Vita Interruptus

One of my favorite metaphors for ministry is that it’s like being in a tank of piranhas—no one wants much of you, but everyone wants a little piece. Perhaps the best example of that is in Luke 8. There in the space of just 9 verses Jesus is interrupted three times by people who need something from him.

“Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.” (vss. 40-42)

Jesus goes with him, and “As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” (vss. 42-45)
Jesus blesses the woman and commends her faith, and “While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” (vs. 49)

These were all very urgent and legitimate requests for Jesus’ time and special power: a man with a sick and then dying daughter and a woman suffering for 12 years with a hemorrhage. Pastors today have similar emergency requests for pastoral care from parishioners or community members when there is a death, accident, life threatening illness, financial crisis, or any number of things that are perceived as a crisis. And that perception is what matters. Yes the woman in Luke had been bleeding for 12 years and we might think, “Couldn’t she have waited another few hours till after Jesus’ could go heal Jairus’ daughter?” After all, while she delayed Jesus with her crisis the little girl died!

Maybe she didn’t mean to delay Jesus. Luke tells us she believed that if she could just touch his robe she would be healed. But Jesus stops and says, “Who touched me?” He felt power go out from him, and that’s important for pastors and parishioners to notice. Each time we make a genuine connection with someone in need it takes emotional and psychic energy to do so. Too many pastors and church workers fail to make time and space for self-care because there is always someone or something that needs our attention.

In Mark’s Gospel we don’t even get through the first chapter before “the whole city was gathered around the door” where Jesus was because he had healed the sick and cast out demons. (Mark 1:33). And in the very next verse Mark says, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” If Jesus needed spiritual renewal and self-care you can bet the rest of us do too. But the respite is short-lived. Next verse—“And Simon and his companions search for him. When they found him they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”

Most of my ministry was done before the advent of cell phones; so I can’t imagine how much harder it is for pastors and church staff members to get away from it all in our hyper-connected world today. In the good old days one could actually “get away from the phone,” but now we are all not only available 24/7 but we are also constantly in touch with the mind-numbing, depression inducing stream of bad new and injustices around the globe. Everything is “Breaking News!” Never has the need to unplug and get away to a quiet place been more necessary.

And I know it‘s not just a clergy problem. Being able to work from home can be a blessing at times, but that convenience is a two-edged sword that can cut deeply into family time, recreation and vitally important rest and relaxation.

I have learned the hard way retirement doesn’t solve the problem either. Self-care still requires intentional and disciplined attention. For example, I have been meaning to write this post for over a week now and other things keep interrupting. Those things run the gamut from broken-down lawn mower to chronically stopped up toilet, not to mention the eight health related appointments I’ve had in the last two weeks.

I don’t practice this well, but what I’ve learned over the years is that resenting the interruptions does no good whatsoever, in fact it just makes things worse. If instead we can learn to see the interruptions as the stuff of life itself, the very opportunities to be most alive in service to others, what a difference it makes. Look at one more example from Jesus in Mark 6:
“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” Their much-needed R & R is ruined, and what does Jesus do? Does he say, “Oh crap, look at all those people! I can’t take it anymore! Let’s go somewhere else.”

Not at all. Listen to what Mark says next: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” Jesus embraces the interruption because his compassion was stronger than his weariness.

Where does he get that strength and compassion? Read the rest of that story. After he asks the disciples for what little bit of food they have and feeds the multitude with it, this is how the story ends: “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.”

Self-care for our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs is the secret to living abundantly in the reality of Vita Interruptus.

Transforming Grace, Galatians 1:11-16a, 21-24

As many of you know the United Methodist Church as a denomination is in a season of division that came to a head at a special session of General Conference in February. Following that conference our West Ohio Bishop Gregory Palmer invited all the churches in West Ohio to spend time studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This sermon is the first of six in a series in response to the Bishop’s request.

Grace is such a central part of our faith but ironically is very hard to explain. Grace is like good art; we recognize it when we see it, and especially when we experience it. But let’s start with a definition so we’re all on same page. The United Methodist Book of Discipline says grace is the “undeserved, unmerited loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.”

It may also help to clarify the difference between mercy and grace which are often confused. While the terms have similar meanings, grace and mercy are not the same. As one author says, “mercy is God not punishing us as our sins deserve, and grace is God blessing us despite the fact that we do not deserve it.” In other words, mercy is deliverance from judgment. Grace goes one step further and extends kindness to the unworthy.

Those are good words but it may be better to illustrate what grace is and how it has the power to change lives.
When I was in high school our family car was a Rambler station wagon. It was about the uncoolest car a teenager could be caught driving. I was spared the shame of driving that car most of the time because somehow my parents who were far from wealthy found the money to provide me with a wonderful red and white six-year-old ‘56 Chevy. That was an act of Grace.

