Awe, Mystery, and Disgust Part II

I am still processing the act of nature I witnessed in my back yard yesterday when a hawk

decided to drop in and have what I now believe was one of our many wild rabbits for dinner. In fact just looking at this image still gives me chills even though I didn’t witness the actual attack.

When I heard on the news today that this is the 6-month anniversary of the beginning of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine I could not help drawing the comparison to what the hawk in my backyard did to what the hawk in Moscow has been doing to Ukraine for half a year.

It is way to easy to be distracted by all the political foolishness in our own backyards and forget the war crimes and senseless violence the Russians are inflicting on our sisters and brothers in Ukraine. But it is a great disservice to the hawk I saw yesterday at my house to compare it to Putin. The hawk here was doing what hawks do naturally to survive. That’s what raptors do. But there is no natural or just reason for what Putin continues to do to Ukraine.

Cleaning up the remains of my hawk’s dinner was disgusting, but what is happening in Ukraine turns my stomach even more. Are we humans no better than that? Christ have mercy!

Mystery, Awe, and Disgust

My mind, per usual, has been focused on macro and micro events in the world around me – a teachers’ strike, global warming, my own physical and mental health. And then I looked out in our back yard a few minutes ago and saw a very large bird which I mistook for a chicken at first. When said bird heard me wondering out loud what it was doing in my yard it took off before I could get my phone out to snap a picture.

When the bird took to flight it became very obvious it was no chicken. It was some kind of hawk. My birding skills are not developed to the point that I could tell you what kind of hawk, but it was big. Not 3 minutes later I noticed a tiny hummingbird darting back and forth drinking from our feeder designed for just that purpose.

In those few moments I was struck by the mystery and magnificence of creation. One of the tiniest birds and one of the largest, at least in our part of the world, right there almost simultaneously in the small part of God’s universe we are privileged to call home.

And then I decided to walk out into the yard to see what the hawk had been doing. From what I had observed I thought he or she had been feasting on some other unfortunate critter. I was hoping it was one of the mice, chipmunks, or moles that are a nuisance to us. But what I found in the grass were the very gross remains of some much larger animal or bird. There was not enough left to identify what had been alive a few minutes before without DNA analysis.

I’m not sure what to make of all that. It struck me as a rather profound example of the cycle of life and how fragile and temporary our being here really is. I feel like I witnessed something messy and yet sacred and beautiful. And yes I will prepare and consume the steak I am grilling tonight with a renewed appreciation for one of God’s critters who gave his life so I can partake of his body in that mysterious chain of life.

Wilson!!

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18)

The recent pandemic has reinforced our knowledge that it is not good for humans to be alone. Our daughter-in-law is a very strong and self-aware introvert. Several months into the pandemic she joked that even a committed introvert like herself had to admit that she was missing human contact. Far more seriously we know that the hiatus from play dates and school has had serious mental health consequences on many children and youth who are behind in their social development and their ability to communicate in ways that are not mediated by technology.

Yes, it is true that technology has helped bridge the human contact gap in significant ways with virtual learning and digital meeting apps like zoom, but anyone who has spent much time using those tools will tell you that kind of meeting or teaching and learning is just not as good as face to face contact.

I was reminded of a wonderful movie that explored the theme of human loneliness when I found this golf ball in my bag last week. I led a men’s retreat several years ago where we watched the 2000 Tom Hanks film, “Cast Away” and then explored what the movie said about the human experience.

In that movie Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a harried FedEx executive, who is cast away as the lone survivor of a company cargo plane crash in the Pacific. The good news is he survived the crash. The bad news is he is washed ashore on a small deserted island where he is totally and completely alone. He manages to survive for years by creatively making use of a few items in packages that wash ashore from the plane crash.

One of the seemingly most useless items that floats into Noland’s island home is a brand new Wilson volleyball. No net, just the ball, and while beach volleyball is a real sport, it does require more than one person. That ball however soon becomes the most important factor in helping Noland maintain his sanity as multiple attempts to sail off the island in makeshift boats end in disaster and even a suicide attempt fails.

