Plagues, Prayer and Peace

O Creator God, mysterious and magnificent, whose name was considered unpronounceable by our Hebrew ancestors, forgive us when our feeble attempts to describe you and name you turn you into pious platitudes. Unlike Moses we dare not put ourselves in your imminent presence. Your power is too much for us to confront directly, but when we hide ourselves from your majesty and keep you at arms length we rob ourselves of that peace that is beyond our comprehension.

It is a delicate balance between revering you and embracing you. Our fallible brains cannot grasp your simultaneous imminence and transcendence, and so we bounce back and forth like ping pong ball from one extreme to the other. And yet in these dark days of 2020 we desperately need both your motherly, tender love and your booming power to transform and heal our broken world.

We’re feeling like Pharaoh, God. Our plagues today are fires, hurricanes, flooding, racism, homophobia, earthquakes, pandemic, and the angry vitriol of deep, seemingly unbridgeable tribal cultural wars. At a time when we need each other and the milk of human compassion more than ever we don’t even know how to talk to one another. Nerves are so frayed that even something as simple as wearing a mask can become a trigger point for insults, shunning and worse.

Where are you in the midst of our human catastrophes, O God? You told Elijah that you were not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in a still small voice. We are deaf to that voice just now O great one. Weeping and wailing, screaming and cursing, hopeless self-pity and sheer exhaustion are ringing in our ears so loudly that we cannot hear you. When we need to feel the embrace of a good shepherd so much we feel like the lost sheep, afraid to even hope that you can or would come looking for us and leave the other 99. Our tiny minds can’t comprehend that you can seek us out and still be present with all the others who also need you. Your transcendent ability to be everywhere in the world and universe boggles are minds.

So for just a moment, a fraction of a second help us to be still just long enough to hear your voice whisper in our ears, “Fear not my children, for I have overcome the world. Come to me when you are weary and burdened. Trust me, and I will restore your soul even in this year of tumult and pain.”

Speak, O God, and give us ears to hear. Amen

A Prayer for Coming Home

Gracious and loving God, this prodigal child is coming home. I’ve been awaymuch too long. I can’t believe the welcome mat is still out after how poorly I’ve treated you. I’ve been lost in the wilderness, depressed, frightened and angry that life isn’t fair.

I’ve taken detours through doubt and lingered too long in places of sin. I lost my way in anger and self-pity, afraid to come home and not even sure I any longer knew the way.

The simple faith of childhood failed me in times of greatest need. I surrendered to to the demons of temptation that led me down the dead end paths of prosperity, power and fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

I knew better. I had been taught your Word from childhood, but rebellion against the bonds of legalism alienated me from my roots and my heritage. When once I felt closely held by your loving arms I grasped now only air when I reached out to you. My prayers for your help grew empty and hollow because I heard no answers, probably because I never stopped the pursuit of happiness long enough to listen for your reply. My vision was clouded by tears of frustration and fear; so I could not even see you in the beauty of creation. And I certainly couldn’t see you in the chaos and injustice in our world. I gave up trying to find you.

I drank deeply of the great American myth of individualism. I succeeded so well at school and work that i never learned the lessons that failure alone can teach. When things became to challenging rather than fail I simply quit. I gave up on relationships and career goals instead of doing the hard work of trying multiple ways to solve a problem. I played it safe rather than risk taking unpopular stands on social justice issues. I took the wide path that leads to destruction.

But now I’m coming home. I humbly throw myself on your mercy, trusting that you will catch me and hold me close, hold me until my fear gives way to peace. I’m coming home, not for a fatted calf, but hoping your Holy Spirit will ignite the fire of faith in me anew and send me out to invite other lost ones longing to come home but are too afraid and ashamed.

In the name of the one who overcame Satan’s temptation in his wilderness time. Amen

How Many?

As I watch the steady rise of the number of American deaths on the COVID scoreboard I remember the line from an old Bob Dylan song: “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” It’s apparently more than 177,000. It’s apparently more than George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and a host of other people of color cut down much too soon. It must be more than the police officers who fear for their lives because we live in an armed camp.