But there were times when I still had to drive the Rambler. I don’t remember why I drove it to work on one particular day, but I parked it in my usual spot by a brick building across the street from the flower shop where I worked. One unique feature of that Rambler was that it had a push-button transmission. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason instead of having a gear shift it had a pad of buttons to the left of the steering wheel, one for drive, reverse, neutral, etc. What it didn’t have was a button for “park.” That was normally no problem; you just needed to remember to set the brake. But on the day in question, perhaps subconsciously because of my dislike for that car, I failed to put the parking brake on, and as I was walking across the street to the flower shop I heard a crash and turned to see that the car had rolled down the hill into the brick building. Making matters worse I knew my dad had already traded that car in and was waiting for the new one to arrive.

Needless to say all that day I dreaded facing my dad when I got home. He was not the most gracious person in the world, and I expected him to be very upset. Dad didn’t have to yell or punish me; I just always felt like I didn’t quite measure up to his expectations. But on this day he surprised me by being very understanding and forgiving. That’s grace. I was clearly in the wrong, but instead of a lecture or silent disapproval I got undeserved, unmerited love.

Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia is all about grace. Galatia was an area in what is now modern day Turkey. It was one of the first places Paul went on his initial missionary journey, and he started churches there in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Paul cared so much about these churches that he wrote this epistle to the Galatians because he heard they were straying from the Gospel of Grace he had preached to them, and he returned to Galatia on both of his other missionary journeys. That was an act of grace itself because on their first trip Paul and Barnabas had been stoned, beaten and jailed because they preached salvation came through Christ’s sacrificial love instead of by the traditional Jewish laws Paul had been so zealous for in his previous life.

But I’m getting a little ahead of the story. A few weeks back Pastor Chris preached about Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus; so I won’t spend much time on it today. There are many examples of God’s transformative power in the Bible, but none more dramatic that Paul’s. That story is told in Acts 9 if you want the unabridged version. Paul refers to it in the verses we read this morning when he describes himself as one “proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” He says he persecuted the Christians so viciously because he was “far more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors” than his peers.

Saul, which was Paul’s name before his conversion, was a hard line law and order guy. He believed that rigid compliance to the Jewish laws was the only way to win God’s favor. Period. That Saul would not have been caught dead preaching to the Gentiles in Galatia and would have in fact persecuted anyone who did. But listen to what the transformed Paul says in this letter to the Galatians: “God, who had set me apart before I was born, called me through his grace so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” Paul did a complete 180 about face in his theology. He knew first-hand that he was not saved by his zealous devotion to the law but was set free by Grace; and that grace was so liberating that he literally and repeatedly risked his life to share it with others.

One of my most precious memories as a father is when my son Matt expressed his love for me by saying he was willing to run through a wall for me. Believe me, that’s undeserved grace, and it is just how strong Paul’s devotion to God was because of the power of God’s grace to turn his life around.

I ran across this example of grace in a news story the other day. It was about a young autistic boy who was at an amusement park with his family. The boy’s greatest desire that day was to ride the Spider Man ride. The line for that ride was very long when the family arrived that morning; so they decided to wait for a shorter line later in the day. As luck would have it, when they returned to Spider Man late in the day the ride had broken down and was closed for repairs. The young boy was beside himself and went into a world class melt down, throwing himself on the ground. He was inconsolable, and nothing his parents tried would calm him down. A young woman working in the park witnessed the boy’s meltdown, assessed the situation and simply went over and lay down beside him on the ground and lying there on his level began to talk to him until he was able to calm down. That was an act of grace. The boy’s parents thanked her for her compassion and promised they would return to the park soon, and when they do they will ride Spider Man early in the day. Our God of grace is one who lies down beside us in our worst moments. Author Anne Lamott captures the essence of that story. She says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace-only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Methodist founder John Wesley helped clarify how grace works by describing three different expressions of Grace. The first expression of grace is illustrated in Galatians 1:15 where Paul says God “set me apart before I was born.” That’s prevenient grace or the grace that precedes any human action. Prevenient Grace means God pursues us, that God is the initiator of all relationships with her.

The second expression of grace is justifying grace, the grace that pardons and forgives. Paul describes it in the salutation to Galatians where he says, “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” Justifying grace is what reconciles and realigns us with God no matter what we’ve done or who we have been. And it’s free – you can’t earn it and can’t buy it. Christ already paid the bill.

And that leads directly to the third expression of grace, called sanctifying grace. In Galatians we see evidence in Paul’s life of God’s transforming grace. Saul the persecutor has become Paul the proclaimer and witness for Christ. Or as John Wesley puts it, “God’s grace seeks nothing less than a new creation in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Sanctifying grace is God’s freely given presence and power to restore the fullness of God’s image in which we are created.”

Father’s Day is bittersweet for me because I have many regrets about the lack of closeness with my father. I was very late in learning to give him grace for doing the best he could with the life circumstances he had to overcome, and because of that we often did battle over our different world views.

But I want to add that my dad was actually a good example of God’s transforming power, and his conversion was no less dramatic than Paul’s. He was not a person of faith before going off to WW II, but after the war he was co-pilot of a B-17 that was flying 16 other soldiers home from Europe. Shortly after taking off from a refueling stop in the Azore Islands their plane developed engine trouble and they had to ditch, which means crash land, in the dark and fog somewhere in the North Atlantic. Only 4 of the 17 men aboard that plane were still alive when they were rescued after 12 hours in the water. That experience transformed my father into a very devout Christian for the remaining 70 years of his life.

