Some Words Dads & Husbands Aren’t Likely to Hear

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 18, 2017

Luke 15:11-32 ESV

As fathers, and husbands, we hear a lot of words from our children and our spouses through the years.  Some words that we hear make us happy, and others make us very sad.  Some words make us proud of the person we are, and others may cause us to be ashamed.  Some words are words of praise for the person we are and the good that we do, while other words may be words of judgment that call us to account for our weaknesses.  Some words that come to us cause us to celebrate (as in the case of “You have a healthy baby girl or healthy baby boy”), while other words that come to us bring us great sadness (as in the case of “Your grandbaby will be born with a rare disorder”).

As I have thought about the approach of Father’s Day these past few weeks, I have spent some time reflecting on words that I as a father, grandfather, and husband have heard over the years.  As with all fathers, grandfathers, and husbands, it is a mixed bag of words, happy and sad, joyous and regretful.

But then I began to focus on some words that dads, granddads, and husbands are not likely to hear, not very often, anyway;  but some words that all of us would do well to consider.

For instance, “You should spend more time at the office” are some words most men are not likely to hear.  There are exceptions, of course.  Most men, I conjecture, are tempted to spend more time in their job and less quality time with their family than they should, and thus, are unlikely to be accused of not spending enough time at the office or on the job.

It is a balancing act, to be sure.  Being a husband and father brings responsibilities and pressures to provide, get ahead, and maybe work a little extra so as to make possible special things like nice Christmas gifts or a nice summer vacation or some other family activity, or working extra so as to put away money for college.  So we may sacrifice time with family to provide for family.  But the key is walking that fine line and finding that ideal balance between work time and family time.

Which leads us to the words, “You spend too much time with me,” that most men are not likely to hear.  These words could apply to one’s spouse as well as to one’s kids or grandkids.  I dare say that any of us have been accused of spending too much time with our kids, grandkids or spouse.

I once read the results of a survey that asked kids if they had the choice of getting more material stuff – toys, electronic gadgets, and such – or getting to spend more time with their dads, which would they choose?  Most kids would choose more time with their dads.  Many wives might say the same thing.

Most men aren’t likely to hear the words, “You help out around the house too much.”  There once was a time, I guess, when virtually no men helped out around the house by cooking, doing laundry, vacuuming, ironing, caring for the kids, washing dishes, and so on.  It was that way in the community where I grew up, anyway.  But times are a’changin’ as they say.  A greater sense of equality is evident, and more men are sharing household responsibilities than ever before.

Another survey revealed that many wives see husbands sharing the household chores as a romantic thing.

How about the words, “You say ‘I love you’ way too often”?  Are these words that any of us have ever heard – “You say ‘I love you’ way too often”?  It is easy for us to just take for granted that our kids, grandkids, or spouse know we love them, so we don’t have to say it so often; right?

Now, I suppose that one could let saying “I love you” become an obsession, so that you feel you need to say it to someone 50 times a day.  If that were the case, then one might very well hear the words, “You say you love me too much.”  But I imagine that very few of us could be found guilty of using the “L” word too often.

But all of us need and want to hear the words “I love you” from those close to us.  And I would say we should hear it and say it at least a couple times a day.  To know that we are loved by those important to us, and to actually hear it rather than having to wonder whether we are really loved, is important affirmation that contributes to our self-esteem and well-being.

How about the words, “You smile at me too often”?  I am often the recipient of just the opposite words: “Why don’t you smile more?”  Some people seem to have the gift of a wonderful, beautiful, pleasant smile that brings joy to everyone they encounter.  Others of us tend to be more reserved – maybe even considered to be solemn – and would do well to make a point to smile more often.

Again, smiling at someone we love is a form of affirmation, acceptance, and maybe even a demonstration of love.  And I am betting that few of us have ever been accused of smiling at our kids, grandkids, and spouses more than we should have.

Then how many of us have heard the words, “You hug me too much”?  Just as all of us are better off for hearing a loved one say “I love you” at least daily or a few times daily even, all of us are better off for being hugged and giving hugs every day.  I once read another report that noted that hugs are not only emotionally good for us, but they are physically good for us as well, causing the release of healthy hormones in the body that boost good health and resistance to illness and disease.

Recently our grandson spent a few days with us, and as he was getting ready to go to bed, he said, “I need to be sure and get in my seven hugs for today,” which I thought was a pretty neat thing for him, a 10-year-old, to say.

One of the daily funnies I read religiously is “Family Circus.”  If you Google “Family Circus” cartoons on hugging, dozens come up that have been published over the years.  This past Sunday’s “Family Circus” hit the nail on the head again when it showed several pictures of various family members hugging and the little girl saying, “God invented hugs to let people know you love them without saying anything.”

Well, when it comes to stories having to do with fathers, the truth is there are not a lot of positive ones to be found in the Bible.  There are a lot of biblical stories about fathers who missed the mark or downright failed, and we certainly can learn from their mistakes.  But there are very few stories or examples of good fathers in the Bible to be emulated, I am sorry to say.  But then there is the story of the Prodigal Son and his father.  I think the father of the Prodigal comes about as close to being a good father as we will find in the entire Bible.  Granted, there is a lot of theological meaning buried in this story that Jesus and Luke had in mind for their own day, much deeper than the surface story itself.

But as Jesus portrays him, I picture the father of the Prodigal seeing his wayward son walking down the path toward home in the distance.  And the good father takes off running toward his son, with open arms and a big smile upon his face, and as they meet, the father embraces the son with a big hug, smiles at him and says, “I love you; welcome home!”  If I have to choose any image from the Bible for this Father’s Day, that is the image I want to choose to reflect upon.

