Being Real

I do not know what the average life expectancy is for snow persons, but we have one in our front yard, thanks to my wife Diana, who has lasted longer than any I can remember in our fickle Ohio weather.

It’s not been an easy two weeks for our Frosty. The constant cold temps have kept him from melting, but the sub-freezing has turned him into solid ice. That makes him very sturdy, but it has also meant that when his nose and hands fell off they could not be reimplanted.

Frosty’s noseless, handless condition and his loss of some of his buttons reminded me of one of my favorite children’s stories, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Marjorie Williams Bianco. For me the best part of the story is a discussion between two toys in a boy’s nursery, the skin horse and the velveteen rabbit, about what it means to be “real.” Here’s their dialogue:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

One can learn a lot from stuffed toys and snow persons.

Unexpected Inspiration

I have been a football fan since the days of Hop Cassady, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, and Jim Brown. I’ve been around so long that I was already in my 20’s when Super Bowl I was played, and this year was number 55!

That all may seem like ancient history to some of you, but I bring it up because of the love-hate struggle I’m having this year with the game of football. I’ve been a football fan, some would say a fanatic, since I was the age of my 7 year-old grandson Brady who is, thanks to technology, a much bigger football fan than I was.

You see when my family got our first television when I was Brady’s age I had access to 3 channels, not the hundreds kids today have. In my childhood there was one college game and one pro game on per week, period. I had no internet to study football history. Instead of Madden Football with unbelievable graphics I had a metal football field that vibrated to make miniature players move erratically around on the field.

But there’s another advance in technology that has impacted my enthusiasm for watching 300 pound men crash into much smaller men with bone-jarring force. Medical technology has taught us so much about the life-long damage this sport inflicts on the bodies and brains of players, and when I hear about that my enthusiasm for the game is dampened.

That scientific knowledge has made me hope that my grandson will channel his athleticism into a safer sport. And yes, I know that I should be just as concerned about the well being of other young men, but that rational and ethical knowledge has still not been able to cure me of my nearly 70 years of watching football.

All of that is a very long way to explain or rationalize why I still watch football and why I recorded the two hour NFL Awards show that was on the night before the Super Bowl. I almost didn’t watch that recording the afternoon of Super Sunday because I figured 4 hours of Super Bowl was plenty of football for one day. But for some reason I turned it on and am very glad I did. It was far more interesting than the game that evening.

Running the risk of sounding irreligious I must say that several parts of the NFL Awards show were more motivational and emotional for me than many worship services in which I’ve participated and/or led.

Alex Smith’s super human recovery from having his leg crushed in a game, Russell Wilson’s charity & hospital visits, and all the league is finally doing to support social justice and anti-racism. And yes I hate the hypocrisy after what the league did to Colin Kaepernick for kneeling a few year’s ago. But better late than never?

Alex Smith’s story inspired me the most. His determination to make it back onto an NFL field after his leg was damaged so badly two years ago that the doctors thought they might have to amputate struck me personally. I personally think he was crazy for ever wanting to play the game again, but that was his dream and I will not pass judgement on it.

I had seen a short clip on the CBS Evening News about Smith’s grueling road to recovery, but the story on the NFL Award’s show was far more detailed and therefore more moving. They showed X-rays of his lower leg where the pieces of his tibia and fibula looked like the old game of pick up sticks I played as a kid. Multiple surgeries and infections ensued and grueling rehab and physical therapy.

Then Alex went to do even more challenging rehab at a hospital where wounded American service members were trying to put their lives back together after leaving body parts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those brave men and women were Smith’s inspiration when he wanted to give up, and because he didn’t he was back on the field with The Washington Football Team last fall.

For him that was a dream come true. That’s not my dream. but to each his own. What was relevant to me as I am struggling to recover from back surgery 5 months ago is the amazing determination and refusal to give up Alex Smith displayed for two long years. Granted I’m like 45 years older than Alex Smith, and my injury is like a hang nail compared to his, but I still need the courage and motivation to do my physical therapy on days when I just don’t feel like it; on days when it all seems hopeless; on days when I feel like I’m worse off now than I was before surgery.

On reflection about all this I’m thinking part of what I’m lacking is a specific goal like Smith had to sustain him on the terrible days; so that’s something I will work on. But for now my belated new year’s resolution is to remember and imitate the courage of Alex Smith and thousands of others like him who dig deep and refuse to give up.

L’chaim! To Life!