But my dad’s faith was primarily one of laws and rules, and that was at the heart of the tension in our relationship. I wish I had understood earlier that my dad needed the certainty of his legalistic religion because of his childhood growing up with an abusive step-father. He needed the comfort he found in strict rules and structure to compensate for the lack of security he felt in his childhood home where grace was absent.

My father passed his need to strive for perfection on to his children, except for my younger sister – she was his favorite and could get away with murder. But as his eldest child and only son I tried to live up to his expectations. I excelled in school, in scouts, and church but it was never quite enough. I realized recently that I have no pictures of myself as child where I’m smiling. I always look too serious, too afraid to screw up. And so when I left home I rebelled – made stupid mistakes as a young adult I should have made in adolescence and hurt several people in the process.

The good news is that it’s never too late for God’s grace to work its magic. My dad and I didn’t ever agree on politics or theology, but through God’s grace we learned to accept our differences in his later years. We were able to extend grace to each other and stop pushing each other’s buttons.

Can I change this guy into a car? No, Transformers came along well after my childhood, and unlike the movie transformers this one can’t transform itself, and that’s a perfect example of Grace. We can’t transform ourselves either, no matter how many diets or exercise programs, or New Year’s resolutions we try. Grace is the opposite of “self-help.” We don’t want to admit we need help to change ourselves, but when we come to that place when we surrender our inflated notions of our own powers, then and only then – God’s undeserved, unmerited action of the Holy Spirit can transform us.

Have you had the experience of returning a rental car to one of those places where you have to drive over spikes that keep people from stealing cars? The spikes fold down so you can drive forward over them, but if you try to back up the spikes stay upright and, as the sign says, can cause “severe tire damage.”

I’ve never done that with a car, but I know in real life I do often go backward in my faith, as we all do. That’s so common that in the old days the church had a term for it, they called it “back sliding.” And when that happens and we ruin a set of Michelins, God says, “It’s OK, tires can be replaced, or even a whole Rambler.” God made us fallible human beings with free will. That means we all screw up regularly, but grace means that it doesn’t matter how often or how badly we mess up, God our Heavenly Father is still there waiting with open arms for us prodigals to come home.

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH
June 16, 2019

As Tempus Fugits

I started writing this piece on May 29, and the fact that it took me a week to get back to it is exactly what it’s about. Each month when the calendar says we are near the end of another month my sense of urgency/panic about where time goes and how fast the circle of life is spinning comes around again like Haley’s Comet, only much more frequently. Aging certainly changes one’s perspective on time. I remember clearly being impatient with the plodding of the clock when I couldn’t wait to be 16 and able to drive. The summer I was 15 I was only a few months away from that magical age of freedom and responsibility that comes with a driver’s license.

That summer of 1962 was worse because I was one of the youngest in my class at school. My birthday is in October, but way back then one could start kindergarten at age 4 if your 5th birthday came by the end of the calendar year. That age difference didn’t matter for me at age 4 or even 14, but when all my classmates and friends were driving months before I could the age discrepancy seemed like an unbridgeable chasm.

I also had my first serious romance that summer. That was exciting. But the fact that Marcia lived 5 miles out in the country not so much. I was in great physical shape that summer because I rode my one-speed Schwinn out to see her about once a week; but that was the extent of the advantage of my long-distance romance. While my friends were dating and cruising through town on a Friday night I was dependent on my dad to drive me and Marcia to and from the local movie theater.

I do remember one of my very best one-liners from that summer. One night after I had walked her to the door I returned to the car and on the way home my father asked if I had kissed her. When I proudly said “yes” he, perhaps reliving his youth vicariously through me, asked “where.” And without missing a beat I replied, “On the front porch.” I don’t think he ever pried into my love life again!

I took two years of Latin in high school, and one of the few things I remember from that dead language is “Tempus Fugit” which means “time flies.” I know the earth has been rotating at the same speed for millions of years, and each day contains the same 24 hours give or take a few milliseconds. In more poetic form that means “525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year in a life?” according to the lyrics of “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.”

But no matter what kind of arbitrary numbers we create to mark the passing of time we all know that sometimes tempus does fugit at supersonic speeds and other times it flat out crawls. When a four year-old is waiting out the last few days before Christmas it is not the same time for the child or parents as it is for two lovers away from all other responsibilities luxuriating in the mystery of real intimacy, even though by clock time they are the same.

I used to love amusement park rides that spin at high g-force speeds. There was one called the “Tilt-a-Whirl” and another where the floor dropped away when the ride got up enough speed that centrifugal force plastered the riders to the wall. I don’t remember the name but it was essentially a human centrifuge. I don’t do thrill rides anymore, partly because real life is scary enough, but also because I am feeling like my life is spinning too fast already for me to keep up with it.

