Late tonight (Monday), when I should have been going to bed, I heard about yet another mass shooting in California. Not the one Saturday, but a new one on Monday, at least the fourth in the U.S. in three days. I don’t know what to do with my frustration and anger about this uniquely American problem; so I let my heart pour out to God:
Dear God, as you know the bad news of hate and killing just keeps crashing in on us like a tsunami. Monterrey Park, Baton Rouge, Des Moines, Half Moon Bay-all names added to the shameful litany of American gun violence in just the last 3 days. We humans are violent. We’ve known that since Cain killed Abel, but Cain couldn’t reload and kill dozens of people in a matter of seconds. We are tired of the “guns or people kill people argument.” People with guns kill people, and people with access to weapons of war can kill indiscriminately.
Why, O Lord, do we Americans have more guns than any other nation in the world? Yes, we confess our nation was born in violent revolution, oppression of black humans, and genocide of Native Americans. Gun ownership was carved into our Constitution because Southern slave owners feared their human property would rebel against their cruelty. Give us courage, dear God, to face those harsh truths or we will never stem the red tide of innocent blood that stains our collective soul.
Holy One, the fratricide at Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Chattanooga didn’t quench the thirst for American violence. And when the gun manufacturers couldn’t sell their deadly wares to the military after the Civil War they cleverly used racism and fear of “others” to market more and more sophisticated weapons to American men eager to prove their manhood and protect their property and loved ones by owning the latest guns.
God, we are so tired of the discomfort that creeps upon us when we are in a crowd of people and begin to look around to see who might be the next gunman! This is no way to live! The gun lobby has purchased the votes of our elected officials so that no common sense gun control legislation can ever see the light of day. In my state and in others people can now carry concealed weapons without a permit! We are regressing instead of addressing our problem.
What will it take, Lord, to bring us to our senses? How many more innocent people will die before we find the courage to put an end to this madness? Why can’t we learn from what other countries have done? American exceptionalism blinds us to the wisdom and experience we need to glean from other cultures and nations!
Lord, we do have a mental health problem, that’s true, but the paranoia, rage, and desperation are more than individual problems. Our whole culture, economy, and system of government is mentally ill and in denial. Wake us up from this nightmare, Holy God. Bring us to our senses so we can stop doing the same thing (nothing) and expecting different results! We obviously don’t have a clue as to how to stop the madness on our own. Bring us humbly to our knees and give us ears to finally hear and obey the voice of the Prince of Peace. In whose holy name we beg for your healing mercy and love. Amen
I discovered the work of Diana Butler Bass last year and continue to be challenged and inspired by her writing. Her training as both an historian and a theologian gives tremendous new insights into how to read Scripture. One of the most helpful of those commentaries on a familiar passage about Jesus’ call of his first disciples to follow him and “fish for people” broke open for me exciting and challenging new ways to read those texts in their historical context.
They say “misery loves company,” whoever “they” are, and I experienced a little “comfort” from being in the majority yesterday, MLK Day. NPR did an excellent job all day of doing interviews about people who influenced Dr. King and vice versa. I was listening while driving so couldn’t take notes, but I was struck by one professor’s comment. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s important to remind people today who rightfully honor King for being the great civil rights leader that he was that he was not loved and was even reviled by a majority of Americans while he was alive. He cited stats indicating that about 60% of white Americans regarded MLK as a rabble rouser and trouble maker during his lifetime, and a bit surprising, that 50% of black Americans disagreed with King’s tactics and felt he was making their lives more difficult.
Those stats helped ease some guilt I’ve carried for 50 plus years for being one of those whites who dismissed Dr. King as a troublemaker. I even remember thinking the horrible thought that “he got what he was asking for” when he was assassinated. Given my upbringing in an all white, very conservative family and community where in the words of a Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song from “South Pacific” I was “carefully taught to hate all the people my relatives hate” that is not too surprising. In fact I learned just a few years ago that there was a KKK chapter in my NW Ohio community and that one of my great uncles was one of the leaders in that ugly movement. My younger self had no chance but to breathe in the putrid stench of racism.
I was a senior in college, however, when King was gunned down in Memphis and should have begun to know better. My old worldviews were being stretched a bit at that point, but I still remember hearing a sermon the Sunday after Dr. King’s murder where the preacher referred to King as a “Christ figure.” That was more than my puny mind could handle back then, and in hindsight I think it might have been too much for his congregation too since he was soon forced out of that church after only two years there. And that was one of Methodism’s more “liberal” churches. Ironically that pastor became a good friend, colleague, and mentor to me 5 or 6 years later when I was appointed associate pastor to that same congregation after graduating from seminary.
