Fall Classics

[Note: So far the month of November has been a blur. I spent all of last week, including two days in the hospital, dealing with a bad UTI. So this post I wrote earlier in the month is a little dated, but like the non-linear game of baseball itself, still relevant to the human endeavor to orient ourselves in time and space.]

In the days of the Big Red Machine back in the 1970’s there was no bigger baseball fan than yours truly. The Cincinnati Reds’ games that weren’t on TV I followed closely as Marty Brenneman and Joe Nuxhall broadcast all 162 regular season games and many post season ones on the radio. In my car, doing dishes, or “working” on a sermon the radio was always on. I can still name most of the players from that team that won back to back World Series in ‘75 and ‘76. I can even remember most of the players from the 1961 Cincinnati Reds who were the first Cincinnati team in my lifetime to make it to the Fall Classic. In those days the games were played in the daytime, and our school always had the game on TV somewhere. We could sign out of study hall to go watch. One of my favorite memories of my freshman fall was Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer to beat the Yankees in game 7 of the 1960 series.

As baseball has become more driven by money and free agency has players moving from team to team more often than the UK changes Prime Ministers I have lost interest in the game. The 162 game season now seems much too long with all of the post season games pushing the World Series into November. But, I still am drawn to watching the World Series every year, no matter which teams are in it. Maybe it’s because I have an October birthday and consider myself a Fall Classic too.

Tonight I watched the first game of this year’s Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. When I heard the announcer say that this is the 118th World Series my ears perked up, and I started wondering how many of those Series I had watched or listened to? The very first World Series I remember paying attention to was the 1954 Giants-Indians Series. It wasn’t my Reds, but it was an Ohio team; so I listened faithfully on the radio because I don’t think my family yet owned a television. I was of course disappointed as the Giants, led by a young Willie Mays, swept the Indians in 4 straight games.

But for historical purposes with that being my first World Series it means I have watched or listened to 68 Fall Classics, which also means that there were only 50 Series before I became a baseball fan. Therefore, I have witnessed 57.6% of every World Series ever played, and that makes me feel very old and I hope wiser.

Existential Equinox

“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Psalms 90:12

(365 x 76) + 19 = x? One of the blessings/curses of autumn means that the anniversary of my birth is once again on the horizon. That means if I make it another six weeks I will have logged 27,259 days on planet earth!!!! Yes I know that isn’t what the Psalm means by “counting” my days, but it is a very daunting number that raises the question, “what difference have I made in the world in all those days?” And for me it means it recent years asking the other uncomfortable question – how many more days do I have left? Wouldn’t life be easier if we knew the answer to that, or would it? For the next logical question is what do I want to do with whatever that unknown number is?

I do most of my calendaring on my phone these days, but I still like a paper calendar on my desk to get a wider angle lens on my schedule. I also mark the days of the month off on a wall calendar above my desk, not so much to mark time as to make it easier to see at a glance what day it is.

That is kind of redundant since my watch also shows the day of the week and the date. But with all those reminders I still forgot a PT appointment this morning until it was almost too late to get there. A friend of mine who has a four year old said her daughter has underwear with the day of the week on them, and she uses those to keep track of which days she has pre-school. I think something like that might be useful for retirees!

I mentioned to my therapist recently that turning the page on the calendar gives me a sense of pause now that it didn’t do in my younger years. Having surpassed the 70 year life span mentioned in Psalms 90:10 several years ago the still small voice of mortality keeps reminding me with each passing month or season that numbering my remaining days now takes much smaller numbers than it used to.

When I told my counselor about those feelings he said, “So changing the calendar is existential for you?” I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, but I guess it is. And the arrival of fall is especially so when we drop 30 plus degrees in one Ohio day! The fall season is full of mortality reminders as plants wither and leaves fall with the temperature. And more so for me since I also have the aforementioned October birthday just waiting to add another notch to my solar orbits odometer.

