Unbound: Lazarus was, are we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your prayer for new life?

Spiritual Surrender: The Only Way Out

Hard to believe I’ve been blogging here for 10 years, and when I look back to my very first post I am a bit shocked to see it was about bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. I also originally did posts based on biblical texts from the Revised Common Lectionary; so today I decided to revisit that practice, and when I looked up the texts for August 22 I find God’s spirit moving again in mysterious ways. Several of these texts speak to the centuries old issues at work in the seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East.

The passage from Joshua 24 addresses Israel’s transactional “right” to occupy the land of their ancestors if they remain faithful to their covenant with Yahweh. Verses 15-18 say, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

Verses like that last verse one always trouble me—“…the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.” Would a just God of the whole universe choose sides and violently force the occupants of a piece of God’s creation out of the land they have called home for centuries? Would a just God rationalize such an eviction just because Joshua says God told us we can have this “Promised Land” even though we’ve been living in Egypt for 400 some years? That is not a rhetorical question because the fact that Israel and her neighbors are still killing each other over that piece of real estate makes this an urgent contemporary issue.

Preachers can challenge and deepen their own faith and that of their congregations by wrestling with such challenging issues. Some of us fear that exposing contradictions in the Bible will destroy faith, but that is not true. I love the quote in one of Frederick Beuchner’s books that says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” We don’t usually come to Scripture or worship because our faith is totally secure. All of us, preachers perhaps most of all, come thirsting for authentic encounters with God, and if what preachers are serving fails to meet that need folks will stop at McD’s on the way home for junk food. I cast my lot with the theologians who realize that certainty is the enemy of faith, not doubt. To ignore contradictions within holy texts in hopes that no one will notice is a fool’s bargain. Because real faith at its core always contains some mystery and is therefore a holy riddle inviting us into dialogue with the text and with God.

For example, another of the lectionary texts for August 22 is from I Kings 8 which describes part of Solomon’s dedication of the first temple in Jerusalem many years after Joshua led the conquest of the Promised Land. Beginning at verse 24 we find these words: “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive. Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm–when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

“Do according to all that the foreigner calls to you; so that all peoples of the earth may know you name….” What an about face from thanking God for killing off the Amorites! And what a great way to examine the evolution of faith over time as God inspires women and men in all generations with the wisdom of Solomon. God’s concern for the foreigner/alien/sojourner is of course interspersed throughout the Hebrew texts along side more nationalistic sentiments because we know the path to faith is not the wide comfortable one but the narrow mountain road with numerous switchbacks and challenges that require our devotion and honest intellectual curiosity.

One of my biggest regrets about my preaching career is that I have not always been brave enough to wrestle in corporate worship with the challenges of biblical interpretation. It has been poor stewardship on my part to withhold from my parishioners and others the marvelous gifts of historical-criticism and narrative criticism I was given in my seminary education.

When I taught homiletics I encouraged my students to focus on just one text per sermon and refrain whenever possible from trying to preach on two or more selections from the lectionary. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this set of texts interact so well with each other that it is at least worth exploring how they inform or expand each other. For me the epistle text from Ephesians 6 also speaks to me as both a preacher and a citizen of our broken world.

The familiar passage about “putting on the whole armor of God” is an excellent metaphor for those preparing to speak for God in these difficult days of pandemic and domestic and international conflict. But “armor” can be a two-edged sword (to mix metaphors?). Remember how David refused to put armor on when he confronted Goliath because it hampered his ability to use the shepherd’s tools at his disposal? ( 1 Samuel 17). It is rather like Brene Brown’s analogy I heard recently in one of her podcasts where she characterized getting defensive when we feel vulnerable as “armoring up.”

Those “weapons” described in Ephesians are also metaphors and not meant to for us to go out as “Christian soldiers marching as to war…” as one of my my childhood (but no longer) favorite hymns puts it. I invite you to instead focus on the qualities of discipleship described in Ephesians instead of literalizing the military memes. As the author of Ephesians 6 says, “… in the strength of God’s power put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.”

