Rejoicing when God says No

Pity party alert. I am having a medical procedure next week that requires me to be off some of the meds I take for arthritic pain, and therefore I am experiencing more discomfort that usual. The result is that I’ve been a bigger pain than usual for my poor wife. I don’t like myself when I’m in this kind of state, and the fact that I know I’m making everything worse when I dwell on my problems doesn’t help.

As a student of communication I know very well how powerful words are, especially the self-talk kind. I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing the paragraph above so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my Microsoft Word thesaurus gave me were a real revelation: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is I get to choose how I want to label what I’m feeling.

Mornings are the worst for my discomfort; so when I went back to my Lenten devotion of reading Psalm 90 sure enough there was relevant wisdom awaiting me: “Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).
Pity-party Steve gravitates to the phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need or what God provides. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away with a Holy abracadabra!

But the Psalmist has a much more realistic and deeper request that we need at every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and God knows we’re seeing an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is as simple and illusive as unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

These are not new thoughts for me or in Scripture, but they are words we need to really hear on a regular basis. I wrote about these same issues for me two years ago (May 2015) in a post entitled “Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living” where I reflected on St. Paul’s request in II Corinthians for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” God’s answer to Paul not once but three times was “no” because like me Paul was praying for the wrong thing. He was asking for physical healing, but the answer Paul got was God’s reply that “My grace is sufficient for you.” (II Cor. 12:9). God’s grace is another way of talking about God’s steadfast love.

The words from the Psalm and from Paul are similar because they are trustworthy and true. Even though they were written in totally different circumstances about very different kinds of suffering some 600 years apart, the truth is the same then and now and forever. It is the truth we all need to hear early and often because God’s steadfast, unconditional love and grace are the only things that can truly sustain us and even empower us to rejoice in difficult times.

Thanks be to God.

To Dust We Shall Return, An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That traditional reminder of our mortality that many Christians hear when ashes are imposed at the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection has always given me pause, which I guess is the whole idea. This year, my first Ash Wednesday as a septuagenarian makes those words more real than usual.

Mortality is one of those things we do not often speak of in polite company. Our youth-oriented culture is built on a shaky foundation of denial that Ash Wednesday threatens to expose. Maybe that’s why most churches are not overcrowded on that somber day. But mortality is a natural and essential part of our human condition. It can be argued it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be human. We don’t believe any other creatures are aware of their inevitable death, although I’m not sure that’s true.

Knowing our days are numbered is really a gift that makes it possible for us to value and prioritize the time we have in this life, and having the confidence that death is only a transition to another form of being frees us to embrace that gift.

So this Ash Wednesday this 70 something is going to enter a season of Lent reflecting on what God is calling me to do with the days remaining to me. I have no idea what that number is, but I know full well that it is a much smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. On that score I find the wisdom of Psalm 90 sobering and uplifting at the same time:

“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!” (Selected verses from NRSV)

There’s plenty there to ponder for the entire 40 days of Lent, and that’s only part of the Psalm. The psalmist’s words call us to give up our regrets over what is past and fears of what is to come, to affirm and accept our dusty existence so we can “count our days” and make each one count.

The psalmist reminds us that we are alive only because of the grace of God, and that when attendance is called each morning we need to be present in every sense of that word because we have big work to do. God’s work is entrusted to us, God’s servants. That’s a huge job description, but if not me, then who? If not today, when?
We can even dare to consider accepting God’s mission as ours because with our marching orders comes the promise of God’s glorious power and that power alone can “prosper the work of hands.” Anything we do that is not according to God’s plan is doomed to failure.

I confess I begin too many days throwing a pity party for myself for the things I am no longer able to do. Ash Wednesday is a great day to repent, to turn around and welcome whatever task God has for me now in this stage of my life. Bucket lists are popular ways we talk about the things we want to be sure we do before we die. They are a good first step toward acknowledging that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But my challenge to myself and to you as we strive to keep a Holy Lent in 2017 is to ask not what’s on my bucket list, but take time in prayer and meditation each day to ask, “What’s on God’s bucket list for me?”