So, fathers, grandfathers and husbands, do we stand guilty today?  Could we be found guilty of spending too much time with our kids or significant others, guilty of being too helpful around the house, guilty of saying “I love you” way too often, or guilty of smiling at and hugging our loved ones too much?  I certainly hope so.  But if not, we can always change our ways.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

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Genesis Chapters 1-3: Answers or Questions?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 11, 2017

Genesis 1:1-28 ESV

Reading from John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism

 Genesis chapters 1-3 – some of the most beautiful literature in the entire Bible; indeed, some of the most beautiful literature in the world at large.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Such are some of the best-known and best-loved words of all time, cherished by Jews and Christians alike.  Some of us may have memorized these words in elementary school.

Yet, these same words, and the verses that follow, have also proved to be some of the most controversial words known to humankind.  These words have at the same time been ammunition for Creationists and something to be refuted by many evolutionists.  One would think that the issue might have been settled once and for all in the 1920s with the John T. Scopes trials.  But in the minds of many, the battle regarding Creationism and Evolution is still raging.

The problem over the opening chapters of Genesis, as well as with other stories in the Bible, lies not within the Bible itself, but rather, in the manner in which such biblical stories are interpreted.  For, you see, when reading the opening chapters of Genesis and other biblical chapters like them, there are so many different ways such stories can be interpreted – historically, literally, symbolically, figuratively, or metaphorically – to name just a few ways.  Some choose to interpret the entire Bible (including the opening chapters of Genesis) literally and as historic fact.  This approach to reading the Bible may include the belief and stance that the Bible provides all the answers to all of humankind’s questions.  So such an approach leads one to read the opening chapters of Genesis in search of definitive answers regarding how our world – our universe- came into being.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” is a slogan I have heard in this regard.

Others choose to turn to biblical scholarship, which tries to determine when and where such words were actually written, what was going on in the life and history of the people who wrote them at the time, and the underlying purposes the writer may have had in mind when writing them.  (As a side note, you my have seen the news stories this past week regarding the recent discovery in the Sahara Desert of homo sapiens fossils that have been determined to be 300,000 years old, a far cry from the 6,000 years from the creation of Adam and Eve, as held by Creationists.)

But in recent years, I have come to believe that there is another way to look at the opening chapters of Genesis.  This approach to the Creation stories is not to find definitive answers, but rather, to try to understand the questions that the writers may have been asking in formulating these stories.  As writer Michael Dowd notes, “For as long as humans have used words to communicate and think, we have been telling stories to answer the fundamental questions of existence:

Where did we come from? – the question of origin

Where are we going? – the question of destiny

What happens when we die? – the question of finality and continuity”1

John Shelby Spong says it a similar way: “The Bible becomes . . . a historic narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in the eternal quest to understand life, the world, themselves, and God.”In other words, in this approach we view the Bible in terms of the questions our ancient religious ancestors were asking, and some possible answers they came up with, based on the knowledge and understanding that was available at the time such stories were written.

For instance, it seems obvious that the first big question being asked in the Creation stories is, “How did it all come to be?  Where did the universe come from?”  Isn’t that the one, big question of the ages asked by humans and addressed in some story form in many religious traditions of the world?  The creation of the universe is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, mysteries known to humankind, something men and women have been in awe and wonderment of from the time of thinking, questioning human beings.  So at least one of the aims behind the Creation stories (and there were others, for sure) was an attempt to address the overarching question regarding how everything in our world and the sky above came to be.  It was an attempt to provide a story or starting place to answer one of the universal questions of life, and, thus, should not be interpreted as dictation from God about how Creation came to be.

Another question the Creation stories seek to address, I believe, is, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”  Early men and women suffered sickness, injury, and pain just as we do.  Surely they questioned why such suffering had to be.  Why such pain and suffering is a reality in our world is another one of the great questions of humankind that was asked way back then and is still asked today in hospital beds all around the world.  Why do people – especially good people – have to suffer?  The Creation stories seek to address the question of pain and suffering in the world.  There must be a good reason for it, the ancients conjectured.

Part of the question regarding suffering is why men and women have to work so hard to support themselves, which brings tiresome toil, sweat, back pain and much more.  In growing food, one must contend with thorns and thistles and pests that threaten to rob farmers of their produce, and there is suffering in the hot sun to till the land for food.

And for women – well, the Genesis stories also touch on the pain of childbirth.  Why does such a joyous event – the birth of a baby – have to involve such physical pain?  That just doesn’t seem right, does it?  It is a mystery.  Well, the answer given is that men and women, when first created, must have offended the God who created them, so the punishment was suffering pain in childbirth, because of the sin of the first woman who ate and enticed her partner to eat the forbidden fruit.  I have even heard someone place the blame of pain at childbirth and other pains of womanhood upon Eve.  “All this monthly pain is all Eve’s fault,” was the statement made.  Such is the result of the ancients asking the question about pain and suffering.

There is the question regarding the nature of human life.  How is it that there is breathing, walking life upon the earth?  What force or agency can be accounted for regarding breathing, walking, thinking, reasoning humans?  Why is it that a human body is a living, breathing, walking miracle?   That is the question.  The answer given is the life-giving Creator fashioned man from the dust of the earth and then breathed into him the breath of life.  The mysterious thing is one may be a breathing, living, walking, thinking person one moment, then be a non-breathing, non-living, non-thinking body the next minute.

