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.”

Simple Things that Heal

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)

That verse is from the wonderful story of the healing of a Syrian military commander named Naaman.  You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but here’s the abridged version.  Naaman comes down with a dreaded case of leprosy, the grossest curse of biblical times.  But in Naaman’s household is a political prisoner captured in Israel.  The slave girl is Naaman’s wife’s servant.  This nameless girl overhears Naaman whining about his plight and tells him there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him of his leprosy.  Even though this referral comes from an anonymous and powerless slave girl, i.e. someone on the very bottom rung of the cultural ladder, Naaman assumes such healing can only come from an important and powerful ruler.  So he sends a letter to the King of Israel who freaks out assuming this is some kind of political trick to make him look bad.

And then the prophet Elisha hears about the King’s dilemma and says, “Send him to me.”  Naaman shows up at Elisha’s house and gets all upset because Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him.  He just sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River 7 times.  Naaman balks at this because he was expecting Elisha to come out and stage a spectacular miracle healing, and besides they have better rivers in Syria where he could have washed without making this long journey.  He is ready to go off in a huff, unhealed, but his servants (note how the least powerful characters in this drama are again the wise ones) deliver the line at the beginning of this post.  And reluctantly Naaman listens to reason, washes in the Jordan and is cured.  

Naaman’s story came to my mind in the midst of this pandemic because like Naaman all of us are being asked to do very simple things that require no special skills or knowledge.  We can all wear a mask and stay a distance from each other, and yet for different reasons masses of Americans refuse to do the only things we can do to combat this virus that has already killed over 225,000 Americans.  

Will we listen to those wise enough now who are saying to us, “Hey, if you had to do some super heroic deed to stop the spread of this deadly disease, wouldn’t you do it?  So how much more should we do the simple things.”

Naaman came to his senses and was humble enough that he listened to his servants and was healed,  Give us ears, O God, to hear and heed the simple things we can do to be restored to health.  

Prayer for a Damascus Road Moment for President Trump

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:1-6)

O mighty God of transformation, I pray today for the healing of our President from the Coronavirus and for all others suffering from this deadly virus with access to far less health care resources available to presidents and government leaders. And I pray this Walter Reed sojourn will be a dramatic healing of Donald Trump’s soul like what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. You, O healing spirit, who transformed the murderous, zealous Saul into the most ardent evangelist of the infant church, hear my prayer.

We know you have the power, Lord, to redeem the coldest heart and to forgive the most grievous purveyors of suffering, even on those closest to them. I do not have it in my heart to forgive Mr. Trump’s lies and onslaught on our democratic values. But I know you can. You have showed us in the risen Christ who turned Saul’s life around that unimaginable conversion is possible through a savior who turned the hierarchy of Roman society on it’s head by feeding, healing, touching and forgiving those who were left behind by those who had broken their covenant with you.

Now, O loving God, when this virus has brought Donald Trump as close to humility as he has ever been use this moment of his vulnerability as an opportunity to break through his facade of superiority. Embrace him with compassion that will melt his cold heart. Remove the scales from his eyes, unplug his ears so he can finally see and hear the plight of those who are suffering from his misguided view of the world. Move him with such gratitude for your healing love that he will use his worldly power to extend the privileges he enjoys to the marginalized — to all people of color, to immigrants in cages, to the working poor and those with inadequate food, education, and opportunity to have a decent quality of life.

I know I’m asking a lot, dear Lord, so much that my imagination is stretched to the limit. But I know the story of Saul/Paul whom you turned from vicious Christian killer to one who endured prison, shipwreck and unbelievable persecution to share the life-changing power of your grace because he had experienced it personally in such a drastic way that he would not let anything stop him from taking the Gospel to the very seat of worldly power in Rome.