When I think about mounting death tolls I am taken back to the years of the Vietnam War. That war lasted on so long that I graduated from high school, college and seminary while it dragged on and then continued 4 more years! Like 2020 the death count in that war was served to us with dinner every evening on the national news. We thought we were winning because the scoreboard usually indicated we killed more of them that day than they killed of us. The scoreboard of course didn’t include the more than a million Vietnamese civilians killed, part of the infamous “we had to destroy the village to save it” mind set of our leadership. I guess Walter Cronkite thought that to know that ugly truth might have spoiled our appetites.

Dylan’s haunting question “how many?” can be asked about wars, hurricanes, floods, wild fires, even those caused by climate change, gun violence, racism, cancer, drunk drivers, and pandemics. How many must die before we say “enough!” What does it take to move us to action to correct the centuries-old injustices of racism? Or to suspend personal or political ambition to create a unified strategy for combatting a pandemic? Or meaningful reform of law enforcement? Or to enact reasonable gun regulations? How many, Lord? How long till we learn that violence in any form only creates more violence, over and over again in a vicious cycle.

For way too long we Christians have taken Jesus literally when he said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matt. 5:39). Jesus didn’t mean we should turn ourselves into punching bags. He was talking about interrupting the cycle of violence which will never end until enough of us realize that as long as we keep trying to achieve peace by unpeaceful means we are perpetuating more of the same.

Just before that verse above Jesus says, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist an evil doer.” Someone has said that living by the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth philosophy just produces a world of blind, toothless people. Instead of that outcome Jesus later in that Sermon on the Mount goes on to instruct his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

2000 years later we are still trying to do things the old way and expecting different results. We have failed to learn the critical lesson that someone has to dare to go first to break the cycle of getting even instead of being peacemakers. And until we learn we will continue to ask “How many deaths will it take?”

33 Conventions

In one of those sobering moments I dread I realized this week that I watched my first National Political convention 64 years ago this week! I have no idea how that’s possible, but I do have at least one vivid memory of the Democratic convention in 1956. That was shortly after my parents bought our first TV. It was also back when the conventions really mattered because they weren’t the choreographed pep rallies they have become in recent years. The conventions were actually the places where nominees for President and Vice President were chosen after much bargaining and compromise among state delegations. There was real drama because often we did not know what the outcome of the convention would be.

In 1956 the Republican convention was a slam dunk as the incumbents, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were renominated. My memory is a little foggy after all these years, but I am pretty sure there was a much more competitive environment at the Democratic gathering. What I do remember clearly is that a young senator from Massachusetts made his first appearance on the national stage in a surprising but failed run to be the Vice Presidential nominee on the ticket led by Adlai Stevenson. I certainly had no idea then who this upstart was or that the same John Kennedy would emerge four years later as the Presidential nominee and eventual winner.

You may wonder how weird it is that an 8 year old would be watching a political convention in the summer when I could have been out playing ball with my friends, and I suppose it is. But I have always been interested in history and politics. Even at that tender age I knew that what happened in the political arena was important, even though I had little comprehension of what it all meant. I have watched at least some of all 30 conventions since that summer of 1956 but none like the conventions of 2020.

Everything about 2020 has been strange; so of course the virtual conventions are no different. I’m starting this post on the first night of the Democratic convention, and so far I like what I’m seeing. There’s more content and less rah rah. More common folks from our diverse population are being given a voice. It’s biased of course as all conventions are, and in many ways it’s a two-hour political ad. I fear many in our badly polarized nation will only watch the convention that reinforces their political viewpoint. That will only widen the chasm between us.

I confess I already know I will not be able to watch 8 hours of the GOP convention next week. The lies that continually fall from President Trump’s lips make me too angry to consume very much of what he will have to say. But even more disturbing to me are the multitude of Republican officials who have refused to do their Constitutional duty and provide checks and balances on a man who is clearly dangerously incompetent and unstable. If just a few of those Republican senators had shown the courage in the pre-COVID days of early 2020 to vote for honesty, integrity and justice and remove Trump from office our nation would not be in as much trouble today as we are. The people who have put party loyalty over the good of the nation, those who value personal power and prestige over true patriotism are the real villains of this tragedy.