Which leads to the next question regarding death.  “Why do men and women, as well as other created creatures, die?”  Why do we all of a sudden stop breathing, living, walking, and responding?  If the world were created perfect, a paradise, then there wouldn’t be any death, would there?  Death is another one of the great mysteries of life, a mystery we still don’t understand today.  So again, there must be a good reason for death to have entered the “perfect world” that had been created.  Such is a question posed by the writer of at least one of the Creation stories.  The first man and woman must have offended the God who created them by being disobedient, by doing something they were told not to do.  So the consequence was physical death, for them and all their descendents after them.

Well, as we delve deeper into the following chapters in the book of Genesis, other questions in the minds of the ancients might be cited, such as, “Of all the creatures of the world, why is the serpent most universally feared?  Where does rain come from, and how did it come to be that rain started falling upon the earth?  How and why did murder enter the world?  How and why are there so many different languages in the world?  What is the cause for massive natural disasters, i.e., the great flood?  And more.

Part of the timeless beauty of the scriptures is that the questions of the ancients are also our questions, and vice versa.  One of the primary functions of religion is, is it not? is to seek to address the ultimate questions of life.  Religion from the beginning has sought to deal with and provide answers for the realm of Mystery.

And so, when we read the Bible, we find there the universal questions of humankind, many of the same questions that we struggle with today.  So we find ourselves in good company, companions in a long line of the faithful who were seekers after God and seekers after the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

So in the end, we should not view the Bible as always holding all the answers to life’s ultimate questions.  But rather, as in the case of Genesis, we identify with the faithful of old in asking the timeless questions about life’s greatest mysteries.  At least, that is the way I see it.  Amen.

 

1Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution.  New York: Viking, 2007.  P. 21.

2John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.  Pp. 32-33.

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In Praise of (Religious) Poetry

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 4, 2017

Joel 2:28-29 ESV; Mary Oliver, “I Want to Write Something So Simply”

How many of you like poetry?  It takes a special inclination, I guess, to be an avid poetry enthusiast.  It certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea.  One of the United Church’s past resident poets, Mona Raridon, often said something to the effect that you can hardly give away your published books of poetry, much less sell them!  Such is a truth I have come to realize as well, having self-published some of my own poems about a year ago.  Poetry collections are not in high demand, unless you happen to be someone like Mary Oliver, who is “unmatched in terms of poetry sales in the American market.”1

But let me ask another question: How many of you like to sing hymns?  More of us do, perhaps.  But the truth is many of our beloved hymns were born as poems that were later set to music.  For instance, that familiar Christmas hymn that many of us here at the United Church love, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was first a poem before it was later set to music.  Likewise Katherine Lee Bates’ poem, “Pike’s Peak,” was later set to music and the title changed to “America the Beautiful.”  Finally, poems by Christian poet Christina Rossetti were later set to music, as in the case of the hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Well, allow me to ask one more question: How many of you like the Psalms?  Perhaps more of us would answer in the affirmative of liking the psalms than enjoying reading poetry.  But for the most part, the Psalms are poetry, many of which were set to music for Temple worship much like a number of our hymns were originally poems that were set to music for church worship.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1); “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where does my help come?” (Psalm 121:1); “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).  All three of these beloved verses are Hebrew poetry.

Much of the material in the Bible, in fact, that we have all come to love and embrace was in its original form poetry, pure and simple.  Debra Dean Murphy, writing in a recent issue of Christian Century magazine, notes that “For theology and liturgy, poetry has always mattered.  Scripture begins and ends with poetry and contains swaths and snatches of it throughout its vast remainder.  The rites of Christian worship across the centuries have endured in part because they are poetry in the mouth, poetry in the ear, poetry to live by.”1  It may surprise some to learn that today’s scripture text from the prophet Joel which speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out upon all flesh in its original form was Hebrew poetry.  The early Church would embrace and reinterpret this ancient Hebrew poem to describe the event that gave birth to the Christian Church on the day of Pentecost.

And though Jesus himself didn’t write anything personally as far as we know, some of the words attributed to Jesus, as quoted by Matthew and Luke anyway, border on the poetic.  I am thinking of the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3); and “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin” (Luke 12:27).  So, the point to be taken thus far is that poetry (especially religious poetry) is a vital and rich part of our lives.

But what is it about poetry that makes it so appealing and vital to our lives?  Well, good poetry – poetry that withstands the test of time, anyway – tends to be universal in its message.  Good poetry often touches on themes with which most people can identify; it may touch on human emotions that are common to everyone.  Such is pointed out by Mary Oliver in her poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simple.”  Her aim, she says, is to write something

that even

as you are reading

you feel it

and as you read

you keep feeling it

and though it be my story

it will be common,

. . .

so that by the end

you will think—

no, you will realize—

that it was all the while

yourself arranging the words,

that it was all the time

words that you yourself,

out of your own heart

had been saying.”2

In other words, often good poetry does resonate; it does make us feel like the poet’s experience is our experience.  Such, I think, is why the poetry of the Psalms is so meaningful – the Psalms touch on every human emotion and experience.

This leads to another point: Good poetry invites us into an experience.  In an economy of words, a good poem thrusts us into a life experience that we can visualize and almost feel with our senses.  Take, for instance, Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Immediately we feel ourselves being transported to a patch of woods being covered by a December’s snow:

“Whose woods these are, I think I know;

His house is in the village though

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.”