I humbly implore your healing power to break into my unbelief and into the deluge of terrible news that has bombarded us for this longest year in my lifetime. We need a miracle, God, to heal the dangerous and increasingly violent differences in our culture. I fear we are nearing the point of no return as tensions mount leading up to this election. I have never before been afraid of my neighbors because of their political views. The spiritual healing of Donald Trump could lead to a healing of our nation’s pandemic of hate and violence. I pray with all my being for his healing and conversion and for the transformation of our nation to be worthy of our highest ideals of liberty and freedom for all of your children. In the name and for the sake of our Risen Christ, Amen and Amen.

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.”

Deja Vu All Over Again

A few weeks ago I thought about writing about a time 50 years ago when the National Guard was sent into Kent, Ohio to put down protests against the Vietnam war. I didn’t get that piece written, but now those scenes of violent clashes in American streets are playing out all over again on our 24/7 newsfeeds. I was a young seminary student that spring of 1970 and part of our response as a seminary community to the tragic deaths of four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State was to send a delegation to Washington, D.C. to share our concerns with our elected representatives in Congress. I made a whirlwind trip to D.C. with two of my fellow students. We were too poor to stay overnight; so we drove 8 or 9 hours through the night, visited with Congress people during the day and then made the return trip that night. I don’t think we had any impact on our reps, but that bonding experience turned good friends into lifelong ones I still cherish today.

One memory I have from that day on Capitol Hill was the response of our Congressperson, Sam Devine, to our concerns. He said something like, “Well, we can’t just let people destroy property.” Protestors at Kent had burned an abandoned ROTC building in their anger over President Nixon’s escalation of the war into Cambodia. That was certainly an act of vandalism and was wrong, just as the property destruction last night in cities all over America is wrong. That destruction hit at the heart of my hometown in Columbus, Ohio last night 700 miles from where George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day.

Here’s one of many questions running through my mind today: how do you compare the value of an old ROTC building with the lives of four young people and the damage done to the 9 who were wounded on May 4, 1970? How do you weigh the worth of buildings and other property against the life of George Floyd? Or against the nearly 400 years of racial injustice in this country? That comment from Rep. Devine came to mind when I heard about the President’s tweet last night which said, “When the looting begins the shooting begins.” That’s a deja vu quote from civil rights protests in the 1960’s, FYI. I much prefer a quote from another President, JFK, who once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible, we make violent revolution inevitable.”

You don’t have to condone property destruction to understand the cries for justice that inflame an oppressed people when those pleas are unheeded for centuries. Racism is alive and well in this country and has been from day one even though sometimes it recedes into the background when those with white privilege power think we have responded to it. As a child I was convinced that the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments had solved our American race problem for good. I was naive and the teachers in my all white community were negligent when they failed to teach me about Jim Crowe, “separate but equal,” the KKK and lynching of blacks. It does no good to grant a people citizenship and the right to vote if they are systematically denied access to a good education, adequate employment opportunities and decent health care!

I cannot begin to understand how it feels to be a person of color in this country. I also can’t understand those who feel so threatened by the loss of white privilege that they can kneel on the neck of another human being until he dies. What I do understand all too well is my own frustration that 50 years removed from the Civil Rights struggles of my youth we are reliving this nightmare of riot gear clad police, National Guard curfews and cities on fire. It makes me question what good my life has been, what more could I and should I have done to work for a more just and peaceful society?

Like many Americans I celebrated prematurely when we elected Barack Obama President just 12 years ago. Little did we know that having an African American in the White House did not mean we had arrived but would simply allow the likes of Donald Trump and Fox News to fan the smoldering flames of hatred and racism to a fever pitch. To those too young to remember Kent State or the Democratic Convention of 1968 or the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, some of us have seen this movie before. Only in this remake we’re being forced to deal with our racism in the midst of a pandemic!

It seems too much to bear! But this I know, the scourges of injustice and racism upon which this nation was founded will never be solved by curfews or armaments. Peaceful demonstrations turn violent when the burdens of injustice become too great. Riots and protests are not the problem. They are the symptoms of an insidious illness that can only be cured with repentance, compassion and understanding. Empathy for the oppressed, not bullets and tear gas to protect property are the only hope for a just and lasting peace in our culturally and racially diverse nation.