By then I had been converted to a social gospel theology by my seminary professors, and I too got in some hot water for crossing the imaginary line between church and politics. A few years later when I went back to grad school to study rhetoric, which classically is the art of persuasive discourse, I wrote a paper I titled “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” That paper was partly my excuse for not being a more outspoken social critic and partly my more scholarly attempt to understand the very real historical phenomenon I had lived through in the assassinations in Dallas, Memphis, and L.A. in just 5 years between 1963 and 1968.
Prophets are much easier to love from the perspective of history — when they are not goring our current oxen. Lincoln was reviled and hated in his lifetime. Gandhi was assassinated. And let’s not forget about Jesus. We’ve sanitized his crucifixion with the flawed doctrine of substitutionary atonement when the cold hard truth is that Jesus was executed because he was a thorn in the side of the Jewish and Roman authorities who had to go.
One other thing I remember about grad school 30 plus years ago is that I wrote a different paper analyzing the rhetorical effectiveness of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My argument then and now is that the reason that speech was so powerful is because the dream MLK delivered so eloquently on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was not a new dream. King’s dream speech was brilliantly built on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition all the way back to Amos and Micah and Isaiah. Those visions of “righteousness rolling down like waters,” of “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” were also woven into the founding documents of our nation by Jefferson. King reminds us all in his powerful voice and vibrant images of those very values our common life aspires to.
That dream has survived crucifixion, persecution, crusades, pogroms, Holocaust, genocide, and systemic racism for over 2800 years. It is so easy to be discouraged that the forces of evil have risen up in recent years to seemingly defeat that dream, but the lesson of history is that truth and justice will prevail someday. It’s very frustrating that we have regressed in our pursuit of the dream Dr. King lived and died for. Our schools and neighborhoods and churches are still segregated. Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate Robert E. Lee day on King’s birthday. White supremacy has polluted the political mainstream and taken over the party of Lincoln. But we still have a dream that is stronger than hate, and “deep in my heart I do believe, that dream will overcome someday.”
[Note: This post was written on January 2 but not posted until January 4. It will make more sense with that timeline in mind.] My year of practicing gratitude literally began with a tough challenge. For almost all of my adult years the new year has begun with watching the iconic ball drop in Time Square. Thanks to my own and our cultural addiction with football, 2023 was different. Along with a group of friends I watched a different ball drop this year—a ball that will linger in Ohio State fans’ memories as “wide left.” 2023 was literally just a few seconds old when what would have been a game winning field goal over #1 Georgia sailed like a wounded duck far left of the goal post.
That was almost 36 hours ago, but today as I read several articles about the game in today’s Columbus Dispatch I relived that moment and the frustration of a controversial call that dramatically affected the outcome of the game. I should not have subjected myself to that memory, but I was unable to let it go.
For me, that is a prime example of my biggest obstacle to practicing gratitude. I mentioned one of my mentors, Dr. Bill Brown, and his rhetorical theory called attention shifting in my last post, and this is exhibit A for 2023. In the larger scheme of problems on the world stage or even in my personal life the outcome of a silly game should not be my prime focus. The Peach Bowl is over and done. My dwelling on a terrible call by the refs does not deserve the amount of my attention I am choosing to spend on it. And it is a choice. I can shift my attention to a whole host of things that deserve my attention so much more if I choose to do so. [Remember, I wrote this a few hours before the near fatal football injury to Damar Hamlin, but that tragedy underscores in spades that all football games and other athletics must be kept in proper perspective.]
Notice I did not say that this is a simple or easy shift to make. The local media, my friends, and my social media are full of conversations about the Ohio State game. It is not easy to shift my attention away from all that chatter, but it can be done. I can choose to not read about the game. I can literally switch the tv channel when discussion of that game comes on. Unfortunately I don’t have a remote that can switch the channels in my brain when I think about that loss or my own aches and pains, or other negative and depressing problems in our world. But attention switching is a skill that I can learn if I choose to do so. And making practicing gratitude my priority for 2023 is step 1 in that process
I had the privilege again this past Advent to create liturgies for the lighting of each advent candle for our church. When we got to the third Sunday and the candle of joy (12/11/22 post) I asked some of my fellow fans of Dr. Brené Brown to help me find what she has said about joy. My friend Jean Wright came through with this gem from Dr. Brown: “In our research we found that everyone who showed a deep capacity for joy had one thing in common: They practiced gratitude…A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean in to pure joy without denying the struggle in the world. It’s not always easy or comfortable – but what makes joy possible is a front made of love and a back built of courage.”