Yesterday morning I woke up in great anticipation. After being in a lot of pain in my back and hip for weeks I was scheduled to get an injection that might give me some relief. There were several inches of new snow on the ground, and most schools had cancelled classes for the day, but I figured that by afternoon when my appointment was the roads would be clear.

And then the phone rang. My doctor’s nurse was calling to tell me the doctor could not make it in, and my appointment would have to be rescheduled. Making matters worse the doctor only does these injections on Tuesdays; so I would have to wait an entire week.

To say I was very disappointed would be an understatement. My long-suffering wife would tell you that I am usually a glass half empty guy, and this unwelcome surprise did not help my general level of frustration with health concerns, COVID restrictions and all that entails.

But then a minor miracle happened, and I can’t explain it, which I guess is true of all miracles. I was looking at my sad sack face in the bathroom mirror, and suddenly out of nowhere I started singing some of the lyrics to “L’chaim” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” No one else was home fortunately, or my embarrassment over my poor singing voice would have probably stopped me from expressing an emotion of joy and optimism.

I haven’t seen or heard “Fiddler” for decades, and when I do think about that musical I usually think about the title song or “Tradition,” or “Do You Love Me?” But from somewhere hidden away in my memory came these words, and there I was singing as if no one was listening, “L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.”

I don’t know all the lyrics to that song so I ad libbed the words I remembered:

“May all your futures be pleasant ones, Not like our present ones; Drink, l’chaim, to life. To life, l’chaim, L’chaim, l’chaim, to life!”

“To us and our good fortune, Be happy, be healthy, long life! And if our good fortune never comes, Here’s to whatever comes; Drink, l’chaim, to life!”

I don’t know what to make of that except I know it lifted my spirits for the rest of that day. Thinking about the context of that musical set in the midst of oppression of the Jews by the Russian authorities put my minor problem of waiting a week for my injection in its proper perspective.

The characters in this wonderful musical are being forced to leave their beloved village of Anatevke for parts unknown. And the lovable protagonist of the drama, Tevye, is trying to cope with a shaking of the foundations of all his traditions as each of his daughters pushes the envelope further to claim her freedom.

And yet in the midst of all this disruption and change the men of Anatevke break into song to celebrate the arranged marriage of Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, to the much older town butcher, Lazar Wolfe.

Spoiler alert: the arranged marriage doesn’t happen because Tzeitel protests and Tevye ends the agreement and lets her marry the man she loves, Motel Kamzoil the poor village tailor. Tevye’s daughters 1, traditions 0.

But regardless of what happens eventually the men in that bar spontaneously singing L’chaim are celebrating much more than one marriage. In the midst of all the unrest and uncertainty imposed on them by the hated Russians these men are still celebrating life.

The people of Anitevke have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Their traditions are being challenged by the younger generation as younger generations always do. And yet they celebrate love and hope in the future by marrying and bringing new life into a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.

We live in such a time right now in our pandemiced and polarized nation, and yet we dare to sing with Tevye and his friends:

“Be happy, be healthy, long life. And if our good fortune never comes’ Here’s to whatever comes. Drink, l’chaim, to life!” Amen

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Writer’s Block and Political Mayhem

Sometimes the way through a roadblock is to just drive through it and see what happens. I’ve been stuck for all of 2021 so far in a writer’s roadblock. There are many reasons for that I will not list here because I fear they will sound like excuses.

For whatever reason(s) I have been a distant observer to all that’s happened in our nation since 2021 began with a whimper. COVID precautions, including a 10pm curfew in Ohio made any “normal” celebration of the new year impossible. But we still turned the calendar eager to put 2020 in the rear view mirror. But putting a new date on things did not alter the realities of pandemic living.

An imminent change in our national leadership should have given hope that a new day was dawning, but that hope was blindsided by a violent insurrection in our nation’s Capitol just 6 days into the new year. January 6 could have been a good news day for Democrats like me when both D’s won Senate seats in a Georgia run off election, but that ray of hope was lost in the commotion of the Capitol riot.

Much more than windows were shattered on January 6. Any notion of a peaceful transfer of power were trampled in the dust. People died, and that is tragic; but near fatal blows were also struck against our democracy. I believe a second impeachment trial is necessary given Trump’s role inciting violence on January 6 and for the whole 4 years of his reign, but I am very sad that the trial will inflame passions and make any desperately needed attempts to heal our nation’s gaping divisions much harder if not impossible.

I am personally pleased that the Biden administration has begun to roll back some of Donald Trump’s most egregious actions and has begun an organized national response to the pandemic. Unfortunately dealing with the virus of hate, delusion and conspiracy fueled paranoia will be much harder to cure.

