Things I Never Asked My Father

My father, Herb Harsh, died four years ago at the age of 96. Part of my grieving for him and for myself has been thinking of many questions I wish I had asked him before he lost touch with reality. There are several reasons we never talked about a lot of things.

My father was a child of the depression born in 1921. He grew up with an abusive alcoholic step-father in rural northwestern Ohio. In spite of that he excelled in school and was valedictorian of the 1939 class at Buckland, Ohio high school. We used to tease him that it didn’t take much to be at the top of a class of 19, but the more I’ve come to appreciate the obstacles he overcame I regret that I didn’t give him more credit for his academic and survival skills in those depression years. His high school classmates were lifelong friends for him, bringing him back to high school reunions for nearly 70 years until he could physically no longer make the trip back home from his retirement community near Cincinnati.

My sister Sue and I inherited Dad’s ability to achieve in school. She was valedictorian of a class of 200, and I was second in a class of 120; and both of us went on to get graduate degrees. I think Dad would have been the first in his family to go to college had it not been for WWII. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor. One of the things I wish I asked him is what he did in years between high school and the service. My sister said she remembered he worked on the railroad at some point in his early life, and we think that may have been it.

I also wish I knew where he got his love for music. He played his tenor saxophone and sang in every musical group he could find until he was about 90. He had his own dance band in the 1950’s and bookended that with organizing “The Harsh Notes” quartet at his retirement community. In between he sang in the choir at every church he attended. When the aging process took those things away from him he lost most of his will to live. Because I was not gifted with any musical talent I never showed much interest in his love of music, and I regret that. I have always been a sports fan and listened to or watched every baseball, football and basketball game I could. My dad had zero interest in sports of any kind, and I wish I had explored that topic with him, just to understand him better.

I know my parents met at a dance, but I never cared enough to ask him for any details, and I’m sorry. All I do know is that my mother, a small town girl of maybe 19, followed her love to at least two air corps towns in Texas. Somewhere along the line they decided to marry before he was shipped overseas to fly B-17 bombers. I don’t know if they ever were formally engaged or where/when that might have happened. I do know they were married on June 5, 1943 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he was stationed for officer training. Sometime thereafter he shipped out to England. I wish I knew more about when that was and how he traveled there.

After he died we discovered that he had written about some of his war experience for the newsletter at the Otterbein Retirement community where he lived the final 38 years of his life. He apparently flew a few bombing runs over Germany near the end of the war, which he didn’t like doing, and again I wish I had asked him more about that. Like most survivors of war I don’t think he really wanted to talk about his war experience, but I wish I had shown more interest and wonder if it would have been good for him to talk about it.

The life-changing event in his service career happened after the war was over in Europe. He was co-pilot of a B-17 bringing 17 service members home after the war. For some strange reason I wish I understood they were flying across the Atlantic at night, leaving a refueling stop in the Azores Islands around midnight. Shortly after leaving there both of their engines failed, and they were forced to ditch (crash land) in the cold North Atlantic. Because it was foggy they came down too steep and too fast. My dad was knocked unconscious by the impact and remembers his pilot shaking him and urging him to get out before the plane sank.

The survivors of the crash impact spent the next 12 hours in the dark waters that they had been told might be shark infested. They were not able to retrieve any life rafts from the wreckage and had to rely entirely on their Mae West life jackets to keep them afloat. By the time they were finally rescued the next morning only four of the 17 men on the plane survived.

I cannot begin to imagine what those 12 hours were like. My dad didn’t write about any of that in his account. Watching his buddies die and fearing for his own life would surely have qualified him for a PTSD diagnosis if there had been such a thing in 1945. I will never know why I didn’t figure that out until very late in his life. It would have changed so much about our relationship and made me so much more patient and understanding about his approach to life, parenting, and his faith.

I wish I had asked him about how that horrific experience brought him from a churchless upbringing to a devout, dedicated Christian life for 70 years. I can only guess how his conversion experience happened, but what I know for sure is that my personal and professional life choices were totally affected by his come to Jesus moment or hours there in that water.

Why didn’t I explore all those important life events with my father? Let’s say I was a child of the ‘60’s and he came of age in the ‘30’s. Ironically it was his encouragement of me academically that created most of the divide between us. My life experience once I began college and seminary was totally foreign to the conservative, parochial life my father grew up in and chose to stay in after the war.

Pre-Viet Nam I was a typical patriotic American kid. I played war games with my friends, I wrote a piece in 4th grade that said I wanted to be a marine when I grew up. I was an Eagle Scout in 1960 at age 14, but all that began to change one day in my senior year of high school. A history teacher, Mrs. Miller, told our class one day that she thought Viet Nam was going to be the next trouble spot in the world. None of us had a clue where Viet Nam was, nor that Americans had been dying there already for 4 years. Suddenly my fantasies about attending one of the military academies came face to face on the nightly news with the realities of guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Southeast Asia,

That unjust and unnecessary war escalating was the backdrop to my entire college and seminary educational experience. My peers were dying in Vietnam and at Kent State University just 100 miles from my seminary campus. At the Methodist Theological School in Ohio we students didn’t have to protest. Our faculty and administration cancelled all classes to discuss how we could respond to the Kent State tragedy. That event led to my first political action. Some of us decided to go Washington DC and talk with our legislators about our concerns over the war and the unrest it was creating in our country. In one 24-hour whirlwind three of us drove all night to DC, talked with legislators the next day and turned around and drove straight home that night. The three of us probably made no difference in DC, but we bonded through that experience and are still good friends 52 years later.

