectives on spirituality.  And I am grateful to all those who helped me to see that religious beliefs and religious practice are more about a life of reverence than certainty and inflexible rightness.  That is the way I see it.  I appreciate the opportunity to share it.  May it be so.  Amen.

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Success in Spite of Setbacks

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 21, 2016

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV

One of the photographs I took in Yosemite Valley was on the path to Mirror Lake.  It was of a large pine tree that had a big, sharp boulder embedded in its side.  It was difficult to determine if the boulder had rolled into the tree at some point after the tree had commenced growing, or if the boulder had been there all along and the trunk of the tree had grown around the boulder’s sharp edges and taken its shape from it.  But as can be seen from the photograph (which is posted on the Reflective Naturalist, my photo blog), so embedded in the trunk of the tree is the huge boulder, it has merged with and become part of the tree itself.

We could easily say that the boulder long ago became somewhat of a “thorn in the side” of the pine tree, irritating it, testing it, most likely even endangering its health and well-being.  Yet, from all appearances, the pine tree adapted to the large and painful “thorn in its side” and has continued to grow, thrive, and be successful in spite of the tremendous obstacle that has been cast upon it.

When I saw that tree, I was reminded of the passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where Paul shared his own experience of having a thorn in his side cast upon him.  There has been much speculation by biblical scholars over the centuries about what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” might have actually been.  It appears that it could have been some sort of bodily disease or chronic illness that troubled Paul.  Some have conjectured it was a debilitating eye disease, because of other places where Paul speaks of having to write with such large letters (Galatians 6:11) and the fact that the Galatian Christians would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to Paul, had it been possible (Galatians 4:15).

Others have conjectured that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was some sort of physical temptation that he struggled with; some issue that became a spiritual battle for him.  Still others have suggested that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” could have been an enemy or enemies who troubled or persecuted him.  We likely will never know.  But it really doesn’t matter.  The point is there was some problem, weakness, illness, or other challenge that plagued Paul constantly that made daily living or keeping the faith difficult for him.

Well, Paul relates how that he prayed over this problem three times that the “thorn in his flesh” might be removed and he could go on with his life.  But it wasn’t.  The problem didn’t just magically disappear because he prayed that it might.  Rather, Paul relates that instead of having the problem removed, he received grace enough to deal with it.  Grace as such can equal invisible, previously-unknown strength and ability to deal with life challenges in ways we might have never dreamed to be possible.  Some of us can look back over the years and some of the trials and troubles that we personally or our family has endured, and at times we wonder how we ever made it through such a trying ordeal.  Perhaps it was nothing short of grace—God’s grace and the grace of a loving, supportive community—that got us through it.  And such illustrates how important a loving, supportive community like our United Church becomes when we or our families are enduring the storms of life.

But regarding that “thorn in the flesh,” through grace Paul learned to continue with his life and be successful in his work—preaching across the Mediterranean World and establishing numerous churches, and writing more books of our New Testament than any other writer—in spite of the problem that plagued him.  He learned that when he was weak—humanly speaking—then he was made strong.

History books are full of stories of those who had tremendous burdens thrust upon them—physical handicaps, crippling conditions, debilitating illnesses—and yet, they were able to rise above those conditions so as to live productive, satisfying, and successful lives.  We might study the life of Helen Keller who was both blind and deaf, yet became famous around the world because of her lectures, writings, and inspiration to all with physical handicaps.  We might study the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who didn’t let the crippling effects of Polio stop him from becoming the longest-sitting President of the United States and one of the best presidents America has ever had.  We might study the life of the great composer Beethoven who became deaf, but who continued to compose some of the most beautiful pieces of music known to humankind.

Much more unfamiliar to the world was a man by the name of Harold Wilkie.  Harold was born without arms and hands.  So to do everyday things that most of us do with our hands and take for granted, Harold had to learn to do with his mouth or his feet. But Harold didn’t let his severe disability stop him.  He became an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and excelled in many different ways.  As you might imagine, Harold became a spokesperson and advocate for all persons with disabilities.  Harold became a living example of how one can—in his or her weakness—become strong.

