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?”

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.

Say Thanks While You Can

I just wrote a long overdue thank you letter to an old friend that I haven’t seen or talked to in over 40 years. I worked for this gentleman and his wife in their florist shop my first two years in college, and felt the need to say thank you to him for the powerful influence he had on my life. He’s a 90 something now, a widower living in a retirement community, and I share this in case there’s someone you need to say thanks to before it’s too late.

Here’s what I wrote:

“I’m writing this because I want to express my appreciation for the good times I enjoyed working for you and especially for the kind and compassionate way you treated me. I hope you don’t even remember all the times I messed up by wrecking your vehicles or by driving around the block so I didn’t have to parallel park the truck there by the back door of the shop. We worked ridiculously long hours around holidays, especially those Thanksgiving weekends getting ready for the Christmas open house. I trust you figured out how to simplify things in your more mature years!! But even if you didn’t I know you made the work fun. I’ve been so lucky to have really good places to work MOST of my life, but I have always appreciated what I learned from you about how to work with people under some pretty stressful times and still get along and laugh together.

I confess I have used you several times as a sermon illustration of how kindness and understanding are not only the Christian way to treat people; they are actually the best way to call forth the very best effort and loyalty from others. My case in point that I will never forget was the day sometime in the mid 60’s you got a bright new Pontiac convertible – I think it was yellow. This was after I had already wrecked your truck, your car and even your lawn tractor while mowing your lawn. We had a delivery that needed to be made and the truck was out on another run; so you handed me the keys to that brand new car that I don’t think your wife had driven yet and trusted me to take in to make a delivery. You could have knocked me over with a feather, and my old heart is still warmed at that memory.

You see at that point in my life no authority figure in my life had ever treated me with that kind of trust and respect, and I have treasured that memory and all the other life lessons I learned working with you for lo these 50 plus years. And I just wanted to say thanks.”

Hanging On

One of the benefits of house arrest 2020 is that my office is cleaner than it has been in years. I’ve found things I’ve been looking for since 2017! One of the things I rediscovered is this four-generation picture of me with three very strong women, and it got me thinking about what my parents, grandparents, and especially my great-grandparents witnessed in their lives compared to the pandemic we’re in right now.

The woman on the left in this picture is my maternal great-grandmother, Anna Mae Thomas Balthaser (1878-1961). Until I was elementary age I thought her name was “Ballplayer.” She was a tiny but mighty one, never weighed 100 pounds, but until I found this picture again at the same time I’ve been reading things about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 I hadn’t really thought about the scope of the challenges her generation faced in their lifetimes.

Yes, I’ve often thought about the fact that they went from horse and buggies to the space age and other kinds of “progress” they experienced. But as I have been learning about the so called “Spanish Flu,” which I’ve learned really started in Kansas and got exported to Europe by American Troops deployed to Europe in WW I, I have thought more about other major problems my ancestors faced and overcame.

Thanks to my sister Susan’s careful genealogical research we know that my great-great grandfather Henry Balthaser Jr. moved at age 5 to Ohio with his family from Pennsylvania, and the farmhouse depicted here is a painting of their home near Amanda. The painting was done on a saw by a friend of my father and proudly hangs in my office today.

Anna’s husband Chauncy Balthaser was a Spanish War vet, which had nothing to do with the Spanish Flu. And then life got difficult. They farmed until losing their farm when he put it up as collateral for his brother to buy a farm and then worked as a carpenter for the rest of his life. When I reflected on their life span from 1870-1961 I realized they lived through a total of two world wars, the Spanish Flu, and the Great Depression. That blows my mind!

I was fortunate enough to have known both of these great-grandparents on my mother’s side. He died when I was 7 and she when I was in high school. As a kid I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have, but I’m so glad I did know them personally because now when I think about the decades they lived through I can put faces on people I knew who lived through all of those world events and hardships. It helps put what we’re going through right now in perspective. We’ve been cooped up for a few weeks now, and my “sacrifices” don’t begin to hold a candle to what they experienced in even one of their crises. I also know that I am extremely fortunate to be in a much better place right now than the vast majority of people in the world during this pandemic.

My sister reminded me the other day of something that our great-grandmother used to say. I must admit I don’t remember this, but am glad my sister does because it speaks volumes of wisdom to me and my generation in 2020. She apparently used to say, “You can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.” And even though she’s been gone almost 60 years now, that metaphor, given all she had to hang on through, gives me hope to carry on. Thanks Grandma Ballplayer.