Unfortunately my new liberal politics and theology were very troubling to my dad. I understand now that he needed the certainty of very concrete beliefs and values to manage his undiagnosed PTSD, and my divergence from those beliefs and values were a threat to his worldview. I wish I had been smart enough then to be patient and understanding about where he was coming from; but I guess I was not confident enough in my own burgeoning faith to reason with him. It was easier to rebel and withdraw from any controversial issues with him.

There is a running joke in my extended family about all of us who have received one or more of Dad’s infamous letters criticizing us for breaking one of his rules for living. My younger sister was always her Daddy’s girl and was his devoted caretaker in his last difficult years. She prided herself that she had never received one of his nasty letters, and she made it till he was getting very belligerent about his circumstances in his last two or three years. I’m hoping I don’t get that way, but I do know I learned or inherited my impatience and temper from him. He had every reason to be miserable those final months.

My mother died suddenly from brain cancer a few weeks after my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. My dad was lost without her, and remarried a year later a recently widowed woman who also lived in their retirement community. Both families were aghast and thought they were making a huge mistake. But they had 20 good years together before dementia did it’s dastardly deed on her. Dad often lost patience with her, and I’m sure I would have too. Eventually she had to move into memory care, and Dad, bereft of his music, his wife, and his dignity became a handful. It was in that state he finally wrote a nasty note to my sister criticizing her for not being available to him 24/7. My sister Nancy is a candidate for sainthood, but her letter made one family member happy — my son, Matt, now gets to boast that he is the only member of the family who never got a Harshpa letter.

One of the things we can laugh about now but was very stressful in Dad’s later years was how much he absolutely hated wearing diapers. For many months he was determined he was going to invent an apparatus that would make diapers unnecessary. His idea was somehow to create a device out of plastic tubing which at one point he was going to super glue to his penis! When we all presented a united front and refused to buy him any more supplies for his hair-brained idea he was livid. I made one trip, two hours each way, to visit him after that, and when I told him no, I was not going to the hardware for him to buy supplies he told me I could go to hell, and my 4-hour trip resulted in one very ugly 5-minute visit.

I don’t share that to criticize my Dad. As I am aging now I fully understand the frustration of giving up so many things I used to be able to do. I wish I had more fully understood that for my dad, and I’m sure most families go through some similar tough times. We were never forgiven for taking away his car keys either, and I get it now.

The good news is that for some years before the diaper conflicts Dad and I reached a somewhat peaceful and comfortable relationship. He mellowed some, or gave up trying to change me, and I came to understand that he had done the best job as a father he could. That grace is what most dads want most for Father’s Day. We all have regrets about things we have done or failed to do as fathers, but the bottom line is we’ve all done the best we could, and that’s all anyone can ask.

Pentecost Prayer

Oh, dear God, sometimes we feel like those first apostles, confused and grieving over the violent death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans.  Given the horrific events in Uvalde, Ukraine, Tulsa and the nightly multiple deaths on the streets of Columbus and other American cities, we like Peter and the other disciples feel adrift and overwhelmed with doubts and fear for the safety of our children, teachers and for all of us.  

We humbly pray, O Holy One, that you will bless us this Pentecost day with the assurance and power of your Holy Spirit as you did so long ago.  As your current disciples we stand in the need of the strength and power you alone can provide for us in the living of these difficult days.  We may not feel a mighty wind or tongues of fire, but we ask that you reveal to us your ways of peace and justice in whatever form you choose in your wisdom to know the needs of our hearts.

The Pentecost story reminds us that you alone can break down the language barriers that divide your children from each other. We pray for your Spirit to build bridges over the gaps that separate us into different camps.  May the winds of Pentecost knock down the barriers between political parties, between the NRA and those asking for stricter gun laws, between law enforcement and those who fear or criticize them.  Touch us all with your universal tongue that breathes love into broken hearts, peace into fearful children and parents, and into all those on the margins of society who feel helpless to have their voices heard.

We pray that you will inspire this congregation of your church to grow in our ability to be a place where the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed in word and deed in ways that are understood by all of your children, no matter what languages we speak.  Help us articulate the good news that no matter what happens in our earthly lives you continue to love us and assure us that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from your eternal love.  Your holy wind is stronger than inflation, more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction, mightier than our grief and fear, and better than any app that translates our human words into a common language.  Your universal language is agape love where we understand that we are all loved and embraced by you no matter what transpires in our nation and world.  We are humbled and our hearts are filled with gratitude and trust that you will make a way for us in the days ahead as you always have.  

We pray as always in the name of the risen Christ who in his death and resurrection conquered all fear forever.  And so we join our voices now in the prayer Jesus taught us…

Dis-United: Realism vs Aspirations

May 2022 will go down in my personal history as one of the most difficult in my life. I have not written a post here for over a month for a number of reasons, including trying to work through my chronic pain to help care for our beautiful 2 acre property. My depression over my failing strength has coupled with despair over humankind’s addiction to violence. From Mariupol to Buffalo to Uvalde bloodshed has colored the news and my Eeyore-like emotional state.