Another writer of the last century who sheds light on this topic of finding strength in our weakness was Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who wrote 39 books, but is perhaps most famous for a little book titled The Wounded Healer.1  The Wounded Healer was actually written for ministers who found and who still find their traditional roles crumbling in an ever-changing world.  But one of the points that Nouwen makes is that everyone lives a broken life.  There is no life free of pain, problems, brokenness, or woundedness.  Every one of us is wounded in some way, including ministers.  Nouwen wrote, “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.”   I would suggest that all of us might be compared to handmade earthen pottery, every piece of which has some flaw or imperfection or wound, some greater of them being greater flaws or imperfections or wounds than others.

But Nouwen continues, “The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’  When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

As we see, Nouwen’s contention is that it is from our woundedness that we are able to reach out to and minister to others.  Nouwen says, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope. . . .”

Well, Nouwen continues as he expands the thought from individuals to the ministry of churches: “A Christian community is therefore a healing community, not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision. . . and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength.”

Nouwen, not unlike the Apostle Paul, endured his own internal struggles—an emotional “thorn in the flesh,” we might say—including a struggle with his own self-identity and sexuality.  Curiously, and to his great credit, in his later years, Nouwen dedicated his life to working with mentally and physically handicapped people at the Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Well, what we learn from both Henri Nouwen and the Apostle Paul is it is our very weakness that gives authenticity to our relationships with others, as well as our message and work; we find that in our weakness we are actually made strong.

And as with the pine tree with the large boulder wedged in its side, we, too, can often overcome, thrive, and be successful or content in life, in spite of those thorns—or large boulders, as the case may be—that life throws our way.  May we be inspired by the examples of those who have gone before us who overcame and thrived in spite of their thorns and boulders.  And may we all have the grace and the strength to do so as well.  Amen.

1Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer.  Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979, pp. 93, 94.

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What to Do with that Anger

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 14, 2016

Ephesians 4:25-26, 31-32 GNT

Witnessing a public fit of anger can be an unsettling experience.  I have witnessed a few fits of anger over the years, and no doubt you have as well.

To give an example, the day we were scheduled to return from our vacation, I received a 4:15 am text informing us that our flight had been cancelled.  That is not the kind of wake-up call you like to get.  But we still had to jump up and pack up, return our rental car, catch a shuttle four miles to the airport, and then stand in line at the ticket counter to get re-booked.  When we finally arrived at the airport ticket counter, there were hundreds of other stranded passengers standing in line ahead of us.  After about three hours of standing in line, we finally were booked on an early morning flight for the following day and given a hotel voucher to spend the night.  But then we had to lug all of our luggage to the other side of the airport to catch a shuttle to our hotel.  We were warned that the shuttle could only carry so many passengers, and if the number standing in line exceeded the number of seats, those who were left would have to arrange their own transportation.

Another couple on our same flight happened to be the first ones in line for the hotel shuttle.  They only had one small carry-on bag each, which they thought would be a plus for them.  But unbeknownst to all of us, the shuttle driver was counting bodies as he loaded checked bags into the back of the van.  So when it came time to get on the shuttle, this couple who arrived first were told they had not been counted and might not get to board.  Well, they were quite upset, as you might imagine, as most of us would be.  And what ensued was a fit of anger toward the shuttle driver which proved to be an unsettling and embarrassing situation for everyone standing there.

Anger—what do we make of it?  What do we do with it?  Is anger (or wrath as it was also called) a deadly sin, as it was long ago characterized as being?  Is anger always wrong?   Or is anger sometimes justified?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that unchecked anger can lead to all kinds of trouble, pain, and disaster.  One of the most obvious results of anger can be violence against another, murder, or mass murder, or even terrorism.  We hear of it in the news practically every day.  And all of us are familiar with the term “going postal.”  Loss of a job, an unfaithful spouse, being a victim of a crime such as robbery or rape, being passed over for a promotion, having your flight cancelled and being stranded when you need and want to go home—such things and more can result in anger that might manifest itself in a fit of rage, violence, or even murder.  So it is easy to see why there are so many warnings against anger in the Bible and other places of well.

Speaking of the Bible, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians left us a classic—and somewhat enlightening—passage on the subject of anger.  I checked and compared a number of different Bible translations so as to see different shades of meaning.

The old King James Version renders Ephesians 4:26: “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”

The English Standard Version: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

The Common English Bible: “Be angry without sinning.  Don’t let the sun set on your anger.”

And the Good News Translation, which I liked best and served as today’s reading: “If you become angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin, and do not stay angry all day.”