Just for fun I took the number above from “Rent” and multiplied it by my age. I didn’t add in extra minutes for leap years, but the number is plenty big enough already. I have lived or at least existed in this life for something over 1,314,000 minutes! I’m sorry I did that calculation. (Note: a friend just checked my math and corrected this number. It’s really 38,106,000!). No wonder my body feels like its warranty has long since expired! But that important question from “Rent” seems more important each day. How do you measure a year in a life or 40 years or 72.5? We humans seem to have a propensity for wanting numerical values on such things.

In Academia there’s a constant tension between quantitative and qualitative research. That distinction shows up currently in the overemphasis on test scores in primary and secondary education and in the priority given to STEM schools (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Those skills are obviously important in our postmodern world where employment and most of life depends on technology. Case in point: the friend who corrected my math above is an engineer. But if the STEM curriculum is overemphasized at the expense of education in the humanities where critical life skills are learned about social sciences, human history, interpersonal skills, the arts, and cross-cultural competencies just to name a few, we do so at our own peril.

Human beings are more than human doings. We are more than complex human computers that can be upgraded solely through a mechanistic and quantitative approach to the relationships between minds, bodies, individuals, societies and eco-systems. We are spiritual beings made for each other, to be in community, and there are no mathematical formulas for how to do that.

The answer “Rent” gives to how to measure a life may be simplistic but is nevertheless true on a fully human and spiritual level. The “Seasons of Love” song concludes as the title suggests by asking “how about love?” and concludes with the refrain “Remember the love, give love, spray love, measure your life in love.”

At 38,000,000 plus minutes and counting I am still trying to more fully and abundantly learn how to “give love, spray love. Measure your life in love.” Sounds a lot like Jesus doesn’t it? The only quantitative thing about Jesus’ teaching is that he summed up the whole Judeo-Christian philosophy in three short phrases: “Love God, love your neighbor and love yourself.”

Mental Meaderings

Sometimes memory is a curse. I’m fast approaching some milestone memories, the kind that end in zero or five. My 55th high school reunion is next month and the 50th anniversary of my ordination is also. Such milestones give me pause to remember the highs and lows of my 70 plus years of life experience.

For example, for some reason I decided to add up how many U.S. Presidents there have been in office during my lifetime. From Truman to Trump adds up to 13 occupants of the White House since I was born. What shocked me about that number is that it means that I have been alive for almost one-third (13/45) of all U.S. Presidents ever. I wish I hadn’t done the math.

One of the most interesting courses I took in seminary back in the Nixon administration was a course called “Theology in the Modern Novel” taught by Professor Don Webb. In that class I began to learn the power of fiction to reveal a truth deeper than fact. That experience was the beginning of my life-long appreciation for the power of narrative to touch people at an emotional level that rational-logical discourse can never reach. I had not realized till I started writing this piece that my whole appreciation and dedication to narrative rhetoric began in that class and shaped my preaching and teaching ever since. Thanks, Don.

Remembering today the work of the author I studied in that class on narrative theology I found this quote that resonates with my own intellectual and theological journey and may explain how I was drawn to his writing. “Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity. There lay the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.” (As quoted in Nikos Kazantzakis (1968) by Helen Kazantzakis, p. 529)

As an aside let me throw in here an observation about the mystery of memory and how it leads to different and I hope deeper reflection than expected. By the way, that only happens if we take the time to explore our inner journey—and more importantly to learn from the insights we uncover there. It is a rare journey we don’t usually take time for in our hectic 5G world, and that may be an excuse, at least it is for me, because I may not like what I find if I go spelunking down memory lane. As Barbra Streisand sings in “The Way We Were:” Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget.”

This all started because I’ve been feeling my age more than usual this week as a head cold has been added to my “normal” aches and pains. The memory I thought was going to result in a light-hearted blog post about the joys of aging was the lyrics to a song in the musical “Zorba,” called “Grandpapa.” The setting for the song is one where the elderly Zorba is being ridiculed for his age by some younger men in a bar. The banter back and forth between Zorba and his tormentors goes like this:

“A young man with no money is better than an old man with no money. Goodbye, Grandpapa!

Grandpapa? Grandpapa? I’ll show you who’s Grandpapa! Zorba! Zorba! Listen! There are two Zorbas. The inner Zorba is as slender as a reed!

Look at that, look at that, poor old man is weak and fat!

He has thirty-two teeth!

Look at that, there’s no doubt, every tooth is falling out!

He wears a red carnation behind his ear!

Look at that, over there, golden beard but long white hair.

This is the outside Zorba!

Look at that, old and feeble Grandpapa”

Trust me, I know the many joys of being a grandfather; I just wish it could come at an earlier age when I could play ball and shoot hoops and get down on the floor to rough house or play like I used to. But all that aside, that “Grandpapa” song led me down a memory trail that resulted in this much longer rambling about the influence on my life of the creator of Zorba, Nikos Kazantzakis.
I don’t remember how I chose Kazantzakis to focus on for that seminary class, but I’ve always been glad I did. My life and thinking have been and continue to be enriched by that decision. Yes, Kazantzakis died in 1953; so many today would not consider his work “modern,” but remember this class was in 1971, just 18 years after Kazantzakis’ prolific writing stopped. I only scratched the surface of Kazantzakis’ work in that class, reading “Zorba the Greek,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Greek Passion,” and “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises.” The latter is described this way by Simon Friar, the English translator of many of Kazantzakis’ writings, “Saviors of God” occupies a central role in the work of the Greek author….where in a passionate and poetic style, yet in systematic fashion, he set down the philosophy embedded … in everything he has written.”