Noland discovers a way to meet the need for “human” contact without internet, cell phone, smoke signals, or even written communication. He turns the Wilson volleyball into Wilson, his friend and companion. He paints a face on the volleyball and regularly talks to Wilson about his plight. In the most poignant scene when Noland finally manages to push and paddle beyond the breakers and put out to sea on a makeshift sailboat, his buddy Wilson is washed overboard by a large wave and slowly drifts further and further away. Noland can only cry plaintively, “Wilson! Wilson!” as his faithful friend disappears from his sight.

Our men’s retreat was held at a church camp, and one of the men found a Wilson volleyball in a closet in the lodge where we were meeting. That ball, of course, became our mascot for the weekend, sitting with us as we discussed the film, coming to meals with us, and sleeping on one of the bunks in the dormitory-style room where we slept.

Now I have my own Wilson Jr. golf ball sitting on my desk to remind me again that it is not good to be alone. (And, it helps our bond that I played some very good golf with my Wilson, and he didn’t desert me like so many balls have by disappearing into the woods or splashing down into a water hazard.). Please understand, as an introvert I still regularly need and enjoy solitude. Zoom does make many things easier or even possible, like book clubs, meetings over distances without time-consuming and expensive travel, and especially regular contacts with distant friends.

But nothing, not even a lovable volleyball, can meet our basic need for human contact. My therapist says touch is the first and most basic form of human communication. Research has shown that infants who receive an adequate amount of loving touch not only thrive, but those who are not held and touched literally die.

We can see this phenomenon in other species, many of whom mate for life. Unfortunately many Americans have lost sight of the need for meaningful human contact. Our myth of rugged individualism has turned far too many of our human interactions into a transactional, self-centered dance of using people for our own profit and benefit.

Our consumer driven economy and our fear of an always uncertain future have convinced too many of us that we can never have enough material wealth to feel secure. Perhaps the silver lining in our current inflationary anxiety is that we will learn like Chuck Noland did to be satisfied and live with what we have. Powerful story telling like “Cast Away” is a way of teaching us those life lessons vicariously so we don’t have to actually be stranded on a desert island or isolated in a pandemic to learn them.

Respectful Disagreement

Like many wiser minds I have been very troubled about the state of our nation and the world in general. In particular I’m most concerned about the chasm of polarization that seems hopelessly wide and deep, making any productive discourse almost impossible. This impasse is a huge impediment to resolving everything from American culture wars to Vladimir Putin waiting to pounce on Ukraine.

It may seem naive or trite, but what the Judeo-Christian world knows as “The Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems like such a simple solution to most of the world’s problems. Knowing that words similar to Matthew 7:12 or Leviticus 19:18 appear in other world religions I googled that phrase and, please excuse the pun, I struck gold on my first try. Here’s what I found:

The Saturday Evening Post: cover, April 1, 1961 was a Rockwell collage of a group of people of different religions, races and ethnicity as the backdrop for the inscription “Do Unto Other As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Rockwell was a compassionate man, and this simple phrase reflected his philosophy.
“I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.” – Norman Rockwell

Here are Norman Rockwell’s notes on the way that the Golden Rule is expressed
in different religions…

Such a list is an example of what some contemporary theologians (e.g. Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox) would call cosmic or deep ecumenism.