That 8 year-old kid watching this new invention called television in the summer of 1956 proudly identified as a Republican, the party of my hero Abe Lincoln. I liked Ike because everyone I knew was Republican; so I understand life-long devotion to the values and ideals we are taught as children. But the party of Trump is no longer the party of Lincoln or Eisenhower. Do you know that the divisions between our two major parties in 1952 were so small that both parties wanted war hero Eisenhower to be their candidate! Can you imagine such a scenario in 2020?

Of course we all know that America in 1956 was far more complicated than my naive self could imagine back then. The political universe was so different then that the “Solid South” was the stronghold then of the Democrats, the party of segregation from pre-Civil War days until Lyndon Johnson’s famous prediction that in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that he had lost the South for a generation. How about a half century and counting? That political flip paved the way for Nixon’s evil “Southern Strategy” and the GOP has not been the same since.

In the ‘50’s women were still mostly seen as only homemakers and baby factories; we actually believed that separate but equal was true and just, and oh yes, we were just beginning to get involved in the politics of a place none of us had ever heard of, Vietnam. So I am not nostalgic for the days of my 8 year-old self. We were a long way from living up to America’s ideals in 1956, and we still are. But I’ve been around a long time, and I am very proud of the progress we have made for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and Civil Rights or at least I was until 2016. In the words of an old Kenny Roger’s song, “I’ve seen some bad times, lived through some sad times:” the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear arms race, the assassinations of 1968 and the burning American cities that followed, the violent Democratic convention of 1968, Kent State, the protests against the war in Vietnam that drove LBJ out of office, Watergate, the My Lai massacre, the impeachment of two presidents, 9/11, unending Middle East wars, way too many mass school shootings, immigrant children locked in cages, climate change, the on-going crisis of COVID-19, and now zoom calls, distance education, and virtual political conventions .

But I have also lived through some good times: the passage of civil rights act and voting rights acts, the establishment of Medicare, multiple lunar landings by American astronauts, including the very first one who was from my home town. I have witnessed the first women on the Supreme Court and increasing numbers of women in leadership positions. I was inspired by Dr. King’s dream and rejoiced when we elected our first black president and legalized same sex marriage.

We may differ on my list of good and bad things, but I hope we can agree that through all the ups and downs of our history the American Dream may in dark days be hidden behind clouds, but it never disappears. It rises and shines as faithfully as our daily sunrises. This political season like many before it is unique. But the process of selecting a president every four years has continued through Civil War, World Wars, the Great Depression, hanging chads, and the recession of 2008 to name a few. We still have a dream even in this weird suspended animation of 2020. That dream is stronger and truer than any challenge because it is a vision of liberty and justice for all people in this great diverse nation.

That dream is only as strong in our generation today as those of us who participate in the democratic process to become informed and responsible citizens. Voting this year like these conventions will look different than any election in our history, but not even a pandemic can stop us from letting our voices and votes determine the future of this great experiment we call American democracy.

Servanthood

Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” That familiar quote comes at the end of a discussion between Jesus and two of his closest disciples. James and John have asked a big favor of Jesus, they want their faces carved on Mt. Rushmore. Oh, no, that was someone else who is even more foolish and full of himself.

James and John actually asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes in his glory. And Jesus, ever the patient teacher told them “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)

This story got me to wondering what Jesus meant when he tells us to become servants. What does it mean for us today to be a servant? In this election year when we will choose those who we want to be our public servants that’s a very important question. Those who run for public office do it for a multitude of reasons, but for many of them servanthood is not high on the list of their motivations. They may want power to shape government policy in ways that favor them or their friends. They may want the perks of government service like a cushy lifetime pension. They may want the kind of glory and fame that James and John thought they were worthy of even though they had no idea, as Jesus points out, what they were asking.

Jesus had rejected the temptations of earthy power and glory immediately after he was baptized and began his public ministry. (Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4). Satan teases Jesus and dares him to turn stones into bread, to throw himself off the temple to prove God will protect him, and then with power and glory over everything he can see from the mountain top. Of course those things are not Satan’s to give, just as Jesus tells his disciples that the kind of glory they are seeking is not his to give.