In these days when lies, mis-information, and “alternative facts” bombard our ears and senses without ceasing I would argue that we need none of these parts of “armor” more urgently than “the belt of truth.” It is no accident that it is the first item listed for it is the truth that will set us free. But we know that truth can also make us feel very vulnerable and uncomfortable. We cannot question Joshua’s conquest of the Amorites, or the imposition of the nation of Israel on the Palestinians after World War II without also seeing in the mirror American genocide of indigenous people who lived on our “promised land” for centuries before Columbus sailed the oceans blue. No matter how much we divert our eyes we must eventually face the fact that our choices and actions as individuals and nation states have long-lasting consequences.

When I was in high school I excelled at history/social studies because I was blessed with a good memory that could regurgitate historical dates on demand. But it was not until I took a world history class in college that I had the first ah ha moment and began to connect the dots between one historical event and others that followed. For me my first revelation that the harsh treatment the allies imposed on the conquered Germans in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I was used by Hitler to inflame German nationalism and racism by blaming the dire economic plight of the Great Depression on their European enemies. A huge part of that Nazi response was to unify their base by scapegoating Jews and anyone else who was different from the pure Aryan race. Tragically that strategy resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews and thousands of others in dozens of extermination centers. And the next link in the chain of events was an attempt at repentance by the allies who far too long pretended the Holocaust wasn’t happening. That act of penance was to create a new/old homeland for the Jews in Israel, which in turn displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the viscous cycle rages on with 9/11, Desert Storm, killing of Osama Ben Laden, oil wars, Hezbola, the Taliban, etc. etc.

The gut wrenching headlines from Afghanistan right now defy any human resolution of the impact of brutal violence as city after city falls to the Taliban. It like all wars before it yet another gruesome illustration that peace can NEVER come through instruments of death. Violence ALWAYS escalates into more and more violence. The good news is that only when we reach the ultimate limit of our human wisdom can we surrender our fear, pride, ego and arrogance and call upon the cosmic power of the one we call God.

O Eternal Being, we have been told that your “Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26). This is one of those moments, O God. We confess our weakness. Intercede for us and bridge our foolish human divisions. Let all of us children of Abraham come together in weakness, trusting you as the only way, truth and life. Let believers, atheist, agnostics and all of your troubled children put down our weapons and raise our hands in unconditional surrender so your will and not ours will emerge from a world of chaos and death. Amen

Note: I would welcome comments and reactions. If you preach on one or more of these texts give me some feedback on how helpful or unhelpful this was. Thanks

First Things First: Stillness

I was reflecting on the familiar words from Psalm 46 while meditating yesterday: “Be still and know that I am God” (Vs. 10) when it dawned on me that for most of my life I’ve been doing this backward.

Let me explain. For much of my life I was a professional student. Seriously, I finished my final formal education at age 47. Being a student came easy for me. It was comfortable because I knew how to play the education game. I like the pursuit of knowledge and hope I will always be a life-long learner.

But the psalmist put these words in the order they are in for a reason. “Be still” comes before “know that I am God.” In academic speak stillness is a prerequisite for knowing. Knowledge in the academic sense is mostly an intellectual exercise. But knowing God involves far more than our minds; it encompasses our whole being.

In Genesis 4:1 it says, “And the man knew his wife Eve and she conceived.” There “knowing” is a metaphor for total merging of one life with another. So it is with knowing God. To quote a contemporary theological statement called the “Hokey Pokey,” to really know God you have to put your “whole self in.”

And we cannot do that if our minds are racing hither and yon dealing with all the things modern life includes. How many times in the New Testament does Jesus go off to a quiet place by himself to pray, to commune with God? And that’s a problem for me. There are not many quiet places in my world. We live on two acres so there’s physical space for solitude, but even if I sit by our pond I can hear traffic from a freeway a half mile away; and urban sprawl is devouring most of the vacant land all around us.