All of that is wonderful wisdom, but I want to share with you a concrete example, a snapshot in time if you will, of what that kind of mutual respect looks like in action. In response to my blog entitled “Leading with Your Head,” (Jan. 30, 2022) I received this comment from a friend and colleague, Rev. Phyllis Fetzer. She wrote,

Hi, Steve, I enjoyed this blog post and thank you for the reminder re: being holistic and not just “leading with our head.” I mean no disrespect when I point out two things about your digression re: traumatic brain injury suffered by (football) players: (1) It’s not a “maybe;” it’s almost a certainty that players will experience damage to the brain. One recent (respected) study showed traumatic brain injury in 110 out of 111 players; that’s basically 100%. (2) May I gently point out to you (and hope that you would do the same to me) that having a lifelong habit of watching football doesn’t mean that that habit can’t change, right? Thinking of other ethical areas where people have said, “I just can’t change because it’s been this way my whole life.” E.g., men referring to women as “girls”. We *can* change in light of new learning, yes? I hope and think that you know that I respect you very much, and am also aware that I’m sure that I have (an) ethical blind spot(s) in some other area. Thanks for the good post.”

Wouldn’t the world be a much kinder and more productive and loving place if we could learn or relearn to disagree constructively and respectfully. I can tell you I certainly receive that kind of feedback with open arms and an open mind rather than putting up my defenses when I feel attacked. And I hope I have learned to live by that old golden rule just a little more thanks to Phyllis.

Advent 4: Love

Just as expectant parents prepare for the miracle of birth, decorating the nursery and buying supplies for their newborn, so we prepare our hearts to receive this greatest gift of all, the miracle of God’s love.

God does not need a labor and delivery room because God is the one in whom we live, and move and have our being. But when we are wounded by others or weary from struggling against the forces of evil we sometimes forget God is close enough to taste the salt of our tears.

Today we are tired of the bad news that bombards us every day.  We are tired of senseless violence, tired of natural disasters, tired of fearing an invisible virus, and oh so tired of separation from loved ones and interruptions to our normal lives.  

[Light Candle] And yet we light this candle of love again on this short December day because we know God is always here and everywhere.  We rejoice and hope and love, not because all is well in our weary world, but because it is well with our souls.  We are warm even this close to the winter solstice because we are wrapped in God’s eternal love.

And so we pray: O Holy One, even as our days grow shorter the candles of hope, peace, joy and love burn brightly.  Even in the darkness we see the star of Bethlehem leading us to the greatest gift of Love the world has ever received.  We know you will be with us this week even if all the gifts have not arrived, even if the guest list is missing people we love, even if we are in quarantine; because nothing can separate us from your love.  We can’t begin to explain this holy miracle, but we light candles and sing praises anyway because we feel your love in the depths of our souls.  For that gift we give you thanks and praise.  Amen

Advent 3rd Sunday: Joy

As we get closer and closer to Christmas we can feel joy spreading like a wildfire from the candles of hope and peace.  This joy is not the fleeting satisfaction we call happiness.  Joy is not a pious catch phrase, but an eternal flame that cannot be snuffed out by the cares of a weary world.

These candles here will not burn forever, but true joy that lives in our souls endures eternally. It survives flood, famine, pandemic, and unbearable sorrow.  When our bodies are too tired to carry on, the songs of joy still ring in our hearts.  

Today we light this candle of joy because the Christmas story reminds us that Emmanuel means God is with us always and everywhere.  [Light candle]

And so we pray: O come Emmanuel and ransom our weary world held captive by fear. When we are calm in the midst of chaos it is because your eternal joy is in us. We dare to be joyful because the tiny babe of Bethlehem has shown us victory over all the things that frighten us. No matter how many variants the forces of evil change themselves into; we know that you, almighty God, can transform our suffering into joyful praise. You have taught us that no matter how long our mourning in darkness may last, joy will come with the dawning of a fresh new day filled with hope, peace and love. And so today we offer you our songs of praise for the one who is Joy to the World. Amen

The Kindness of Strangers

“Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” (John 5:2-7)

Our modern fast-paced living makes it easy for me to understand the apathy or selfishness of strangers that would jump in line and leave a sick man unhealed for 38 years. I have to admit I too often am so turned in on myself and my problems that I have done somethings like that. I apologize to anyone I’ve disrespected, even if I didn’t know I was doing it.