The main reason that other pandemic is so intractable is that it has been infecting our nation for 300 years or more. Racism was firmly entrenched in our American psyche long before a gang of slave owners wrote the foundation documents for our experiment in democracy. To patch together a fragile union between deeply divided cultures in the northern and southern colonies a lot of compromise was necessary. The question is whether those compromises were worth the divisions that continued and deepened.

The first 90 years of our democracy were full of debate and conflict over the issue of slavery. That conflict boiled over in a deadly civil war. In the simplified and whitewashed version of American history that many of us were taught in school that was the end of racism. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to our Constitution gave Blacks all the privileges of citizenship. Problem solved.

I came of age in the 1960’s when Civil Rights for our black sisters and brothers emerged from the days of Jim Crowe and the cruel joke of “separate but equal.” The ugly truth of lynchings and Klan violence and intimidation that went on for the 100 years after the Civil War never penetrated the enclaves of white privilege I grew up in. Blood was spilled in that iteration of the civil rights movement. Progress was made at a glacial pace, but when Barack Obama was elected President we again thought our ugly heritage of racism could be laid to rest.

But along came Donald Trump with his birther lies that fanned the embers of racism into a raging blaze of white supremacy which Trump fueled with more lies for the entire duration of his Presidency. On November 3, 2020 Trump’s campaign of lies and hate was soundly defeated by a record turnout at the polls during a pandemic, no less.

So the pampered president who never had anything denied to him in his life could not face the reality that he had lost. And thus began the biggest lie of all that was eagerly digested and propagated by Trump’s conspiracy consumed minions.

In one last gasp to retain power Trump invited his armed fanatics to DC for a rally on the day the election results would be confirmed by Congress. And we know how that infamous day ended. On TV we witnessed an attempted coup against our democracy.

By the grace of God the insurrection failed to stop the finalizing of the election results making Joe Biden our 46th President. If this was a novel that would be the end of the story with the forces of truth and freedom victorious.

But this is reality, not fiction, and the struggle to preserve our democracy continues. Dangerous Qanon conspiracy believers have made their way into the chambers of Congress by election. What Congress, and especially the Republican leadership does about their armed and dangerous colleagues will either help our nation build on the return to Constitutional democracy begun on November 3 or surrender again to the forces of lies and conspiracy.

The biggest truth of this whole saga is that the GOP senators who failed to remove Trump in his first impeachment now have a chance at a do-over. It’s too late to undo the damage inflicted on our nation by Trump and company in the last year. His acquittal by the Senate last year gave Trump carte blanche to do or fail to do his Constitutional duty with no consequences for his behavior and incendiary rhetoric.

If enough GOP senators had been courageous enough to remove Trump from office a year ago thousands of our citizens who died from COVID and Trump’s incompetence in managing this crisis would still be alive. And furthermore if we had had competent leadership in the White House that trusted scientists and public health experts thousands of Americans would not be unemployed and facing financial ruin. Our kids would not have lost a crucial year of their education and the socialization that goes with it. What the long-term damage to this younger generation will be only time will tell.

What we do know for sure is that the party of Lincoln has another chance to regain the integrity and respect worthy of Honest Abe by once and for all excising the cancer of Trumpism from the body politic, or at least from the halls of Congress.

Prayer for January 2021

Oh God of unconditional love and grace, we your children are hurting and afraid.  We are still living through a never-ending pandemic.  We thought 2021 would be better than 2020, but these first two weeks have just been more of the same with the threat of civil war thrown in for good measure.  

We are so divided, God, and we know you are calling us to be Christ followers, to be peacemakers among our families and neighbors.  But we don’t have a clue what that might look like.  None of us have ever lived through anything like this.  How can we possibly know how to be your witnesses, your disciples?  

Reassure us again, Holy One, that we can trust your call.  The Scriptures tell us story after story of the unlikely people you have called to do great things.  Moses and Esther, David, a bunch of uneducated fishermen, and Saul the Christian persecutor.   May we draw strength and confidence for the living of these days from the saints who have gone before us, Mother Theresa and Dr. King and thousands of unknown servants who bravely respond to your call, not knowing what that means, with no guarantee of success of safety.  

This day we especially pray for a peaceful transfer of power on Wednesday and for a binding up of our nation’s wounds.

We give thanks that we are not alone in this scary time.  Even though we cannot yet be physically in one place where we can be in fellowship and share hugs with one another, we are still connected through the wonders of technology.  We are never alone and together we can be faithful and brave through any crisis.  And so we dare to pray in the name of one who said “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age,”  the one who became flesh and walked among us to show us how to live and how to love.  And so now we pray as one the prayer he taught us to pray.   

-Pastoral Prayer, Northwest UMC, January 17, 2021

First Come, First Served

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” John 5:2-9

This poor invalid had been trying to get in that pool for 38 years. In today’s time frame that would mean he has been there since 1983! And no one has bothered to help him. Instead they push and shove to get in the healing water themselves. People with headaches, hangnails or allergies are still quite mobile and can get in first.

I was reminded of that story when I heard on the news recently an account of COVID vaccine distribution in a southern Florida County. In that county they announced a date for when those 65 and over could get the vaccine, first come, first served! And of course that resulted in chaos and confusion as those who were able-bodied camped outside the night before so they could be first in line. And as in John’s narrative about the pool by the sheep gate those who were sick or feeble and needed the vaccine more were left out in the cold because there was a limited number of vaccines available.

But along comes Jesus and upsets the apple cart as he usually does. Jesus doesn’t join the frenzy, jostling the crowd so he can carry the man into the pool. Jesus simply ignores the protocol altogether and heals the man himself.

The idea of first come, first served looks on first glance to be very fair. But when we look deeper into how it actually works in reality we realize how unfair it is to those most in need. Where does that show up in our society? Wealth and privilege buy the best school, healthcare, hotel accommodations and modes of transportation.

Some would argue that’s fair because we privileged ones have worked hard to earn enough to have all those benefits, Really? I have never been “wealthy” by worldly standards, but as a white male there were and still are more doors open to me and fewer arbitrary roadblocks or glass ceilings than women and people of color face.

My takeaway is that I want to pause and reflect on how a lucky break or good news for me may be just the opposite for the underprivileged. Recognizing the injustice is only step one, the hard part is figuring out how i can make the situation more just.

Those actions can be as personal as offering my place in line at grocery checkout to a frazzled father with two unhappy kids or to a woman with mobility issues. Or they run all the way to contacting government officials and helping them see the need for policy changes to level the playing field for the underprivileged. What is not an option for Christians is to ignore injustice hoping it will go away. It won’t. It just grows and embeds itself in the culture and becomes systemic.

Christmas Morning

The first thing I saw this Christmas morning in our beautiful snow-covered back yard was a large flock of black birds on, around and below one of our bird feeders. I can’t name most of the birds that visit our feeders but these birds were larger and more aggressive toward each other than the smaller, more colorful varieties we normally see. The size and darkness of the blackbirds was amplified by their contrast with the pure white snow. My first thought was to recall an old nursery rhyme that says, “Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie,” but that soon passed since it didn’t sound at all appetizing.

I’m also embarrassed to admit my other first reactions were less than Christ-like. I thought, “Oh, no. I didn’t brave the cold to feed blackbirds!” I was tempted to go to the door and chase them away so the smaller, “prettier” birds could get to the food. And then I stopped. I realized these birds are all creatures of our God, equally deserving of eating “our” food, which of course is not ours at all, but a gift from God that we are able to share.

And then an even more uncomfortable thought emerged in my mind as I asked myself if my aversion to these particular black birds was another example of my latent racist attitudes that I must constantly be on the lookout for. Pretty heavy stuff to look at before I had finished my first cup of coffee, but we can’t choose the times when God knocks on the door of our souls with uncomfortable feelings or thoughts.

But God wasn’t done with me yet. When I perused the morning news on my iPad I found an article about Pope Francis’ Christmas message where he challenged the wealthier nations of the world to share the COVID vaccines with other parts of God’s family that are most vulnerable. Again my first reaction was uncomfortable. I thought, “That’s fine Pope, but not until I get my vaccine!”

How often do we offer to God or others the leftovers from our tables, after we have taken care of our needs first? But the ultimate gift of Christmas is not ours to hoard! The startling message delivered to the shepherds is one we still need to hear today. “And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

The Christ child is a gift “for all the people.” And we who celebrate that gift cannot hoard it but are called to “Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Please take time today to listen to what the angels are whispering in your ear.

A blessed Christmas to all.

Advent Word of the Day: Adore

Whom or what do you adore?  Be careful; that’s a tricky question.  Some dictionaries say that the primary meaning of the word “adore” is “to worship.”  And we know that to worship anyone or anything besides God is idolatry.  Roman emperors and other egotistical heads of state throughout history have demanded that their people worship them.  And when they don’t get the adoration they thing they deserve they take great offense as Herod does in the story of the Magi in Matthew 2.  Herod tells the Magi that he wants to know where this new king can be found so he can go and “worship” him. But Herod really wants to do is go and kill Jesus because he feels threatened.  Contrast that with what the Magi do when they find Jesus:  “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:11). 

