Keeping a positive attitude these days may be as difficult as a harsh winter. Listening to news makes us worry and often feel as fearful as a small child without her parents. Our country certainly experienced a different kind of election with a billionaire reality TV showman pulling off a controversial win.
Of course, there are other issues: aging with limited or impaired health, financial worry trying to make ends meet, global warming, and then of course, the struggle of keeping open churches. At times, we wonder if there is hope, hope that is lasting, enduring, and unending.
In the ancient Psalm 119, the psalmist prayed and asked God for hope and “positive thinking” amid what seemed to be his trying times. In verse 33, “Teach me, Lord, the meaning of your law, and I will obey them always,” to which he adds, “Explain them and I will obey.” In verse 36 he admirably asks, “Give me the desire to obey your laws rather than to get rich!” And in verse 37, “Keep me from paying attention to what is worthless…” (TEV)
Yes, we could give many reasons for our lack of “positive attitudes.” When I walked into your church this morning, I was told Presbytery plans to close it at this year’s end. No doubt, you could add other reasons which bear upon your mind. How then can we be positive? I have sensed, from previous visits, your church future might be in jeopardy, and thus I considered the possibility even as I prepared this sermon.
It may help to remember a church is not necessarily a building. The Greek word for “church,” ecclesia, simply means “assembly of people.” It doesn’t necessary mean to assemble in a building called “church” featuring beautiful wooden pews, maple paneling and a beautiful pipe organ. “Church” primarily means a gathering of people who want to learn more, or be reminded, of how God loves them, if indeed there is one, and how they can connect with Him to be blessed with happiness and peace.
However, if your building, called “church” is closed, you always have other options. There will be other church buildings left in the village and area. You also live in homes. Did you know the early church gathered in homes for several years? We read about it in the book of Acts, in chapters 2:46 and 20:20. Jewish Christians at the time met in synagogues, which liked began in homes, and later church buildings were built. However, there are good reasons for meeting in homes. It allows for greater intimacy, stronger relationships, perhaps even more comfortable seating. And the cost is seldom a barrier. Many traditional churches also have small groups which meet in homes.
We remember that Jesus spent hours teaching and preaching along the roads and street corners. Yes, he visited synagogues as well, but in some, he wasn’t warmly welcomed. He also spent time with his 12 disciples, walking around and helping people. Sometimes he did apparently gather large crowds. But he also got himself into a lot of trouble with religious authorities; you know the story.
Over this past winter, my wife and I have experimented with the idea of a small “house church.” We’ve met twice in one home and next month we invited folks to our home. We simply gather around in a room and share, with one taking the leadership but pausing for comments, questions and offered contributions.
Ideally, small churches can be very helpful in growing not only friendships, but one’s spiritual development. Of course, it’s nice to occasionally attend a large cathedral or church but small home groups certainly have their place. I recently read they’ve grown rapidly in recent years throughout our country, a new phenomenon.
Our son’s wife is from the Czech Republic. We visited her family in 2003 and toured the country, a landscape dotted with many old cathedrals, most of them now museums or abandoned. I mentioned to her father one evening if he thought the church was dying since so few now attend. His answer startled me. To the contrary, he said in their small town, south of the large city of Prague, many small religious groups meet in homes during the week. He described it as an amazing new development in his country. I asked if they were “Christian” and he said, “They seem to be a mixture of East and West.”
So, don’t despair too long if you lose your beloved church building, founded over 200 years ago. Celebrate your past but don’t stop gathering together. If there isn’t a suitable place to attend, meet in your homes. You’ll even be able to donate more money to the poor and favorite causes without having to sustain a large but mostly unused building.
Now, what about politics? Do they get you down? I imagine some here were and are discouraged with the election results of last November. Mr. Trump was not my candidate choice. I confess I still wonder if the election was “rigged” by numerous “WikiLeaks” instigated by Russia and Mr. Putin to discredit Hillary with “fake news.” Maybe Mr. Putin felt Hillary would be much tougher toward him than Donald. Indeed, Vladimir and Donald often seem like good buddies.
Yet remember, government directions often change and will change again. When one party wins, the other tends to feel the country will suffer tremendous loss, and vice versa. It’s the nature of the process. Throughout 240 years, we have had many awful things occur within the process. Our country never was a “heaven-on-earth” for many. Consider actions taken toward the Natives who “owned” this land? Many were slaughtered, shot with their villages burned. The Puritans massacred most of the natives in New England. In Buffalo, Indian horse blankets were smeared with small pox germs that wiped out whole villages. More Native Americans died after the constitution and country were created than before. In the 1820’s, a large percentage died during the “trail of tears,” forced out of eastern homes and to walk to Oklahoma. When they could return 25 years later, also by walking, they discovered their religious rights were lost and were forced into churches with their children taken away to attend “Christian schools.” In the 1950’s, I grew up entertained by movies of “cowboys shooting Indians.” How shameful! And what about thousands of Africans, who were stolen and forced to America jammed into dark hulls of smelly, unsanitary ships, only to be sold has human slaves, tied atop auction blocks like animals rather than human beings. These groups, including numerous Asians, still work yet today to find acceptance in our “Christian Country.” Did I mention people of Latin America?
Never place deep devotion to any country other than as a temporary place to live and exist until we “go home.” Fortunately, for all our faults, we do have more “checks and balances” than many other countries, lessons learned by our forbearers, but still, we remain a long way from being perfected. Yet, remember it’s all temporary, not permanent; life here is not Real. As the old gospel song goes, that Jim Reeves made famous,
“This world is not my home, I’m just passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore”.
Such belief helps remove the great fear we called “death.” It surrounds and engulfs our lives. Death fills news headlines, claiming the rich and poor, the honest and dishonest like a voracious grim reaper. Yet remember, “there is no death but only a change of worlds” as Chief Seattle said. Or from Revelation chapter 21, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain….”
The truth of the matter is, “matter and flesh are not real; they are ephemeral and short-lived, mortal.” In our essence, we are not physical bodies, or races with gender differences, or in countries living with anonymity or even with wealth and fame. Without Spirit or Christ, we count for nothing. All is vanity. Thus, we are now here in a classroom to learn our True Identities as Spirit, as “Christ,” or as the “Son or Daughter of God.” Our essence is immortal Spirit. Yes, it is often difficult to believe this, to feel the truth and Universal Presence surrounding and enfolding us. We become stuck to our surroundings like bees who become stuck in honey.
Around 1830, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s young wife suddenly died. Longfellow went into deep despair and for several months mourned and refused to write. He spent weeks seeking answers in other writers and friends. He sought whether there could such a thing as “soul,” or afterlife. Years of search and reflection passed but then, he wrote the immortal words of his most bellowed poems called “The Psalm of Life.” I was given this poem by one of the oldest members of Wayside church when I first moved to Hamburg in 1976. In her 90’s and frail, now being called a “shut-in,” she said it gave her strength to cope with her slowly weakening body as it moved toward its demise. I copied it down and never forgot it.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers, life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers, and things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow finds us farther than today.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting, and our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no future, howev’er pleasant; Let the dead past bury its dead!
Act, act in the living Present! Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great ones all remind us We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked neighbor, Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and learn to wait!
May you all find this peace and hope within by remembering the eternal hope amid the hopeless but temporal world surrounding us.
Sermon offered at the Franklinville Presbyterian Church on February 19, 2017 by Rev. David G. Persons