Amidst all the terrible news of current affairs the unmerry month of May has been the scene of schism in the United Methodist Church, my church home for 65 years. That split along with the related political paralysis in our country got me searching for a common thread. There are several, but the one that captured my imagination is the semantic commonality shared by both my country and my church, namely that both share in their names a paradoxical claim to be “united.”

The UMC was founded 54 years ago in 1968 with the merger of two denominations, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren and is younger than the USA by almost 200 years. Realizing that the word “united” in both cases is more aspirational than descriptive, it still saddens me greatly that in both cases the divisions have widened over their lifespan rather than moved closer to living up to their names.

Case in point: “The United States may have been founded on the idea that all men are created equal, but during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, slaveholding was common among the statesmen who served as president. All told, at least 12 chief executives—over a quarter of all American presidents—enslaved people during their lifetimes. Of these, eight held enslaved people while in office.” (history.com)

The authors of the American experiment in democracy included the damning phrase in our constitution that enslaved persons only counted as 3/5 of a person because those authors were predominantly slave owners. That 3/5 clause was a compromise to “unite” the northern and southern colonies, but at a price we are still paying for today. Systemic racism had already been in existence for over 150 years in those colonies, and the battle over it dominated the country’s politics for 80 years ending in the bloodiest war in our history. But, unlike what most of us were taught in school, that war didn’t solve this existential problem. Systemic racism continued to poison our nation through lynchings, Jim Crowe laws, and outright genocide against Native Americans. That racism may have seemed to go underground for a few years after the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s but reared its ugly head again in the 21st century in the twin evils of birtherism and Trumpism.

It frustrates me greatly that we weren’t taught about this disunited history in school. Our history text books never mentioned the Tulsa massacre of 1921or many other similar atrocities all over the country. We did not learn about the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee or lynching of black folks for public entertainment sanctioned by the church. Those omissions were not our teachers’ fault. Those ugly parts of our history were so buried and censored that our educators didn’t know either and kept passing those lies along. “United” States? Not even close.

The disunity of the United Methodist denomination is a similarly sad story. I was ordained in 1969 in the first class of ordinands in the infant UMC. Three years later the exclusionary language condemning homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” was inserted into our Book of Discipline, the rule book governing the UMC, by the first General Conference of the new UMC. And for the next 50 years that culture war has raged, leading to the schism in our denomination.. That Covid-postponed split began to unfold officially on May 1, 2022 with the launching of a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church by those who are opposed to ordination and marriage for LGBTQ people.

So we have these two “united” in name only entities with ever-widening irreconcilable differences. When stuck in that kind of relationship a married couple faces the painful reality that separation and divorce may be the lesser of two evils. Divorce is always messy but sometimes necessary for both parties to survive and flourish. Even Jesus instructed his disciples in Matthew 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

Are we at that point in either the UMC or USA? For me the answer is yes and maybe. In the case of the UMC I am convinced that a divorce is necessary. For 50 of my 53 years as an ordained pastor in the UMC the debate over LGBTQ equality in the eyes of God has dominated a large part of our corporate life and consumed so much time and energy that could have been used in more important forms of ministry. As one with first-hand experience with marital divorce I can attest to how much emotional energy is consumed by conflict and pretending to be something we are not. There comes a time in some marriages when the most loving decision is to set each other free, and the UMC is at that point.

As for the USA the issues are far more complicated. Our two major political parties are so far apart on most issues there is little common ground upon which to stand. The Gospel of John tells us that we need truth to set us free and we aren’t getting much truth. The Republican Party has descended to fear-mongering and lies to get or maintain power. Too many individuals are so concerned with inflation and losing our own privileged lives to see the bigger picture. Such short-sightedness means we keep kicking the can of climate change and other critical issues down the road and leaving our children and grandchildren with a bleak future. Any modicum of impartiality and non-partisanship in the judiciary at every level has succumbed to political gamesmanship. Any hope for real election reform to undo the damage caused by Citizens United would have to be enacted by the very lawmakers who benefit from existing laws. That seems to be an idealistic pipe dream.

When we can’t even manage a peaceful transition of power in a Presidential election it seems hopeless to think we Americans could engineer any kind of altruistic or amicable divorce.

For real or even semi-unity in either of these cases a healthy dose of conversion to comply more closely to our founding ideals in the Bible or the constitution respectively would be necessary. Unfortunately the only road to conversion is through confession and repentance, and I see little humility needed to make that happen in our church or nation. If we continue to bear the heavy burden of pretending to be something we are not instead of facing the hard truth of our real history we will never have the courage or energy needed to hear the truth.

But here’s the truth that sets us free. We are still loved even in our division and sinfulness. Our creator’s unconditional love is what sets us free to confess our failures and move toward a more perfect union. It’s that simple and yet so hard because it requires a leap of faith. The alternative is to keep widening the chasm of disunity until it is beyond repair.

