Numbers

Numbers – corona virus up, stock market way down, my weight up and even my clocks confused about what time it is. The only good number is on the thermometer, and I’ll certainly take that; but I need more to shore up the shaky foundations of my faith.
And so I turn to Psalm 46 where there are no numbers because faith cannot be measured or quantified. God’s power and presence is eternal and infinite. We can’t see it or prove it. The source of our being is above and beyond any human metrics. We just have to take a leap of faith and trust, not because of things we can count or measure – but in spite of them.

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

Life-long Learning: Gratitude 101

Three and a half weeks ago I saw a “self-help” suggestion on Facebook about gratitude. I don’t believe in “self-help” because I know I don’t change without help from other people and/or God. But because I’m going through yet another late-life metamorphosis and because a very wise physical therapist helped me understand brain function better last year I was open to a challenge. After all it sounded a lot easier than the ice bucket thing we did a few years ago. (I wrote about the brain physiology in a piece about a post hole digger last October, “21-day Attitude Adjustment,” but here’s the gist of what I learned from my PT: She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.)

The challenge this time was to express gratitude for at least three things every day for 21 days with the promise being that after that spiritual practice the habit of being more grateful would be established. Because it actually helped this old dog learn some new tricks I want to share my experience.

I recorded my gratitude in my journal, and yes some days I had to really work at finding things to be thankful for. The list some days included simple conveniences we take for granted, like a working furnace on a cold winter day and ran the gamut from catching a green light while driving to getting good results from a prostate biopsy. Here’s what I’ve noticed after 25 plus days of this experiment. I am more at peace and more grateful for life in general. It has become a habit for me to look for things to be thankful for in situations where I usually would have gone victim to my circumstances or failure to accomplish some simple task on the first try. For example, when the toilet got stopped up a few days ago instead of throwing up my hands in frustration because my other activities were interrupted I reminded myself to be grateful for indoor plumbing and went about the crappy job of clearing the clog.

Being more positive was also a major factor in my decision to take a sabbatical from all political discourse this week. I am in day 6 of that 7-day sabbatical and finding it refreshing for my soul. (I will definitely continue this sabbatical into Lent in some modified form.) I’m listening to music and books on tape instead of 24/7 political diatribes. I still care deeply about the fate of our country and our planet, but I’ve decided that being angry about things without creative action is not only useless but unhealthy for me and those around me. Instead I chose to sign up to do some volunteer work for a local candidate, a concrete action that supports my values and the democratic process.

As an aside, I need to give a shout out to my wife Diana and another good friend who have been trying to tell me for months that my negative feelings about our current political mess were unhealthy, and as my friend put it “interfering with my walk with God.” I didn’t want to or couldn’t hear those words then. They aren’t the theological language I would use, but they are true; and yes truth is liberating (John 8:32).

For me truth often makes me angry before it sets me free. I don’t take criticism well. I get defensive. But this time I have new ears, at least for now, to hear truth, and I am grateful. I give thanks for those who put up with my negativity and anger and believed in me when I didn’t.

No, this is not a “happily ever after” story. I still get angry at times when things don’t go my way. But I’ve learned in these three and half weeks to be more grateful for second, third and forty-third chances to learn from my mistakes and try again. I’m also grateful for the freedom to share my thoughts and feelings and for those who take time to read my ramblings. “Self-help” is a misnomer. Communal and divine support is what life is about. And I’m here to tell you we are never too old to learn and relearn that lesson.

Thanks be to God.

