2023 Words: Practice Gratitude

 I had the privilege again this past Advent to create liturgies for the lighting of each advent candle for our church. When we got to the third Sunday and the candle of joy (12/11/22 post) I asked some of my fellow fans of Dr. Brené Brown to help me find what she has said about joy.  My friend Jean Wright came through with this gem from Dr. Brown: “In our research we found that everyone who showed a deep capacity for joy had one thing in common: They practiced gratitude…A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean in to pure joy without denying the struggle in the world.  It’s not always easy or comfortable – but what makes joy possible is a front made of love and a back built of courage.” 

There’s an old joke about someone asking how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer is “practice, practice, practice.”  Well, apparently the way to get to Joy is also, like any other life skill, to practice. Since I am by nature a skeptical, glass half empty kind of person, learning gratitude for me is something that requires lots and lots of practice. Practice is hard.  Playing scales on the piano is work. Practicing on the putting green for hours is not nearly as much fun as hitting the crap out of a ball on the driving range.  But no one will master the piano or lower their golf score without those basic practices.

It is no coincidence that my friend Jean Wright’s daughter, Katy, recently shared her wisdom about gratitude that she learned from podcasts with Kate Bowler and Kelly Corrigan who indirectly address the practice of gratitude by dividing life experiences into two categories, the “happies” and the “crappies.” The trick, of course, is paying at least an equal amount of attention to the former as we do the latter. 

One of my mentors in grad school, Dr. Bill Brown, developed a rhetorical theory that helps with this task. He calls it “attention shifting,” which I will oversimplify here by saying it means intentionally shifting our focus or attention from one thing to another. I was reminded recently of another related skill for keeping things in perspective and practicing gratitude when my wife and I attended a high school production of “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” produced by the excellent Theater Arts Department at Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, OH. Our great nephew Ryan Buckley has been part of that program for all four of his high school years, and we have enjoyed many plays there; but one scene in this production really resonated with me.

The Kindergarten play is based on the book by the same title by Robert Fulghum. I have read most of Fulghum’s stuff; so this story was familiar, but I must have been ready to hear it again. It’s a little long for a blog post, but I am going to include it here in full because it is so good.

Fulghum writes: “In the summer of 1959, at the Feather River Inn near the town of Blairsden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California.  A resort environment.  And I, just out of college, have a job that combines being the night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables.  The owner/manager is Italian-Swiss, with European notions about conditions of employment.  He and I do not get along.  I think he’s a fascist who wants pleasant employees who know their place, and he thinks I’m a good example of how democracy can be carried too far.  I’m twenty-two and pretty free with my opinions, and he’s fifty-two and has a few opinions of his own.

One week the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every single day.  Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls.  To compound insult with injury, the cost of meals was deducted from our check.  I was outraged.

On Friday night of that awful week, I was at my desk job around 11:00 P.M., and the night auditor had just come on duty.  I went into the kitchen to get a bite to eat and saw notes to the chef to the effect that wieners and sauerkraut are on the employee menu for two more days.

That tears it.  I quit!  For lack of a better audience, I unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman.
I declared that I have had it up to here; that I am going to get a plate of wieners and sauerkraut and go and wake up the owner and throw it on him.

I am sick and tired of this crap and insulted and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it and who does he think he is anyhow and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut and this is un-American and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat it one day for God’s sake and the whole hotel stinks anyhow and the horses are all nags and the guests are all idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to the pigs.  Something like that.  I’m still mad about it.

I raved on this way for twenty minutes, and needn’t repeat it all here.  You get the drift.  My monologue was delivered at the top of my lungs, punctuated by blows on the front desk with a fly-swatter, the kicking of chairs, and much profanity.  A call to arms, freedom, unions, uprisings, and the breaking of chains for the working masses.