“Peace Be With You,” John 20:19-31

I spent most of the 1980’s doing youth ministry and was blessed to have a whole crowd of wonderful volunteer adult leaders, including one who played guitar and led our youth groups in singing.  One of the songs we did often came to mind this week as I was working on this sermon.  It’s an old Peter, Paul and Mary song called “Day is Done,” that includes these lyrics:

“Tell me why are you crying my child, I know you’re frightened like everyone.  Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?  Will it help if I stay very near?  I am here.  All will be well when the day is done.”

In our Scipture for today Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I am here.”  He says that with the phrase, “Peace be with you.”  In these 13 verses from John’s Gospel Jesus utters those 4 words not once or twice but three times.  And those words are the first thing he says when he appears mysteriously in a room with locked doors.  “Peace be with you.”  Why are those doors locked?  Because of fear.  And what do we need when we’re frightened- we need peace.  Jesus understands that his friends are afraid, and he has come to bring them peace that only he can provide, the peace that passes all human understanding.

Don’t we all yearn for that kind of peace?  Many tomb stones or sympathy cards include the phrase “Rest in Peace” That prompted someone on Facebook to ask recently, “Why do we only rest in peace? Why don’t we live in peace too?”  The good news in this post resurrection text from John is that we can.  We don’t have to die first.

I had an insight on Maundy Thursday this year about the disciples falling asleep while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We worshipped on-line and then I sat down to read.  But I couldn’t stay awake, and I wrote a short blog post about that experience.  In part, I said, “I’m not physically tired, just exhausted with world news overload. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue or just frustration that there seems to be so little I can do to save the world from its warring madness. I can’t not watch the news, and if the scenes from Ukraine or the New York subway shooting aren’t fatiguing enough they are interspersed with incessant mean-spirited and fear-based political ads.

Instead of judging the disciples for napping, maybe they were just worn out from all the weird stuff going on around them. They had to be confused trying to understand Jesus’ determination to put himself in harm’s way and with all his talk about death and resurrection. They had been on an emotional roller coaster from Palm Sunday’s high to this strange trip to the Garden in the dark. Jesus’ strange behavior, insisting on washing their feet, a job only done by servants, not a Messiah. And what did he mean about his broken body and his blood shed for them?

It was too much to comprehend. Maybe their bodies just shut down to get a respite from the confusion in their minds and spirits. They had hoped he was the one to throw off the Roman oppressors and bring them peace, but they were wrong.”

I had stopped at a Tim Horton’s earlier that day which was just two days after the subway shooting in New York.   As I waited for my coffee I found myself looking around for a place to hide if shooting suddenly broke out.  That’s a symptom of the low-grade fear that clings to us like a dryer sheet on a pant leg.  We try to shake it off by turning off the TV and social media, but we can’t unsee those pictures of Putin’s crimes against our sisters and brothers in Mariupol and Kyiv.  We can dress up and have Easter egg hunts and excellent worship to mark Holy Week and Easter (or Passover or Ramadan), but we’re still afraid of what’s happening to our world.  We’re already so awfully tired of COVID.  Wave after wave of extreme weather keeps leaving a path of destruction as they sweep across the country on a weekly basis, and still many people are in denial about climate change. We’re tired, Jesus!  Where is that peace you promised?

I find it helpful to step back and examine this need for peace through the stages of grief developed by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book, “On Death and Dying.”  She describes 5 stages of grief people go through if they or a loved one are dying:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally a stage of peace she calls acceptance I think the disciples in the Holy week experiences are in the early stages of grief.  Jesus has told them goodbye at their Passover meal, and they are already grieving.  Sleeping in the garden could be a form of denial, an escape from the reality of the moment.  When the soldiers come after Jesus one of the disciples grabs a sword and lops off the ear of a servant – that’s anger, another natural part of the grieving process.  

And now on Easter night John tells us that the disciples have already been told that morning by the women who were first-hand witnesses that Jesus is alive again.  Two of the disciples, being guys who don’t trust a woman’s word, ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

They call Missouri the show me state because people there insist that only seeing is believing. I don’t think any of the disciples were from. Missouri, but they act like it.   The disciples have not yet seen the risen Christ; so who can blame them for still locking the door?  They are like a little girl crying in her bed during a thunder storm.  When her daddy goes in to comfort her he hugs her and reminds her that Jesus is always there with her.  She looks up at him and says, “I know, Daddy, but sometimes I need someone with skin on them.”  Don’t we all?

Peace comes in many shapes and forms; a hug, a kind word, or just a willingness to sit with someone in their sorrow.  

I have had a springtime ritual for years that I’ve ignored during the COVID years.  For many springs before that I have watched Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in my favorite baseball movie, “Bull Durham.”  I happened to see it listed as I was channel surfing recently and recorded it; and Diana and I watched it about the time baseball season started.  What struck me this time through were some words that Costner’s character, Crash Davis, says to Annie in the final scene.  Crash is a veteran Minor League catcher, which means he’s good, but not quite good enough to make it to the Major Leagues.  He has just quit the game after setting the dubious record for most home runs in the Minors.  He comes back to Durham and to Annie who is a die-hard baseball groupie and intrepid philosopher of the game.  When Crash, bedraggled and exhausted, tells Annie that he’s hung up his catcher’s gear for the final time she launches into one of her treatises about baseball being a non-linear game.  Crash holds up his hand to stop her.  He says he wants to hear all of her crazy baseball theories but not tonight.  Tonight he says, “I don’t want to think about baseball or anything else.  I just want to be.”  