One way I try to change my negative thoughts and behaviors is to counter those painful memories by noticing the many acts of kindness that will never make the nightly news. One of my favorite personal memories of the kindness of strangers happened many years ago, 52 to be exact, when I was in New York City for the very first time. I was a young 23 year old who had lived a very sheltered small town life up to that point; so I was quite intimidated by the sights and sounds of the big city.

It was the end of a five-city tour I took with some fellow United Methodist seminarians. We had toured United Methodist boards and agencies as a group; so all of our transportation and hotel needs had been taken care of by the trip leaders. But now at the end of the trip we were all on our own to get to one of the New York airports for our flights home. So the two of us from Methesco (the Methodist Theological School in Ohio) set out from our hotel in Harlem for JFK airport. My traveling partner was an equally inexperienced traveler, and remember this was 1969, way before cell phones and gps that we rely totally upon these days to help us navigate strange places.

Carrying our luggage (in those days before roller bags), craning our necks to read street signs we undoubtedly looked as lost as we felt. We had grown up hearing and fearing how impersonal city folk were, but that day time after time strangers came up to us without being asked and offered to help us get on the right subway or bus. Without their help I doubt we would have made it to JFK in time for our flight.

And even as I write this I remember a very similar experience some 40 years later when my wife and I were in Tokyo trying to figure out which train to take toward downtown. We were about to board one going the wrong way when a kind Japanese gentleman noticed our indecision and not only told us how to get to the other side of the train platform and on the right train, he actually walked with us to make sure we did it right.

Such acts of kindness from strangers unfortunately was not the experience of the man in the text from John. Many years ago I heard the late Fred Craddock preach on this text. He explained the story this way: he said that the reason the man couldn’t get into the pool fast enough to be healed was because people with hang nails, skinned elbows and runny noses were quite mobile and always got into the pool first.

I was reminded of that story when we were flying home from a family Thanksgiving Friday night. Because of my bad back and balance issues due to neuropathy handling luggage when we travel has become a huge challenge for me, especially when other people are waiting behind us in the plane’s aisle during boarding and deplaning. So we have tried to mitigate that problem a bit on recent trips by staying in our seats while others exit the plane so we aren’t blocking the aisle and inconveniencing others. We did that Friday night when we arrived back home in Columbus, and most people were off the plane when a nice young man stopped to ask if he could get our bags out of the overhead bins for us.

For far too long I have been in the habit of declining such help because my pride made it hard to accept that I am officially old and really do need help. But this time I was simply grateful for this young man’s help. He was so much stronger and taller than I that he made handling our luggage look so easy, and it only took a few seconds for him to do what would have taken my wife and I so much longer. Yes, I hate not being more self-sufficient, but mostly I am just humbled by the kindness of strangers and vow to pay that forward more often when I can.

For the record, here’s how the story in John ends: “Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.“ (John 5:8-9)

No, I can’t heal people like Jesus did, and I will not be lifting 40 lb. suitcases anytime soon; but there are plenty of things we can all do for others if we aren’t rushing to beat them into the pool or the best parking place. It costs nothing to treat servers or store clerks or random strangers with kindness; so let’s do it. We will never know what a difference it might make in someone else’s life, but we will know the joy of human connection.

God’s GPS: Part 2

I have been swimming 2-3 times a week since March as part of rehabbing after back surgery. During today’s swim I had another insight about God’s Positioning System (GPS), building on my last post about the guidance system built into my new car.

To state the obvious, the black line down the center of each lane in a pool is there to provide guidance to swimmers. In competitive swimming this is especially important because the shortest and fastest distance between one point and another, or one end of a pool and the other, is a straight line. So the closer a swimmer can come to staying directly above that line the faster he or she can complete each lap.

But for far from expert swimmers like me those lines are equally or even more important. Not only is swimming in a straight line better than zigzagging back and forth between the plastic lane dividers, it is also much safer. I have learned that lesson the hard way by whacking my hands on the lane dividers more times than I care to remember. To do that is usually just a minor annoyance, but if my hand comes up under the divider too hard the plastic can cause painful bruising and on one occasion cut my hand forcing me to stop my swim and seek first aid from the life guard.