As far as classic American poets are concerned, Robert Frost is by far my favorite.  But as for contemporary American poets, my favorite is Mary Oliver, as most of you should know by now.  In her book titled A Poetry Handbook, Oliver notes, “The poem is an attitude, and a prayer . . . .  poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”3  Indeed, here we get to the kernel of the issue: good poems are bread for the soul!  Good poems feed the spirit – they affirm the feelings, longings, joys, sorrows, and so many other emotions that are common to the human soul.  Poems validate our emotions, fill us with joy, and give us comfort when we are troubled.

And of all the poets today, Mary Oliver serves as a voice for many as she is a mystic of the natural world, brings theology to bear upon everyday life in the world, invites us “into wonder,” and reminds us to be present in the moment and “To pay attention . . . our endless and proper work.”4

As Debra Dean Murphy points out in her Christian Century article, “the best orators and authors throughout history have won over their audiences with poetic speech.”1  The Hebrew prophet Amos: “let justice roll down like waters,/and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” – poetry.  The Hebrew prophet Micah: “what does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice, and to love kindness,’ and to walk humbly with your God?” – poetry.  Abraham Lincoln ‘s Gettysburg Address: “Fourscore and seven years ago . . .” – not a poem, but poetic language, certainly.

And so, the conclusion of the matter is that poetry – and for many of us religious poetry – is so much more a part of our lives than any of us may have previously realized.  Poetry as presented in the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets; poetry by folks like Robert Frost and Mary Oliver; and poetic language by great orators like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, and certainly Jesus himself – such words are part of who we are as individuals, Christians, Americans, and even residents of planet Earth.

Good poetry affirms us, comforts us, challenges us, and at times even changes us.  So how can we not stand in praise of the poetic?  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1Debra Dean Murphy, “Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems,” Christian Century, April 25, 2017.

2Mary Oliver, “I Want to Write Something So Simply,” Evidence.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.

3Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook.  Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 1994.  Pp. 114, 122.

4Mary Oliver, “Yes! No”

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Who You Going to Listen To?

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 28, 2017

Proverbs 16 (selected verses); reading from Parker J. Palmer’s, Let Your Life Speak

Today’s message was prepared primarily with our graduating high school seniors in mind.  At the same time, what I have to say today may be applicable to those of all ages – graduating seniors or senior adults – because it is never too late to hear the “Voice” that speaks to us, calling us to be our authentic self, even in our retirement years.  We are reminded that the renowned American folk artist Grandma Moses didn’t hear that “Voice” calling her to seriously pick up a paintbrush until she was 78 years old.  Her paintings – which she initially sold for $3-5 – would eventually bring thousands of dollars and grace the covers of magazines, be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, and be displayed in numerous museums and galleries around the country and world.

But the question of the day – for high school seniors and senior adults alike and everyone else in between – is which voice are we going to listen to when choosing a path to follow and/or seeking to be our authentic self?  Because the voices that beckon to us – the voices crying out to be heard – are many and varied.

I was reminded this past week of one of the scenes in that classic movie starring Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate.  Now, I hasten to say that not every scene in The Graduate is suitable for a church discussion, as most of you well know.  But the scene I am referring to is when the character Benjamin, played by Hoffman, is at the graduation celebration party that his parents have thrown for him.  As Benjamin is milling around the party, different people keep asking him what he plans to do or telling him what he should do with his life.  And one family friend in particular corners him to give him advice.  (As a side note, the line I am going to share with you was named No. 42 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotations.)  The family friend says, “I just want to say one word to you.  One word.  Are you listening?” When Benjamin replies, “Yes,” the family friend says, “Plastics.”  The future is in plastics.  But the point here being, it is obvious that Benjamin is totally confused about what to do with his life, and all the voices urging him to go this way or that doesn’t help matters at all.  Such vocation confusion resonates because it is a universal feeling among young people setting off into the world.

I imagine that our graduating seniors have a cadre of competing voices as well about what they should do with their future – where they should go to college, what field of study should be pursued, what business or profession should be entered into, the position that will pay the most money, and so on.  Voices of teachers, guidance counselors, well-meaning relatives, neighbors, ministers and churches, and yes, even parents as well.  I have come to believe that our task as parents and grandparents is to try to listen to and seek to facilitate discussion, focusing on helping children and grandchildren discern the most important “Voice” of all in choosing their own path into the future.  It might not change at all the course they choose, but then again it might actually be a help to them.

And then there are the voices of the media, social media, contemporary idols and role models, sports stars, rock stars, and others who serve as “voices” and color the picture of who we should seek to become.  With all the competing voices out there calling out to us, which voice is to be listened to as we plan our lives and look to the future?

Young people, there is some wonderful reading and good, practical advice in the book of Proverbs from which I read to you.  I would encourage you to read the book of Proverbs sometimes.  The last verse I read to you reminds us that “What you think is the right road may lead to death” (16:25).  Let’s interpret that as not just physical death; but death of the soul or spirit may be the result if we find ourselves on the wrong road in life.  A lot of people are walking around in the world physically alive, but void of inner life.

But finding the right path in life – the path that is compatible with the inner person one is – can lead to a life of joy and life abundant.  And that is where listening to the right “Voice” comes into play.