They say age is just a number – an ever larger number! I have the feeling the Psalmist knew it takes more than just adding years and decades to get a wise heart. It takes wisdom not just to mark off 24-hour cycles each day but to live each day we are given to make those days count.

Things I Never Asked My Father

My father, Herb Harsh, died four years ago at the age of 96. Part of my grieving for him and for myself has been thinking of many questions I wish I had asked him before he lost touch with reality. There are several reasons we never talked about a lot of things.

My father was a child of the depression born in 1921. He grew up with an abusive alcoholic step-father in rural northwestern Ohio. In spite of that he excelled in school and was valedictorian of the 1939 class at Buckland, Ohio high school. We used to tease him that it didn’t take much to be at the top of a class of 19, but the more I’ve come to appreciate the obstacles he overcame I regret that I didn’t give him more credit for his academic and survival skills in those depression years. His high school classmates were lifelong friends for him, bringing him back to high school reunions for nearly 70 years until he could physically no longer make the trip back home from his retirement community near Cincinnati.

My sister Sue and I inherited Dad’s ability to achieve in school. She was valedictorian of a class of 200, and I was second in a class of 120; and both of us went on to get graduate degrees. I think Dad would have been the first in his family to go to college had it not been for WWII. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor. One of the things I wish I asked him is what he did in years between high school and the service. My sister said she remembered he worked on the railroad at some point in his early life, and we think that may have been it.

I also wish I knew where he got his love for music. He played his tenor saxophone and sang in every musical group he could find until he was about 90. He had his own dance band in the 1950’s and bookended that with organizing “The Harsh Notes” quartet at his retirement community. In between he sang in the choir at every church he attended. When the aging process took those things away from him he lost most of his will to live. Because I was not gifted with any musical talent I never showed much interest in his love of music, and I regret that. I have always been a sports fan and listened to or watched every baseball, football and basketball game I could. My dad had zero interest in sports of any kind, and I wish I had explored that topic with him, just to understand him better.

I know my parents met at a dance, but I never cared enough to ask him for any details, and I’m sorry. All I do know is that my mother, a small town girl of maybe 19, followed her love to at least two air corps towns in Texas. Somewhere along the line they decided to marry before he was shipped overseas to fly B-17 bombers. I don’t know if they ever were formally engaged or where/when that might have happened. I do know they were married on June 5, 1943 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he was stationed for officer training. Sometime thereafter he shipped out to England. I wish I knew more about when that was and how he traveled there.

After he died we discovered that he had written about some of his war experience for the newsletter at the Otterbein Retirement community where he lived the final 38 years of his life. He apparently flew a few bombing runs over Germany near the end of the war, which he didn’t like doing, and again I wish I had asked him more about that. Like most survivors of war I don’t think he really wanted to talk about his war experience, but I wish I had shown more interest and wonder if it would have been good for him to talk about it.

The life-changing event in his service career happened after the war was over in Europe. He was co-pilot of a B-17 bringing 17 service members home after the war. For some strange reason I wish I understood they were flying across the Atlantic at night, leaving a refueling stop in the Azores Islands around midnight. Shortly after leaving there both of their engines failed, and they were forced to ditch (crash land) in the cold North Atlantic. Because it was foggy they came down too steep and too fast. My dad was knocked unconscious by the impact and remembers his pilot shaking him and urging him to get out before the plane sank.

The survivors of the crash impact spent the next 12 hours in the dark waters that they had been told might be shark infested. They were not able to retrieve any life rafts from the wreckage and had to rely entirely on their Mae West life jackets to keep them afloat. By the time they were finally rescued the next morning only four of the 17 men on the plane survived.

I cannot begin to imagine what those 12 hours were like. My dad didn’t write about any of that in his account. Watching his buddies die and fearing for his own life would surely have qualified him for a PTSD diagnosis if there had been such a thing in 1945. I will never know why I didn’t figure that out until very late in his life. It would have changed so much about our relationship and made me so much more patient and understanding about his approach to life, parenting, and his faith.