We are Butt Dust

“For God knows we are but dust and that our days are few and brief.” (Psalm 103:14) OK, those words are not much comfort in pandemic panic time, I know. But here’s the thing, it’s Lent, and words like those are traditionally used on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our mortality. God also knows, as do I as a member of the at-risk elderly crowd, that we don’t need any more reminders of our mortality right now.

So why quote those words today of all days? Glad you asked. It’s because of a story I read recently that made me chuckle, and I am a firm believer that we’ve got to have some humor in the midst of this darn crisis or we’ll all go off the deep end. It seems that a little girl was in church when she heard the pastor quote those words above, “we are but dust…” The girl immediately turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, what’s butt dust?”

The story doesn’t tell us how the mother responded, and I’d love to know. That’s one my kids or grandkids have not asked me. But it does remind me of another similar story I heard many years ago. Billy’s Sunday school class had a lesson on the creation story in Genesis one day, and that afternoon Billy tapped his dad on the shoulder while he was watching some sports on TV (remember those days?). When he got to a time out on TV Dad finally turned his attention to his son who said he had a question. Billy said, “Today in Sunday School we learned that God made Adam from dust.” “Yes,” the father said, “That’s right. But what’s your question, Billy?” “Well, our teacher also said our bodies return to dust after we die.” The father nodded getting a little nervous about where this conversation was headed. He was considering referring Billy to his mother for this theological question when Billy finished. “Well,” Billy said, “I just looked under my bed, and there’s someone either coming or going under there!”

Certainly COVID-19 is no laughing matter. I applaud the courageous job our Governor and public health officials are doing of taking what may seem like drastic measures to avert a catastrophe. None of us like having our lives put on pause with no promise of how long that hiatus from our “normal” lives may be. And the real effects of this crisis haven’t even hit yet. Once kids are home from school 24/7 and people living from paycheck to paycheck start facing hard choices on what they and their families have to do without things are going to get a lot harder very quickly. Tempers are going to get shorter; escapes from reality through entertainment or simple solitude are going to be among the first casualties. Social problems like homelessness, mental health resources, domestic abuse, and universal access to health care are going to be magnified every time the number of confirmed cases and deaths goes up.

The necessity of choosing to look for positives instead of being overwhelmed by the scary truth that we are all butt dust is the challenge facing each one of us. And it is a choice. We can choose to watch the depressing news all day or just get summaries of what we need to know a few times a day. It’s a choice to be irritated by the inconvenience of antsy children underfoot while we are trying to work from home or being grateful for a flexible schedule and more quality time with our families. I can whine and complain about how much I miss March Madness or I can choose to be thankful for time to catch up on things around the house and to get reacquainted with my wife.

Life is nothing but a series of choices. Life happens, and it isn’t always what we’ve planned or hoped it would be. It’s much too easy to feel like we are victims to what life throws at us. I go there all the time, and trust me it’s not a fun place for me or anyone around me. Life sucks right now for everyone, but much more for health care workers, janitors, grocery store clerks and stockers, and residents and staff of homes for the elderly. The best cure for having a pity party is to think about the fact that we are all butt dust – meaning we are all in this boat together. None of chose to be here, but being frustrated, angry or blaming someone else for the crisis is simply a waste of precious energy.

I started a gratitude practice several weeks ago before any of us knew Corona was something other than a beer. I think God knew I was going to need that practice to prepare me for this pandemic. As I’ve written here earlier, I’ve been surprised (and grateful) that the simple practice of being grateful for at least three things each day for 21 days would rewire my old brain and form a habit of being more grateful in general. Yes, I frequently slip up and revert to my old glass half empty personality, but not as much. Yes, these last few days I’ve had to be more intentional about actually looking for things to be grateful for.

For example, yesterday I was doing what used to be a simple task. We had some plumbing done this week, and I was struggling to put some shelves back together under my bathroom sink. Because I have a bad back and arthritis in my fingers getting under the sink and screwing the shelves together was, to say the least, not going well. After a couple of expletives my wife offered to help, which I of course ignored because my little male ego was threatened by admitting that I failed. But after several more futile attempts (and a few choice words) I finally gave up and asked for her help. It wasn’t easy, but I finally was grateful that she was able to do what I couldn’t instead of being angry that I couldn’t. Yes, it would have been much better for both of us if I could have been humble enough to ask for help much sooner; but that doesn’t mean I can’t even today be grateful that I’m not alone to deal with life’s challenges.