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the injustice and inequality in our nation in vivid terms as people of color lacking adequate health care and decent paying jobs have died at alarmingly high rates from COVID-19. American capitalism in the last 40 years has become a tool for perpetuating injustice. The American dream has become a nightmare for most of our citizens. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are sadly just the most recent and well-publicized incidents of injustice for our sisters and brothers of color that have again ignited the smoldering anger of an oppressed people.

Will we listen to their pain and cries for justice this time or will we once more suppress them by superior fire power making the next version of this movie even more violent than this one? The answer is up to you and me.

Hanging Together: Collaborative Leadership

“Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.” Those words from a great him by Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers of the 20th century seem most appropriate for Memorial Day 2020 in the middle of a pandemic.

What does wisdom and courage look like today, and what kind of leadership provides it? All that got me to thinking about my own evolution in my understanding of what effective leadership is. My journey down memory lane took me back to the summer of 1962 when I was 15 years old and completely screwed up my first real opportunity to be a leader. I was an Explorer Scout, a part of the Boy Scouts of America for 14-18 year-olds, and our Post took an annual canoe trip to the Boundary Waters just north of Minnesota in Canada. Even though that summer was my first time making that trip I was made a patrol leader of one of the two small groups even though there were other scouts who had been on that trip before. I assume it was because I was one of two Eagle Scouts who were making the trip.

It was my first experience of the Peter Principle, though I didn’t know that term at the time. In fact the book by that title by Laurence J. Peter wasn’t published until 1969, but its basic premise that people in a hierarchy rise the “level of their incompetence” was a pretty good description of my week in Canada. For example, when we arrived at our first campsite and had our tents up a couple of the scouts came to me as their “leader” and asked me what they should do next. I didn’t have a clue and hadn’t thought about it, but I couldn’t admit that to them or myself; so I said something stupid like, “I don’t know. Go entertain yourselves.” I had missed a critical leadership moment when I could have said, “Look guys, I’m new here. Some of you have been on this trip before. Can we sit down together and you help me figure out a list of things we need to do and who is best equipped to do them.” What a difference in the tone of the whole trip that would have made, and better yet if we had begun those discussions before we left home or in the car on that long road trip. Ah hindsight!

And in retrospect here’s my analysis of why that didn’t happen. There was a serious flaw in the Eagle Scout program in those days which has since been addressed with the addition of an Eagle Scout Project requirement to attain the highest rank in Scouting. I’m not sure when the change was made but for many years now a Scout has been required to develop and carry out a community service project as the capstone of the necessary advancement through the ranks. The official language includes this statement: “Eagle Scout projects are evaluated on the benefit to the organization being served and on the leadership provided by the candidate.”

That leadership training was lacking in my days as a Scout. The only requirement back then for an Eagle award was the successful completion of a prescribed list of 21 merit badges, including basic scouting skills like camping, hiking, canoeing, swimming, lifesaving etc. and a number of elective merit badges. When we had met those requirements we had to be recommended by our troop or post leaders for the rank of Eagle and then successfully be interviewed and approved by a panel of District Scouting leaders. That was no small task, and it took me 3 plus years to get there; and I don’t mean to be critical of the experience I had. My 10 years in Scouting, starting as a Cub Scout at age 8, provided me with many of the core values I try to live by today. My observation here is simply that all of those 21 merit badges I earned were based on individual achievement. Many were done in groups of scouts, but each of us individually had to meet the requirements. I had to hike so many miles. I had to swim so many yards and perform lifesaving techniques by myself. The athletics merit badge meant I was the one who had to run a certain distance in a specified time, etc. In none of those activities was attention paid to intentionally developing interpersonal or leadership skills.

And that was not my only experience being chosen to lead in my youth, but the pattern is similar. I was elected President of our high school student council for my senior year, and again it was not because of any leadership skills. I didn’t play any team sports or play in the band where I could learn about teamwork. I was deemed a leader because I was an honors student who always ranked near the top of my class, and I don’t say that to brag. I got good grades because I was blessed with a gift to easily memorize stuff, and I knew how to play the academic game. But getting good grades, like earning merit badges, was an individual activity. Language arts, math, science and history were all good things to learn but they had nothing to do with leadership.