As I pitched my fit, Sigmund Wollman, the night auditor, sat quietly on his stool, smoking a cigarette, watching me with sorrowful eyes.  Put a bloodhound in a suit and tie and you have Sigmund Wollman.  He’s got good reason to look sorrowful.  Survivor of Auschwitz.  Three years.  German Jew.  Thin, coughed a lot.  He liked being alone at the night job–gave him intellectual space, gave him peace and quiet, and, even more, he could go into the kitchen and have a snack whenever he wanted to–all the wieners and sauerkraut he wanted.  To him, a feast.  More than that, there’s nobody around at night to tell him what to do.  In Auschwitz he dreamed of such a time.  The only person he sees at work is me, the nightly disturber of his dream.  Our shifts overlap for an hour.  And here I am again.  A one-man war party at full cry.

“Fulchum, are you finished?”

“No.  Why?”

Lissen, Fulchum.  Lissen me, lissen me.  You know what’s wrong with you?  It’s not wieners and kraut and it’s not the boss and it’s not the chef 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 got a problem.  Everything else is inconvenience.  Life is inconvenient.  Life is lumpy.

“Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems.  You will live longer.  And will not annoy people like me so much.  Good night.”

In a gesture combining dismissal and blessing, he waved me off to bed.

* * *

Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes with a truth so hard.  Years later I heard a Japanese Zen Buddhist priest describe what the moment of enlightenment was like and I knew exactly what he meant.  There in that late-night darkness of the Feather River Inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously kicked my butt and opened a window in my mind.

For thirty years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something really stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks:  “Fulchum.  Problem or inconvenience?”

I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality.  Life is lumpy.  And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same lump.  One should learn the difference.  Good night, Sig.

As I reflect on the year 2022 it is very easy for me to see the entire year through the lens of the last couple of months which have been rather crappy for me. Following my 76th birthday at the end of October my 77th trip around the sun began with an unexpected hospital stay because of a very serious urinary tract infection. That urinary infection has turned out to be one that is very hard to get rid of and has been bothering me off and on for about seven weeks now. Because of that it has been easy for me to throw a pity party for myself if I forget to keep my focus on the larger scheme of things. This illness is just an inconvenience. Other than the time I spent in the hospital and I a few days after that, I have been able to continue my normal daily activities. Those activities included the aforementioned opportunities to create Advent liturgies for worship in our church. And by sharing those liturgies in my blog, they have also been used by a number of other readers and worship leaders, for which I am grateful.  I even got a bit of a chuckle each week during Advent when I noticed that the number of clicks on my Advent liturgies always seemed to go up about Thursday or Friday. I remember from my days of active pastoral ministry those were the days of the week when I suddenly realized I needed some help with worship resources for the coming Sunday.

I also realized this week that part of the attention shifting/gratitude practice is keeping my focus on the big picture and not just what is immediately in front or behind me. By paying too much attention to my recent illness I had completely forgotten about an amazing therapeutic golf program I became a part of this summer. That program is quite appropriately called “Fore Hope.“ In brief, this program pairs a wonderful volunteer “caddie” with each golfer. These caddies help the golfers with whatever that individual needs, from loading clubs on the golf cart, putting the ball on the tee, hunting for wayward balls, or literally holding the golfer up while he or she swings if there are balance issues. Having the opportunity to be a part of that program has given me a lot of hope and a new lease on life because I have been able to do something that I dearly love, which I thought was gone forever because of my health concerns. It has enabled me to play golf again with my son, and for the first time with two of my grandsons, and to my surprise as an introvert it also made me a part of a whole new community of friends.

I played my last golf with that group in mid-October and could not have written a more satisfying script for that evening. It was chilly, as October evenings are want to be in Ohio, and I almost wimped out and didn’t go; but I am so glad that I did. You see it turned out to be one of those magical times on the golf course when every putt found its way into or very close to the cup. And what is so special about the Fore Hope Golf community is that everybody is a cheerleader. We don’t keep score; so there is no insidious competition, and when any player makes a good shot everyone genuinely affirms that accomplishment.