Patience and Perspective: Why Thanksgiving and Advent Matter More than Ever

“For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” Psalm 90:4

The joke says “Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes wisdom comes alone.” There’s some truth in that, but as one who is learning the hard way, I can attest that age does come with some perspective and experience. I am going to resist the temptation to do a general rant about the rush to Santa Claus that turns the time between Halloween and December 25 into a blur. But I do regret the de-emphasis of Thanksgiving and Advent. We need more than ever times of gratitude and patience in this anxious age of instant gratification that doesn’t satisfy. Gratitude and patience are what Thanksgiving and Advent are all about, or should be.

I heard from several disenchanted voters and analysts of all persuasions that the recent election was all about a desire for change because of voter frustration with the current political situation. While I understand that sentiment and agree that much of what goes on in government is corrupt and broken, I was struck by a phrase I heard several times from Millennials and Gen Xers who said “nothing has changed in 50 years.”

I can’t begin to address the solution to what’s ailing our democratic system, but since I’ve voted in the last 13 Presidential elections beginning in 1968 I do feel somewhat qualified to address what’s changed in the last 50 years. In the 90th Congress, elected in 1966, there were only 11 women in the House of Representatives and 1 in the Senate. In this year’s election those numbers are 83 in the House and 21 in the Senate. I have not found exact data on racial minorities for 90th Congress, but one source said there were fewer than 10 until 1969. By contrast the new Congress in 2017 will have the greatest racial diversity in the history of the republic – 102 members of color in the House and 10 in the Senate. Those numbers equal an 867% increase for women and 1120% for racial minorities in the last 50 years.

Does that mean we have achieved equality in D.C. or in our nation? Of course not; we all know we are a very long way from achieving the high ideals of “liberty and justice for all” that we all profess to believe in, but where we are today on the long journey to equality for all is a far cry from saying nothing’s changed in 50 years.
There are many examples of progress toward social justice if we take time to look for them, and gratitude requires an intentional commitment to focus our attention on what there is to be thankful for, especially in this 24/7 news cycle and social media world where we are bombarded with mostly bad news constantly and can overreact to something and make it viral before bothering to check it’s veracity. Isn’t it interesting that the word “viral” comes from a term that used to mean something contagious that makes us sick?

We can all do something about the virus of untrue and biased information besides just complaining. There have been times in the last 2 weeks that I have simply had to turn off the TV and all my devices (de-vices?) to keep from being overwhelmed and depressed about the “news” coming at me from all directions. A fast from consuming the viral spread of anger, hate and fear is good preventative health from time to time. Perhaps more importantly, we can all stop and verify information before we spread it around by reposting or retweeting. Social media makes it far too easy to just hit a button and spread a virus before we have time to evaluate the information and its source. In the heat of political conflict it is not always easy to remember that, but if we would all pause and reflect on what the consequences might be and how images and words might affect others who become our unintended audience when we hit that button we can all help in a small way to heal the growing divisions in our nation and world. If we aren’t part of the solution we are part of the problem, and if we aren’t helping create positive change in our nation we shouldn’t expect our elected leaders to do it for us.

Mr. Rogers’ has been quoted a lot lately about “looking for the helpers” in a bad situation. Please, in this week of overeating and overshopping and overfootballing, let’s all take time to look for the positive signs of change in our world and be thankful. To do that requires backing up to get a better perspective on the big picture instead of focusing entirely on our problems. Yes, health care costs and jobs and our own civil liberties are important, and we must keep working as fast and justly as possible to change those situations. But to do so requires patience and perseverance and an appreciation of how far we’ve already come. The big picture gives us a better perspective on progress while at the same time reminding us that there are millions of other people in the world who are homeless and refugees and orphans, addicted and incarcerated that we must not ever forget. From Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in Genesis 4 to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” to Jesus in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10), God’s answer is “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” (Matt. 25)