My other shortcoming was that the only models I had of what leadership looked like were all hierarchical. My dad was a second lieutenant in WWII and most of my heroes and role models were military leaders. Leaders in my mind then were authoritarian figures who gave orders that others carried out. So when I was given a leadership role in scouts, school or church youth group my default modus operandi was too often to scold people for their behavior or failures rather than offer any constructive criticism or promote collaborative teamwork.

But here’s the redemption in my lifelong, still-unfolding lessons in leadership. As fate would have it I made a mid-life decision to return to graduate school when I was about 38 years old and God led me to enroll in a doctoral program in Rhetoric. I was drawn there because of my love of preaching and because a member of my church, Dr. Bill Brown, was a member of the Rhetoric faculty at Ohio State University. Rhetoric has a bad reputation these days because it has come to mean empty political posturing, but in the classic Aristotelian sense in means the art of persuasion – not to be confused ever with “The Art of the Deal.”

I must admit that after 14 years in parish ministry I still thought of preaching as a solitary and yes authoritarian activity. The theological movement to narrative and more dialogic preaching unfortunately arrived in seminaries just after I graduated. So grad school for me was an opportunity to catch up with the most current thinking and research on public speaking and the place I learned finally about teamwork and persuasive discourse that comes not from a “sage on the stage/pulpit, but from a guide on the side,” a fellow seeker of truth sharing my experience rather than an expert sharing pearls of wisdom.

But it was not just in the classroom at Ohio State that I learned about leadership. There was a very practical matter of how to make a living and help support my family while I was pursuing my academic goals. And again God provided an opportunity for me where I learned as much and probably more about leadership than I did in the classroom. A good friend from my college and seminary days just happened to be directing a program at OSU called the Commission on Interprofessional Education and Practice. I looked Mike up one day when I was on campus just to catch up over lunch. When he learned I was back in school he asked me if I would be interested in working with him as a graduate assistant. That would not only provide me with much needed income but would also pay my tuition.

To make this long story a little shorter, I worked with Rev. Dr. Mike Casto at what became the Interprofessional Commission of Ohio for the next 18 years. No, it didn’t take me that long to finish my doctorate. That part only took 4.5 years, but by the time I graduated I was so intrigued and integrated into the mission of the Interprofessional Commission (ICO for short) that I stayed as part of that staff until I retired. The ICO mission was to teach and promote collaboration among people in the helping professions, i.e. Allied Medicine, Education, Law, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social Work, and Theology. We did that through academic classes and continuing education conferences for practicing professionals. That program is nearing its 50th anniversary of existence.

The basic reason the ICO was created was because some visionary leaders let by Rev. Dr. Van Bogard (Bogie) Dunn, Dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and Dr. Luvern Cunningham, Dean of the College of Education at Ohio State, realized that the issues facing American society in the late 20th century were too complex for any one profession to address them on their own. Bogie loved to quote President Harry Truman who once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I was reminded of that quote recently when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who has done an excellent of job of addressing this crisis because of the way he described his collaborative philosophy of dealing with the current Pandemic this way. He said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

These are unprecedented times that require the best leadership possible, and that means drawing on the expertise of professionals in every relevant field. It means learning from the experience of other countries through global collaboration with the World Health Organization and with experts in China who have been dealing with this crisis longer than anyone else. It means putting aside egos, jealousy and professional or political pride to achieve the common good. It requires both/and thinking and not the dualism of either/or. Specifically it means that we all know we need to save people’s jobs and livelihoods, but we also need to do that in ways that are safe and preserve as much human life as possible. It’s not just one or the other, and that means we all need to figure it out together. It means wearing uncomfortable masks, even it hot, humid weather because it’s the right thing to do for the greater good of other people who are more at risk that you are. Leadership in this time means bipartisan collaboration and compromise. With such leadership we may be able to learn to live with this virus as individuals and as a global community. Without such leadership, not so much.