Case in point is this picture I took of my hand after an encounter with the lap divider during today’s swim. This problem is worse for me because I have learned the aging process makes one’s skin get thinner and more susceptible to ugly bruises. But that would not be a factor if I stay on course in the center of my lane.

That all became another metaphor for God’s GPS while I was swimming today. Just as my car helps me stay in my lane on the road, the black line on the bottom of the pool is there to assist me in doing the same thing in the pool. Both are similar to how the Holy Spirit provides guidance for us IF we choose to follow it. These aides do not prevent me from straying out of my lane in either case, and neither does God force me to stay on the course she has called me to follow.

As I said last week, we are free agents. There are times I wish God or the lap lane marker would force me to stay on the straight and narrow because it would prevent me from experiencing the painful consequences of straying off course. But then I realize the loss of free will would be much more painful than a bruised hand or a dented fender.

God’s wisdom provides good guidance, should we choose to follow it, but that does not mean God reaches out to punish us for our wandering away. We suffer because our behavior has consequences. God doesn’t make that lane divider jump out and hit my hand if I go off course. Those bruises are my own fault because I didn’t swim in a straight line.

What other guidance systems are out there to help save us from painful consequences if we choose to use them?

Election Blues and Faithful remnants

“The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off a strong nation.”  Micah 4:7

Is it possible to be very pessimistic about the future of American democracy and simultaneously confident in the future of its ideals drawn from the best of Judeo-Christian values?  It is on the horns of that dilemma I find myself as I near the end of my 75th orbit around the sun.  The euphoria I felt a year ago when Donald Trump was soundly defeated in his bid to be re-elected dictator of the U.S. has given way to despair as I watch the democratic party described by Will Rogers when he said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a democrat.”  Now that inter-party warfare threatens to doom the Biden presidency and in the process throw open the doors of the US Capitol so the failed coup attempt of January 6 can be successfully completed at the polls in 2022 and 2024.

I have voted faithfully in every election since 1968, but this year I am so discouraged by the way the bitter politicization in our country has infected even local elections for school boards, city councils, and township trustees that I am tempted to throw up my hands and not even vote. Politicians have always exaggerated and lied about reality to get votes, but this year 90,000 Americans have died unnecessarily because political lies have become more deadly than the Delta variant of COVID-19.

As the news plays on my radio or TV I hear Amos warning against the sins of Israel. I see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because she would not listen to his words of salvation and peace. I see shock on the faces of those who have bought the lie of American exceptionalism as they try to wipe the mark of the beast off their faces on the day of Armageddon.

But deeper than my despair I also know that the reign of God is not dependent on sinful mortals. I feel in my dry bones the salvation history revealed throughout the Scriptures that there has always been a faithful remnant preserved from any tragedy that rises from the ashes of earthly kingdoms to carry on the eternal torch of God’s holy shalom.

There are 82 references to “remnant” in the Hebrew Scriptures.  These references are not about left-over pieces of fabric, but about those who are left out and powerless according to worldly ways.  Through flood, slavery, exile and even execution of the Messiah the solid rock of truth has survived as the foundation of life itself. The earthly power of Pharaohs, Jezebel, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, Pilate, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and all the others named and unnamed in our history books is as flimsy as the fakery of the Wizard of Oz.

The creator of our universe will still prevail with or without us, even if we succeed in our blind foolishness and destroy the earth itself. Dr. King was right that the arc of the moral universe is long, so long that we cannot see the end. It is as unattainable for mere humans as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. So just now we despair because that arc of morality seems twisted and malformed in our finite ability to envision the mystery of the future. But I still dare to believe that it bends toward justice, maybe not in the dwindling short term of my lifetime, but in God’s eternal kairos.