There’s an old joke about someone asking how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer is “practice, practice, practice.” Well, apparently the way to get to Joy is also, like any other life skill, to practice. Since I am by nature a skeptical, glass half empty kind of person, learning gratitude for me is something that requires lots and lots of practice. Practice is hard. Playing scales on the piano is work. Practicing on the putting green for hours is not nearly as much fun as hitting the crap out of a ball on the driving range. But no one will master the piano or lower their golf score without those basic practices.
It is no coincidence that my friend Jean Wright’s daughter, Katy, recently shared her wisdom about gratitude that she learned from podcasts with Kate Bowler and Kelly Corrigan who indirectly address the practice of gratitude by dividing life experiences into two categories, the “happies” and the “crappies.” The trick, of course, is paying at least an equal amount of attention to the former as we do the latter.
One of my mentors in grad school, Dr. Bill Brown, developed a rhetorical theory that helps with this task. He calls it “attention shifting,” which I will oversimplify here by saying it means intentionally shifting our focus or attention from one thing to another. I was reminded recently of another related skill for keeping things in perspective and practicing gratitude when my wife and I attended a high school production of “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” produced by the excellent Theater Arts Department at Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, OH. Our great nephew Ryan Buckley has been part of that program for all four of his high school years, and we have enjoyed many plays there; but one scene in this production really resonated with me.
The Kindergarten play is based on the book by the same title by Robert Fulghum. I have read most of Fulghum’s stuff; so this story was familiar, but I must have been ready to hear it again. It’s a little long for a blog post, but I am going to include it here in full because it is so good.
Fulghum writes: “In the summer of 1959, at the Feather River Inn near the town of Blairsden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. A resort environment. And I, just out of college, have a job that combines being the night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables. The owner/manager is Italian-Swiss, with European notions about conditions of employment. He and I do not get along. I think he’s a fascist who wants pleasant employees who know their place, and he thinks I’m a good example of how democracy can be carried too far. I’m twenty-two and pretty free with my opinions, and he’s fifty-two and has a few opinions of his own.
One week the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every single day. Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls. To compound insult with injury, the cost of meals was deducted from our check. I was outraged.
On Friday night of that awful week, I was at my desk job around 11:00 P.M., and the night auditor had just come on duty. I went into the kitchen to get a bite to eat and saw notes to the chef to the effect that wieners and sauerkraut are on the employee menu for two more days.
That tears it. I quit! For lack of a better audience, I unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman.
I declared that I have had it up to here; that I am going to get a plate of wieners and sauerkraut and go and wake up the owner and throw it on him.
I am sick and tired of this crap and insulted and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it and who does he think he is anyhow and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut and this is un-American and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat it one day for God’s sake and the whole hotel stinks anyhow and the horses are all nags and the guests are all idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to the pigs. Something like that. I’m still mad about it.
I raved on this way for twenty minutes, and needn’t repeat it all here. You get the drift. My monologue was delivered at the top of my lungs, punctuated by blows on the front desk with a fly-swatter, the kicking of chairs, and much profanity. A call to arms, freedom, unions, uprisings, and the breaking of chains for the working masses.
As I pitched my fit, Sigmund Wollman, the night auditor, sat quietly on his stool, smoking a cigarette, watching me with sorrowful eyes. Put a bloodhound in a suit and tie and you have Sigmund Wollman. He’s got good reason to look sorrowful. Survivor of Auschwitz. Three years. German Jew. Thin, coughed a lot. He liked being alone at the night job–gave him intellectual space, gave him peace and quiet, and, even more, he could go into the kitchen and have a snack whenever he wanted to–all the wieners and sauerkraut he wanted. To him, a feast. More than that, there’s nobody around at night to tell him what to do. In Auschwitz he dreamed of such a time. The only person he sees at work is me, the nightly disturber of his dream. Our shifts overlap for an hour. And here I am again. A one-man war party at full cry.
“Fulchum, are you finished?”
Lissen, Fulchum. Lissen me, lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not wieners and kraut and it’s not the boss and it’s not the chef and it’s not this job.”
“So what’s wrong with me?”
“Fulchum, you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem.
“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire–then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.
“Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much. Good night.”
In a gesture combining dismissal and blessing, he waved me off to bed.
* * *
Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes with a truth so hard. Years later I heard a Japanese Zen Buddhist priest describe what the moment of enlightenment was like and I knew exactly what he meant. There in that late-night darkness of the Feather River Inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously kicked my butt and opened a window in my mind.
For thirty years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something really stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks: “Fulchum. Problem or inconvenience?”
I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference. Good night, Sig.