And none of us is alone in this crisis. We just have to get more creative, humble and grateful about how we find new ways to be in community while keeping a safe distance from each other. Let’s be grateful for the technology that helps us stay in fellowship with each other while remembering that some of the most vulnerable do not have that technology to use. More than ever we need to give thanks that we are indeed our sisters and brothers keepers. That’s a gift, not a burden; and every act of compassion we engage in will bless us even more than those we serve.

Thanksgiving Prayer

O Source of all blessings, we know every day should be one of giving thanks because without you we would be and have nothing. Forgive us our foolish pride and individualism. Without migrant workers who cultivate the crops we will feast on this Thanksgiving our tables would be bare. Without the minimum wage labor of those who process, package, ship our food and stock shelves in the grocery we would go hungry. Enjoying the abundant life we take for granted is a team effort, and most of us are barely on the roster.

As we have moved further from living off the land our awareness of how dependent on you we are has decreased. We are clueless about the sacrifices made by the animals gracing our tables. Forgive our shortsightedness about our place in the food chain and our wastefulness of sacred resources that cannot be replaced.

Help us balance our gratitude with humility and compassion for others. Let us multi-task so even as we give thanks for family and friends who gather, we can be mindful of those who are alone, homeless or forgotten. Help us expand our thankfulness to those who work on Thanksgiving—first responders, those in the military, health care providers and others who keep our lights on and houses warm, those who operate public transportation, and retail workers that often cannot afford the products eager shoppers gobble up.

And please Lord we pray for a sense of community around our tables. Let us celebrate our diversity rather than let it be a cause of tension or conflict. We break bread together coming from different generations, lifestyles and world views. As we share a rich variety of life experiences may we value and honor elders who bring the gift of wisdom not learned in school but in the joys and sorrows of existence. May we also cherish the exuberance and energy of youth, the idealism of young adults, and the pure joy and innocence of children. For practical reasons we often designate adult and kids tables, but may our holidays also include intentional intergenerational time to laugh, play and hang out together.

For the food, fun and even the sink full of dirty dishes and willing hands who wash them we give thanks and praise, O God. May the ties that bind us together grow stronger. May the memories shared and the new ones made warm our hearts. May our sense of wonder and gratitude for all the blessings we have be multiplied. And may the strength of family and friendships that we all need to see us through the hard times in life continue to grow stronger this and every day. Amen

Prayer for Military Veterans and Veterans of Life

O Gracious God of our past, present and eternal future, we give you thanks for all the lives, memories and stories gathered in this place, for the treasure of wisdom that only life experience can teach us. We especially are thankful this day for those who have worn our nation’s uniforms in the past and those currently in the service, and for their families who sacrifice so much to help protect our freedom.

We confess we have not always treated our veterans with the respect they deserve, nor are we currently caring for their well-being after their active duty. Help us improve that care and assure that our nation’s priorities for those things that matter most are in harmony with your divine will and guidance.

We elders often feel that we too are not respected and honored for the wisdom life’s ups and downs have taught us. Grant us wisdom and courage to share our stories, to set good examples for the generations to follow, and even to celebrate what our descendants can learn from our stupid mistakes.

Do not let the challenges of aging keep us from mining the treasures found in our memories and experiences. Help us humbly to laugh at our own foolishness and to continue to learn and grow from each other and from people of every age, especially the innocent joy of children.

As we remember how Jesus taught the elders in the temple when he was only 12 please open our hearts and minds to the beauty and wonder of your creation.

We offer our prayers in the name of that 12 year-old who grew in wisdom and stature to show us how to live, how to love, and even how to pray.
(Pastoral Prayer, Nov. 10, 2019, Wesley Glen Retirement Community Vespers service)

LIFE IS LIKE BASEBALL….

Note: A high school classmate of mine wrote this piece a few weeks ago while recovering from an illness, and it resonated with me on a variety of levels. So I asked her for permission to share it, and what better time to do so than on the first night of this year’s World Series? Thanks Stella.

“My grandparents, parents, and family members before me are now gone. It is a bit daunting to realize that I am now the oldest living person on my family tree.

Perhaps life is like a baseball game after all.
I feel like I am in the middle of the 9th inning.
I have been challenged, but made tougher, and hopefully wiser, by mental and physical injuries from many games played, though often a designee on the disabled list. As the passing of my dear aunt draws near at 99, I remember that she always loved and cheered and rooted for me no matter how I played the game.

My children, however, are still at bat and playing the game and experiencing all that is entailed. Running the bases. Vying for a better contract. Suffering the strike-outs. And occasionally a home run. On the other hand, my grandchildren are all at spring training, some in the minor leagues.