So being still, really still in mind, body and spirit doesn’t come easily. It requires a conscious effort and discipline to find a place and dedicate time regularly to be still; so God can draw near and make herself known to us. That spiritual discipline requires us to put first things first. Be still, and then we can know God fully by surrendering our being into the mystery of Being Itself.

Like a Woman

[Note: I was going to write a note of appreciation for the many mother figures in my life, but I remembered I had written something similar a few years ago. I think it is still relevant and appropriate for a Mother’s Day post; so I’m republishing this post from January 2018.]

Bertha Hemmert was my surrogate grandma when I was growing up on Murray Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Not that I needed another grandma—I had two very loving ones already; but a little kid can never get too much of that special love that grandmas are so good at. And Mrs. Hemmert as I knew her then had one big advantage over my “real” grandmothers—she was just across the alley no more than 50 feet from our back door. She was probably younger than I am now, but to my 7 year-old self she seemed ancient. I don’t remember how she first befriended me. It was likely one of the many times I hit a stray baseball into her yard and had to go fetch it.

Two things I remember very well—I enjoyed hanging out at her house and “helping” her with chores like cleaning green beans from her garden. I’m sure I was often more trouble than help but I always felt welcome to drop in whenever I wanted. The other thing I remember – because my family has never let me forget it – is that one day while helping Mrs. Hemmert in the kitchen I announced to her that “I think I want to be a woman when I grow up.”

No, that was not some confusion over my sexual identity. As I reflect back on that memory and my childhood I have come to believe it meant I just felt loved being in her company and wanted to enjoy that feeling as much as I could. And it was not just Mrs. Hemmert who represented that unconditional love and acceptance for me. The most important people in my early life who gave me that kind of affirmation were all women—my grandmothers, my mom and my Aunt Ruth.

My reflection on those childhood relationships have been inspired by all of the events in our society in the past year that have raised awareness of female power and courage in spite of oppression and abuse–and by the guilt and remorse I feel that in spite of my life-long appreciation for women I have been part of the male dominated power structure that I could not be insulated from growing up in the 1950’s. Mrs. H. was typical of all of my female role models as I grew up. They were all stay-at-home mothers and homemakers, and they lived out that vocation proudly and well.

Proverbs 31 and has been used and misused to praise and eulogize many women like those. It says in part “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. (Proverbs 31:10-15 NRSV) Of course the women in my life were the “servant-girls” for their families rather than having any, but that proverb is attributed to King Lemuel’s mother giving her son advice; and he could relate to that particular reference.

The misuse part of that Proverb has been on the hard-working from before dawn to after dark woman who is subservient to her husband. But listen to what other parts of that proverb say about women of strength as entrepreneurs and teachers of wisdom: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Vss.16-19, 24-29)

That part of this proverb reminds us that to limit women, or anyone, to a particular role or station in life is not only foolish but absolutely wrong. To respect or pay women less for the same work men do is unjust. To treat women as sex-objects in blatant, abusive or even subtle or unintended ways is wrong and must stop.
I was proud of Mrs. Hemmert and wanted to be like her – because “the teaching of kindness was on her tongue” and she treated me as someone of value and worth. Women today are demanding the same kind of respect and dignity and unconditional love that the wonderful women in my life gave me. Did they raise a perfect son or grandson or nephew? Of course not. There we too many sexist forces in my life in the way I was taught what it meant to be a man; in the ways all of the heroes of American history were portrayed as powerful white men; in the male-dominated leadership of the churches I was nurtured in; in the movies and television shows I watched; in the literature I read; and the list goes on and on.

But this I know, the seeds of love and compassion were sown in my heart and soul by people like Mrs. Hemmert. I have often been embarrassed when my family tells that story about my wanting to be a woman; but today I am proud to proclaim that I am still striving to be like her; to offer everyone the kind of affirmation and hospitality she gave to me. I want to be like the women who have had the courage to speak their truth to power in the past few months. I want to be like the men that Oprah included in her great speech at last night’s Golden Globes when she said:
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

Being Real

I do not know what the average life expectancy is for snow persons, but we have one in our front yard, thanks to my wife Diana, who has lasted longer than any I can remember in our fickle Ohio weather.