Jesus instead relies on his God-granted power to say a firm and definite “no” to worldly temptations of narcissistic grandeur and even to the basic comforts of home and family. In his novel “The Last Temptation of Christ” Nikos Kazantzakis tries to show that point, but it often gets lost in our obsession with sex. The movie version of that novel drew loud protests because part of the temptation for Jesus was to forgo the suffering the way of the cross leads to and to just settle down as a family man with Mary Magdalene.

My point is that service or servant leadership is the road less traveled because it requires sacrifice. Running for public office in our hyper partisan society means giving up all hope for any personal privacy and having every part of one’s entire life put under a microscope. It can lead to physical danger for the servant and his or her family. Dr. Amy Acton, former Director of Public Health in Ohio, served our state brilliantly in the first few months of this pandemic in a reassuring but scientific way, but she paid a price for her firm insistence on sound medical practices. Those who were primarily concerned about the economy and those who refused to accept her advice drove her from office. She even endured protestors armed with assault weapons outside her home.

Candidates for public service in the age of social media (which is often anti-social) are especially vulnerable to attacks that are spread by people on every side of the political spectrum without bothering to fact check. Lies and insults can go viral in minutes. For example, just 24 hours after she was introduced as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate vicious, racist and sexist lies about Kamala Harris’ citizenship began circulating on the internet and in the White House briefing room. The same birther B.S. used against Barrack Obama has reared its ugly head again.

Senator Harris has devoted her entire adult life to public service at the local, state and federal level. She has overcome obstacles inherent in her gender and race, and she threatens the status quo, namely power in the hands of white males who have run this country for over 250 years. Why would anyone subject herself to such slander and lies? Why would Gandhi or Dr. King or John Lewis endure beatings, imprisonment and even death to be a public servant? Why not give into the temptation to live a safe, comfortable life at home with family?

The answer is in the words of Jesus, “One who would be greatest of all must be servant of all.” Those who lay up earthly treasures and glory that thieves can steal and rust consume are never satisfied. They always want more. More money, more power, more fame and glory because they have not learned the lesson of servanthood. They have rejected the truth:” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25). Too many of us have been so indoctrinated with the prosperity gospel that we can’t imagine putting our trust in a dark-skinned carpenter who refused to save himself when he could have. The tempter was still there even on Golgotha hanging on a cross next to Jesus begging Jesus to “save yourself and us.” But the other thief knew what it meant to be at Jesus’ side when he came into his glory, and Jesus recognized that request to be with him in paradise while ignoring the other thief who was only looking out for himself. (Luke 23)

Our nation is at a critical crossroads here and now where we must recognize the value of servant leadership and reject false claims of glory. If we fail to do so we will lose our national life by trying to rely on saving ourselves. To survive and thrive we must follow the example of the one who washed the feet even of those who would betray and deny him because he walked the walk as a true servant leader. He knew the truth that true greatness is found in service to others. Do we?

Waves of Grief

Once upon many times I have heard/read that grief comes in waves, but I have not fully realized until recently how true that is. In the past I managed to keep myself so busy doing multiple jobs, going to school till I was 48, parenting et al, you get the workaholic picture, that I didn’t allow myself to grieve that much over the deaths of my parents. I buried myself in busyness much as I learned to dive under a wave so it would not hit me full force. Thus I was able to keep grief at arm’s length.

My mom died much too young 27 years ago this month and my dad just two years ago. But now I am a stage of life where lots of friends and colleagues are dying regularly, people much to close to my own age. Combine that with living in the suspended animation of 2020 while retired and I have more time to let those waves of grief come ashore.

I had two such experiences in the last two days. Yesterday I participated in a virtual gathering of clergy from our West Ohio Annual Conference. I confess I have not attended many of these annual clergy sessions since I retired, but since I could do so this year from the comfort of my home office I decided to “attend,” if only to see how the technology worked. And it did amazingly well, and attendance was at a record high; which may lead to a new way of conferencing post-pandemic.

This clergy session is where people are approved for ordination and at the other end of the spectrum for retirement. I had forgotten that the agenda also includes recognition of clergy members who have died in the past year. I didn’t know any of the new ordinands, but I certainly new a lot of the names on the list of those who had died, including my dear friend and mentor Russell Sawmiller who I wrote about when he died earlier this year. When those names were read and prayed for, a mini-wave of grief washed over me. It made the deaths more real to see them there in print. Obituaries do the same thing for me.