One of the thoughts that has stayed with me all these years from “Saviors of God” is this one about prayer: “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.”

I have often turned to that passage for inspiration when I am weary of the struggle for social justice, even though I don’t like the military metaphors. Too often human struggles to comprehend the mysteries of existence have led to violent conflict because in order to manage our discomfort with ambiguity religious and political get hardened into concrete symbol systems that must be defended at all costs. But the struggle Kazantzakis is talking about is not for one ideology or belief structure about God and the universe. Kazantzakis says in that same work: “We do not struggle for ourselves, nor for our race, not even for humanity. We do not struggle for Earth, nor for ideas. All these are the precious yet provisional stairs of our ascending God, and they crumble away as soon as he steps upon them in his ascent.

In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant — then the Universe might possibly be saved.

It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

One of the things that keeps attracting me to such abstract thoughts and images is how my finite little mind is stretched by Kazantzakis’ spiritual language. And like my muscles I often resist such stretching. Even as I write this I kick myself for starting down this path. I am feeling cornered by the impossible notion that I need to somehow wrap this post up with some neat summary of what this all means. But of course I can’t. Any God I could “explain” or capture in human language would be woefully inadequate.

So I will leave you here with one of Kazantzakis’ most mysterious quotes that has tugged at my soul for all these 50 years. This one is also from “Saviors of God.”

“Blessed be all those who hear and rush to free you, lord, and who say: “Only you and I exist.”

Blessed be all those who free you and become united with you, lord, and who say: “You and I are one.

And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret:
That even this one does not exist!”

I can’t explain why that image appeals to me, but I recently found another quote from “Saviors” where Kazantzakis at least hints at what it meant to him:

“Nothing exists! Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms — merging, begetting, disappearing — and I say: “This is what I want! I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.”

Most appropriately that passage was used for Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

When Oceans Rise

Earlier this year my wife and I joined another couple on an amazing five-week trip to New Zealand and Australia. We even had a bonus stop of 4 days in Tahiti on the way over. So many wonderful experiences it’s hard to even remember them all. We visited the bustling cities of Auckland, Brisbane and Sydney, took a tour of the fantastic Sydney Opera House, spent part of Ash Wednesday in awe as dolphins swam around the sail boat we were on in the harbor of Akoroa, NZ, sailed through Fiordland National Park on our cruise ship, petted some kangaroos and wallabies, saw glow worms in the Blue Mountains of Australia, toured the largest sand island in the world (Fraser Island), and spent time on the beautiful beach called the Gold Coast.

After all that I was pretty weary and getting tired of living out of a suitcase. Our trip involved 10 flights, staying in 12 hotels and a cruise ship cabin, more time zone changes than I can remember (not to mention crossing the International Date Line coming and going). We traveled over 22000 miles, had glorious weather everywhere, and thanks to our friends Barbara and Dave who did almost all of the planning and all of the driving on the left side of the road we were never lost, never had a delayed flight nor any lost luggage!! That in itself is a miracle!

But the best and most memorable part of the trip was saved till the end. All the tiredness was replaced by awe and wonder as we spent three days and two nights on Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of The Great Barrier Reef. Yes we actually lived in this amazing eco resort on the reef! It’s an eco-resort because the owners are committed to stewardship of this natural wonder. They generate 80% of their electricity from solar power and will soon increase that figure to 100%. They desalinate sea water for their guests and staff. The island itself is tiny, just long enough for a bumpy air strip, and only 80 guests are on the island at any one time.

The picture here is a sunset on the west side of the island, one of two places where we could snorkel every day. The south end of the reef is in good shape still, unlike the north where rising ocean temperatures are threatening to kill it. So we rejoiced to see spectacular coral and more sea life than words can begin to do justice. We did not have an underwater camera, and on one level I regret that. But on another I am glad my encounters with huge sea turtles, hundreds of fish of every color in the rainbow and gorgeous, graceful and gigantic manta rays were unmediated by a camera lens. Those experiences are so vividly burned into my memory that I will never forget them.

The rich diversity of God’s creation, the peacefulness and majesty that appeared every time I moved from seeing nothing but water on the surface to simply putting my face in the water was transformative! God’s glory is right around us or below us in this case. All we have to do is pay attention. One day a huge sea turtle swam right under me so close I could have reached out and touched it. These big lumbering creatures on land move as gracefully as a ballerina in the primordial waters from which all life emerged

I have that sunset picture as wallpaper on my iPhone for several reasons: just for its beauty and as a reminder of the inspiring snorkeling we did there in that very water. But there’s another memory associated with that place that I have not really written or talked about much. We’ve been home over a month now, and we’ve told some family and friends about our last day snorkeling. It was memorable for a very different but equally moving reason.