As a graduation gift, we are giving each of the graduating seniors a copy of Parker J. Palmer’s little, but oh so powerful, book, Let Your Life Speak.  I discovered this book some 10-12 years ago, but how I wish I could have had it when I was a graduating high school senior.  It is one of my Top 10, all-time favorite books, one I will not loan  out.  I encourage our graduates to take time to read this book, as it has life-changing potential.  In the first half (55 pages), Palmer talks about voices and vocation.  In choosing our life’s vocation, we need to be careful about which voice we listen to.  We are all tempted to heed the voice promising success or status; to choose one profession or position over another because it promises to make us rich or famous. But as Palmer himself realized, choosing a vocation based solely upon success or status, riches or fame, will not lead to happiness and may, in fact, make us physically or emotionally ill.

What Palmer advises in deciding upon a vocation or path in life is to refrain from listening to the voices “out there” that call us to become something or someone that we are not.  But rather, he advises to listen to the Voice “in here,” inside of us, which calls us to be the person we were born to be, to fulfill the selfhood given us at birth.1  The question becomes, What is your gift, what is your personal passion, what energizes you and gives you joy?  This is the “Voice” that speaks to us.

Now, being the true Quaker that he is, Palmer is quick to share his own belief that this inner Voice is the “image of God in which we are created,” or what Quakers call “the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person.”  Mystic Thomas Merton called it “true self.”  “The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity.”  No matter what we call it, the inner “Voice” is that voice to which we should above all other voices try to be true.  What is our inner, created self saying to us about who we are and what we should do with our life?  By doing otherwise, we will never be true to our inner self, and likely will not find the ultimate joy that comes from being the person we truly are and sharing that person with the world.

Suzanne Blokland forwarded an article to me on 13 habits of extremely confident people.  The article lists 13 negative habits that we all need to give up in order to boost self-confidence.  At least three of the habits are applicable to the subject at hand regarding which voice we are going to listen to.  The article suggests giving up “Caring too much about what other people think. . . stop trying to meet other peoples’ expectations.”  Also, give up “Asking others for their opinion before formulating your own.  Become the expert of your experience.”  And then the third habit to give up that applies to our theme of the day is stop “Wasting time comparing yourself to others.”2

Well, whether one is a graduating high or college senior, or a senior adult, or someone in between, it is important that we discern among all the voices that beckon to us.  We do well to listen to the Voice deep within that calls us to follow the path that is representative of our true self.  It may be choosing the course of study that fits, it may be deciding upon a vocation or change in vocation, it may be deciding to become a volunteer in some organization with whose mission we resonate, or it may be pursuing and exercising a creative talent or gift (as in the case of Grandma Moses) that we have long been drawn to but never attempted.

Call it what you will: the Voice of the true, inner self; the Voice of the Spirit; the Voice of “that of God in everyone”; or the Voice of personal identity and integrity.  To that Voice above all may we seek to be true, whatever our age may be.  Amen.

 

1Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000.  P. 10.

2Matthew Jones, flipboard.com/@IncMagazine, May 18, 2017.

 

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Reflections on “Near Death Experiences”

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 21, 2017

Psalm 18:1-7; Luke 13:4 GNT

I ask your indulgence, that I might share a personal story this morning.  Because I feel privileged – no, I feel blessed – to be standing here before you today.  Because, you see, I could have very easily been lying in a cemetery this morning.  Four weeks ago today I had what I have been referring to as a “near death experience.”

Now I realize that the term “near death experience” most often refers to the experience of coding, or dying momentarily, perhaps seeing a bright light in the distance, and being brought back to life.  I did not have that type of experience, and I want to make that perfectly clear.

No, when I say I had a “near death experience,” what I mean is I came as close to being killed as I have ever come in my entire life.  I sort of feel like the psalmist who said, “The danger of death was all around me; the waves of destruction rolled over me” (Psalm 18:4 GNT).  Here is how it happened.

It was that weekend four weeks ago when we had all that heavy rain.  As I was driving home following church and lunch about 12:30 on that Sunday, it was pouring buckets as I drove toward the west end of town where we live.  As I prepared to turn up Newport Drive, I thought to myself, With all the rain we have been having, saturating the ground, I sure hope our big trees don’t start toppling over onto our house.  A minute later I pulled into our driveway, just enough to get off the street.  Since it was still raining hard, I stopped at the mailbox to get my Sunday newspaper.  I reached down and grabbed my umbrella, cracked open the door of my Jeep about six inches, pushed the umbrella open, and at that instant I heard a loud crack and saw my next door neighbor’s giant oak tree falling towards me.  The tree took down power lines at the back of my Jeep, sparks rained down from the transformer right above me, hot oil from the blown transformer covered the side of my Jeep and even the sleeve of my suitcoat, and the top of the tree brushed the driver’s side of my Jeep just as I was about to step out onto the driveway.  The utility lines from the pole to our house were sagging in front of me.  The top of the tree was not only in our driveway, but it completely covered Newport Drive and even broke off a tree in the neighbor’s yard on the opposite side of the street.

Immediately I started trying to call Mary Lou, who was coming up the street behind me in her car, to warn her of the danger of the downed power lines.  For a moment I just sat there in the Jeep in a daze, not knowing if I should get out or drive under the sagging utility lines to the bottom of the driveway.  Finally I put my vehicle in gear and slowly eased down the driveway, holding my breath all the while.

No one recognized it as such, but our driveway was pictured on the front page of the Oak Ridger newspaper on Friday, April 28.

Now, here is the point: Had I been just a few seconds earlier or later, or a few feet this way or that, I could have been under the top of that tree, or I could have been under those power lines and sliced in two when they came crashing down. Or, had both Mary Lou and I been a few seconds earlier, it could have been her car under that tree or those power lines when they came crashing down.

For the next 24 hours, I found myself in a daze, in a very somber, pensive state of mind.  A few seconds and a few feet one way or the other could have meant a quick and certain death.  “The danger of death was all around me; the waves of destruction rolled over me.”

There have been only two other similar occasions in my lifetime that I can recall.  Once – not long after Mary Lou and I were married – I was dead tired after a night of driving and stepped off the street curb at Myrtle Beach almost in the path of a speeding car I had not seen coming.  I felt the wind of the car as it sped by me.  The other time was just a year and half ago.  It was just before Christmas, and I was walking through the Walmart parking lot, juggling several bags of canned goods for our Christmas food boxes.  I looked down to shift some of the plastic bags from one hand to the other, and I heard someone shout “Stop!” and glanced up to see a car speeding backyards – in reverse – through the parking lot towards me, and I jumped aside just in time to avoid being run over.  But the experience I had four weeks ago certainly was the most frightening experience of the three.

Someone remarked that if I have nine lives, I certainly have used three of them.  But on a serious note, such “near death experiences” cause you to stop and think and ask questions.  And I bet that some of you could recount such “near death experiences” of your own, perhaps even more unsettling than what I have experienced.

Such occurrences remind us of how very fragile and uncertain life is.  In a split-second’s time (and that tree falling towards me and the power lines coming down all happened in no more than two seconds) life can change drastically.  In the snap of a finger, Mary Lou could have become a widow, my children fatherless, my grandchildren without a grandfather, and this church without a minister.

The fragile and uncertain nature of life leads to a number of other ramifications; such as, be careful and cautious where you tread!  In the case of the falling tree, there was nothing I did to cause it or might have done to avoid it.  By mere chance I happened to pull into our driveway at the same instant that giant oak tree decided to uproot itself and come crashing down.

But sometimes by carelessness we can bring such close calls upon ourselves.  For instance, driving a car 100 miles per hour, or climbing far higher upon a ladder than one ought to climb, or choosing to swim in swift-moving water can put us in life-and-death situations.  So we do well to be careful and cautious so that we don’t bring unnecessary “near death experiences” upon ourselves.

The fragile and uncertain nature of life also says to us make every moment of life count.  Live in the moment.  Live in love, and let others know you love them.  Whenever possible, when saying goodbye to family and friends, do so on happy terms.  It could be your last goodbye.

The fragile and uncertain nature of life causes us to question.  Why do such things happen in life?  Why was my life spared by a few seconds one way or the other, while a woman in Lincoln County, Tennessee, was struck and killed by a falling tree in her yard that same week?  Was my life spared by the grace of God? (I would like to think so.)  Or is being spared or not being spared a matter of chance?  We can find support for both positions in the scriptures.

Jesus and his hearers struggled with interpreting a disaster that happened in their day, when a tower fell on eighteen people, killing them all.  Why did it happen?  Was it because they were sinners and being punished for their sins?  Jesus said, “No indeed!”

The day after that giant tree fell towards me, I walked in TN Bank and related my experience to the ladies down there, and one of them said, “Obviously you still have work to do.”  Is there a reason why one is spared and another is not?  Or is life bound up in mystery which we can never fully understand, at least on this side of eternity?  As much as we would like for it to be so, there are not always easy, pat answers to life’s questions.

Well, whether God, or the Spirit, or Jesus was looking out for me four weeks ago today so that I was spared from being crushed or electrocuted, I really don’t know.  As I noted earlier, I want to think that it is so.  But such an experience causes you to stop and think about how fragile and uncertain life really is, how important it is to live in the moment and to always live in love, and (in the spirit of the psalmist) how blessed it is to be alive.  That’s my story; thank you for letting me share it with you and reflect upon it today.  Amen.

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Women Who Can Change the World

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 14, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28 GNT

It saddens me, and perhaps you as well, to see people separated by cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers.  It is unnatural—we might even say un-godly—for people to be divided into the haves and have-nots; to be corralled like cattle by barbed wire fences, concrete barricades, and the like.  Yet, such has been the way of the world through time.

When I traveled to the Holy Land some years ago, such is exactly what I saw – barbed wire, concrete barricades, etc.  Jews can’t go here.  Palestinians can’t go over there.  There is a place for Christians in this part of Jerusalem, a place for Jews in another part of town, and still another place for Muslims in another section of town.  And men go to this side of the Wailing Wall, while women have to go to that side.  So one’s ancestry, religion, and gender in effect throw up invisible – yet very real – barriers that tend to divide and separate people one from another.  It is that way today in so many parts of our world.

People separated by cultural and ethnic boundaries certainly was the situation in Jesus’ day as well.  The gospel reading I chose for this Mother’s Day relates the story of a woman—a mother—who  found herself restricted by such gender, cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers.  She was a Canaanite, descended from the original inhabitants of the land at the time when the Jews came from Egypt and settled in Canaan.  Thus, she was a Gentile, a non-Jew, one of the “have-nots” of that day and time.  Her kind were commonly referred to as “dogs,” a derogatory term not unlike some of the derogatory terms that are used to denigrate people today, words that most of refuse to utter.  Yet, a mother is still a mother, regardless of her ancestry, religion, or culture.  Great mothers are to be found in all cultures, ethnicities, and religions.  And the Canaanite woman proved to be one of the great mothers of the world.

For, you see, the Canaanite mother possessed some characteristics that great mothers have in common.  Like, for instance, persistence, or perseverance.  This unnamed mother in today’s story was one who was persistent in faith.  She had persistent faith in the power of God manifested in the ministry of Jesus.  She had faith that God wants the sick to be well, especially a sick child.  Her faith was tested when Jesus at first ignored her.  But she did not give up.  And Jesus commended her before everyone in her village: “Woman, great is your faith!”