The question that story raises for us today is “To which King do we give our allegiance? Herod or Jesus?”  And secondly, “What does it mean to ‘adore’ Jesus?”  I believe that Jesus doesn’t want worshippers; He wants disciples who will be his servants in the world.  And that brings us to the other definition of “adore” which is the more common usage today.  According to Merriam-Webster that other definition is “to regard with loving admiration and devotion.”  Our relationship with Jesus should be more like that definition of love and devotion.  That devotion requires obedience and striving to live by Christ’s example. 

When we celebrate the birth of Jesus this year let’s learn two lessons from the adoring Magi.  Let’s honor Jesus by keeping our focus on him, but after Christmas we must stop following the example of the Magi.  Here’s how Matthew describes the Magi’s brief encounter with Jesus: “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”  (Matthew 2:11-12).

In other words when the going got tough the Magi’s fear of Herod was stronger than their devotion to Jesus.  Yes, we know that Mary and Joseph also flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus, but we also know that when it was safe they came back home and there Jesus fulfilled his mission.  That mission of grace and love is still a work in progress, and we are the ones called to turn our adoration at Christmas into the work of spreading God’s love here and now.  Come, adore, and then go out to serve!

Alive

There is a tradition in United Methodist circles that when we gather for our Annual Conference we begin by singing these words from a Charles Wesley Hymn: “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?”  In this pandemic year how we long to see each other’s faces in person and not mediated through zoom, google or Facetime.  I suggest that when we are finally able to have in-person worship again we should sing that hymn.

The sadness and trials of 2020 began for me weeks before we ever heard of COVID-19.  A dear friend and colleague died in the first week of January in a freak accident where he fell and hit his head on concrete causing a fatal brain bleed.  The preacher at the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Bill Casto’s life was another of our mutual friends, Bishop Joe Sprague.  The thing that stuck with me most about the Bishop’s sermon was this line: “Where is our brother Bill now?  He is where he’s always been—in the heart of God.” 

As God’s beloved children that’s where all of us are alive, in the heart of God.   God’s gift of eternal life doesn’t start when we die.  Eternal means forever – before our souls took on human form and after this life on earth is over, whenever that may be.

As we prepare our hearts during this pandemic Advent being alive is more precious with death or the threat of it all around us. And being alive is more than simply breathing and existing.  Being alive for people of faith is more about quality than quantity.  It means finding passion and purpose in how we use this day and the life and talent God has given us.

Just as we all live eternally in the heart of God the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas means God came alive as one of us at Bethlehem, but that was not the beginning of Christs’ existence.   As the Gospel of John tells us “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into beingin him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness (even of 2020) did not overcome it.” (John 1:2-5)

What makes you feel alive?  How can you live more days embracing that feeling?  You are God’s beloved child – how do you plan to live up to that birthright?

My prayer for all of us to have a rebirth of joy and purpose is captured for me in these words from “O Little Town of Bethlehem: “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”  Amen

Calm

Our church is centering daily devotions during Advent on a word for each day. Here is what I wrote about the word for today.

We are sailing in very rough waters this Advent that is like none other any of us have experienced.  Not often in 2020 have I felt “calm.”  Worried, angry, depressed, all of the above!  But I haven’t achieved a state of true calmness very often this year.  ‘And that’s why Advent in 2020 is so necessary and so relevant. Mary wasn’t calm when the angel told her she would be pregnant with God’s son.  And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t calm when Joseph told her they were going to bed down in a stable, or when she went into labor there among the livestock.

As soon as I was asked to write this devotion on the word “Calm” I thought about this story from Mark 4: “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. “ 

That calming of the sea reminded me of another experience Diana and I had two years ago when we were blessed to be able to visit Australia and New Zealand.  The picture here was taken on a sail boat in the bay of Akoroa, New Zealand.  The water that day there was perfectly smooth and peaceful, but the calmest part of that excursion was when the captain sailed near the cave in the picture.  As we sat there perfectly still he played some recorded organ music.  Echoing off the walls of that cave, the music was as awe inspiring as any pipe organ in a Gothic cathedral.

That was one of the calmest experiences of my life.  But here’s the thing.  We don’t have to go clear to New Zealand to be calm.  All we have to do is have enough faith to ask Jesus to calm whatever stormy sea we’re in right now—and believe the God of Advent will provide.