We had snorkeled the day before out by the sailboat in that picture and had a marvelous time. It was the first time we saw manta rays, a real highlight of our time on the reef. The wing span of those rays is 8-10 feet, and even in a depth of 50 feet or more they dwarf everything else in the water. So of course on our final day there we wanted to relive that experience. We were in the same place that day, but what we didn’t realize while we were out in the water was that the current changed. It became so strong that we were unable to swim back into the one narrow opening in the coral where we could return to the beach.

Fortunately we were wearing life jackets so we were in no immediate danger of drowning, but no matter how hard we tried to swim toward shore we were gradually drifting further south, parallel to the coast but unable to get there. I am not usually one who prays for divine intervention in such situations, but I was just beginning to converse with Jesus about what in the world we were going to do when I saw a beautiful sight. One of the glass bottom boats from the resort had taken other snorkelers out nearby, and the captain saw we were in trouble and came over to rescue us.

He picked Diana up first and then came over toward me. When I swam over to the boat and grabbed onto its ladder nothing ever felt any better. The captain asked me if I was ok, and my reply was; “Now I am!” He probably had seen us and headed our way before I prayed, and I’m sure God had. They say God watches over animals and foolish people, right?

And now back to reality; another school shooting, number 35 of this school year. 49 years ago this week 4 students were killed at Kent Stated and this country came to a screeching halt. Now we barely notice. Our Secretary of State makes a fool of himself again by saying (to an Arctic conservation conference no less) that the arctic ice melt is “good for commerce” because it will open up new shipping lanes! I kid you not. Who does he think is going to engage in commerce with when our seaports are under water and climate refugees are overrunning the parts of the world that are left inhabitable? That kind of selfish short-sighted thinking will literally be the death of this planet, and it is of little comfort to me that I will die before the worst consequences of our stupidity are realized.

This week my grandchildren in Houston are reliving the nightmare of hurricane Harvey as their neighborhood streets and schools are once again flooded by torrential rains predicted to last the rest of the week! Does anyone in our so-called government care about these obvious impacts of climate change? No, they are all too busy trying to stay out of jail for their own lawless power grabbing behavior.

I realized this week why it has taken me so long to process our scary experience in the Great Barrier Reef waters. That experience ended well. We were rescued before our plight got really serious, but on a deeper (pun intended) level, who is going to rescue our nation and world from the morass of overwhelming problems we have created for ourselves? When nearly 50% of our population (according to latest polls 46%) supports our lying, power-grabbing president what hope is there for democracy? Many self-avowed Christians support Trump enthusiastically, even though he is on record as saying his favorite Bible verse is “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a verse directly vetoed by Jesus in the Sermon on the. Mount. Yes, the Jesus who says “the greatest of all is servant of all.” Can you imagine Trump trying to wrap his mind around that one?

The Sunday after our trip to Australia our church’s praise team did a contemporary song called “Oceans” that touched my jet-lagged soul. In part those lyrics say:

“You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me”

It is so hard to have water-walking faith when the storms of life are raging all around us. I had a massage this morning, which is usually a very relaxing experience. It still felt good on my body, but my mind would not relax. The hate-filled rhetoric going on in DC and in my own United Methodist denomination, fears about the physical and emotional health of my kids and grandkids in Houston battled for attention in my mind with how to pay my bills and how to keep up with my yard work and getting my taxes done (we took an extension).

And yet in spite of it all the words of “Oceans” still float in the depths of my soul:

“Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.”

Hide and Seek, Sermon on John 20:19-31

A young boy was out walking with his mother and out of the blue asked, “Mom, how big is God?” The mother thought a moment and noticed a plane flying overhead high in the sky. She pointed to it and asked her son, “How big does that plane look, Ryan?” He said, “It looks really small.” “Remember that when we go out to the store later today,” was the mother’s reply.

I’ve been thinking this week about a question Pastor Mebane asked in her Easter sermon last week. The text for last week’s sermon told how two of the disciples run to the empty tomb and find only Jesus’ grave clothes there. John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Mebane’s question was about how long it took between when the disciple “saw” and when he “believed.”

It wasn’t a total transformation at the grave because just a few verses later we are told “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” They are playing hide and seek with the wrong guy. Even locked doors can’t stop Jesus from finding them.

And Jesus’ command to the disciples and to us is that it’s our turn. Believing in the resurrected Christ is just step one. We need to be sent, to shed our grave clothes and go be the church in the world that is dying for Good News.
That does not diminish the fact that our fears are real. Doubting Thomas usually gets most of the attention in this story. I like Thomas. I identify with his honest doubt. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in pants of faith.” Honest doubt keeps us alive and growing.

There is no faith without doubt; they are two sides of same coin. Beucnher goes on to say that is not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church – but the absence, the seeking of true peace in the midst of our broken world.