Isn’t that the peace of mind and soul we are so hungry for?  To rest, to stop worrying and thinking. And just BE.  In the Rock Opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” there’s a scene about just that.  Jesus is frustrated because his best efforts to move people closer to God’s kingdom of peace and justice are being ignored.  His friend Mary Magdalene tries to comfort him.  Many people see that scene and get distracted by theories that there was a romantic relationship between them, but that’s not the point.  Mary sings a sweet lullaby to Jesus where she says, “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh don’t you know everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine, and we want you to sleep well tonight. Let the world turn without you tonight.”

That kind of peace is what Kubler-Ross calls acceptance – the final stage of grief, making peace with the new reality that a loved one is gone or a job has disappeared or a relationship is irreparably damaged.  Or a world has gone mad.  It’s the peace the risen Christ offers his disciples and you and me, but there’s a paradoxical irony in this story.  John tells us that before Jesus offers peace to the disciples he breathes on them.  You have to let someone get very close to breathe on you if you can remember back before the 6 feet of separation we’ve lived with recently.  Breath, of course, in the Scriptures is the word that also means God’s spirit that can create something out of nothing. So the paradox is that we have to have enough peace to let Jesus get close enough to give us real peace! 

I don’t know about you, but on my less faithful days I’m not sure I want Jesus getting that close.  I’m afraid to be that vulnerable; so my own  or doubts  keep Jesus at a safe distance because of fear –fear of judgment, or rejection because I haven’t always lived a virtuous life.  But here’s the key to this story and to the Good News of the Gospel.  Remember that the disciples to whom Jesus offers his peace are the same guys who just 3 days ago denied and abandoned Jesus in his greatest time of need.  If Jesus offers them God’s peace he certainly can do the same for us. 

That’s the friend we have in Jesus we can take everything to in prayer.  If we try to hide parts of ourselves from God we are not only kidding ourselves, we are also revealing our mistaken belief in a God who is way too small.  St. Paul in Romans 8 says “nothing in all creation can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus.”  And that nothing means nothing. No powers, no principalities, and no Putin can stop God from loving us.   No matter how many of the big 10 commandments we’ve broken Jesus offers us peace. He makes us new creations by breathing the peace that breaks the chains of addiction, hatred, isolation, guilt, and despair.

Rev. Fred Shaw, a friend and colleague and a wonderful Native American storyteller, put it this way recently in a Facebook post.  I liked the way he said it and asked if I could quote him.  He said, “We move too quickly from Good Friday to Easter, and then we fairly fly from Easter back to “normal.” I want to carry both with me throughout my life.

On Good Friday, the most significant words uttered by human lips are heard again, “It is finished!” The Greek word for “finished” carries the meaning of completion, wholeness. For Native people, it is the fullness of the Circle.

All of the love that our Creator has for us from the beginning of time came to fruition in the death of Jesus on the cross. The greatest horror of which humanity is capable, the murder of God’s own innocence. Even that could not separate us from God’s love.

The curtain in the temple that had divided the people from the Holy Presence of God was ripped…from the top down! God’s full acceptance of who we are, and God’s declaration that God loves us anyway, was declared beyond words.”  Let me say that last part again: “God’s declaration that God loves us anyway was declared beyond words.”

What does all this say to our broken, fearful world today? We don’t know when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in the power of resurrection that assures us that “all will be well when the day is done.” 

You know the line about opera – that it isn’t over till the fat lady sings?  I thought about that when I heard that John Lennon’s son Julian recently sang his father’s wonderful song, “Imagine.”  What makes that remarkable or ominous is that Julian has always said he would never sing that song publicly.  And at least once he qualified that remark by saying, “maybe if it was the end of the world.”  I don’t know if the state of the world had anything to do with it, but he recently sang “Imagine” publicly. 

I’ve always loved the hope that song describes.  Nothing has ever been created that wasn’t first imagined, and those of us who have received Jesus’ gift of peace are called to keep the dream of peace alive, especially when it seems so absent. The song says,

“Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Easter is our invitation to join those who dare to imagine a world of peace.

You may have noticed the white post out by the parking lot as you came up the hill this morning.  We’re going to dedicate it after the service today.  On that Peace Pole are the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in English and seven other languages representing God’s children in every part of the world—including Spanish, Hebrew, Swahili, Arabic, ASL, Chinese and Japanese.   The Peace Pole is there where we will see it each time we come and go from here as a reminder to us of God’s peace and as a symbolic beacon of hope in a world bloodied by the ways of war.

Peace is our hope and our prayer, but wishing won’t make it happen.  Prayers without works are dead on arrival, and that’s why Jesus says something else to the disciples and to us after he says “Peace be with you.”  He says, “As God has sent me, so I send you.”  We can’t be peacemakers until we have surrendered to the peace that comes when we get up close and personal with Jesus.

I want to leave you with a thought from a Brazilian writer and journalist, Fernando Sabino.  He wrote, “In the end, everything will be all right.  If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”  That’s the message for this frightening time in our world.  “Peace be with you.” 