I wish I had asked him about how that horrific experience brought him from a churchless upbringing to a devout, dedicated Christian life for 70 years. I can only guess how his conversion experience happened, but what I know for sure is that my personal and professional life choices were totally affected by his come to Jesus moment or hours there in that water.

Why didn’t I explore all those important life events with my father? Let’s say I was a child of the ‘60’s and he came of age in the ‘30’s. Ironically it was his encouragement of me academically that created most of the divide between us. My life experience once I began college and seminary was totally foreign to the conservative, parochial life my father grew up in and chose to stay in after the war.

Pre-Viet Nam I was a typical patriotic American kid. I played war games with my friends, I wrote a piece in 4th grade that said I wanted to be a marine when I grew up. I was an Eagle Scout in 1960 at age 14, but all that began to change one day in my senior year of high school. A history teacher, Mrs. Miller, told our class one day that she thought Viet Nam was going to be the next trouble spot in the world. None of us had a clue where Viet Nam was, nor that Americans had been dying there already for 4 years. Suddenly my fantasies about attending one of the military academies came face to face on the nightly news with the realities of guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Southeast Asia,

That unjust and unnecessary war escalating was the backdrop to my entire college and seminary educational experience. My peers were dying in Vietnam and at Kent State University just 100 miles from my seminary campus. At the Methodist Theological School in Ohio we students didn’t have to protest. Our faculty and administration cancelled all classes to discuss how we could respond to the Kent State tragedy. That event led to my first political action. Some of us decided to go Washington DC and talk with our legislators about our concerns over the war and the unrest it was creating in our country. In one 24-hour whirlwind three of us drove all night to DC, talked with legislators the next day and turned around and drove straight home that night. The three of us probably made no difference in DC, but we bonded through that experience and are still good friends 52 years later.

Unfortunately my new liberal politics and theology were very troubling to my dad. I understand now that he needed the certainty of very concrete beliefs and values to manage his undiagnosed PTSD, and my divergence from those beliefs and values were a threat to his worldview. I wish I had been smart enough then to be patient and understanding about where he was coming from; but I guess I was not confident enough in my own burgeoning faith to reason with him. It was easier to rebel and withdraw from any controversial issues with him.

There is a running joke in my extended family about all of us who have received one or more of Dad’s infamous letters criticizing us for breaking one of his rules for living. My younger sister was always her Daddy’s girl and was his devoted caretaker in his last difficult years. She prided herself that she had never received one of his nasty letters, and she made it till he was getting very belligerent about his circumstances in his last two or three years. I’m hoping I don’t get that way, but I do know I learned or inherited my impatience and temper from him. He had every reason to be miserable those final months.

My mother died suddenly from brain cancer a few weeks after my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. My dad was lost without her, and remarried a year later a recently widowed woman who also lived in their retirement community. Both families were aghast and thought they were making a huge mistake. But they had 20 good years together before dementia did it’s dastardly deed on her. Dad often lost patience with her, and I’m sure I would have too. Eventually she had to move into memory care, and Dad, bereft of his music, his wife, and his dignity became a handful. It was in that state he finally wrote a nasty note to my sister criticizing her for not being available to him 24/7. My sister Nancy is a candidate for sainthood, but her letter made one family member happy — my son, Matt, now gets to boast that he is the only member of the family who never got a Harshpa letter.

One of the things we can laugh about now but was very stressful in Dad’s later years was how much he absolutely hated wearing diapers. For many months he was determined he was going to invent an apparatus that would make diapers unnecessary. His idea was somehow to create a device out of plastic tubing which at one point he was going to super glue to his penis! When we all presented a united front and refused to buy him any more supplies for his hair-brained idea he was livid. I made one trip, two hours each way, to visit him after that, and when I told him no, I was not going to the hardware for him to buy supplies he told me I could go to hell, and my 4-hour trip resulted in one very ugly 5-minute visit.