One final quote comes to mind from the infancy of American democracy, and it’s even truer today. In those early days the red and blue colonies were just as divided on many issues as our red and blue states are today. Ben Franklin addressing the founders of our democratic experiment and the great odds they were facing said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Russell C. Sawmiller, Jr. 1927-2020

Last week I lost a mentor and dear friend who had been an important person in my life for almost as long as I can remember. He was 93 so his death was not a shock, but it hit me harder than I expected. Soon after I learned Russ had died I sat down to write this letter to express what he meant to me.

April 17, 2020

Dear God,
I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.

I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.

Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”

Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”

I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.

I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.

In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.

You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.

We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”

Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!

By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.

I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway.
When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you.
I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.

I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.

I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.

I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.

I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.

So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”

Peace and love,
Steve

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.

Easter Prayer

O Gracious, eternal God, on this Easter morning we pray for the world with all its challenges and uncertainties, and for those in positions of leadership.

Lord, hear our prayers.

For those fighting for their lives as we speak, for the isolated and lonely, the quarantined, and unemployed.
Lord, hear our prayers.

For those with chronic pain, addiction and, and depression made worse by this stress.
Lord, hear our prayers.

For children who don’t understand what’s going on and for soon-to-be graduates who wonder what their future will look like.

Lord, hear our prayers.

O Merciful God, hear the prayers of your people as we join our hearts and spirits to celebrate again the miracle of Easter. We’ve never heard the story quite like this, Lord, but it’s the same story most of us have heard every year. We’re grateful for the reassurance that Christ’s triumph over the grave gives us, but we’re not blown away with wonder and awe as those first witnesses were. We know how the Easter story ends.

But God, we’re caught up now in our own scary story, and we’re unsure because we don’t know how it ends. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last or what life will be like when it’s over. We’re hiding at home like those frightened disciples. We’re full of doubts like Thomas, and in our fear we may fail to recognize Jesus like the travelers on the road to Emmaus.

Speak to us Lord; call us by name as you did Mary so the scales will fall from our eyes. Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord, we so need to see you like no Easter before. Show us your resurrection power over fear and doubt and boredom. Give your life-giving power to health care workers and first responders. Open in all of us treasures of love and generosity and creativity and hope.
Let us see you all around us in unexpected places; in hospital rooms and nursing homes, in broken dreams and promises of graduations and celebrations postponed, and yes in that most surprising place, an empty tomb! Let us see you with Easter eyes of faith not just today, but every day of our lives.

Renewed with the Good News of resurrection help us put on the full armor of God, along with masks and gloves that we will be strong for each other and for those whose faith is faltering.

Just as you redeemed Mary and Peter and John from their fear and despair with a power that conquers death and ultimately changed the world, please sustain us through this pandemic. Teach us again that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” because our hope is not in things of this world but in the risen Christ.

Even as we rejoice this Easter morning give us faith that triumphs over the grave, whatever that grave may be for each of us, for this Easter more than ever we give thanks that when we really don’t know what tomorrow brings we do know we can face it because He Lives. We may not know the day or time when this crisis will end, but we do know the One we can trust for our final victory, and that give us faith to carry on as long as it takes. Amen

On-line Easter service, Northwest UMC, April 12, 2020

Most Unusual Holy Weeks

2020 will certainly go down in the books as one of the most unusual Holy Week’s in history. Most churches will be virtually empty on Easter even as they are virtually and spiritually connected. With plenty of time to reflect on all kinds of things lately I have pondered Holy Week’s past. This one is very strange, and being retired I’m sure it is 100 times weirder and more difficult for my many colleagues engaged in active parish ministry.