Exhausted in the Garden

It’s 9:40 pm on Maundy Thursday and I just had a whole new take on that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples keep falling asleep instead of keeping watch while Jesus is praying. It’s all too easy to pass judgment on the disciples. There’s just about nothing they do right tonight. We worshipped on-line tonight with our congregation, and then I sat down to read. But I keep falling asleep. It happens a lot in the evening lately. My spirit is willing but my flesh is weak and just plain tired.

I’m not physically tired, just exhausted with world news overload. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue or just frustration that there seems to be so little I can do to save the world from its warring madness. I can’t not watch the news, and if the scenes from Ukraine or the New York subway shooting aren’t fatiguing enough they are interspersed with incessant mean-spirited and dishonest political ads.

Maybe Jesus’ disciples were just worn out from all the weird stuff going on around them. They had to be confused trying to understand Jesus’ determination to put himself in harms way and with all his talk about death and resurrection. They had been on an emotional roller coaster from Palm Sunday’s high to this strange trip to the Garden in the dark. Jesus’ strange behavior, insisting on washing their feet, a job only done by servants, not a Messiah. And what did he mean about his broken body and his blood shed for them?

It was too much to comprehend. Maybe their bodies just shut down to get a respite from the confusion in their minds and spirits. They had hoped he was the one to throw off the Roman oppressors, but they were wrong.

What next, God? Here we are in the dark of night, discouraged and afraid. There’s a cloud of fear in the air everywhere. People are not OK. I’m not OK. The gunman in Brooklyn is certainly not OK and hasn’t been for some time. Neither Putin nor American conspiracy theorists are OK. Today for not the first time when I stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee I found myself looking around wondering what I would do if a deranged person with a gun started shooting. A server just doing her job at a local restaurant was wounded by a stray bullet from a fight outside just the other night here in Columbus.

Like Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew and the others on this Holy Thursday we’re tired. So tired. Maybe if we just go to sleep we’ll wake up and find this is all a nightmare. But here comes a mob with clubs and torches and Judas is leading them right to Jesus. This can’t be happening! What do we do now?

Anointed: Messiah Complex, John 12:1-8

Do you remember who your childhood heroes or heroines were?  Being vertically challenged all my life I’m sure influenced mine.  I was never big enough to imagine myself as Superman, but I could identify with a little flying caped rodent who came on every Saturday morning in the cartoons on TV.  I don’t remember much about him, but the theme song that introduced the show said something like “Mighty Mouse is here to save the day.” Yes, like most of our superheroes Mighty Mouse used too much violence to dispatch the bad guys, but he was always on the side of what my 8 year-old self understood as justice.  Life was so much simpler then.  Things were either right or wrong without all the messy ambiguity that I see in so much of life as an adult.

How many of you are familiar with the term “Messiah Complex?”  That’s an occupational hazard for preachers – to think that we and we alone have the Truth that will save the world.  It’s a dangerous and heavy burden to carry around.  I had a senior pastor advise me once when I was fresh out of seminary that I should “never lose my idealism.”  That was lousy advice.  Life on this side of heaven is not now nor ever has been “ideal.”  A better word choice would be to never lose Hope.  Idealism for me implies a kind of utopian ideal we humans can create.  Hope on the other hand is an unshakeable faith in God’s power to triumph over evil. 

We are living in a dark and ugly period of human history in so many ways.  Our hearts break every time we see pictures of what’s happening in Ukraine.  I have to turn the news off when I can no longer take the anger and helpless feeling to do anything to stop the cruelty.  Where is Mighty Mouse when we need him?  Or Wonder Woman?

At the beginning of the Gospels we have John the Baptist preaching hell fire and brimstone for all those who refuse to repent of their sins.  He’s expecting a superhero to overthrow the hated Roman oppressors.  But Jesus is not that kind of Messiah. We want a Rambo to save us and instead God sends us a Gandhi.   Jesus goes to the wilderness immediately after his baptism and rejects the temptation to use worldly power.  We long for a savior on a white stallion, but next week Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey.  We expect our heroes or heroines to arrive in a stretch limo or a Batmobile, but instead Jesus appears in a beat up old Volkswagen bug. 

But this 5th Sunday of Lent, before the Palm Sunday parade, the Gospel of John tells us that six days before the Passover, two days before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he came for dinner in Bethany at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  This is just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead in John, chapter 11.  So this could have been a joyous celebration of Lazarus new life, but at least some around that table know that they will be dealing with another death and resurrection the following week. 

Mary understands, and she anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume and wipes them with her hair.  It is an act of love that foreshadows Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the following Thursday, but it is more than that.  The word “Messiah” means “anointed one.”  Mary and Martha and Lazarus know better than anyone that Jesus has the power over death itself; he is truly God’s anointed servant.

And so are you, and you and you and me.  Let me say that again in a different way.  When we are welcomed into the family of God at our baptism, no matter when or how that happened, we are claimed, just as Jesus was, as God’s beloved children.  Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe billions of years before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet.  God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one.  And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire. 

There is nothing we can say or do, no matter how stupid or awful or sinful it may be that can ever change that.  Believe me, I’ve tried.   Jesus showed us that in the wonderful parable of the prodigal son where God the heavenly parent runs with open arms to welcome his wayward son back home.  St. Paul says it when he says “Nothing in all creation, not power, or Putin, or principalities, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” 

One of my favorite descriptions of resurrection came from a sermon by Bishop Dwight Loder at our annual conference many years ago.  He said, “Jesus wasn’t resurrected by the church; Jesus wasn’t resurrected for the church; Jesus was resurrected as the church.”