As we have seen this week in the Trump vs. Hamilton tweet storm, artists and artistic works have great power to give us a glimpse of the bigger picture. Good drama and fiction can transport us out of our own swamp of alligators for a time and move us emotionally in ways that pure “facts” or logical arguments never will. It is no coincidence that the musical “Hamilton” celebrating diversity has taken Broadway by storm in this season of division and bigotry. And it is likewise no coincidence that the movie “Loving” began showing in theaters 4 days before the 2016 election. I haven’t seen it yet, but “Loving” is based on a landmark Supreme Court case, yes 50 years ago, in 1967. It’s the story of Mildred and Richard Loving who were sentenced to prison for violating a Virginia law against interracial marriage. In a unanimous decision (imagine that?) the US Supreme Court ruled that “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Yes, a great deal has changed in the last 50 years, and much of it for the better. But here’s where patience and Advent come into play, and the turmoil and anxiety about what a Trump presidency may do to impede the cause of justice and equality only underscores this point. We’re not sure who actually coined the phrase “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” but it is certainly true. A major reason for the necessity of patience and vigilance in our democratic system is that what is seen as progress by some is always seen as a threat to others. The balance between individual liberty and universal justice is in constant tension, and that tension is usually part of the creative process. When the tension becomes bitter and partisan, when one or both sides want to be right more than they want justice for all, when the tension becomes more like a competitive tug-of-war instead of a cooperative teeter totter the tension can become destructive. We have had cycles of both productive and destructive tension throughout our history, and keeping the total picture in mind helps us to be patient with the process and not resort to oppressive or violent means to demand change to get our way.

The truth of the matter is that some people, not all, who voted for Trump and Pence under the banner of change do not want change at all. That minority of white voters really want to undo the changes we’ve made in the last 50 or 100 years that don’t benefit their privileged status. The reality is that in addition to seasons of gratitude and patience the USA desperately needs a season of reflection and repentance to remember all of our history. Only when we admit that this nation was built on a foundation of racism and genocide can we appreciate how far we’ve come and why we’ve got so far to go before “liberty and justice” for all is more than a pious platitude.

The struggle we are now in for the heart and soul of our democracy is so difficult because it is so old and so deeply ingrained in our history and DNA that we don’t recognize it. We learn at an early age about the early European immigrants coming to America in search of liberty and freedom, but most of our schools, families, churches and other civic organizations fail to teach white Americans the rest of our history. We don’t learn about the evils of slavery or we naively think it is a nasty little problem that was resolved by President Lincoln. We don’t learn about the founding fathers being slave holders. We don’t learn about the rape and pillage of Native American lands from people who were here for centuries before the first Europeans “discovered” America.

Why? Because our parents and their parent before them didn’t learn those lessons either because to learn the whole truth about who we really are is too painful. But ignorance is more painful in the long run. Without knowing our past we are condemned to repeat it generation after generation. Our lack of knowledge and the successful use of fearmongering racist tactics to win an election are an indictment of our education system, but even more they are an indictment of the church of Jesus Christ for being co-opted into a conspiracy of silence instead of proclaiming a John the Baptist Gospel of repentance for our sins. John and Jesus told it like it really is. Contrary to Jack Nicholson’s famous line in “A Few Good Men,” not only can we handle the truth only truth and the whole truth can set us free. As Frederick Buechner said so well in “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale,” “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.”

Ironically the bad news of the Gospel and of our current political state is something that we should be thankful for. I’m not one bit thankful for hatred and racism ever, but as one commentator pointed out nothing new happened on November 8. The anger and divisions have always been a part of our history, clear back at least to the Continental Congress. The silver lining in the Trump election is that the dark underbelly of hate and anger is out in the open where it can be dealt with.

