O My God, the long anticipated and feared war in Ukraine seems to have finally begun. What a sad thing it is that humankind cannot give up it’s addiction to violence. Why do we keep doing the very things we know we ought not do? Why do we insist on labeling some of our sisters and brothers our enemies? My heart is broken that again we have turned our backs not only on lessons we should have learned from centuries of history but also again on your will for peace and justice for all of your children.
And my heart is laden down with regrets and feelings of futility. What can this old tired and retired preacher say or do that I have not done for decades? Did we not learn anything from the other two bloody wars in Europe in just over 100 years ago? How can partisan blinders keep so many American leaders from seeing that Putin is reprising Hitler’s playbook? How can support for Putin from an American former president not be treason? How can I love these enemies foreign and domestic when I want to damn them all?
I’m wrestling with a desire to speak out but fear the political backlash I may get from family and friends who want to keep me in the straight jacket of an apolitical and irrelevant pastoral stereotype? Is not your heart also breaking, loving one? Has it not been broken too many times to count since Cain killed Abel? Massacres, crusades and genocides often waged in your holy name have filled whole chapters of human history. We build monuments and deify military and violent heroes, but we crucify and assassinate messengers of peace. How in your name, O God, can we keep our faith when the forces of evil and darkness seem to be gaining thousands of blind followers each and ever day?
The Christian season of repentance is coming in just a week. Please may we celebrate a solemn and holy Lent this year and call upon the power of your Holy Spirit, the one force stronger than violence and human evil, to save us from our own sinful ways. Christ have mercy! Amen
“Swimming is the trifecta for me – exercise, meditation and alone time.” Brene Brown, “Atlas of the Heart,” p. 18
I had been thinking the same thing about swimming lately, and it was so good to have those feelings affirmed by someone whose work I admire so much. As some of you know I took up swimming as my primary form of exercise about a year ago. It happened almost accidently when I began doing some of my physical therapy for recovery from back surgery in the water. One of the blessings of the pandemic is that our YMCA’s began letting people reserve a lane in the pool to control numbers of swimmers and maintain social distance. The reservations are for 45 minutes; so the first time I went to the pool it only took me 15 minutes to do my PT exercises, and I still had 30 minutes left in my allotted time in the pool. So I decided I might as well see if I could swim a few laps – with the emphasis on “a few.”
That first time I managed 3 laps before I was exhausted. I have never been a strong swimmer. When I was in Boy Scouts many decades ago I needed to earn merit badges in both swimming and lifesaving in my pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout. I passed both of those, but just barely. I was literally a 98 pound weakling in those days and also had a very hard time passing the requirement for running ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes. My 13 year-old self would never believe that as a 40 something I could actually run 5 miles in 37.5 minutes; nor would he believe that I can now swim 900 yards in less than 45 minutes.
Because of several health concerns swimming is the ideal low-impact aerobic exercise for me. And over the last 12 months I have not only increased my endurance but have come to truly enjoy swimming. Dr. Brown captures some of the reason for that when she says, “When I’m swimming laps you can’t call me or talk to me, it’s just me and the black stripe.” As an introvert I need solitude, and especially since I got a new mask and snorkel and can actually do most of my laps under water where I can’t see or hear anything that solitude has been like icing on the cake.
Even though I was a fairly serious runner for 25 years I never experienced what others describe as the “runner’s high.” Running was always work for me, I think in part because I ran most when I was going through some particularly rough patches in my personal, professional, and married life. I wasn’t running for fun but literally running away from problems I didn’t know how to handle. But I realized today as I set a personal record of 900 yards that I am feeling a swimmer’s high. The water supports me, relieving pressure on my joints, and I truly felt like I could have gone much further today. Today I was in a pool that does not reserve lanes; so I had no time limit on how long I swam. I enjoy being in the pool so much now that I can even do it without resistance or hesitation even on very cold winter days.
The meditation aspect of swimming has taken the form for me of repeating a couple of mantras that resonate with where I am now in my faith journey. Those phrases include several Hebrew and Greek words for God (Yahweh, Elohim, and Abba), spirit (ruach), justice (mishpat), and love (agape). I hope my seminary professors will forgive me for my awkward combinations of several languages, but my current mantras are: Ruach Abba, Ruach Elohim, and Yahweh Mishpat. I especially like using “Abba or Daddy” for God as Jesus did because my other inspiration for swimming is remembering the 12 frightening hours my dad spent in the cold North Atlantic waiting to be rescued from the crash of his B-17 at the end of WWII.