That’s the good news of the Gospel that we resurrection people draw strength from to be God’s servants in the world.  We all have a super power that enables us to hope when things seem hopeless; to love the unlovable, even when it hurts too much; to believe in peace and justice in a world that has gone mad.  That’s the kind of Messiah Complex we all need for these trying times to keep on keeping on.  A friend of mine reminded me recently of that old saying, “My get up and go got up and went.”  We all know that feeling.  But the power of the Holy Spirit tells us that even the “old will dream dreams” and “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up on wings like eagles.”

The Lenten journey is long.  We began on Ash Wednesday being reminded that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”  Don’t you hate being reminded of that?  A colleague in ministry told a group of us that he likes to change that up and say, “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  I like that so much better and just wish I had learned that earlier in my ministry.  “We are dust, but remember what God can do with dust.” 

Another way to say that might be, we know the pain and suffering Jesus will face in Jerusalem, but we also know the end of the story.  God wins!  Love wins!

When I get discouraged about my own life or the mess the world is in I often return to the words of an old song from my past.  Isn’t it funny how we can remember the lyrics to a song from 50 years ago but can’t remember if we took our meds this morning??  Anyway here’s the song from

“The Man of LaMancha.”

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into Hell
For that Heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, (or woman) scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with the last ounce of courage

To reach the unreachable star.”

Amen

[Preached at Wesley Glen retirement center, April 3, 2022]

Preacher’s Saturday Prayer

O God why must you work in such mysterious ways?   Couldn’t you just give me a message straight without so much work?  Your spirit came through again today as always, but couldn’t you have done that two or three days ago!  Why do I have to worry and wrestle with your Word like Jacob to find a 10 minute sermon?  Yes, the process is good for me, but I’m already limping from way too many years of sweating Saturday sermon preparation.  I do believe, Lord, honest I do.  I’ve literally experienced this miraculous process hundreds of times, but I’m old and tired and it’s harder work than it used to be.  Is that because I am afraid that I don’t have many more times to get this right?  Preaching is an awesome and awful privilege.  How can I dare to get up and presume to speak for you?  Yes, I know John Wesley said, “Preach faith till you have it.”  That’s why I’m still at it.  And this time, really “Let the words of my mouth be truly acceptable in your sight,” for I couldn’t do this if you were not my rock and redeemer.  Amen

March Madness Pastoral Prayer

O gracious God, we come today in this season of Lent, and during what many in our nation call March Madness. Most years the madness is just about college basketball tournaments for men and women, but this year it is also is a good way to describe the state of our world. We are heart broken by the pictures of the devastation in Ukraine and the millions of innocent refugees streaming out of their homeland.

Madness is a mild term to describe the cruelty and lack of human compassion on display by Putin and the Russian soldiers. We followers of Jesus are called to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, but those are hard words to live in a world gone mad. We pray for the people of Ukraine and for the Russians caught up in this senseless pursuit of power. Please, dear God, guide President Biden and other world leaders as they meet this week to search for ways to end the violence without lighting the fuse of a world war that no one can win.

You have taught us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. We are so hungry and thirsty, Lord. We yearn for human contact that COVID has denied us. We need assurance that this chaotic life we have been living for two years is really returning to normal. Please let your Holy Spirit be the wind beneath our wings that helps us create a new normal where love is the roadmap we follow. Teach us again that abundant lives are measured in priceless moments and not in bit coins or dollars.

We also need to have our hope restored, hope that the human race can learn to live together and fight a common enemy like climate change instead of each other. Remind us again of our history as your people. How many times do the Scriptures describe the holy city of Jerusalem in ruins like the pictures we see from Ukraine? How often has the sacred temple in Jerusalem been leveled by conquering armies? More than we can count, and yet each and every time you, gracious and loving God have redeemed your people and renewed your covenant with us. Even when we crucified your son you raised him up to show us love is more powerful than death and hate.

In this season of Lent we practice the spiritual disciplines of introspection and repentance. It is so easy to react to all the trouble in the world by looking for others to blame. Whatever the problem, we would rather fix blame on someone else and look for the specks in their eyes rather than at the log in our own. Confession is oh so hard and yet it is the only road that leads to spiritual well being and salvation.

The wide easy road is so much more appealing than the narrow wilderness path. Doing what we have always done seems so much simpler than trying something new and unfamiliar.

Staying in an uncomfortable rut where we don’t have to take risks looks better than the unknown future. But following the crowd often takes us to places we don’t really want to go. Help us loving spirit to take time this Lent to examine our values, our goals, our vision of how to grow more closely into the people you want us to be.

As we navigate whatever March Madness looks like for us this Lent, help us remember the example of Christ who has gone through the wilderness before us, who set his face toward Jerusalem rather than running from trouble, and who went to the cross rather than betray his God and his true values.

We offer our lives and our prayers to you our heavenly parent in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen

Ukraine: Reaping the Whirlwind and Beyond

“Those who have sown the wind will reap the whirlwind.” Hosea 8:7.