This evening I got a note on Facebook from a woman I didn’t remember, and when I asked how we knew each other she said she had worked as a secretary for a short time when Russ and I worked together at Indianola UMC in Columbus, Ohio almost 50 years ago. Darla and I chatted for a few minutes on Messenger, reminiscing about the good times we remember from that chapter in our lives, and when we finished I thought “I can’t wait to tell Russ about my conversation with Darla!” And a big old wave knocked me head over heels as I remembered I can’t go tell Russ anything.

And while I’m on a roll I’ll add another mini-wave incident. I’ve had the flag from my father’s casket for over two years now and it has been in a plastic case provided by the funeral home all that time. A very good friend noticed the flag on a book case in my office recently when we were on a zoom call with a mutual friend. He said he had made wood and glass cases for flags for other people and would like to do one for me. It came via UPS yesterday, and putting the flag in the case and finding some of Dad’s WWII medals in the plastic case all brought up feelings of regret and appreciation for Dad again.

I have spent many vacations near different oceans and have experienced all kinds of waves—gentle ones that just lap at your ankles and angry ones that beat me up and tried to pull me out to sea with strong undertows. When I first thought about writing this post I was thinking more about ocean tides than waves, but I soon realized one major difference. The times for tide changes are so predictable and regular that they are published on charts that tell fisher people and beach goers, back when we could do that, exactly down to the minute when each high and low tide will be on any given day.

Waves are not predictable. They can lull one into a sense of false security, and then when least expected smack you upside the head with a big one. Grief is more like waves than tides. There are certainly times when feelings of grief can be predicted to arise—holidays, anniversaries of memorable events and of the day of death. But more often there are unpredictable waves of grief that just happen—driving by the place a loved one lived, attending the church where a service was held, hearing a particular song, looking at a picture, or just a memory that pops into one’s head uninvited. All of that is normal, and there is no right way to experience those waves or to predict how long they will last.

I knew a woman once who had been told that the normal period of grief for a spouse was two years, and she believed that as gospel. So she expected to grieve for two years, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy for her. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s great to have people come along side to share the experience when we want company, but each of us has to find our way through the grief journey in our own unique ways. As for me, I wish I had been more receptive and aware of my waves in the past, but I can’t go back and do remedial grief. I can only experience memories and emotions now in the present and welcome them with gratitude whenever they come along and actually choose to pay attention.

OUR BETTER OR BITTER ANGELS?

I have always been a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. I had the rare privilege as a Boy Scout to hike the Lincoln Trail, a 15 mile route from New Salem, Illinois to Springfield, retracing Lincoln’s steps when he traveled from his home to the state Capitol. I grew up proud to be a Republican because it was the “Party of Lincoln,” the great emancipator.

But in my golden years I have begun to wonder if Lincoln made some major mistakes in dealing with the problem of racism that has divided our country from its inception. One of my most recent quarrels with our 16th president came to the surface this week when our Ohio Governor, Mike DeWine quoted Lincoln’s appeal to “better angels of our nature.” DeWine was using that rhetorical device to plead with Ohioans to comply with scientific advice with regard to the COVID pandemic.

I was curious when Lincoln used that metaphor; so of course I googled it and discovered it was in his first inaugural address on April 4, 1861. Here’s the full sentence: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln was dealing with a deadly situation as we are today and was appealing to the southern states for unity, something still fatally lacking in our country today. Lincoln’s appeal failed big time as the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter just 8 days after his reference to our better angels, launching the deadliest war in U.S. history.
From what I have witnessed in person and on the news Gov. DeWine’s appeal to our better angels will fare no better. Which leads me to this question: Are there any/enough better angels of our nature then or now to believe human nature is redeemable? I have long been a proponent of the concept of Imago Dei, namely that we humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). But the more I see of human nature the more I wonder about that theological affirmation. Human inhumanity to each other and to the rest of creation is so rampant today and in all of human history that it is hard to make the argument that we are created in God’s Image unless God is as evil and selfish and short-sighted as we humans.