The struggle for liberty and justice is never easy, but when we look at the big picture and understand why change is so hard and how long it has been going on, we can appreciate and be thankful for the progress we’ve made; and we can be confidently patient that from God’s perspective the outcome of the battle between justice and evil is not in doubt. The road to justice is not linear but full of curves and detours and switchbacks, but we have a roadmap from a God who is always on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden. Justice probably won’t happen in our time, but because we also live in God’s time where a thousand years are but as yesterday, we live in gratitude and hope even as we continue to wait and work for liberty and justice for all.

Prayer for a 70th Birthday

O God. All of my friends are turning 70 this year. And my turn is coming very soon. Just two years ago we celebrated 50 years since high school graduation with a big reunion, but this milestone has spread through us first wave of boomers like a thief in the night, picking us off one at a time on a steady march from January to October and the toll keeps climbing.

Our 50’s and 60’s came and went with “Over the Hill” jokes and some solemnity, but being 70 seems much more serious. Denying our aging gets harder every year, but 70 has the extra power of biblical authority. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10). OK, maybe the Psalmist was just having a bad day when those words were written, but they still are hard to shake for those of born in 1946 or sooner, no matter what the actuarial tables say about our increasing life expectancy.

For me there’s an added omen. My mother died of brain cancer when she was 70. It was only 3 months between her diagnosis and her death. She didn’t have much time to make a bucket list, but then Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson didn’t popularize that term until 14 years later. Even though that 2007 movie highlighted the most serious of topics in a comic fashion, it’s not such a laughing matter as my peers and I hit the big 7 0.

Yes, I know, we have birthdays every year, but those ending in zero always seem bigger. Reflecting on being 70 reminds me of the Christian practice of giving up something for Lent, a good spiritual discipline. But Lent only lasts 40 days, Lord. The things we give up at 70 are often forever. At 60 I could finish first in my age group in a 5K race. Yes, I know there weren’t many in that age group running, but now I read the morning paper on line because my aging body rebels at walking 500 feet to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper. I would love to play softball or football with my grandkids, to ski some moguls again, or to chase down those difficult tennis shots the way I used to. Lord, I’d even like to be able to mow my grass without pain or to stay up all night reading a great book. Alas, the mind and spirit are willing, but the flesh gets weaker every day!

What’s that Lord? Yes I know it is much too easy to get turned in on my aches and pains. Even when I vow not to do it my conversations with my peers seem to inevitably turn to recent medical tests and how much time we lose going to the doctor. We often lament, “I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Forgive my little pity parties, Lord. Remind me I have a choice about where I focus my attention. Lead me not into the temptation to bemoan what I’ve lost to the aging process and deliver me from the evil of criticizing the “younger” generation. When I find myself saying those things my parents said that I swore I wouldn’t ever say, gently nudge me to live in the now, free from regrets about the past I cannot change and liberated from the fear of what lies ahead.

Help me live in gratitude for the things I can do that would have been impossible a generation or two ago – travel opportunities, world-wide information available 24/7 anywhere I am (unless I forget my smart phone), medical advances that enhance and extend the quality of life for those of us who are privileged to have access to them, mind-boggling discoveries about the infinite mysteries and marvels of the universe we live in, and the freedom in a comfortable retirement to reflect on it all.

Lord, it breaks my heart to know how many of your children lack the basic necessities of life that I take for granted. Even as I give thanks for all I have, remind me that even in my advanced years that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Remind me that the word “retirement” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Discipleship is a lifetime commitment. If we stop growing in our faith at any age we cannot maintain the status quo but regress.

Let me not, O Lord, rage against the realities of age, but instead to faithfully embrace the present as the gift it is. Knowing that negativity and fear immobilize, let this birthday teach this old dog to treasure every day because they are finite. Adjust my trifocals to focus on the joys of life so I can make the most of what is instead of regretting what was or is no more. Blessed with 70 years of life experience, let my prayer be “For all that has been, thanks; and for all that is yet to come, Yes!”