It’s not been an easy two weeks for our Frosty. The constant cold temps have kept him from melting, but the sub-freezing has turned him into solid ice. That makes him very sturdy, but it has also meant that when his nose and hands fell off they could not be reimplanted.

Frosty’s noseless, handless condition and his loss of some of his buttons reminded me of one of my favorite children’s stories, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Marjorie Williams Bianco. For me the best part of the story is a discussion between two toys in a boy’s nursery, the skin horse and the velveteen rabbit, about what it means to be “real.” Here’s their dialogue:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

One can learn a lot from stuffed toys and snow persons.

L’chaim! To Life!

Yesterday morning I woke up in great anticipation. After being in a lot of pain in my back and hip for weeks I was scheduled to get an injection that might give me some relief. There were several inches of new snow on the ground, and most schools had cancelled classes for the day, but I figured that by afternoon when my appointment was the roads would be clear.

And then the phone rang. My doctor’s nurse was calling to tell me the doctor could not make it in, and my appointment would have to be rescheduled. Making matters worse the doctor only does these injections on Tuesdays; so I would have to wait an entire week.

To say I was very disappointed would be an understatement. My long-suffering wife would tell you that I am usually a glass half empty guy, and this unwelcome surprise did not help my general level of frustration with health concerns, COVID restrictions and all that entails.

But then a minor miracle happened, and I can’t explain it, which I guess is true of all miracles. I was looking at my sad sack face in the bathroom mirror, and suddenly out of nowhere I started singing some of the lyrics to “L’chaim” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” No one else was home fortunately, or my embarrassment over my poor singing voice would have probably stopped me from expressing an emotion of joy and optimism.

I haven’t seen or heard “Fiddler” for decades, and when I do think about that musical I usually think about the title song or “Tradition,” or “Do You Love Me?” But from somewhere hidden away in my memory came these words, and there I was singing as if no one was listening, “L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.”

I don’t know all the lyrics to that song so I ad libbed the words I remembered:

“May all your futures be pleasant ones, Not like our present ones; Drink, l’chaim, to life. To life, l’chaim, L’chaim, l’chaim, to life!”

“To us and our good fortune, Be happy, be healthy, long life! And if our good fortune never comes, Here’s to whatever comes; Drink, l’chaim, to life!”

I don’t know what to make of that except I know it lifted my spirits for the rest of that day. Thinking about the context of that musical set in the midst of oppression of the Jews by the Russian authorities put my minor problem of waiting a week for my injection in its proper perspective.

The characters in this wonderful musical are being forced to leave their beloved village of Anatevke for parts unknown. And the lovable protagonist of the drama, Tevye, is trying to cope with a shaking of the foundations of all his traditions as each of his daughters pushes the envelope further to claim her freedom.

And yet in the midst of all this disruption and change the men of Anatevke break into song to celebrate the arranged marriage of Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, to the much older town butcher, Lazar Wolfe.

Spoiler alert: the arranged marriage doesn’t happen because Tzeitel protests and Tevye ends the agreement and lets her marry the man she loves, Motel Kamzoil the poor village tailor. Tevye’s daughters 1, traditions 0.

But regardless of what happens eventually the men in that bar spontaneously singing L’chaim are celebrating much more than one marriage. In the midst of all the unrest and uncertainty imposed on them by the hated Russians these men are still celebrating life.

The people of Anitevke have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Their traditions are being challenged by the younger generation as younger generations always do. And yet they celebrate love and hope in the future by marrying and bringing new life into a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.

We live in such a time right now in our pandemiced and polarized nation, and yet we dare to sing with Tevye and his friends:

“Be happy, be healthy, long life. And if our good fortune never comes’ Here’s to whatever comes. Drink, l’chaim, to life!” Amen

.