Sabbatical

I just finished “Sabbath as Resistance,” an excellent book by Walter Brueggemann. It was written a few years ago but is as timely as today’s headlines in our consumer driven, workaholic world. Brueggemann closes the book with reflections on Psalm 73, and I want to quote what he has to say about verse 23 of that Psalm: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Brueggemann’s commentary on that verse goes like this: “This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. ‘No-Sabbath’ existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one’s hand. Only late does the psalmist come to know otherwise. Only late may we come to know, but likely not without Sabbath rest, rooted in God’s own restfulness and extended to our neighbors who also must rest. We, with our hurts, fears and exhaustion, are left restless until then.” (Emphasis added)

Hurt, fearful and exhausted – describes me to a tee as the bitter conflicts over church and national politics have me so tied up in knots I feel like a pressure cooker about to blow a gasket. Yes, I badly need a sabbatical. Not because I don’t care about the fate of the world, but because I care too much. Therefore at the suggestion of my dear wife who has to live with my depression and anger I am hereby vowing to do the following for at least a week and perhaps longer. This may be my jump starting Lent 17 days early–because when we find ourselves in the wilderness can’t always be neatly scheduled on the calendar.
For the next 7 days:

1) I will not begin my day by reading or listening to the morning news. (Doing so has been my morning ritual for all of my adult life. My dad was a newspaper man. I delivered a morning newspaper as a kid. Newspapers have been a part of my life forever; so this will not be easy.)

2) Instead I will begin my day with spiritual and physical exercise of some kind, after my first cup of coffee of course.

3) I will temporarily snooze my most ardent Facebook friends on either side of the great American political divide, refrain from posting or writing any political words, memes or blogs; and stop listening to political news and talk radio in my car.

I thank you in advance for your prayers as I begin this sabbatical. Pray that I can let go of trying to control my life so God can, and feel free to help hold me accountable in any way you like—even if I act like I don’t want you to.

In the name of the one who always has me by the hand, even when I squirm and try to pull away like an indignant two-year-old, Amen.

New Year Epiphany Prayer

O gracious God of endings and beginings, the new year gives us a chance to reflect on our goals and recommit to aligning our will with yours. The new year is a time to let go of regrets and guilt that hold us back, and so we offer them now to you.
January is a time for new hope in old dreams–dreams that cannot be fulfilled with our puny new year’s resolutions. The challenges facing our world require revolutionary thoughts and action. Please show us the way to be revolutionary agents of love, peace and justice for all of your children.

We confess, Lord, that we often lose our way in the dark. Our hopes for the new year can get swallowed up in the darkness of last year’s problems and regrets. We are heartsick about the terrible fires in Australia, about our failure to be good stewards of your creation. We pray also today for our Jewish sisters and brothers and an end to hateful anti-Semitism. And we pray also for those full of hate that their hearts will be changed by the Light of the World.

We are also saddened by the endless cycle of war and revenge that breeds more violence. We pray for the troops and their families, and we pray for President Trump and the leaders of Iran and Iraq. Give them wisdom and direction from your Holy Spirit that they will be able to reduce tensions and bring peace to that war-weary part of your world.

The journey to peace in our world and in our hearts is long and hard, Lord. It’s full of detours, obstacles and false idols like King Herod. The light of your Son seems too often to be hidden by worldly darkness. We pray that you would save us from false promises of an easy way to your kingdom. Grant us courage and faith to persevere and follow your true North Star that always leads us home to you.

We know that we will never solve every problem the forces of evil put in our way, but don’t let that discourage us. Don’t let it stop us from making life better for those we can. Let us be mirrors that reflect the Light of the World to those searching in the darkness and lead them to the one who comes to show us how to live, how to love and how to pray.

Jump Start Prayer

O God, it’s freezing cold outside and my energy level is way below average as well. I know I can’t do a thing about the weather, and I know that prayer about accepting things I can’t change; but this still sucks. I know how to jump start my car when it won’t start, but I’m not as good at firing up my own engine when the battery is low. Yes, I always have to google the battery to remember if the red post is positive or negative, but my own negativity is so much easier to identify.

I’ve run all the virus scans on my computer to avoid starting on my to-do list. With a click of my mouse I’ve quarantined 29 potential threats. I had to reboot my computer. That was easy. I wish it was that simple to debug and reboot my own operating system.

Oh, it’s “Be still and know you are God!” I knew that, but I keep forgetting that the hurrier I go the farther I get from you. My jumper cables won’t reach to the ground of my being when I’m looking for energy in all the wrong places.