Is It Well with your Soul?

“It is Well with My Soul” has long been a favorite hymn of mine, but it has taken on a new twist for me in this year of apocalyptic election scenarios. Twice in recent months I have been in worship services where that great old hymn has been part of the liturgy. All of the lyrics to that hymn are powerful statements of faith, but the verse that has caught my ear in this election year is the last verse which says:
“And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”

In particular I’m referring to the phrase, “The trump will resound, and the Lord will come down.” Sorry, but I can’t hear the word “trump” without being reminded of the Republican Presidential candidate. And the eschatological imagery in that line reminds me that many on both extremes of the political spectrum are feeling like the world may come to end if the “other” candidate is elected. I don’t really expect the end of the world on November 9, but regardless of your feelings about Trump or Clinton, most of us would agree the outcome of this election will have serious consequences for the future of our nation and the world. As an antidote to our anxieties about that, Horatio Spafford’s great hymn repeats the refrain, “It is well with my soul.”

If you don’t know the story behind this hymn, it was written in 1873 by Horatio Gates Spafford, a prominent American lawyer, after he had experienced multiple tragic events, including the death of a son in the great Chicago fire, financial ruin, and a storm at sea in which four of his daughters died. (More details at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Is_Well_with_My_Soul.) Knowing the history of Stafford’s Job-like tragedies, any one of which could undo most of us, we know lyrics like these are not merely pious platitudes.
“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul”

At different times in my life words of faith like this speak more to me than others. This is one of those times, in part because of my grave concern over the deeply divided world we live in typified by the Presidential election rhetoric and the hate inspired violence from Syria to San Bernardino and far too many points in between. And on a more personal level I’m dealing with some chronic pain that makes it hard for me to function, including finding time and energy to write.

I was humbled and shamed about how easy I give into pain or despair over the state of the human condition the other day in physical therapy. A young woman was there who could barely walk, even with her cane. As she slowly made her way from the aquatic therapy pool through the main therapy room I noticed she is bald and wore a colorful bandana on her head. I assume she has lost her hair from chemo therapy. And beneath that colorful bandana she smiled at me, and that smile lit up the room as a powerful witness that though her body is betraying her, it is well with her soul.

This stranger’s smile and Spafford’s 143 year-old words, written out of tragedy and sorrow far greater than mine continue to comfort, challenge and inspire me. They remind me of a very helpful definition of faith I read many years ago by a Canadian theologian, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. At the risk of oversimplifying, my summary of Smith’s thought is that he delineates an important difference between belief and faith. We sometimes use those words synonymously, but they are not. Belief is an intellectual ascent to a proposition or idea, while faith is a deep trust in a power that can give us the “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7) no matter what external circumstances threaten to make us fearful and anxious, be they personal, existential or political.

One of my favorite stories that illustrate the difference between belief and faith as trust is this one by an unknown author about Charles Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker:

Blondin’s greatest fame came on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to cross a tightrope stretched 11,000 feet (over a quarter of a mile) across the mighty Niagara Falls. People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.
He walked across, 160 feet above the falls, several times… each time with a different daring feat – once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and blindfolded. One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!
A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the river bank. The crowd “Oohed and Aahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across – one dangerous step after another – pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.
Then at one point, he asked for the participation of a volunteer. Upon reaching the other side, the crowd’s applause was louder than the roar of the falls!
Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”
The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. We believe!”
“Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow?”

The story says no one took Blondin up on that invitation. But when things are truly well with my soul I know it’s safe to get in God’s wheelbarrow, even if I have to muster my courage like the father whose epileptic son had just been healed by Jesus. He said, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Which is to say that faith is a journey, not a destination. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that well. He asked new clergy as United Methodist Bishops still do today at ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” That’s a not too subtle reminder to walk humbly with God and other faith seekers who know that faith and doubt wage an eternal battle in us all. Wesley also advised preachers to “Preach faith until you have it.” I believe that’s why the word “retirement” does not appear in the Bible. We’re all still preaching and seeking that trusting faith that no matter what curve balls life throws sings out, “It is well with my soul.”