First Come, First Served

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 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 going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” John 5:2-9

This poor invalid had been trying to get in that pool for 38 years. In today’s time frame that would mean he has been there since 1983! And no one has bothered to help him. Instead they push and shove to get in the healing water themselves. People with headaches, hangnails or allergies are still quite mobile and can get in first.

I was reminded of that story when I heard on the news recently an account of COVID vaccine distribution in a southern Florida County. In that county they announced a date for when those 65 and over could get the vaccine, first come, first served! And of course that resulted in chaos and confusion as those who were able-bodied camped outside the night before so they could be first in line. And as in John’s narrative about the pool by the sheep gate those who were sick or feeble and needed the vaccine more were left out in the cold because there was a limited number of vaccines available.

But along comes Jesus and upsets the apple cart as he usually does. Jesus doesn’t join the frenzy, jostling the crowd so he can carry the man into the pool. Jesus simply ignores the protocol altogether and heals the man himself.

The idea of first come, first served looks on first glance to be very fair. But when we look deeper into how it actually works in reality we realize how unfair it is to those most in need. Where does that show up in our society? Wealth and privilege buy the best school, healthcare, hotel accommodations and modes of transportation.

Some would argue that’s fair because we privileged ones have worked hard to earn enough to have all those benefits, Really? I have never been “wealthy” by worldly standards, but as a white male there were and still are more doors open to me and fewer arbitrary roadblocks or glass ceilings than women and people of color face.

My takeaway is that I want to pause and reflect on how a lucky break or good news for me may be just the opposite for the underprivileged. Recognizing the injustice is only step one, the hard part is figuring out how i can make the situation more just.

Those actions can be as personal as offering my place in line at grocery checkout to a frazzled father with two unhappy kids or to a woman with mobility issues. Or they run all the way to contacting government officials and helping them see the need for policy changes to level the playing field for the underprivileged. What is not an option for Christians is to ignore injustice hoping it will go away. It won’t. It just grows and embeds itself in the culture and becomes systemic.

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.”

A Prayer for Coming Home

Gracious and loving God, this prodigal child is coming home. I’ve been awaymuch too long. I can’t believe the welcome mat is still out after how poorly I’ve treated you. I’ve been lost in the wilderness, depressed, frightened and angry that life isn’t fair.

I’ve taken detours through doubt and lingered too long in places of sin. I lost my way in anger and self-pity, afraid to come home and not even sure I any longer knew the way.

The simple faith of childhood failed me in times of greatest need. I surrendered to to the demons of temptation that led me down the dead end paths of prosperity, power and fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

I knew better. I had been taught your Word from childhood, but rebellion against the bonds of legalism alienated me from my roots and my heritage. When once I felt closely held by your loving arms I grasped now only air when I reached out to you. My prayers for your help grew empty and hollow because I heard no answers, probably because I never stopped the pursuit of happiness long enough to listen for your reply. My vision was clouded by tears of frustration and fear; so I could not even see you in the beauty of creation. And I certainly couldn’t see you in the chaos and injustice in our world. I gave up trying to find you.

I drank deeply of the great American myth of individualism. I succeeded so well at school and work that i never learned the lessons that failure alone can teach. When things became to challenging rather than fail I simply quit. I gave up on relationships and career goals instead of doing the hard work of trying multiple ways to solve a problem. I played it safe rather than risk taking unpopular stands on social justice issues. I took the wide path that leads to destruction.

But now I’m coming home. I humbly throw myself on your mercy, trusting that you will catch me and hold me close, hold me until my fear gives way to peace. I’m coming home, not for a fatted calf, but hoping your Holy Spirit will ignite the fire of faith in me anew and send me out to invite other lost ones longing to come home but are too afraid and ashamed.

In the name of the one who overcame Satan’s temptation in his wilderness time. Amen

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