I don’t want to go down that road; so I ask myself where did the concept of humankind being a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5) or the earlier affirmation in Genesis come from? The answer of course is from humans! I believe in the historical-critical school of thought when it comes to biblical interpretation. I do not believe our Bible was dictated by God but is a collection of inspired writings by fallible human beings who were recording their experience with the unnamable mystery we call God. So if human authors are declaring that humans are created in the image of God, might there be a bit of a conflict of interest? Would an indicted criminal get to testify as his/her own character witness in a trial? Of course not. How might our creation story differ if it had been written by an elephant or a dolphin, for example? Might we feel and act differently if some other species claimed they were told to “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth?” (Genesis 1:28). By the way, that’s the only commandment we humans have actually obeyed! Might the whole notion of Imago Dei be at the root of humankind’s selfish and not better angels? I’m not sure where to go with that for my own theology, but it intrigues and troubles me.

As a student of rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, I am also troubled when I find myself arguing with a great orator like Lincoln. I understand that the metaphor of better angels is intended to be aspirational rather than descriptive, but from a critique of rhetorical effectiveness based on practical results Lincoln bombed (pun intended), and I believe DeWine will also, both with deadly results. We humans unfortunately seem to require external agents of enforcement to whip our better angels into line. We need someone to hold us accountable for our behavior which differs from being responsible, i.e. to do something like wearing masks not because it’s mandated but because it is the right thing to do.

Which brings me to my second argument with President Lincoln. I have read a great deal about and many biographies of Lincoln, and I am always impressed with his wisdom, political skill and courage. His commitment to preserving the union at all costs was the driving force behind his political agenda. His more famous second inaugural where he pleaded the case for “binding up the nation’s wounds” might have been more likely if he had lived, but we will never know as that task was left to lesser mortals. But what, I wonder, if Lincoln’s whole purpose of preserving the union at any cost was mistaken? Perhaps the cost of that union has been too dear? Not just in terms of those killed in the Civil War, but also in the continued strife in our country over issues of race 160 years later and counting?

The issue of slavery has been divisive in our country from day one. The framers of the Constitution had to tie themselves into knots, counting a slave as 3/5 of a person and claiming “all men are created equal” while most of them owned other human beings, all to reach a tenuous compromise to even create our nation. Those divisions have never been resolved and can be seen today in the unbelievable battle not just over race but in the culture wars at every level, including the unbelievable battle over wearing masks.

What if instead of one Un-united States of America we had admitted there were two irreconcilable countries from the beginning? What would our history look like? That is a purely speculative question since we can’t go back 144 years and start over, and I also realized that even as I write this I am painting myself into a corner I do not want to be in. My two nation notion would mean that the Confederate States of America would have been a nation based of slavery, and that is not morally acceptable. Am I just weary of the battle and tired of the better angels losing? Perhaps. I certainly am tired of our history of resorting to violence as a means to resolve cultural and political differences, and my biggest fear is that is where we are headed in the great Red vs. Blue political cataclysm we seem to be rushing headlong into.

Oh, I have never hoped to be wrong so much before. I do hope and pray that our better angels will emerge victorious, but I know they will not if we surrender to the pessimism eating at my soul. I believe, Lord, Help my unbelief. (Mark 9:24)

The Big IF: Confession and Forgiveness

Good news: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John: 1:9

Bad News: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.”
I John 1:10

The smallest word in those two verses is the most important. “IF we confess our sins….” That’s a huge “IF” and a major stumbling block that gets us into all kinds of trouble as individuals and collectively. To state the obvious, one cannot fix a problem until it is recognized. If I ignore the check engine light on my dashboard I can’t get the problem fixed. Or if I disregard the signals my body is sending me that something is wrong until it’s too late for the doctors to cure it I’m in deep trouble.

When it comes to God and our sin it is such a waste to live in denial. Yes, grace may sound like one of those deals that are too good to be true, but it’s not. John doesn’t say “if we confess our little sins” we will be forgiven! He says, “If we confess our sins, period.” There’s no fine print. The deal doesn’t expire at midnight. It’s an unconditional gift, and all we have to do is admit we screwed up.

Why is that so hard to do? Because we don’t trust the offer! We know too many humans who when we admit a weakness or a mistake will never let us forget it. They’ll hold it against us forever as a tool to manipulate us with guilt.