Life as Improv

drama masks
As a retired pastor I have often joked that I cannot find the concept of retirement anywhere in the Bible, but not being employed by a church during busy and important seasons like Holy Week reminds me of both the benefits and challenges of being “retired.” It is certainly nice to be more relaxed and not put in an extra-long work week with preparation for 3 or 4 worship services on top of dealing with routine responsibilities and any pastoral emergencies. It’s great to have more time for personal and family activities that pastors sacrifice even more than usual during the busiest times of the church year.

On the flip side retirement often lends itself to a feeling of being less relevant and important, maybe like being the maid of honor or mother of the bride, though I confess I’ve never been in either of those roles. And speaking of roles, I was reminded today of Shakespeare’s line from “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…” Some days retirement for me feels like I am still on stage but I no longer have a script. Some days I have trouble remembering which act or scene I’m in or even what play. I miss cues and interactions with other actresses and actors who are no longer in the cast.

When I was a child I had a blind trust in my parents and others in authority to direct my life and give me wise counsel. I made my way through much of my education playing the part quite well of one who learned my lines and fed them back to teachers on exams. With age comes an increasing realization that life is more improv than memorizing lines or taking direction. Many of my mentors have made their final exit from this stage of life, and the need to write my own script and take responsibility for the meaning and purpose of my life without a boss or other authority figure directing my play is both intimidating and liberating.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking of God as the great director or playwright of our lives. It sounds comforting to think God has predetermined our fate and knows the outcome of our lives. But then we realize the terrible cost we pay for that escape from freedom and responsibility. If we surrender our free will to a notion of such a controlling God or any false gods we become more like puppets than actors and lose the very essence of our humanity.

Life as improv means cutting the puppeteer’s strings that bind and control us, being open to new challenges as adventures to be embraced instead of wasting our time looking for a script to tell us what we should be doing at any given stage of life. We humans don’t come with an owner’s manual. Lots of people try to usurp the role of producing and directing our lives for us, but ultimately the stage lights go up again every day and we get to improvise.

Unfortunately religion is often used as a tool to stifle creativity and freedom. Yes, we need guidance and direction from a higher power, but we do not need a micro-manager for a God. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures can be viewed as a guide book or a rule book, but in reality they are really a collection of scripts from the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith journey. We can learn from the lives of the heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (and also from the villains who show us what not to do). But their lives and contexts are not the same as ours. We have to write our own scripts that account for the unique circumstances of the scenes we are called to perform in the 21st century. That does not mean we start from scratch. The basic guidelines for living a faithful life of integrity don’t change. Very few of us can memorize a long script or recite multiple chapters and verses from the Bible. But the essence of God’s direction for our lives is neatly summarized in key verses. Among the favorites that I fall back on when I can’t remember my part or all my lines are these:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12

“Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

Those words do not dictate stage directions for what I should do in a particular situation, but they describe the quality of the character we are all called upon to play no matter what our role is. The roles change from time to time as Shakespeare tells us, but how we are to play our parts is very clear. God as director says, “Love me and love your neighbor.” The details and nuances of how we do that is where we get to improvise.

The Unbroken Circle of Life II

IMG_1150 I have rarely reposted a previous blog here, but in searching for some inner wisdom to cope with life today I was drawn to one I wrote just 3 months ago in October of 2015. It still sounds good and maybe even more relevant now than it did then; so it is copied as written below. My only additional preface is a comment I made in my journal recently as 2016 has gotten off to a bumpy start for me, my family, and the world: “The cycle of life keeps turning and there are no stations to get off till you get to the terminal.”