From the perspective of 3/4 of a century of life on this planet this much I know, maybe not in my feeble brain but “deep in my heart,” the great old protest song “We Shall Overcome” is true. That “someday” of justice may not be on any human calendar, but it will come in God’s good time; and on that hope I must hang my hat, especially in such trying days as these.

Human Doings

I don’t remember where I first heard this piece of wisdom, but it surfaced from my memory bank today as I was mowing our lawn. The sage advice comes from that philosopher known to my generation as “Old Blue Eyes.” No, you don’t have to Google that, I’ll tell those of you too young to know, it’s Frank Sinatra. One of Sinatra’s many hit song was “Strangers in the Night,” and that song has a profound refrain that goes “do be do be do.”

That nonsense phrase truly became profound for me when someone pointed out to me that if you take the “be’s” out of that phrase all you have left is “do do.”

We all make “to do” lists, and there are even apps that will help you organize your to do list(s), and I’m guessing most of us have more than one. I’ve tried multiple ways to keep, organize, and prioritize my personal and professional tasks over the years, and if anyone tells you that retirement means you can throw your to do lists away, don’t believe them.

Most of you know I’m older than dirt; so I don’t have to worry about dating myself when I reminisce how years ago all the United Methodist pastors I knew organized their lives in a small pocket sized calendar. It came in the mail every year from our denominational publishing house, and it was free; so few of us ever questioned its efficacy. My only complaint about it was that since it also had pages in the black that served as an address book all of that information had to be updated and re-entered into the new little black book every January.

Somewhere along the line I let my human doings multiply, and I had to learn to write smaller to fit each day into a tiny space, and of course because life is full of surprises, to never write anything in ink. So when it was introduced I became an early adopter of the Palm Pilot, remember those? They were basically a digital calendar and address book that replaced paper calendars and Rolodexes in one handy gadget that didn’t have to be replaced or updated every year. And of course the Palm Pilot was soon replaced by iPhones and Androids that could do all those things and serve as a phone too, and eventually took over our lives by adding internet access.

Sorry to get distracted going down memory lane. My initial point was to reflect on being and doing. We all have to do lists regardless of how we record them, but who has a “to be” list? My reflections on that question emerged because I am home alone this week while my wife is visiting family in Texas. I had grandiose plans for the week: to organize my office that resembles the aftermath of a natural disaster, to clear out and donate clothes I no longer need, and even to sort through several drawers in my desk and bathroom which should say “Enter at Your Own Risk!”

Oh, and my to list for this week also included the simple task of assembling a new exercise bike that is still in a million pieces in my basement. I am now more than half way through the week, and not one of those major projects is even started and somehow my to do list is even longer than it was on Sunday. And I have been busy all week – going to doctor appointments, running errands, swimming at the Y to maintain what little physical fitness I have left, and oh yes, dealing with the aftermath of a car accident I had about a month ago.

I may deal with the latter issue in another blog, but suffice it to say for now that I have been somewhat overwhelmed with the complexities of filing insurance claims, arranging rental cars and other transportation, while still trying to keep up with my daily activities as much as possible.

Another big item on my “to do” list for this week was to do some writing. I’ve had multiple ideas for blog posts in the last three weeks but have not had or taken the time to pursue them. So today while mowing the lawn (which should not still be growing in October, right?) I made an executive decision to just stop, put the to do list on hold, and see what emerges if I start trying to capture a somewhat chaotic collection of thoughts and feelings in writing.

What I’ve been reminded of in doing that is how difficult, if not impossible, it is to flip a switch from being a human doing governed by the almighty to do list to reflecting on being itself. I believe the reason for that is that digging into our inner lives is 1) hard because we aren’t used to going there, and 2) scary because we may not like what we find. And once we look honestly at what meaning or purpose our lives really have we can’t unknow it. That toothpaste will not go back into the tube no matter how hard we try to put it there.

What I know for sure from trying to write this after a busy day of doing is that awareness of my being needs to inform all of my doing. If I try to separate the two I am too tired from doing to really give any meaningful attention to my inner/spiritual being.