I don’t share that to criticize my Dad. As I am aging now I fully understand the frustration of giving up so many things I used to be able to do. I wish I had more fully understood that for my dad, and I’m sure most families go through some similar tough times. We were never forgiven for taking away his car keys either, and I get it now.

The good news is that for some years before the diaper conflicts Dad and I reached a somewhat peaceful and comfortable relationship. He mellowed some, or gave up trying to change me, and I came to understand that he had done the best job as a father he could. That grace is what most dads want most for Father’s Day. We all have regrets about things we have done or failed to do as fathers, but the bottom line is we’ve all done the best we could, and that’s all anyone can ask.

Unbound: Lazarus was, are we?

What do tennis, hiking, golf, biking, jogging, working on a ladder, and skiing all have in common? They are all things I have had to give up in the last 10 years due to the aging process. I was talking to a friend my age who has given up even more things than I, and when I described my emotional state as “feeling empty” and not having anything to fill the space left by all I’ve lost. The words were barely out of my mouth when my friend said, “That’s exactly how I feel!” Like all of my friends, we have often joked in years past about old people always complaining about their aches and pains all the time, but more and more as we navigate our 70’s we find ourselves doing exactly the same thing.

I remember about 12 years ago asking an “older” gentleman what he was doing in retirement. Without missing a beat he said, “Going to doctor appointments and funerals.” I thought that was funny back then, but I’m not laughing anymore. When I told my friend that I was seeing a counselor about my feelings of emptiness and depression his response surprised me. After asking if the therapy was helping he said, “Thanks for sharing that. I always thought you had it all together. But knowing you are feeling the same things that I am makes me feel not so alone.” That wasn’t a “misery loves company” response; that was the blessing of letting down our armor and being vulnerable.

I’m not patting myself on the back, mind you. I have been good friends with this man for over 50 years. We have gotten together for golf and/or lunch monthly for decades until old age took our clubs away. Now like many oldsters we just go to Bob Evans. We’ve developed a trust over the years, but the fact that he still thought I “had it all together” means I’m either a better actor than I thought or I’ve been much less honest with him than I wish I had. I’m hoping this recent conversation will help us stay on a more vulnerable level going forward.

Here’s the good news. In addition to my therapist I am also working with a spiritual adviser, and when I shared this story with him he reminded me that until we empty ourselves of all the busyness and activities that keep our minds off our pain God can’t fill us up with anything else. A light bulb went on for me when he said that because when you hear truth it illumines things around and within you. He helped me realize that instead of resenting the emptiness I am feeling I can choose to embrace it as a gift from God. That doesn’t mean the UPS is going to arrive at my doorstep with God’s gifts anytime soon, and no that’s not because of a supply chain issue. Spiritual growth takes time and a willingness to sit with pain or emptiness awhile.

The Hebrews were in the wilderness for 40 years, not because it takes that long to travel from Egypt to Israel or because Moses refused to ask for directions. Even Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with Satan because deep spiritual growth takes time to mature and ripen. The advice to “be still and know I am God” may sound really simple, but it’s not just a matter of shutting up for a few minutes so God can speak. It means prioritizing time for prayer and silence, and not the kind of prayer where we just tell God what we want or need.

Jacob wrestled with God all night long and was changed forever by that experience. Moses and Elijah both had to go up to Mt. Sinai/Horeb to hear God’s still small voice. I confess I am not good at silence. Even when writing these posts I frequently have a ball game on TV or music on some device. I know I write so much better when I am in a quiet place as I am while I write this, but like Paul I often fail to do the things I want to do and don’t practice what I preach.

The Gospel lesson for All Saints day this year is from John 11, the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. There are many rich veins of truth to mine in that story, but two stand out for me just now. This chapter contains what every kid in Sunday School loves to memorize, namely the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” This is one of several times in the Gospel narratives that we see Jesus vulnerable and allowing his humanity to show through. Like us he grieves over a loss, even though we and he all know he’s going to restore Lazarus to life.