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
I attended a Bluegrass Festival with some friends a few weeks ago and have been singing or humming “May the Circle Be Unbroken” ever since. Bluegrass is not my music of choice; so I’ve been pondering why that song has stuck in my head. There are good memories of singing that song around campfires when I was a youth minister many years ago. But it has taken on a deeper more pervasive meaning lately. Some of that became clearer to me this week after a depressing visit with my 94 year old father who has outlived his mental and physical faculties and is miserable. Is there a better day coming for him and his wife suffering from dementia?

I don’t think it’s in the sky but where? What? How? Those questions become more relevant as morality pounds harder on my door each day, in aches and pains, friends in surgery, cancer diagnoses and biopsies, longer list of things I can no longer do. I’ve toyed with the lyrics of that song by changing the “e” to an “i” in “better,” i.e., “There’s a bitter day a coming….” That’s what happens when we turn in on ourselves, we get bitter and go victim. “Why me?” “It’s not fair!” “Why didn’t I take better care of myself?” “Let’s try one more miracle supplement that flows out of the fountain of youth!” Fear springs from the unknown “in the sky” or in some place of darkness, from regrets over a lifetime of sin or just dumb mistakes we can never erase.

Fear is epidemic in our society. I was at a wedding reception recently where I was told one of the men at my table was carrying a concealed weapon “because you never know what might happen.” The next week my relatives at a family gathering were discussing preparedness drills for an active shooter at their little country church and in their schools where children are being taught to throw anything they can find at a shooter ala David versus Goliath–only Goliath didn’t have his NRA sanctioned AR 15.

A father was shot dead last Friday in front of his six kids and wife in a burglary in our affluent “safe” suburb. And today Ted Koppel was on the morning news talking about his new book Lights Out, about the coming cyber-attack that will paralyze our society. The temptation to buy some guns and a generator and become a survivalist is so strong even I feel it tugging at me. There is a little solace for me that I’m old enough I may not have to deal with the worst of the Hunger Games scenario, but I fear for my kids and grandkids and feel hopeless and helpless to do anything significant to help them.

Will the circle be unbroken? Or has human depravity and selfishness reached epic proportions that strain the bonds of civility beyond the breaking point? Is Jesus’ pacifist advice to turn the other cheek and put away our swords just naïve idealism? Those are not verses that fearful Christians cite when they turn to Scripture for comfort. I quoted Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) once to a life-long Christian, the verses about “beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks,” and she said that in 60 years of going to church she didn’t remember ever hearing those words! Unless prophetic voices stand up to the fear mongers and proclaim a message of hope and reason to a world gone mad, the circle may indeed be broken.

I remember being this depressed about the state of the world back in 1972 after Nixon’s landslide victory in spite of Watergate and the protests about the Vietnam War. I wrote a letter to the editor saying that all we could do now was “wait for the inevitable judgment of God.” 43 years later we are still here. We’ve survived that war in SE Asia, the resignation of Nixon and his Vice President, 9/11 and a host of other terrorist attacks, too many mass shootings to count, a huge economic recession, and at least so far several ill-advised wars in the Middle East that have only fanned the flame of hatred in that cauldron of religious and ideological conflict that is the eternal flame of human strife and animosity.

The circle is frayed and contorted out of shape, but it is still unbroken; and that last paragraph is a micro-second in the eternity of the cosmic circle viewed from God’s perspective. As we scroll backward in time through Holocaust, Civil War, Slavery, Genocide of native people, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, Roman, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Ottoman Empires, the rise and fall of numerous Dynasties in China and Japan, Exile and Exodus, Stone Age and Ice Ages, and all the other eras of our planet’s history that I missed in history class, our current fears and woes are put in better perspective.

In every generation there have been concerns about the elasticity and tenacity of the circle, and it is still unbroken. That is not an excuse to blithely bury our heads in the sand or in our parochial platitudes. We must counter the fear mongers with words and lives of hope and visions of peace in any way we can. And remembering the great circle maker and sustainer gives us the courage to witness to our faith even when fear and doubt threaten to overwhelm us.

[originally written October 27, 2015]