I may not have always been in first place. But there will be a time when my season ends, as they all do. The Umpire will shout “You’re Out!” However, I will have won the World Series, no matter my batting average, if, when my season ends, I remained loved by supportive fans who I have loved and supported during my game.”

Stella Mowery, fall, 2019

Prayer for Eagle’s Wings

It’s me again, God. As you already know I’m feeling very, very hopeless and helpless about the state of our country and world, and that makes it very hard to be motivated to do anything. Knowing that elected officials are stuck in their partisan foxholes and not about to venture into the demilitarized zone to work in a bipartisan, collaborative manor makes it feel useless to even write to them to express concern. There’s so much to be upset and concerned about; is this empathy fatigue? Are my minor physical limitations a valid excuse for not doing anything?

Where is my niche Lord? Pre-retirement I knew who I was and what I was doing each day; but now I’m lost in the ambiguity of despair and need guidance. Shine a light or give me a sign so I can see where I’m supposed to go and do what for the kin-dom. I don’t want to surrender to old age or despair, but I’m so tired, so very tired. I’m waiting, God. You promise that if I wait for you I will not be weary; I will fly on eagle’s wings. Sounds wonderful, but how long do I have to wait? Isaiah doesn’t say how long – he just says “wait.” Does that mean napping or staying busy with distractions of the world while I wait? Does it mean having my phone with me constantly so I don’t miss your call that will tell me what I should be doing? Waiting is tough, especially when I don’t know how long the wait is. Can’t you tell me how long like when companies do when I’m on hold on the phone? Or give me a number that tells me where I am in line? Or can I leave my number so you can call me back when it’s my turn?

You can see how impatient I am. Impatient with all the things my body can no longer do. Impatient with no clarity about what “retirement” means. That word isn’t in the Bible, Lord. Does that mean there is no rest for the weary? Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” didn’t he? Or did Matthew slip that into the Gospel because he was tired and needed R & R from kin-dom work?

I’m waiting, Lord; I’m on hold. You know my strengths and weaknesses; so please let this old, weary servant know what you would have me do in this world that feels like we are going to hell in the proverbial hand basket. I’m waiting for my eagles wings!

Prayer for a 55th Class Reunion

Gracious God, two score and fifteen years ago to the surprise of our teachers and relief of our families the class of 1964 walked across the stage at Wapakoneta High School. Just five years later our fellow alum, Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon. Now some days we struggle to just walk across the room. The circle of life seems to spin faster each year like a spaceship re-entering the atmosphere as it returns from space.

But we are here together again tonight, and we give you thanks for the chance to renew friendships, to reminisce about old times, to complain about our ailments, to brag about our grandkids or to exercise a little poetic license and make up some stories.

We are a class that will never forget where we were seventh period that November day when we heard about President Kennedy’s assassination over the school PA system. But we also cherish memories about decorating for prom, band shows, musicals, FAA projects, cruising through town on Friday nights, or our senior picnic. For it all we give thanks, even the painful breakups and the embarrassing moments. We survived our mistakes and learned important life lessons from them; and we’re forever grateful we grew up before cell phones and social media could record and spread around our stupider activities.

We remember the thrill of getting a driver’s license, of picking up a class ring that we were anxious to share with our “steady.” We also know there were some immature cruel and unkind ways we treated some of our classmates. Forgive us those indiscretions and help us now in 2019 to find ways to promote civility and understanding in our badly bruised and divided country and world. Remind us that how we live our lives every day does matter, even and especially as the elders in our society.

Many of us are now the matriarchs or patriarchs in our families. Help us embrace that role, to celebrate the freedom that comes from retirement. We are no longer responsible to bosses and careers and that’s liberating. We have more time to do good in small and large ways, to commit random acts of kindness wherever we are. Hold us accountable, Lord, to be the best we can be each and every day you give us to keep walking on spaceship earth. We graduated a long time ago from high school, but we are still students of life and mentors to those who walk behind us.

Yes, Lord, we have walked many miles in the last 55 years, but we aren’t done yet. We don’t know how many more reunions we have yet to come, but we know we have this one. Help us make the most of this present moment—to rejoice and laugh together again over things we took too seriously back then, including ourselves.

We want to pause and remember our classmates who have “graduated” into the higher education realm of eternity. We pray your blessing on them and on those who are unable to be with us tonight for whatever reason. We give thanks for those who gave of their time to organize this reunion. We give thanks for the food we are about to share and ask your blessing on it and on the fellowship we share as we break bread together.

As our alma mater says, “Wapak High School we (still) adore thee and we’ll guard thy sanctity. Our gratitude we offer as we roam through many lands.”

Amen