The second verse in that lesson that grabbed my attention this year was the last one where Lazarus emerges from the tomb all bound up like a mummy. He’s alive but not really. His movement and sight and vision are all hampered by his grave clothes???, and Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.”

What are the things that bind you and me and keep us from living abundantly in the reign of God? Are we so stuck in our old ways that as Martha so indelicately puts it in the King James Version, “He stinketh,”. My wife sells a very good air purifier that kills germs and removes odors, even in cars or houses that have been skunked. But even those machines will not remove the kind of stench that comes from us who are spiritually dead and don’t know it.

My prayer is for God to unbind me from the anger, fear and regret that I feel for all the things I’ve lost in this stage of my life. Unbind me, Holy one. Roll away the stone that keeps me trapped in a pity party for my past. Unbind me and let me embrace what is and what will be if I trust you to lead me.

What’s your prayer for new life?

Grief and Hope in Darkest Days

“In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find Job moving through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s well-known stages of grief and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, resignation, and acceptance. The first seven days of Job’s time on the “dung heap” of pain are spent in silence, the immediate response matching the first stage—denial. Then he reaches the anger stage, verses in the Bible in which Job shouts and curses at God. He says, in effect, “This so-called life I have is not really life, God, it’s death. So why should I be happy?”

That quote is from Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion on August 2 of this year. I want to share the rest below because it speaks powerfully to the chaos of emotions I’ve be feeling for the last few weeks. Pressures of time, more physical health problems, depression about the resurgent Delta variant, and all the other “slings and arrows” of life have damned up my creative writing urges for weeks; so I apologize. In advance if this post gets too long. It has been worth it for me to ride it out, and I hope will be so for you as well.

After reading Fr. Rohr’s words that day I journaled the following dialogue of lament with God. “These words struck a chord with me about my anger and depression about my life and the mess our world is in. I have been stuck in unproductive anger for decades and its time to move along. Some connection there with shame the way Brene Brown discusses it. Help me Yahweh, the burden is literally breaking my back and I don’t know how to let it go. I feel trapped in a vicious cycle of pain, anger and shame that keeps me crippled and /or paralyzed with fear and doubt, layer upon layer piled higher and deeper over the years like a blind mole digging tunnels that go no where, afraid of the light that alone can overcome the darkness of gloom and despair. “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, you think it is I who have done the forsaking – but I have lots of good excuses – my parents, my church, my teachers all failed me and put me on the path of darkness and guilt trips that go nowhere but deeper into the muck and mire. I really want to turn around, I think, but I don’t know how. I am so deep in darkness I don’t know which way it is to the light.

“I am the way.! The path is narrow and full of challenges, but I will provide you strength you do not know you have. Trust and obey – choose and move. There’s no other way.”

It’s my move, and I will never be any closer to the truth than I am today.”

“Follow me.”

Fr. Rohr’s meditation continues: “W. H. Auden expressed his grief in much the same way in his poem “Funeral Blues,” which ends with these lines:

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.” [1]

Perhaps some of us have been there—so hurt and betrayed, so devastated by our losses that we echo Job’s cry about the day he was born, “May that day be darkness. May God on high have no thought for it, may no light shine on it. May murk and deep shadow claim it for their own” (Job 3:4–5). It’s beautiful, poetic imagery. He’s saying: “Uncreate the day. Make it not a day of light, but darkness. Let clouds hang over it, eclipse swoop down on it.” Where God in Genesis speaks “Let there be light,” Job insists “Let there be darkness.” The day of uncreation, of anti-creation. We probably have to have experienced true depression or betrayal to understand such a feeling.

There’s a part of each of us that feels and speaks that sadness. Not every day, thank goodness. But if we’re willing to feel and participate in the pain of the world, part of us will suffer that kind of despair. If we want to walk with Job, with Jesus, and in solidarity with much of the world, we must allow grace to lead us there as the events of life show themselves. I believe this is exactly what we mean by conformity to Christ.