We don’t know where Thomas was. John just tells us he wasn’t there the first time Jesus appears to the other 10 disciples. Maybe Thomas was the most scared. The disciples are hiding – but Thomas is even afraid to hide in the same place with them. That’s ironic because Thomas earlier in the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead is the disciple who says, “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus!” What happened? Maybe Thomas realized it’s easier to die with Jesus than to live with or for him? After all, the Jews or other oppressors can only kill the body. Jesus wants our souls too.

But see what happens when we give into fear and hide from God? God breaks down the barriers anyway – even thru locked doors. And when Thomas is not there Jesus doesn’t give up on him; he comes back a week later specifically to address Thomas’ doubt and fear. Faith is not a one-time deal like a polio vaccine. It’s a lifelong journey. One of my favorite biblical characters is the man in Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son of an evil spirit. When Jesus inquires of the man’s faith his honest response is, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Both Thomas and this father remind us that faith and doubt dwell in creative tension in all of us.

But I don’t want to focus on Thomas today. Instead I want us to look carefully at what Jesus says and does in these first post-resurrection encounters with his disciples.

John says the doors are locked in that upper room and Jesus comes right into the room anyway. How he did that is an interesting question we could explore, but that’s not really the point. Jesus coming into that locked room means that God breaks through whatever barriers we try to put up – whatever excuses we offer: I’m too old, too young, too poor, too busy, not good enough, too scared. “Sorry,” Jesus says, “it’s your turn now.”

One of the best Easter sermons I ever heard was by Bishop Dwight Loder, and the phrase I remember from that sermon is this. Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. He was not resurrected for the church. He was resurrected AS the church.” We are the body of Christ, and as such God sends us in mission and service to the least and the lost. We are transformed by the salvation of Christ, but the story doesn’t end there. We are transformed so we can go out and change the world into the Kingdom of God.

How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Do you want peace in your life? Don’t we all? We long for real peace that only God can give, the peace that passes all human understanding. And the secret to finding that peace is right here in John 20. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t send them out looking for peace on E-bay or Craig’s list; he imparts it into their hearts and then sends them out. We don’t find or create that kind of peace; it finds us, in the midst of our doubts, not after all our doubts are resolved.

How does that work? Notice what happens right after Jesus says “As God has sent me, so I send you.” “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” He breathed life into them just as God breathed life into humankind in the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit empowers before it sends us out to serve.

But here’s the catch – that powerful spirit only comes in surrender. True peace only happens when we are vulnerable enough to get up close and personal with God. You have to get very close to let someone breathe on you. The question is do we want Jesus getting that close? Invading our personal space, meddling with our priorities? That’s scary. But, if we let down our barriers and allow Christ into our hearts we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to humbly and obediently do justice and act mercifully – outside our comfort zones in the world God sends us into. To say with all the saints that have gone before us, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”

Now I want to circle back to young Ryan’s question about how big God is. That afternoon Ryan’s mom took him with her to go grocery shopping, but on the way she took a slight detour to drive by the city’s airport. She parked near a fence where the planes on the tarmac were visible and said to Ryan, “Do you remember how small that plane looked when we saw it today way up in the sky? Ryan nodded. “And how big do these planes on the ground look?” “They’re really big!” her son replied. And Ryan’s mom said, “That’s how God is. The closer we are to God, the bigger God is.”

Peace comes only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. I’m not sure I want Jesus or anyone to get that close. We have to really trust someone to let them invade our personal space. If we let Jesus get that close we might have a have heartwarming experience like John Wesley. We might get called out of our comfort zone to put our faith into action!

I don’t know what Jesus is calling you to do. That’s between you and God, but I do know that we will only find the peace and power to fulfill our calling if we let the risen Christ get close enough to breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into us.

Benediction – God is big enough to help our unbelief if we allow God to get close enough. Jesus finds us when we foolishly try to play hide and seek, and he says, “You’re it. I send you out, but only after I breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into your hearts.” Go in Peace. Amen

It is Well with My Body, Sermon on II Corinthians 12:7b-10

Those who know me might think the title of this sermon is a belated April fool’s joke. But it’s not. Our Lenten sermon series has been about spiritual wellness that comes not because of but in spite of the brokenness around us – broken systems, broken hearts, or broken bodies. And for some reason when we got to the theme of broken bodies everybody turned to look at me.

I am at the age where it seems the favorite pastime among my peers is to report on our aches and pains – even though we have all sworn we wouldn’t be like that when we got old. But if you are younger or fortunate to have fewer physical ailments than I do this sermon is still for you. When Paul says he asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh we think it must be some physical problem he had—arthritis, glaucoma, neuropathy? No wait that’s my medical chart. Seriously, biblical scholars have tried to figure out what Paul’s thorn was for 2000 years, and we still don’t know.

But it doesn’t matter because this text is not medical, it’s theological. It invites us to wrestle with the question of how we as Christians cope with the pains of life – physical, emotional, or relational, and we all have one or more of those. We even describe other frustrations as physical. We say “she/he’s a real pain in the neck” (or some other body part). A cartoonist depicts one such idea about Paul’s thorn like this.