She was also persistent in hope.  In spite of the fact that she was a woman, a Gentile begging at the feet of a Jewish rabbi, and a “dog” in the eyes of many, unworthy of the Master’s attention, she was persistent in hope that there might be enough of God’s grace leftover for her child who was ill.

And she was persistent in love.  Her motive was pure—a great love for her daughter that led her to risk reputation and public scorn by falling down at the feet of Jesus and begging for a crumb of grace.  Preacher John Killinger describes this woman as “one of the beautiful women of the Bible.  She was beautiful in her love for her daughter.”1  No greater force on earth can be found than a mother’s love for her own.  It is a love that shows itself in action, that loves without credit, and that leads one to pour oneself out for others for the sheer joy of doing it.  This woman would not give up.  She would not take “No” for an answer.  She was determined and persistent.

Motherhood today requires no less dedicated and persistent faith, hope, and love.  Many mothers today, not unlike the Canaanite woman, find themselves facing tremendous odds.  Some are enslaved by poverty (often called “the working poor”) that forces them to work two or more jobs to support their children.  Others make themselves a human shield between their child and an abusive father and husband.  Others take on big insurance companies to get them to cover the medical procedures they should be covering for their children.  I cannot help but think of our own daughter who has spent hundreds of hours on the telephone and writing e-mails and letters to insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals on behalf of our grandson and granddaughter, lobbying for the services they have needed.  And still other mothers ignore their own hunger, and sacrifice their own nutritional health, so that their children may eat.  In faith, hope, and sacrificial love they persevere for the sake of the children they love.

Preacher Killinger tells a beautiful story of one such woman he knew personally who demonstrated such persistent faith, hope, and love on behalf of her child.   Margaret Howard lived in Richmond, Kentucky.  Margaret was a good, solid woman of the hills who managed a small bookstore in spite of the fact that she only had an eighth-grade education.  She had married when she was fourteen.   But she was a woman of rare qualities.  When one of her daughters had a brain tumor at the age of seven, the doctors removed much of the right hemisphere of her brain.  They told Margaret the girl would probably be a mere vegetable for the rest of her life.  But Margaret wouldn’t accept the doctors’ judgment.  She nursed the child and prayed for her.  She saw an article in the newspaper about a special operation being performed in Canada that might improve her daughter’s condition.  The operation would cost several thousand dollars.  Margaret’s family was dirt poor and didn’t have seventy dollars, much less several thousand.  But Margaret prayed some more and told others of her plight.  Someone ran an article in the newspaper, telling their story.  Enough money was raised for the operation.

When Margaret and her daughter arrived in Canada, they didn’t have the proper papers, so the authorities would not let them off the plane.  Margaret persuaded the airport officials to call the Canadian government.  She told the government officials that she was from the Commonwealth of Kentucky and needed to get her daughter to the hospital.  For some reason, the officials thought she was related to the governor of Kentucky.  So they sent an ambulance and limousine to take her and her daughter to the hospital.  The doctors at the hospital took x-rays, studied them, and said they did not want to operate.  But Margaret said, “There’s a power higher than you that obviously wants you to.”  The doctors did operate, and the girl lived an almost normal life until she was a young woman.1  A mother’s persistent faith in God, persistent hope in spite of the odds, and persistent love in action secured a wonderful blessing for her sick child.  Mothers often have to overcome great odds to be a mother.

But as we return to the Canaanite woman, it might be said of her that because of her persistent faith, hope, and love she changed the course of world religion.  For, you see, we also find this story in the gospel of Mark.  And in Mark’s view, it was Jesus’ encounter with this Gentile woman that in part led him to turn to the Gentiles with his message of good news and grace.  Up to this point Jesus’ ministry had been limited to the Jewish people.  This woman proved to Jesus and the disciples that Gentiles, too, could have faith in God, a sacred hope, and a loving heart.  So after his encounter with this Canaanite mother, Jesus began sharing his good news with other Gentile towns.

How many other mothers, after the example of this unnamed Canaanite woman, have anonymously played a part in altering the course of the world because of their persistent faith, unfaltering hope, and sacrificial love?  How many mothers today are changing for the better the future of our world because of the faith, hope, and love they exert on behalf of all children?  Women in America today are taking a greater role than ever, perhaps, in marching, protesting, and advocating for a better world, better health care and coverage for children, and other things.

The truth is any mother—or any father for that matter—through persistent faith, persistent hope for the betterment of her child, and persistent love in action can not only make a difference in the life of her child, but can possibly change the world for the better.  We as parents and grandparents have the power to make a difference!

So, happy Mother’s Day, mothers and grandmothers.  In persistent faith, hope, and love, may we all go forth to change the world for the better.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

1John Killinger, ”The Mother Who Changed the World,” 1995 Ministers Manual, pp. 95-98.

 

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Everyday Sacraments

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 7, 2017

Mark 8:1-9 GNT; Reading from John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe

The word “sacrament” is one of those theological, churchy words that have been around almost as long as the Christian Church has been in existence.  Oddly enough, “sacrament” is not a word to be found in the Bible, traditional Bible translations, at least – not even once.  A look in my American Heritage Dictionary yielded the following: Sacrament: “A formal Christian rite . .  . esp. once considered to have been instituted by Jesus as a means of grace.  Often The Eucharist.”