We must go through the stages of feeling, not only the last death but all the earlier little (and not-so-little) deaths. If we bypass these emotional stages by easy answers, all they do is take a deeper form of disguise and come out in another way. Many people learn the hard way—by getting ulcers, by all kinds of internal diseases, depression, addictions, irritability, and misdirected anger—because they refuse to let their emotions run their course or to find some appropriate place to share them.

I am convinced that people who do not feel deeply finally do not know deeply either. It is only because Job is willing to feel his emotions that he is able to come to grips with the mystery in his head and heart and gut. He understands holistically and therefore his experience of grief becomes both whole and holy.”

[1] W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues,” Another Time (Faber and Faber: 1940), 91. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (Crossroad: 1996), 53–55.

And today (Aug. 6) Fr. Rohr provided these encouraging words of hope: “It is essential for us to welcome our grief, whatever form it takes. When we do, we open ourselves to our shared experiences in life. Grief is our common bond. Opening to our sorrow connects us with everyone, everywhere. There is no gesture of kindness that is wasted, no offering of compassion that is useless. We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

I would add it is a life-long journey, and with God’s help we can embrace all of life and death in all it’s many forms. Thanks be to God.

DREAMS AND VISIONS

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”  (Joel 2:28-29)

When this text from Joel showed up in the daily devotional I’m using (“Gift and Task” by Walter Brueggemann) the words that jumped out for me were “your old men shall dream dreams.”  I have been fairly successful at living in denial about my age, but somehow having my 74th birthday in October while recuperating from back surgery has made that reality come home to roost. So in this youth-oriented culture it felt good to see “old men’ (and I understand that generic term to include women also) included in this list of recipients of God’s Spirit.  

Brueggemann offers this commentary on Joel:  “The contemporaries of Joel are mostly prisoners of the present tense who cannot imagine life other than the way it is now.”  He goes on to describe how Joel offers an escape from that imprisonment. “Joel’s poem tells otherwise! He anticipates a coming time when all sorts of people break out of such weary imprisonment. There will be prophecy, dreams, and visions, acts of imagination opening to otherwise…The news is that God’s intent has not succumbed to our precious status quo.”

That sacred use of imagination to help create a new reality free from the injustices of our present one is exciting and inspiring, but like the ice bucket challenge of a few year ago I was shocked back into my cynical self as I read on into the 3rd chapter of Joel.  That whole chapter is a gruesome account of Yahweh’s revenge upon the enemies of Israel culminating with this exact opposite of the vision of Micah and Isaiah (cf my blog post from October 12 of this year, “Pacifism Put to the Test) when Joel, speaking for Yahweh says, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears, let the weak say, “‘I am a warrior.’”  (Joel 3:10)

I knew those words reversing the vision of Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 were in Joel, but I had not remembered that they came immediately after the hopeful words in chapter 2.  My heart sank as I realized that immediately after Joel’s promise that everyone would dream dreams and see visions come a whole chapter where Joel is a prisoner of the present, to use Brueggemann’s phrase.  Joel is trapped in what President Eisenhower would call the military-industrial complex many centuries later. The whole cycle of revenge escalating into more brutal mayhem has been a recurring nightmare throughout the history of humankind. 

We justify our self-destructive reliance on our primal instincts by citing “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” from the Hebrew Scriptures, but what most of us don’t realize is that those words in Leviticus 24:19–21 and Exodus 21:24 were meant to set a limit on revenge so the punishment fit the crime rather than seeking to do the most damage possible on ones foes.  

And just as the Levitical law was an improvement over previous moral codes, so Micah and Isaiah and other prophets in every generation have dreamed ever better dreams and visions, culminating in the life and teachings of Jesus who lived out his vision of God’s peaceable kingdom even when it meant sacrificing life for a greater truth and reality.