One of my new year’s resolutions back in January was to be able to cope better with my chronic pain. Instead I learned again that it pays to be careful what one asks for. Less than a week into 2019 I was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, God! Now I’m sure I’ve asked God way more than three times to take away my aches and pains, but the answer I keep getting is the same one Paul got — which is “no.” Paul says God told him “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Today’s text also says, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” Other translations say “to keep me humble.” I don’t know how long it took but Paul came to understand that his problem served to keep him humble. I do know that when I stop focusing on my own problems and pay attention to people with more severe physical pain than I have that works for me too. I am in awe of those of you who come faithfully to church using a walker or a wheelchair, or wearing a knee brace, or in between chemo treatments–who keep a positive attitude in spite of the slings and arrows life has thrown at you.

What Paul learned from his thorn in the flesh is that we have to learn to deal with the hand we are dealt. It doesn’t have to be fair or even understandable – it just is what it is. God is not some supernatural magician who can pronounce a holy abracadabra and take away our pain. Our God is one who suffers with us and gives us the strength to carry on no matter what.

You’ve probably heard it said that we can’t control things that happen to us; all we can control is how we respond to the challenges of life. If that sounds like a cliché it’s because it is. But it’s also true. I had the privilege to witness that in action over the last few years as my father and mother-in-law both dealt with very similar end of life issues. Diana’s mother, Mary, was confined to a wheelchair and lived in assisted living for 9 years. She didn’t just have a thorn, she had a whole rosebush! She had plenty to be unhappy about, but she was always cheerful, content and pleasant in spite of all that. My dad was in similar physical condition in his final years, but his attitude was entirely different. He was angry and never satisfied with anything. He resented his circumstances and made life difficult for those caring for him and also for himself.

I don’t say that to be judgmental because I’m much more like my father than my mother-in-law. All too often I throw myself a pity party and catastrophize my problems even though I know better. I know that words matter especially how our self-talk shapes our attitude toward the challenges we face in life.

For example, I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing this sermon so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my thesaurus gave me were: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is we get to choose how we want to label what we’re feeling.

Another way of saying that is that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Pain is part of the human condition. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t, it comes with the territory. I find the Buddhist explanation for suffering very helpful. Buddhism says that we suffer because we are too attached to the things of this world which are all temporary, including these mortal bodies we are privileged to inhabit for a while.

My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about learning to let go — letting go of stuff I don’t need, letting go of things I can no longer do while humbly asking for help when I need it. Letting go frees up energy to celebrate the things I can do, and to give thanks for more wisdom gained through life experience.

If a picture is worth a thousand words (or has that number gone up with inflation?) then this one is definitely worth that much.

Letting go is important practice for the ultimate letting go that comes with mortality. But I would hasten to add that letting go doesn’t mean surrender. It doesn’t mean quitting all the things that give life meaning. It means finding ways to still do what we enjoy. Remember, nowhere in the Bible is there any talk of letting go of serving God and our neighbors. In fact one sure way to not be turned in on myself and my problems is to find ways to help others.

Humility means letting go of our need to control things. God’s answer to Paul is that our weakness allows God to be our strength. It boils down to God saying, “I’m God and you’re not – so trust me.” Those are great words to remember if you’re heading into surgery or awaiting a birth of a baby. Letting go of our need to control, of having things our way can also free us of anxiety, worry and fear which are all stressors that only make our physical pains hurt more. As the 12 step programs put it, “Let go and let God.”

I realized this week that humility is so central to our faith that it serves as bookends to the season of Lent. Every year we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. We put the mark of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, and the traditional words that are said are from Genesis 3:19: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We don’t say that to be morbid, but to remind us all of our place in creation. Yes, we will all die someday, and making our peace with mortality makes every day of life all that more precious.

And at the end of Lent we have the ultimate example of what humility looks like in Jesus. The night before he was crucified Jesus prays for his thorn to be taken from him. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Father, if it’s possible take this cup from me.” We’ve all prayed that prayer. I know I have many times. But what makes Jesus’ example so important are the words that a come next: “Not my will but yours be done.”

I don’t pretend to have that kind of faith. Paul says he’s achieved contentment with “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I’m not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them. But I do believe the secret to abundant life is what Paul describes elsewhere in Philippians 4:11 where he says he has learned to “be content with whatever I have” or as some translations put it “to be content in whatever state I’m in.”

A couple of years ago I chose Psalm 90 as the Scripture I read and meditated on during Lent. Mornings are the worst time for my discomfort; so I really identify with this part of that Psalm: “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).

Pity-party Steve gravitates to the first phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away.

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

And that is exactly what Paul means when he says God’s grace is sufficient – it’s all we need, no matter what kind of pain we are dealing with.
I want to leave you with a story from Robert Fulghum about how we deal with pain and suffering. Fulghum is best known for writing “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In one of his other books he tells about an experience in his early twenties when he worked for a country resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz; Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner.

Sigmund listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Fulghum says, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

When we are tempted to turn inconveniences into problems, God says, “Let go. I’ve got this.” And our best response is, “OK, not my will but yours be done.”

Preached on April 7, 2019, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio