From Worst to Best: Kindness of Strangers

We always share a good news story as part of our prayer time at Northwest UMC to remind us that amidst all the bad news in our broken world there are many acts of kindness being done every day that don’t make headlines. My wife and I recently returned from a two-week trip to Italy and Greece, and as soon as we returned I sent a message to our pastors that I had a personal good news story from our trip that I wanted to share with the congregation. This is that story.

Our trip was wonderful. Everything worked like clockwork. No delays. We were never terribly lost anywhere, and the weather was wonderful. We were in Athens, Greece the day before our return flight to the States. We spent the morning sightseeing and ate lunch at a quaint hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant; and THEN came the low point of our whole trip – I realized when getting ready to pay for lunch that I had lost my wallet somewhere that morning. We thought it might have been on one of the hop-on-hop-off buses we rode that morning; so we called that company, and they said no one had turned it in, but we could call back later and check.

It took us 20 minutes or more of panic to figure out what to do next and find a place quiet enough that we could hear. I have trouble hearing so Diana did most of the phone talking. Before we started calling credit card companies I got a call from our hotel answered by Diana. I didn’t realize who had called and was confused about how our hotel got involved, but they said someone had found my wallet and called them. They gave us number for a man named Mario.

I was overwhelmed with relief. But we were not home free quite yet. When Diana called Mario she quickly found out he spoke not a word of English; so we could not communicate. Diana asked several people passing by on the street if they spoke Greek and none did – but one young man suggested going into a local market to see if some one there could help us. The first young woman we asked could not speak English, but she got her manager who took my phone and spoke with Mario. She said he would take the wallet to our hotel in about 20 minutes.

It was then I realized I had the hotel room key card in my billfold and that is how he knew to call them. We got a taxi to take us to our hotel, but it was now rush hour on Friday afternoon and traffic was terrible. It seemed to take us forever and when we did arrive, Mario had not arrived and my heart sank again. The report at the hotel was that Mario found the wallet in the national park near our hotel. I had sat on a low bench there and even though my pocket has a Velcro cover on it, the wallet must have fallen out.

Mario called my phone again just then, and someone at the hotel desk served as our interpreter this time, talked to him and said he was on his way. He showed up very soon with his whole family with him. He told a doorman at the hotel that the same thing had happened to them before. That was why they went out of their way to make sure we got my wallet back.

When he handed me the wallet my heart sank again. All of my cash was gone. Someone had gotten to the wallet before Mario, but the good news is all of my credit cards, insurance cards, driver’s license, etc. were all there. I lost about $80 in cash but was so relieved to have every thing else back I didn’t really care. I was going to offer Mario a reward but had no cash to do so. He didn’t seem to expect one. I was very very lucky these total strangers took all that time and trouble to find me and so grateful to all the people who helped us overcome the language barrier and connect us. What could have ruined our trip turned into a celebration of basic human kindness and goodness.

Diana and I did our best without being able to speak Greek to tell Mario, his wife and two daughters how grateful we were. In all the emotion of the moment I forgot to take a picture of Mario and his family, something I would love to have; but trust me, we will never forget those kind new friends we made in Greece.

Pentecost/Memorial Day Prayer

O Holy Spirit of wind and flame, here we are to worship on this intersection of Pentecost and Memorial Day weekend.  As always our prayer is for your Holy Spirit to breathe life into all we do. As we set aside time this weekend to honor the memories of fallen heroines and heroes we give thanks for our inalienable freedoms, even as we also engage in the continuous work of preserving and extending basic human rights to all of your children.  On this holiday when we ponder the awful cost of wars past and present, we pray for your vision of peace and justice to become at last a reality in this broken world.

For many of us this weekend is also a time to remember loved ones who are in the great cloud of witnesses that surround us.  Memories are like the wind that blows where it will, sometimes when least expected a word or song triggers a recollection that tugs at our hearts or brings a warm glow to our souls or a tear to our eye.  Other times we get smacked by regrets of things undone or questions we failed to ask of those who can no longer share their experience and wisdom.

We give thanks for time this weekend with family and friends, for cookouts and re-creation, for new memories made and traditions passed from one generation to the next.  We are grateful for technology that can bridge miles of separation and for those moments of quiet reflection that span the divide between this life and the next.  

For many this is a time of transition as a school year ends and the more relaxed season of summer begins.  We give you heartfelt thanks for those who educate our children.  May this summer season be for all of us a time of renewal and refreshment, a time for the inner child in all of us to play, to star gaze and enjoy the beauty of nature, a time for more being and less doing; a time of Sabbath rest and meditation upon those people and values too precious for any price.  

And God, some of us are anxious about the possibility of economic trouble looming in our nation’s capital.  Please guide the leaders of both parties that they may reach an agreement that is fair and just for all, especially for those who can least afford a financial crisis.  

Bless our time of worship, O Gracious One. May it be a time of sharing in your Kingdom where we recognize that we dwell in you and you in us; that the circle of life is unbroken when we surrender all we have and all we are in service to our Lord and Savior, your beloved Son who taught us the prayer we share with one voice…..

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, May 28, 2023

Feeling Abandoned by God

I have not posted anything for several weeks as my wife and I were preparing and taking a long trip to Italy and Greece. We have been home a few days now, and below is an email I wrote to a friend who is growing through a rough time.  I thought it might be useful to others in similar situations.

Dear beloved child of God, I want to share some thoughts about your concern that you feel abandoned by God.  First of all, we’ve all been there.  As Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors puts it, “Doubt is the ants in pants of faith.”  Like our physical muscles, our faith only grows stronger when it is stretched and tested.  I guess that’s the “no pain, no gain” school of theology.  The first thing that came to mind in my addled jet-lagged brain last night when I heard your concern was Jesus on the cross saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  We’ve all been there, including Jesus.  By the way, that is a direct quote of Psalm 22:1.  50 of the Psalms are Psalms of lament from people feeling the absence of God’s presence, and those feelings are so common we have a whole book of Lamentations in the Bible.

I know it’s not much comfort to say “misery loves company,” but I share all that to just say it’s all part of the normal human experience, no matter what the prosperity gospel or the toxic positivity proponents tell us.  And those periods of loneliness and doubt can seem to last forever.  Jesus was tempted in the wilderness 40 days.  Elijah hid on Mt. Horeb for 40 days when Jezebel was after him to kill him.  The Hebrews wandered around in the desert for 40 years before they got to the Promised Land.  The disciples hid out after the resurrection for 50 days before the Holy Spirit came to them.  All of those numbers are not exact dates: they just mean it was a damn long time.

One of my favorite Scriptures is in Isaiah 40 where God is assuring the Hebrews in Exile in Babylon that they will be set free.  The whole chapter is worth reading, but I find the closing verses very helpful when I’m feeling at the end of my rope:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

The Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his 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.”

“The song “On Eagles’ Wings” is a great source of inspiration from that scripture.  

Sorry if I got preachy, but I mean these words from my heart and hope they help.  And one final thought – don’t beat yourself up about what you have done in the past.  God understands despair and hopelessness and accepts and forgives all of our weaknesses.  We love you, God loves you, and you are never alone.