Everyone needs to experiment and find what works for you, and that can change as we change. Today I added a new combination inspired by our congregation singing “We Are Called” in worship yesterday. That hymn is based on my very favorite summary of faithful living in Micah 6:8; so I swam several laps today repeating “Do Mishpat, love Agape, and swim humbly with Abba.” I have had trouble creating a regular meditation practice on land—too many distractions, but in water, which has so many theological conotations for me, I feel especially focused, close to, and sustained by the mystery we call God.
“The Godhead deserves our attention, and we approach and honor it through silence more than through words.” This quote from Meister Eckhart was in my devotions this morning from Christian Mystics, by Matthew Fox. It is devotion #134 of 365, and it really hit home today. I posted a piece in my blog yesterday afternoon on “Respectful Disagreement” and a short time later got a notice from WordPress, my blog platform that I have never seen before. It simply said that my blog stats were taking off. I looked up the stats and was amazed that there had been 48 views of that piece in just an hour. And the hits just kept coming all day! There were 130 views by days end and another 29 this morning, far more in 24 hours than anything I’ve written in 11 years of blogging.
I’m quite sure that it is not my writing but the urgency of the topic that is attracting the attention. There are obviously a lot of people feeling the need for respectful disagreement, and God knows we should be. But all that aside I could not help from feeling pretty proud of myself. And along comes God speaking thru Meister Eckhart and Matthew Fox to put me in my place yet again.
Here’s the full quote from Eckhart –
“God is a being beyond being and a nothingness beyond being. The most beautiful thing which a person can say about God would be for that person to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth. So, be silent and quit flapping your gums about God.”
That smarts for a preacher and writer who has spent the last 53 years talking about God. It reminds me of hearing somewhere that trying to talk about God is like biting a wall. Words as inadequate as they are remain the primary tool we use to try and communicate the uncommunicable mysteries of existence.
Of course here I am still trying to capture the uncapturable with my puny words instead of just shutting up and living in mystery. Silence and surrender are just so uncomfortable that I cannot tolerate them for long. I know I will write about this again soon, but OK, God, for now I will be still and know what I cannot “know.”
Like many wiser minds I have been very troubled about the state of our nation and the world in general. In particular I’m most concerned about the chasm of polarization that seems hopelessly wide and deep, making any productive discourse almost impossible. This impasse is a huge impediment to resolving everything from American culture wars to Vladimir Putin waiting to pounce on Ukraine.
It may seem naive or trite, but what the Judeo-Christian world knows as “The Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems like such a simple solution to most of the world’s problems. Knowing that words similar to Matthew 7:12 or Leviticus 19:18 appear in other world religions I googled that phrase and, please excuse the pun, I struck gold on my first try. Here’s what I found:
The Saturday Evening Post: cover, April 1, 1961 was a Rockwell collage of a group of people of different religions, races and ethnicity as the backdrop for the inscription “Do Unto Other As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Rockwell was a compassionate man, and this simple phrase reflected his philosophy. “I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.” – Norman Rockwell
Here are Norman Rockwell’s notes on the way that the Golden Rule is expressed in different religions…
Such a list is an example of what some contemporary theologians (e.g. Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox) would call cosmic or deep ecumenism.
All of that is wonderful wisdom, but I want to share with you a concrete example, a snapshot in time if you will, of what that kind of mutual respect looks like in action. In response to my blog entitled “Leading with Your Head,” (Jan. 30, 2022) I received this comment from a friend and colleague, Rev. Phyllis Fetzer. She wrote,
“Hi, Steve, I enjoyed this blog post and thank you for the reminder re: being holistic and not just “leading with our head.” I mean no disrespect when I point out two things about your digression re: traumatic brain injury suffered by (football) players: (1) It’s not a “maybe;” it’s almost a certainty that players will experience damage to the brain. One recent (respected) study showed traumatic brain injury in 110 out of 111 players; that’s basically 100%. (2) May I gently point out to you (and hope that you would do the same to me) that having a lifelong habit of watching football doesn’t mean that that habit can’t change, right? Thinking of other ethical areas where people have said, “I just can’t change because it’s been this way my whole life.” E.g., men referring to women as “girls”. We *can* change in light of new learning, yes? I hope and think that you know that I respect you very much, and am also aware that I’m sure that I have (an) ethical blind spot(s) in some other area. Thanks for the good post.”
Wouldn’t the world be a much kinder and more productive and loving place if we could learn or relearn to disagree constructively and respectfully. I can tell you I certainly receive that kind of feedback with open arms and an open mind rather than putting up my defenses when I feel attacked. And I hope I have learned to live by that old golden rule just a little more thanks to Phyllis.