The prophet Hosea wrote those wise words over 2700 years ago predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria. The wind they had sown in that case was putting their trust in foreign alliances instead of God.

Fast forward to 2022 CE to a confrontation between Vladimir Putin and the western world.  The civilized world is appalled at the brutal and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians by the Russian dictator. There are many legitimate arguments being made comparing this invasion to Hitler’s takeover of Eastern Europe 80 years ago.

President Biden and the NATO allies are very reluctant to confront Putin militarily or in any way that Putin might construe as an affront to his fragile ego. The comparison of this “inaction” to British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s failed appeasement of Hitler in the run up to World War II is somewhat persuasive, but there is one huge difference. Hitler didn’t have nukes. Putin does, lots of them, and he seems unhinged enough to use them.

In other words, we sowed the atomic wind on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 80 years ago and launched a suicidal arms race with the ever so apt strategy named MAD (mutually assured destruction). Now we are reaping the whirlwind of birthing the nuclear arms race. Our ability to stop Putin’s massacre of Ukrainians is hamstrung by the fear of the very nuclear arms race we invented.

I have no solution to this conundrum. Even though I try to be a pacifist, if there was a way to blow Putin to kingdom come without escalating this whole mess I’d be all for it. No one wants to ignite WW III because we know there will be no WW IV. In my darker days, and there are more and more lately, I am beginning to believe that between humanity’s obsession with violence and our greed that fuels climate change the human race is doomed.

But here’s the thing, that is not as hopeless or as fatalistic as it sounds. Because the God of the entire universe is so much more, well, cosmic than anything our puny little planet amounts to that the loss of this 3rd rock from the sun would barely be a blip on the cosmic screen. That is a harsh pill to swallow for those of us who think we are created in God’s image, a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5)! Ever since Galileo and Copernicus dared to question the anthropocentric belief that the earth was the center of the universe our knowledge of the infinite nature of space has made us more and more humble, or should have.

I hope and pray I am wrong about the future of humankind. At my age it doesn’t really matter much to me personally, but it makes me sick to think of that bleak future I’m leaving to my kids and grandkids. Is there still hope for humans to learn to live in peace with one another? Could the threat of climate change provide motivation for humans to finally band together to fight a common foe instead of each other? Based on our past track record I don’t see it happening. If the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki didn’t cure our warring madness, what will?

[Note: This post originally ended right here, but about 5 minutes after I posted it I heard that still small voice saying, “That’s not the end of the story.” So I unposted it and added the following.]

Here’s the good news—the whirlwind doesn’t get the last word. The name “Hosea” means “salvation.” And even though Hosea proclaims Yahweh’s anger at Israel he also shares God’s compassionate nature for the Souther Kingdom, Judah.

“But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; (1:7a). But listen to the rest of that sentence: “I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”(7b). God’s salvation does not come by instruments of death and destruction. Those ways are anathema to the One who dreams of a day when swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and the ways of war are learned no more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The biblical narrative has rightly been called the salvation history of humankind. How many times do the chosen people break their covenant with God? How many times is Jerusalem leveled like one of the horrendous images we have from Ukraine? Pick a number, any number, say x. And whatever number we pick the answer to the next question, how many times does God redeem her people, is x + 1.

Even as he proclaims judgment on Israel’s unfaithfulness just three verses later Hosea assures his readers that the alienation and suffering is not the final word.

“Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 1:10)

What does this say to our broken, fearful world today? We know not when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in resurrection that assures us that nothing in all creation, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Amen

Random thoughts from Ash Wednesday, 2022

From my pastor, Chris Rinker:  “Giving up something is not punishment but making a space for God to create something new in us.”  He followed that with a question I will be pondering for awhile:  “What can I do or not do for Lent that will make space for God in my life?”

I read this one from a fellow pastor in a Facebook group responding to a question about what words to use while imposing ashes.  I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, but his words have stuck with me.  He suggested saying  “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  

That got me thinking.  We are dust of the earth but also star dust spewed forth billions of years ago by the Big Bang that is still creating and expanding God’s universe.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder to accept our mortality so we, like Buzz Lightyear, can leap into the future and go to “infinity and beyond.”  We chuckle at a Disney toy making that kind of foolish leap, but on the days we believe** we know that it is exactly what we are called to do—to  trust without fear, even when the foundations of our world are shaken by rockets and bombs; even when we fear what a madman with nuclear weapons could do to life as we know it; even when we fear that human kind is hell bent on destroying Mother Earth with our pursuits of greed and power.  

To trust God in such a time as this is to surrender all that we rely upon to give us security—all of that earthly stuff because to quote Kerry Livgren of the rock band Kansas, “all we are is dust in the wind.”   But that wind is the Holy Spirit/Wind that breathes life into dust, that shapes star dust into us who are, on the days we believe and on those we don’t, truly created in the image of Being itself.  Our current form goes from dust to dust, but our essence, our being is eternal.  When this mortal life is over we trust that we will be forever in the heart of God who is love itself.  Amen

** “On the days we believe” is a phrase I have adopted from Rachel Held Evans’ book “Wholehearted Faith” where she dares to write what I have often been afraid to say out loud. I will be forever grateful to her for her gift of honest vulnerability and helping me claim that I too have good days when I believe and many others when I’m really not sure.