As I reflect on the year 2022 it is very easy for me to see the entire year through the lens of the last couple of months which have been rather crappy for me. Following my 76th birthday at the end of October my 77th trip around the sun began with an unexpected hospital stay because of a very serious urinary tract infection. That urinary infection has turned out to be one that is very hard to get rid of and has been bothering me off and on for about seven weeks now. Because of that it has been easy for me to throw a pity party for myself if I forget to keep my focus on the larger scheme of things. This illness is just an inconvenience. Other than the time I spent in the hospital and I a few days after that, I have been able to continue my normal daily activities. Those activities included the aforementioned opportunities to create Advent liturgies for worship in our church. And by sharing those liturgies in my blog, they have also been used by a number of other readers and worship leaders, for which I am grateful. I even got a bit of a chuckle each week during Advent when I noticed that the number of clicks on my Advent liturgies always seemed to go up about Thursday or Friday. I remember from my days of active pastoral ministry those were the days of the week when I suddenly realized I needed some help with worship resources for the coming Sunday.
I also realized this week that part of the attention shifting/gratitude practice is keeping my focus on the big picture and not just what is immediately in front or behind me. By paying too much attention to my recent illness I had completely forgotten about an amazing therapeutic golf program I became a part of this summer. That program is quite appropriately called “Fore Hope.“ In brief, this program pairs a wonderful volunteer “caddie” with each golfer. These caddies help the golfers with whatever that individual needs, from loading clubs on the golf cart, putting the ball on the tee, hunting for wayward balls, or literally holding the golfer up while he or she swings if there are balance issues. Having the opportunity to be a part of that program has given me a lot of hope and a new lease on life because I have been able to do something that I dearly love, which I thought was gone forever because of my health concerns. It has enabled me to play golf again with my son, and for the first time with two of my grandsons, and to my surprise as an introvert it also made me a part of a whole new community of friends.
I played my last golf with that group in mid-October and could not have written a more satisfying script for that evening. It was chilly, as October evenings are want to be in Ohio, and I almost wimped out and didn’t go; but I am so glad that I did. You see it turned out to be one of those magical times on the golf course when every putt found its way into or very close to the cup. And what is so special about the Fore Hope Golf community is that everybody is a cheerleader. We don’t keep score; so there is no insidious competition, and when any player makes a good shot everyone genuinely affirms that accomplishment.
But here’s the thing—about three weeks later I was flat on my back in the hospital and in the ensuing recovery from that experience, because I did not practice gratitude, I forgot all about the sheer joy I felt sharing those days on the golf course with my new friends. So for me, at least, an important part of the practice of gratitude is paying attention more often to the happies, and not letting the crappies which come along for all of us knock those moments of joy out of my awareness.
Even though I had 9 good hours of sleep last night I still woke up tired. So I’ve been thinking a lot all morning about how exhausting the two week holiday marathon at the end of December can be for introverts like me. When I was a full time pastor I blamed my tiredness on how busy the Advent/Christmas/New Year’s season is in the life of the church. Now that I am retired that explanation doesn’t work; especially this year when we celebrated Christmas Eve on line because of the nasty winter storm which canceled in person worship for many churches.
And then I read on Facebook that today, January 2, is actually World Introvert Day. Here’s what I found in a quick Google search: “Introverts worldwide will be able to celebrate World Introvert Day on January 2. This is the day following the dreadful celebrations of the previous year has ended. It allows them to enjoy solitude finally and recharge their social batteries. World Introvert Day started when psychologist and author Felicitas Heyne published this blog post calling for a day for us quiet ones.”
And so I wrote this prayer:
Holy One, I am grateful for the spiritual lessons of Advent and Christmas and for the changing of the calendar as a time for reflection and renewal, but I’m worn out. I enjoyed time with families and friends and lots of good food and fellowship. But I’m tired; I’m tired of people and parties. I’m tired of hearing the same holiday songs on a continuous loop. I need some peace and quiet, solitude and time to just breathe and be.
I need a sabbatical, and I know you get it, God, even if my extrovert friends never seem to run down. You took a day off after creation and rested. You included honoring Sabbath rest in your Top Ten rules for living. So thank you for that. Please help me to not feel guilty for putting my feet up and taking a nap today. Please help me set healthy boundaries on my energy levels; to remind myself and others that we introverts need downtime and solitude to recharge our batteries.
We can do the party circuit. We can prepare holiday meals and clean up. We can play games with the grandkids. But it drains our energy, and we need time to refresh, especially this time of year when the calendar is super full of events we want to attend. I even surprised myself this year that I was able be more present and active with family and friends, even when I didn’t feel like it beforehand. And then I crash when the party is over.
Please help me be gentle with myself; to not give up or get frustrated, but to rest when I’m tired. I think Isaiah must have been thinking of us introverts when he said, “God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted, but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (40:28-31)
Thank you, source of all energy, for Sabbath moments or days when we can simply wait on you. Amen