But because of human nature every generation must make its own escape from the prison of the present tense.  As God’s children we are so much better than the quagmire of hate in which we are currently living.  God’s spirit is upon us now just as it was in Joel’s time, and that means all of us of every age and every gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and nationality can still dream dreams and see visions of God’s reign where we will beat those swords again into plowshares, put away our nukes and learn war no more.  

As I write this I am reminded of these words from a prophet for our time, John Lennon that still speak to this old dreamer:

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

Imagine all the people sharing all the world,

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

All Saints, Birthdays, and Elections

I just completed my 74th trip around the sun and feel like I should have some wisdom to foist on my readers; but I’m coming up dry. I suspect it’s because of my stress level over the election and my recovery from back surgery 5 weeks ago. I’m doing well on the latter, but not so much on the former. The non-stop crisis du jour coming out of Washington, and the ominous record numbers of COVID cases is exhausting. I have tried to cut back on reading and listening to the news, but it’s like the proverbial train wreck that I can’t stop watching.
This much I know for sure — I cannot wait for the incessant requests for campaign contributions to end. Each one tells me that the sky is falling if I don’t give or give again. Enough already!!

This election reminds me a lot of the Nixon-McGovern election in 1972. Then too an embattled and corrupt incumbent was running for re-election against a liberal Democrat. Only that time around the Democrats overreacted to Nixon’s far right agenda and chose a candidate who was way too liberal for the country, and McGovern lost in an embarrassing landslide. Since that was only the second presidential election I could vote in my idealism was badly deflated not only because my candidate lost but because McGovern carried only one state and the District of Columbia. It was the worst whuppin’ any presidential candidate ever suffered, and I was devastated—lower than a snake’s belly. So to help pull me out of my funk a very wise friend/mentor gave me some advice I’ve never forgotten.

That friend, Russ, died early this year as one of 2020’s first of many low blows. And I miss him a lot, but when I remember his advice I feel like he’s still speaking to me from beyond. The particular piece of wisdom I’m remembering just now went something like this: “Elections are like city buses, if you miss one there will be another coming along soon.” In other words we can’t change the past but we can learn from it and move forward.

That advice didn’t sink in immediately. I remember writing a very dooms dayish letter to the editor shortly after that election bemoaning that since not even an election could get us out of the disastrous war in Vietnam all we could do now was to wait for the ultimate judgment of God. I’m glad I was wrong about that prediction. But as apocalyptic as my younger self thought that election was 48 years ago the 2020 version seems so much more critical to the future of our democracy. In part I feel that way because looking back on the 70’s we all know that the Watergate scandal took Nixon down when the election didn’t. And Nixon resigned because there was bipartisan agreement in Congress that he would be impeached if he didn’t. Such a spirit of valuing justice over party loyalty seems totally out of reach in the hyper partisan 2020 world, and that scares me.

I have now voted in 13 presidential elections, and I am much older than my friend Russ was in 1972 when he gave me that advice; but I don’t feel as wise as he was. Perhaps that is because all the foundations and norms we have lived by have been shaken by the 45th president. We are living in a far different reality than 1972 and that concerns me very much. Fortunately in my many trips around the sun I have learned a few things, none more important than this: God’s time is not our time, whether it’s daylight savings or not. We can change our clocks all we want, but the eternal truth is that all earthly kingdoms and super powers come and go, but God’s reign is forever. My tiny spin around the sun, no matter how long it lasts, is but a nano second in God’s time.

So whatever the outcome and whenever this ugly election ends that truth will won’t change. Our salvation history teaches us repeatedly that no matter what earthly calamities human disobedience to God’s will causes, there will always be a faithful remnant to carry on. God will raise up as always unexpected leaders from the most unlikely places here or elsewhere in the universe.

I have used words from Psalm 46 to comfort those who mourn at many funerals, but they also apply to national crises, of which Israel had plenty; and those words still speak to us today:

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

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.”