But this is no human relationship. This is a promise from the God who made us and knows our every flaw. God created us as fallible human beings knowing we all fall short of perfection every day.

So what’s the price we pay for not confessing? That denial loads us down with guilt and shame. It undermines our self-worth and makes it impossible for us to learn from our mistakes and do better. It cuts us off from God’s peace and salvation. That’s horrible on the individual level, but on the collective level it’s even more deadly.

Our refusal as a nation and world to recognize and admit our stupid mistakes costs us precious time to change our ways. We know the clock is ticking before we can no longer reverse the damage to our environment from our selfish ways. There is no Planet B.

Denial of our sins and mistakes is biting us in the butt on so many fronts – racism, world peace, bigotry, and on how to control the current pandemic. The human race needs one giant Mea Culpa because as John knew 2000 years ago, “IF we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” BUT “If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and God’s word is not in us.” Seems like a no brainer to me!

Stages of Grief in a Pandemic

I have been angry and depressed a lot lately, and I have been reflecting on how the stages of grief made famous by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might help us figure out how to navigate a pandemic better. The five stages of grief Dr. Kubler Ross described are: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. These stages are not linear or in any particular order and are most often thought of in terms of dealing with grieving the death of a loved one. But they can be helpful in understanding any kind of significant loss, including the loss of freedom, normal routines, contact with friends, family, etc. caused by Covid-19.

Denial: we have all been in this stage from time to time in the last few months, from the President on down. Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. None of us wants to believe a loved one is gone forever or that our health and ability to do normal activities has been drastically curtailed. I remember hearing the news that the Arnold Classic, a huge annual event with huge economic ramifications here in Columbus, Ohio had been cancelled. It was the first real evidence we had a serious problem, and I found it hard to believe when I heard that news. In retrospect it was a great decision made with courage and great insight by our government leaders. An event of that size that brought thousands of people to Columbus from all over the world would have been devastating to Ohio and made the death toll from the Coronavirus so much worse.

Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. It’s a defense mechanism that helps shut our bodies down the way novacaine numbs your gums to withstand the pain of a tooth filling or extraction. But denial is a stage, not a destination. We need to go there to survive a shock, but we can’t pitch a tent and stay there as a way to deny reality on a long term basis. Unfortunately the U.S. has failed in our response to the the pandemic because key leaders, including the President have hindered essential responses to the virus by denying the reality of the crisis. People who follow the lead of those who ignore the uncomfortable advice of experts from the medical and scientific communities are living in denial and get stuck in the grieving process, which in this case has deadly consequences not only for them but for our whole society.

Anger: Like spoiled children we all feel some level of anger when told we can’t do something we really want to do. I was really mad in the spring when my all time favorite sports events were killed off one after another in just a few days in March. College basketball tournaments died first and then in rapid order March Madness and the Masters golf tournament. In a blink of an eye my favorite few weeks of the year were felled like dominoes lined up back to back.

Students and families were robbed of graduations, final sports seasons for seniors dropped like flies, wedding plans trashed and countless other special occasions died painful deaths. And as the whole rest of the school year was cancelled and our economy shuttered the frustrations and anger increased exponentially as weeks dragged into months. Since it’s hard to be angry at an invisible enemy our anger got directed at public health officials who were just trying to do their jobs, at courageous governments leaders who made difficult and unpopular decisions to shut down any and everything we enjoy doing. Throw that kind of anger into an already politically divided society and you have armed protestors descending on state houses and the homes of public health officials, and that anger gets misdirected into rebellion against simple requests for the good of us all like wearing masks.

A friend of mine expressed that anger well when he said he rebelled at being told he had to wear a mask at a local retailer. His response, more fitting for a child than an adult, was to wear his mask on the back of his head. His argument, like those who decry the loss of their personal liberty, was that if asked to wear a mask he would have complied, but when he was told he had to that offended his personal freedom.

