Sunday, June 25, 2017

Making the World a Better Place

Making the World a Better Place
Galatians 5:22-23
“What do we live for, if not to make the world a better place for each other?”  Great question!  George Elliot directly addresses the reason for human beings’ existence. 
What is our purpose for being here?  Some would say to have as good a time as possible before we die.  Others might say to make a lot of money, or to enjoy all the world has to offer, or to pursue a dream.  These are good aims, but they miss the mark.
Humans were meant to live in community.  If this were not true, why would we make such an effort to live together in groups, or create families, or join organizations?  Yes, I know, there are those who choose to live alone.  On a visit to the Adirondack region of New York one summer I saw some small—excessively small—huts where hermits had once lived.  I have no idea what prompted them to live that way, but they are certainly an exception that helps prove the rule. 
Most of us do what we can to surround ourselves with people.  Even if we choose to be part of a small group rather than a large one, we like to share our lives with others.  Think of the proliferation of social media.  My wife and I joke that we are both “only children,” and we need a big house so we can each have our own space.  The truth is, when one of us is alone in the house it feels empty.  Even if one of us is in one room, and the other is in some other room, we know we are not really alone.  I think we’re fairly typical.
If we are going to live in community there must be rules so we can get along.  I tell the students in my ethics class when we talk about individual freedom, that my freedom to do what I want stops at your nose.  If what I choose to do invades your space, I have to restrict myself.  In baseball, the pitcher throws the ball to the batter, but he’d better not throw the ball at the batter.
Rules for living in community are only the beginning, however.  They can only prevent trouble.  A society whose only goal is for its people to stay out of trouble won’t be much fun to live in.  Everyone would spend each day worrying about breaking some rule or stepping on someone else’s toes.  This is where Elliot’s statement comes in to play.  We will find the most enjoyment and fulfillment in life when we find ways to make the world a better place for others.
There are many biblical passages I could have chosen for today, but there’s a reason I chose Paul’s words to the Galatians.  He lists the fruits of the Spirit, the characteristics that a Christian should exhibit to demonstrate that he/she is emulating Christ.  Paul’s list:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 
What is interesting about these characteristics is that few if any of them can be put into practice without someone else around.  You have to love someone, and unless you’re in love with yourself, there must be at least one other person involved.  I suppose it’s possible to experience joy by oneself, but it doesn’t sound like much fun.  Being at peace with ourselves is an important goal, but just as important is being at peace with those with whom we share this planet.  The other characteristics—patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—either imply or demand another person to demonstrate them.  They are impossible to accomplish without someone else being part of the equation.
“What do we live for, if not to make the world a better place for each other?”  Not much, I’m afraid.  If I am the only person on earth, in addition to being very lonely, I won’t have any opportunity to practice the fruits of the Spirit. 

God made us to live in community.  We can make this world a better community if we make it better for those around us.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Looking at Clouds from All Sides

Looking at Clouds from All Sides
Mark 9:2-11
One of the popular songs in the 60’s was written by one of my favorite singers.  Both Sides Now, by Judy Collins, looks at clouds, love and life in its three verses, and leads her to the conclusion that all she knows about each subject is its illusions.  She really doesn’t know any of them—clouds, life, love—at all.
In this limited space, we don’t have time to get to know love and life.  Human beings have been trying to do that for thousands of years with very little success.  Perhaps, however, we can learn something about clouds.
In biblical times—and undoubtedly for millennia before and some time after—humans thought clouds were living things.  If you think about it, that was a logical conclusion.  Lacking knowledge of the high velocity of winds in the upper atmosphere, people would have looked at the speeding clouds and deduced that they must be moving under their own power.  This belief is supported by Scripture, especially in the New Testament.  Jesus is taken up to heaven on a cloud (Acts 1:9).  We are told in Revelation (1:7) that he will return “with the clouds.”  Mark tells us that a cloud overshadowed the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, removing the figures of Elijah and Moses from their sight.  Clouds, sent and controlled by God, seemed to work miracles of appearance and disappearance.
I think Judy Collins made a mistake in her lyrics about clouds, love and life.  We know that love and life have more than two sides—in fact, they have almost infinite sides.  It seems that clouds have multiple sides as well.
We know that clouds have a scientific side.  They are formed when condensed moisture descending meets rising warm air ascending.  Some of these clouds contain so much moisture that they produce rain, which itself has at least two sides.  Plants need rain to grow, and that’s good.  Sometimes rain spoils our outdoor plans, and that’s not so good.
There is a fanciful, imaginative side to clouds.  Many of us, as children, looked up at clouds, trying to recognize familiar shapes in them.  When we were young it was a great way to pass time on a summer afternoon.  Perhaps we adults might do well to spend a few afternoons in that pursuit.  It might sharpen our imaginations and enrich our lives.
Those who fly planes—or ride in them—know there are at least three sides to clouds.  When we fly below a heavy layer of clouds they obscure the sun, and darken the sky.  When we fly through the clouds we might well believe they are alive, as they buffet the plane and make our flight less enjoyable.  When we finally break above the clouds and see the open sky, we enjoy the beauty of God’s grandeur.  When we look down at that thick layer of clouds it might seem solid enough that we could walk on them—but we know better.
Whichever side of clouds we choose to focus on, sooner or later we’ll be led back to God.  While we have come far from ancient humans in our scientific understanding of clouds, they still bring us face to face with the God who created the patterns by which the universe operates.  In fact, scientific discoveries are, I believe, God revealing some of God’s wisdom to us.
Lying on our backs in the grass, reveling in the movement and shape of clouds, we find ourselves being led to the Creator of all beauty.  Our flights of fancy are both inspired by and directed to God.

Flying below, in, or above the clouds we are reminded of God’s power and majesty.  While we may or may not understand clouds any better than Judy Collins, we know that it is God who has given them to us for our benefit and enjoyment.