One country church I served right out of seminary referred to the Eucharist or Holy Communion as “The Sacrament.”  It was customary to observe Communion just once each quarter, or four times a year, after the teachings of Protestant Reformer Ulrich Zwingli.  Part of the rationale for only observing Holy Communion once every quarter may have been the idea that if you observe it too often, it becomes commonplace and loses some of its significance.  But when we did celebrate Communion, or “The Sacrament,” in that particular congregation, it was considered to be a special, sacred occasion.  The persons who were responsible for preparing the Communion elements took their task very seriously.  They filled the tiny juice cups in the silver trays and prepared the broken bread with the most reverent of hands.  This was the Holy Sacrament of the Church.

But the primary meaning and importance of the term “sacrament” is that phrase, “means of grace.”  A sacrament in the teaching and history of the Church has indicated those special rites which convey or impart or become a “means of grace;” a way in which believers experience the grace of God.

Originally there were seven sacraments acknowledged by the Church: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist (Holy Communion), Penance, Anointing the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Protestant Reformers chose to narrow the official sacraments of the Church to two: Baptism and the Eucharist (otherwise known as Communion or the Lord’s Supper).

Now, on the one hand, I am glad for the Protestant Reformation for many different reasons, one of them being the fact that we observe only two instead of seven sacraments.  Some Christian groups, you know, don’t observe any sacraments at all – not even Baptism or Communion – feeling that life itself is a sacrament, or honoring special rites is a form of idolatry which dishonors God or Christ.  But then on the other hand, perhaps the Catholic Church was onto something in seeing other actions such as Confirmation, Anointing the Sick or Matrimony as sacraments in that they can, indeed, be channels or experiences of grace.

Well, in case you are wondering where in the world I am going with all of this talk about sacraments and grace, I will just come right out and tell you: Could it be that many everyday activities could also be viewed as “sacramental,” in that many of the blessings of everyday life are in effect experiences of grace?  I want to contend that God’s grace or the grace of life is not limited to being baptized or celebrating Holy Communion.  Certainly Baptism and Holy Communion are, indeed, channels or means to receiving and experiencing grace.  Every time we celebrate Communion or Table Fellowship here at the United Church, as we have today, and then join hands to sing together the Lord’s Prayer, it is an experience of grace.  But God help us if we only experience grace the day we were baptized or whenever we come together on the first Sunday of the month to celebrate Holy Communion!

No, I have come to believe that everyday life is full of experiences of grace, and hence, that many of our everyday experiences can be viewed as “sacramental,” if we look upon them as such.  For instance, mealtime with family or friends can be a moment of grace, and hence, sacramental in nature, if we make it so.  I tend to think that whenever Jesus broke bread, blessed it, and shared it with those close to him, as related in today’s gospel story from Mark, it was a graceful, sacramental moment.

But can’t it be that whenever we sit down at the table with loved ones that such moments can have sacramental overtones and become experiences of grace?  Of course, we may have to be intentional in the manner in which we make mealtime moments of grace.  I am not sure that the practice of individual family members warming something in the microwave at will and taking it to their room or carrying it in front of a television set and eating alone could be considered a sacramental, grace-filled moment.  Perhaps it could be.  And I am not sure that a meal where every family member tries to outtalk everyone else or that turns into a heated argument over some family issue can be considered a sacramental, moment of grace.  Perhaps it can.  Anything is possible with God, the scripture says.  But the family meal or meal with friends where gratitude is present, and where everyone is in a state of harmony, and where love and acceptance and support are shared, and where each one’s dignity and worth are affirmed can very certainly be a grace-filled, and hence, sacramental experience for all concerned.

Some, like naturalists John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, and others, have considered being in harmony with the world of Nature to be grace-filled, sacramental moments.  As Burroughs put it in Accepting the Universe, “Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance.  Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.”  In Leaf and Tendril, Burroughs said, “we find . . . God in the common, the near, always present, always active, always creating the world anew.”

Thoreau, in Walden, said a similar thing: “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things I did. . . .  Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”  In the thought of Burroughs and Thoreau and others like them, living in harmony with Nature is a religious rite of sorts, a communion with the Divine, and hence, a grace-like or sacramental experience.

Other more contemporary writers have also spoken of experiences of grace in everyday life.  Contemporary writer Anne Lamott talks a lot about grace in the day-in and day-out experiences of life.  And so does poet Mary Oliver.  Likewise did Fredrick Buechner, who said, “Taking your children to school . . . Eating lunch with a friend. . . Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, . . .  If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The key, perhaps, to experiencing grace in everyday life and finding God in the natural world is the lens through which we view life and the world around us.  Whereas one person might look upon a family gathering around a holiday table to be a sacramental, grace-imparting experience, another might look upon the same meal as a stressful obligation to be endured.  Whereas one person might welcome a hike to a Smoky Mountain waterfall on a warm, summer’s day as a sacramental exercise and opportunity to commune with the Divine, another person might view the same experience as a tiresome walk in the summer heat.  I guess it all comes down to the fact that sacraments, grace, religion, the Sacred, and such have to do with faith and the eyes of faith which become the lens through which we see life and the world around us.  I rather like something Mary Oliver says in this regard.  Oliver wrote, “You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity.  I’ll take grace” (Winter Hours).  So will I – take grace, that is.

Yes, it all boils down to how we view life and the world around us.  So many are the everyday experiences that might be seen as being sacramental in nature – gifts of grace – if we receive them as such.  Everyday sacraments.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

 

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