I don’t remember if I’ve ever missed being physically in church on Easter in my entire life. Even as a child I remember my parents getting me up when it was still very dark outside to go to a bonafide sunrise service at our small country church. So worshipping on-line tomorrow will be a unique experience in my nearly 3/4 of a century of Easters. It has felt strange all week for me because due to technological concerns our church has actually “done” our worship all out of sequence. Our musicians actually have been recording music for Sundays on Tuesdays ever since in-person worship was canceled by COVID-19. And the pastors have been recording Scripture, prayers and sermons on Thursdays. Most weeks that’s been ok, although since I’ve been doing the pastoral prayers I must admit that I have frequently thought of something that should be included in the prayer for Sunday on Friday or Saturday, and then I remember, “Oh, yeah, that prayer is already done.”

But this week was even more disjointed liturgically. When I was in the Sanctuary on Thursday afternoon the big cross that hangs over our altar table was already fully bedecked in Easter Lillies. But then on Good Friday evening when we live-streame our Tenebrae service the lillies were gone and the Sanctuary was bathed in semi-darkness. It just felt weird. And I know even though our congregation will be worshiping together on-line Easter morning it won’t begin to match the feeling of being in an overflow congregation with our tradition of singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” to close the celebration of resurrection.

But in remembering other out of the ordinary Holy Weeks I inevitably thought about one that was more challenging even than 2020, although in a much different way. On April Fool’s Day 1993 I got one of those phone calls one never hopes to get. It was the cruelest April Fools Day “joke” I’ve ever gotten or ever hope to get. My mom, a healthy 70 year old that had never been sick in her life was in the hospital with what was either a stroke or a brain tumor. I was so dumbfounded I didn’t know which to hope was the correct diagnosis. My mother had always been the strongest member of our family, our rock. She was so tough she had her tonsils taken out sometime in her 40’s in the doctor’s office! And now with no previous symptoms she was in serious trouble. It turns out she had a glioblastoma brain tumor just like the one that killed her own mother seven years earlier. In fact her reaction when told of her condition was, “Just like Mom.”

Those kinds of brain tumors back then especially were never a good prognosis, and I don’t think they are even today 27 years later. Mom’s was so far advanced before she knew anything was wrong that just 3 days later on Palm Sunday we went down to visit her before her scheduled surgery on Monday morning only to find when we arrived that they were prepping her that evening for emergency surgery to relieve pressure on her brain. She made it through the surgery but was never the same again and died 3 months later.

That would be enough to complicate any pastor’s Holy Week, but it was far from the only curve ball fate threw my way that week. My mother-in-law was also in failing health. She was a few years older than my mom and had been in a nursing home for about 3 years, but her congestive heart failure was getting progressively worse that spring. So on Wednesday, while I was still out of town with my dad and sisters holding down the waiting room between brief visits with my mother I got word that my mother-in-law had died.

So a good friend drove a couple of hours to pick me up on Wednesday evening. I preached and led a Maundy Thursday service, and on Good Friday we drive a couple of more hours to bury my wife’s mother. And on Easter Sunday I preached about resurrection. It was one of the hardest but most meaningful Easter’s I can remember, but it was also one of the most meaningful. I wasn’t going through any routine rituals when I preached about death and resurrection. Those were not abstract concepts for me that April 1993 but very concrete realities.

And so they are again 27 years later. The pall of death hangs over all of us during this pandemic. The mind-boggling ever-increasing numbers of people killed by this awful virus make it impossible for most of us to avoid consideration of our mortality. Even when we try to ignore it the pull of the news reports is hard to resist. The images of exhausted nurses, gurneys in crowded hallways, lonely patients in nursing home windows, and mass graves cannot be erased from our individual and collective memories. We wake up every morning hoping it’s all a bad dream, only to find it is just another ground hog day on a continuous loop. Only the numbers change.

I’m writing this at 9:30 pm EDT, just a few hours earlier than when my parents roused me from sleep, not to find my Easter basket, but to go again to proclaim the good news that has sustained people of faith in hard times for 2000 years — Christ is Risen! He is risen Indeed! And because of what those words mean to us on an existential level so much deeper than Easter finery and lilies and chocolate bunnies, we will wake up tomorrow and carry on because there is something stronger in the human spirit than death.

Hallelujah! Amen.