They say with computers it’s “garbage in, garbage out.” How true that is for our weary souls, too. We get bombarded by bad news 24/7. It was so much easier to cope with the suffering in the world when it only came in the daily newspaper or the nightly news. Living in the information age is great when I need to know something, but I’m also deluged with drama and disasters from around the globe. Bad news sells; so life feels like a train wreck that I can’t stop watching.

Help me unplug from the cares of the world now and then, God, so I can reconnect to the only true source of peace in which I live and move and have my true being. Help me refocus my attention on things that cannot be stolen from me, eternal things that rust and moth cannot consume and neither can human hate and stupidity. Help me to faithfully be in the world but not consumed by it, to take mini Sabbath breaks where I can be forgiven for my failures and choose again this day, this hour, this moment whom I will serve.

Thanks for listening and Amen.

Kairos Reminder

In my post/sermon on October 13 (“Who gets the last word?”) I talked about the difference between Chronos time and Kairos time. Wouldn’t you know I got another powerful reminder of what those two Greek terms mean just last week.

My wife and I took a vacation trip to the Smoky Mountains hoping to see some wonderful fall colors. Chronos time/the calendar said mid-October was the right time of year for such colors. But as you can see from the picture above kairos time said “Not so fast. We will dazzle you with colors when the time is right and not before.”

That experience reminded me of a professor who once illustrated the difference between Chronos and Kairos by talking about having a white Christmas. He said, “it’s very easy to have a white Christmas every year. You just wait till it snows, and then you have Christmas.”

So next year if we have learned our lesson we will ignore the chronological calendar and wait till the fullness of time when the color is already painting the mountains and then go bask in its glory!

Doubt and Faith

“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

The quote above has always been one of my favorites from Frederick Buechner. (It’s from his book, “Wishful Thinking.”) But of late I’m wondering if like most things one can have too much doubt. I know I’m way too old for a mid-life crisis, but the ants in my pants are feeling more like fire ants in recent days.

My preacher mentality means I usually feel that I need to offer a word of hope when I write about the stuff of life, but for today I just need to vent. I’m depressed about the whole state of the world. The fires in the Amazon, senseless gun violence, divisions in the fabric of society that are deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon—it all feels so hopeless to me. When we desperately need to come together to solve these huge problems we just choose up sides and fire salvos across a partisan chasm that is no more real than the imaginary lines we draw on our maps.

So maybe it’s an old age crisis? And I’m not talking about dying. I’m ok with whatever death means. But the crisis for me is about what kind of world are we leaving for our kids and grandkids? I’m not an end of the age, Second Coming guy. In fact I think Christians who are rooting for the Apocalypse and even encouraging it with conflict-producing radical pro-Israel Middle East policies are not only copping out of our stewardship of the earth responsibilities, they are making matters much worse.

When I reflect on my life and what I’ve done to leave the world a better place than I found it, I don’t like the picture I see. There was a time not too long ago when I felt differently. I thought we were making progress on huge social issues like racism, nuclear weapons, and climate change, but no more. Maybe this is just a pendulum swing and a temporary setback. I truly hope so. I know my time is not God’s time, and I do believe that the life force we call God is bigger than this little planet we occupy. On my worst days I wonder if given our human history of evil and destruction of each other and our world that maybe humankind has outlived its usefulness. What if the universe would be better off without us?

That’s not hopeful or “wishful thinking,” to use Buechner’s phrase. But maybe the key to his quote is the part that says doubt “keeps faith awake and moving.” It certainly does keep me awake at night, but does it keep me moving or does too much doubt paralyze me? Only if I surrender to it! Just moving for the sake of moving is exhausting and useless. But if doubt and big existential questions keep me moving deeper and force me to surrender to God instead of to my feeble human fears, then the ants are doing their job.

I feel like the father in Mark 9 who brought his son to Jesus for healing of a life-long affliction with seizures that threated to destroy him. So it is with the problems threatening to destroy our world. Like the father I lay our broken world at Jesus’ feet and say, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” And like the father. at least today, my best response is, “I believe; help my unbelief!”