The import behind this verse seems to be that sometimes it is okay to be angry, but just don’t let your anger lead you to doing something reckless, foolish, sinful, or violent!

But what about Jesus?  What was his opinion and teachings about anger?  Curiously enough, there are only two verses in the four gospels really connecting Jesus with the word “anger.”  The first is in Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment” (Matthew 5:22 CEB).  A curious thing is some ancient manuscripts add the words “without cause,” so the verse would read, “everyone who is angry with their brother or sister without cause will be in danger of judgment.”

And the other gospel reference connecting Jesus with the word “anger” or “angry”  is the story, as recorded by Mark, about when Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and healed a man with a paralyzed hand.  The authorities were hoping to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing—healing or working on the Sabbath Day.  So it says that “Jesus was angry as he looked around at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong” (Mark 3:5 GNT).  (There is the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple, but that story doesn’t actually use the word “anger” or “angry.”)

A recent newspaper article on anger got my attention that might hold some wisdom for us.  The article is titled “It’s okay for Christians to be angry.  What matters is what you do with that anger.”1  The article notes “how central anger has become in American politics,” revealing itself at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.  The author says, “There’s a widespread idea that anger is unsuitable for followers of Jesus Christ.  That’s plausible: Anger is dangerous.  It can twist our motivations and cloud our decision-making.  Worse, it can lead us to harm others.  In the public arena, unbridled anger can fuel gross injustice.

“But in fact, Christian tradition endorses anger.  Scripture teaches us that anger is a natural and necessary emotion.  It’s not a sin to be angry.  It’s what you do with your anger that counts.

“All anger has an object.  We get angry about something or at someone. . . It’s crucial to ask what the object of our anger is.”  He notes that if we are not careful, we may “direct that anger toward people who are not significantly to blame.”  He suggests that when we are angry for a good cause, we must not let our anger override our respect for others.

The article goes on to suggest that if we just sit on our anger and let it simmer, it is likely to turn into “slow-burning resentment.” But anger can be used as a motivator to spur us to action to bring about needed change or something good.  If we handle anger correctly, it can transition in problem-solving.

The author concludes and summarizes the article by saying, “Christians are called to examine the objects of our anger critically and honestly.  Christians are called to refrain from unjustly seeking vengeance on the ones we blame for our ills.  Christians are called not to dwell in anger, but to move through it toward constructive actions.  Christians are called to respect even those with whom we are angry.”

The truth is, there are many things in the world that might rightly lead us to be angry: a matter of injustice, against us personally or against another individual or against some group of society in general; acts of violence; cases of oppression; incidents of abuse.  To name just a few examples, some of the issues that should make all of us angry are child sexual abuse and exploitation, including child prostitution; human trafficking and human slavery; mass genocide by deranged and corrupt dictators.  These all-too-common realities of our world should make all of us angry.  The question is this: What can we do to channel our anger in such a way that we can make a positive difference in the world?  It is a difficult question to answer, isn’t it?

But then the anger that most of need help dealing with results from the frustrations and challenges of our everyday lives: that insensitive person at work, the gym, or maybe in our family that seems to go out of their way to frustrate us; the person who loses our medical records or other important paperwork; that cancelled flight; and you can fill in your own blank.  Can we at such times transform our anger into problem-solving or constructive action or turn it into a positive outcome?

Well, returning to that fit of anger that we witnessed at that hotel shuttle stop, we felt that the shuttle driver handled the situation wonderfully.  Never once did he raise his voice in return.  Throughout the whole ordeal he remained calm, polite, respectful and continued to smile.  And he went above and beyond the call of duty to get the couple on the shuttle bus by asking a father to hold a child on his lap, freeing up one seat for the husband, and pulling out the emergency seat behind the driver’s seat for the wife.  There was a sigh of relief and applause by the other 21 persons on the bus that the incident had been resolved and peace had been restored.  But had the shuttle driver dug in his heels and responded with anger in kind, the outcome could have been much different.

No, it is not necessarily wrong or a sin to get angry.  Even Jesus did so on at least one or two occasions.  The question is, What do we do with that anger?  And can we use our anger as a motivator to transform a situation and turn it into something good?  May such be an example for all of us.  Amen.

1Ryan McAnnally-Linz, ”It’s okay for Christians to be angry.  What matters is what you  do with that anger.”  The Washington Post, July 26, 2016.

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