Depression: As our ability to deny a loss or lessen the pain with anger prove ineffective it is easy to fall into depression. When we feel powerless to change a situation and helpless to do anything about it depression is a natural and normal emotion to feel. And because we are still not good at talking about mental health issues it is easy for this one to be compounded by denying our depression. I was at the doctor this week and had to fill out a medical history and check any previous or current illnesses, and when I came to “depression” and “anxiety” I was reluctant to check those boxes even though I am currently in therapy and taking medications for both. When we are already feeling down or overwhelmed by other life issues or crises throwing a pandemic into the mix is like putting gas on a fire. Depression and its cousins, fear, worry, and despair in some degree are affecting us all just now, and as we are seeing a new surge of cases it is easy to play the blame game, go into victim mode and be overwhelmed.

Multiple grief over jobs, chronic illness, loss of contact with loved ones and friends, and support communities, loss of physical closeness and contact with others all compound the tendency to despair and surrender to our frustrations. Zoom contacts with friends, teachers, business colleagues, congregations and other significant contacts are a godsend, but they cannot replace real live human contact. Even those of us who are introverts are admitting we need people.

Bargaining: In the case of physical death and mortality this stage is characterized by promises to do x, y, or z if we or a loved one can just live a little longer or a miracle cure can be found to postpone the inevitable. In pandemic grief I’m not sure what this stage looks like. For some of us it may be if we are spared from this plague we will change our ways and correct some flaw in our lives. It may be a bargain for a loved one to be kept safe from the virus in spite of their risky behavior. This stage can take many forms; so it’s just good to be aware of when we find ourselves in that deal making mode with God or whomever we are negotiating with.

Acceptance: There’s no timeline or “normal” prognosis for how long it takes to get to the stage of accepting a loss we are grieving. Every person and every situation and relationship is different. Sometimes when we know a loved one or even oneself is dying there is time to do anticipatory grief, to be prepared, to say good bye, to make peace with the coming reality. Other times loss is sudden and unexpected and all the grieving must be done after the loss of a job or a relationship or a life. But regardless of the circumstances or timeline, good grief moves us toward a state of acceptance and peace with a new reality. This stage does not mean there will not be days when anger or denial come surging back like Covid-19, but those pangs of sadness become less frequent and less painful the more accepting we are of our new normal.

And so it is with this nasty virus. The more we can accept the reality of how pervasive and deadly this disease is, the better we can cope on a daily basis and the sooner we will be free of its hold on our lives. If we are impatient and fall back into denial and angry foolish behavior we jeopardize everyone’s life and prolong the hardship both personal and economic.

Acceptance does not mean being happy with the new reality. I am not happy that my parents are dead but I have learned to accept the reality that I am now an orphan and the oldest living member of my family. Am I sometimes angry or depressed about that, sure, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to believe all those things are true. Am I tired of wearing a mask and debating if it’s safe to go shopping or to see my kids, you bet. I’m exhausted by having my routines in life screwed up for over 3 months and for the foreseeable future.

I know that our collective denial in the early days of the pandemic cost us many lives. I know that on-going denial of the cold hard facts by the President and misinformation by his favorite news outlets is going to cost more lives and economic hardship. If wishing could make this virus go away it would have disappeared months ago. If firing the messengers who bring us inconvenient facts would change reality I’d be all for it. But that’s not how viruses work, and the sooner we as a total society accept the reality of our situation we will begin to win this fight. And if we don’t the awful history of how people rebelled against masks and restrictions during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and created a second and third wave much more deadly than the first will be repeated. So please friends, wear your mask. It won’t kill you, but denying the need to do so may kill us both.

Saving Ourselves and Our Democracy

It has become tragically apparent that having a U.S. President campaigning for re-election in the midst of several major crises creates an untenable conflict of interest. Very few people, and certainly not Donald Trump, can be altruistic enough to sacrifice their own self-interest for the greater good of the nation or world. I’m sure others must have considered this problem, but I have not read any discussion of what may be a better alternative.

If our presidents were limited to one six-year term the conflict between what is good for my re-election vs. what is the right thing to do for the American people would be somewhat mitigated. The current non-stop campaigning and the obscene amounts of money that corrupt our political process could also be curtailed. The founding fathers could never have conceived of the unhealthy effect super partisanship is having on our democracy or on our very ability to save ourselves from a dangerous virus. And sadly Trump’s unbelievable denial of the inconvenient realities facing his administration is literally costing thousands of human lives. We have the ability to amend our constitution when it isn’t working, and this is one of those cases.