Saturday, March 12, 2011

The End of the World as We Know It: Thoughts About the Earthquake in Japan and Unrest in Egypt and the Middle East

For moths we have been watching as revolutions change the balance of power in Tunisia, Greece and Lybia.  The implications of these revolutions are far-reaching, affecting the United States in many ways.  We have seen gas prices rise at a time when gas prices usually go down.  We fear how this instability will affect our safety and security in the United States.

Yesterday we watched the fires burning out of control in Japan as a tsunami ripped over parts of the country after the largest earthquake on record hit the island.  As I am writing, Kyodo News Agency is reporting more then 9,500 people unaccounted for in Minamisanriku, Japan.  I've followed the Facebook status of a friend and former classmate in Japan, bringing the situation even closer to home.

My students often ask me if I think 2012 is going to happen, a reference to the end of the Mayan calendar and the idea that with the end of the calendar will come the end of the world.  I always reply, "Yes, it will happen.  And so will 2013, and 2014, and so on."  At times we find our selves living in utter fear of the end of the world.  False prophets take worldly disasters and turn them into apocalyptic signs.  They feed off of fear, misquoting Scripture, telling people the end is near.  One of these false prophets blamed the attack on the World Trade Center on homosexuality in the United States, saying God was punishing us for these homosexual acts.  I find it interesting that Jesus spoke at great lengths against divorce and adultery in the Bible, yet these false profits engage in both, yet Jesus never says a word about homosexuality, and they find this to be one of their hot topics!  I am anxious to hear the response of the false prophets to the devastation in Japan!  What reasons will they give for why God did this, and how do they think we should respond?

I for one do not believe that God causes disasters, natural or otherwise.  I believe that God's desire is for us to live faithful and healthy lives.  We are not to live in fear of tomorrow, but in joy for today.  When people suffer, I believe God pains, too.  I also believe that God has expectations of us in the face of tragedy; we are to find these times as a time to renew our faith and our commitment to God.  These are not signs of the end of the world or of the second coming.  When someone tells us that they know when the world is going to end, they are claiming to have wisdom beyond that of the Son of God.  Jesus said “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." (Matthew 24:36)  However, when we see these signs, God calls us to remember to live each day as if it is our last!  What does that mean?  It means to make amends with our enemies and with God.  It means to love God and our neighbor with all our heart and mind and soul.  It means to live for today, without worrying about what tomorrow will bring!

So in the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake and the unrest in Northern Africa and the Middle East, I challenge you to live not in fear, but in love.  Consider how you can serve those in Japan as they mourn thousands of their citizens' deaths.  Consider how you can bring hope and good news to those around you.  Do not focus on the fear of the unknown tomorrow brings, but on the hope and joy that is in the present.  Live each day as if it were your last, loving as much as you can, giving as much as you can, and worshiping God as much as you can!  Tomorrow will have its own problems.  Live in peace!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lenten Sacrifices

Yesterday began the season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays.  We don't count Sundays because Sundays are to be mini-Easters, a time to celebrate, not sacrifice.  The idea of the sacrifice is reminiscent of Jesus's time in the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and was famished, leading up to his temptations by Satan.  Forty days was also the length of time of the flood which destroyed and purified the world, and the Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, again, a time of sacrifice prior to entering the Promised Land.

Lent is preceded by Mardis Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which bothers me.  Why would we overindulge in food or partying as a way of kicking off Lent, a time of Sacrifice.  It reminds me of the story of the preacher who was found drunk in a bar, flirting with a married woman.  When asked how he could do such a thing, he responded, "Hey, I can't preach against sin if I don't know what it is!"

When I was younger, my Lenten sacrifice was always popcorn.  Why, you ask?  Because I don't like popcorn.  I listened to people say they were giving up chocolate or candy or soda for Lent, and when I would ask why, they would say, "I need to lose weight.  The idea of a sacrifice during Lent did not really make sense to me.  After all, why would God want me to punish myself?  However, as I studied Scripture and Church Tradition, I began to understand the Lenten Sacrifice in a new way.  The purpose of the Sacrifice is not to make us suffer.  Rather, the purpose of the sacrifice is to draw us closer to God.  That which we give up, if we give up anything at all, is intended to bring us closer to God, and to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ.  So, in giving something up, we find a way to replace the void that it creates with God.  Sometimes the Sacrifice is something that gets in the way of our relationship, altogether, in which case we try to make it a permanent change in our lives.  Other times, we give up something we enjoy, in order to fill the void with God.  Either way, we grow in our relationship with God in the process.

There have been 3 life-changing Lenten Sacrifices I have made in the past.  The first was anger.  I would bottle up my anger, then when I could not control it any more, I would go by a car and let the anger be released with hostility toward the car dealer.  One year I decided to change that.  When I found myself getting angry, I would stop, step away, spend some time in prayer, then reengage in the situation.  I have to admit, it took longer then 40 days to make the change, but now people who know me are amazed when I say that I have had problems with anger.  Anger got in the way of my relationships with other people, and consequently got in the way of my relationship with God.

The second life-changer was when I fasted on Wednesdays.  The intention was not to lose weight, though that should have been a prime motivator.  During the breakfast hour, when I would normally eat, I read one of John Wesley's sermons.  At lunch, I would journal my reflections on the sermon.  At dinner, I would work on my own sermon for the coming Sunday, using Wesley as a guide.  I replaced the times that I was hungry with times that I was studying God's word, as interpreted by the founder of the Methodist Church.  I found Wesley to be fascinating in theology, though dry in delivery.  And I found myself reflecting more on my sermons then I ever had in the past.

The last life-changer was when I gave up shoe leather.  Shoe leather, you may ask?  Yes, that is what I said.  You see, I realized that I had become quick to comment on what people said or did.  I was like Peter in the Gospels:  always first to speak, not always saying the right things.  So for Lent, I gave up putting my foot in my mouth.  I tried to approach situations in a more reflective way, hearing what people said, then considering how I responded.  I found that through reflection I was better able to understand what people were saying, as I was not quick to judge them.  I found that prior to giving up shoe leather, I was already forming a response to what I thought someone was going to say before they finished what they were really saying, which was often not what I thought it was.  This reflective listening helped me to improve my relationships with people, which consequently helped me improve my relationship with God.

I have not decided if I will give something up for Lent this year.  If I do, it will be done to help me to become closer to God.  I would also ask that if you decide that you want to give something up for Lent, you will consider how it will make you closer to God, for that is what the Lenten Sacrifice is all about!  If you do give something up meaningfully and thoughtfully, you will find Easter morning to me much more rewarding, for you will not be thinking about a distant God, but about the Lord and Saviour you are in a great relationship with.