But here’s the thing—about three weeks later I was flat on my back in the hospital and in the ensuing recovery from that experience, because I did not practice gratitude, I forgot all about the sheer joy I felt sharing those days on the golf course with my new friends. So for me, at least, an important part of the practice of gratitude is paying attention more often to the happies, and not letting the crappies which come along for all of us knock those moments of joy out of my awareness.

Thank You 2022 Readers

2022 has certainly been a roller coaster ride in many different ways. Many of the intangibles in life are impossible to quantify. That’s why I am drawn to have some hard, countable things in life, and thanks to WordPress this blog is one of those things. In that regard 2022 has been an incredible success for peacefullyharsh, and I have all of you readers to thank for that.

When I started writing these posts 11 years ago I was thrilled if I had 50 views per month of my posts. In fact it took me 4 years to break the 1000 mark for total views in a year. That was 2014, and now 8 years later 2022 is on track for over 12,200 views, a 20% increase over last year’s previous best record of 10,057. Those views in 2022 came from 103 different countries on six continents. I am so humbled and grateful that our sometimes troublesome technology makes all that possible.

One of my many blessings in 2022 was to discover “The Cottage,” a blog written by theologian Diana Butler Bass. I highly recommend her provocative and inspiring work. For her final post of 2022 Diana listed the posts from “The Cottage” that have attracted the most readership. Her top five are much more profound than mine, but she got me wondering, mostly for my own curiosity, what my top five posts of 2022 were.

So, for what it’s worth, here are the five posts from peacefullyharsh that had the most views in 2022. I’ve included the date each was originally posted in case you want to look any of them up:

1. Schism: Ecclesiastical Divorce, posted September 12

2. Respectful Disagreement, February 12

3. Dis-united: Realism vs Aspirations, May 30

4. Prayer of Lament as War Begins—Again! February 23

5. Things I Never Asked My Father, June 18

Thank you, dear readers, and to you all my wishes and prayers are for a blessed new year of peace, joy, hope and love.

Just Like Us: A Boy with a Lunch, Sermon on John 6:1-15

Note: if you would like to watch the recorded version of this sermon it can be found at nwumc.com/live. The sermon starts about 2/3 of the way through the recording.

I don’t often do it but sometimes I sit in the theater and watch the credits roll after a movie ends, partly to figure out who all these young actresses and actors are, but I also get a kick out of how many different kinds of people it takes to make a movie. I get a chuckle out of titles like “grip,” “key grip,” “gaffer,” and “best boy.” I’ve never been curious enough to google those terms before, but I did learn this week that the obviously sexist term “best boy” means the senior electrician, second in the hierarchy to the gaffer, who is the chief electrician. That’s your trivia lesson for today.

The other fun thing about the movie credits, and there is a point here, I promise, are the minor characters who are listed with descriptions like “bartender,” “taxi driver,” or “second police officer.” If they made a movie about our Gospel lesson for today from John there would be a listing for a minor character, “boy with lunch.”

Here’s John’s brief mention of this boy in case you missed it. When Jesus asks, “How shall we feed all these people?”  “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”  This is all we hear about this boy.  No name.  No explanation about why he has such a strange assortment of food with him.  Who eats five loaves of bread and two fish for lunch?  Maybe he was on his way home from the grocery?  Why does this kid not even appear in any of the other Gospels?  The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels and Mark and Matthew even tell it twice, but none of the others mention this boy and his food.  

We don’t know if he was a boy scout doing his good deed for the day and gave his food up willingly.  Did Andrew smell the fish the boy was trying to hide under his cloak?  Did the boy’s mom or dad have to nudge him to share what he had?   Did the disciples somehow shame him into it?  Did his example inspire others to share their stash of food?  That’s my favorite explanation.  Don’t we all carry an extra breakfast bar or some trail mix with us “just in case?”  Most women I know have a whole assortment of things in their purses. I know my wife, a former Girl Scout, certainly does.  And if this lad’s example inspired others to share what little they had till everyone was fed, isn’t that a miracle itself?

This is not the only time the Gospel writers drop in a reference to a nameless person to pique our interest.  Did you know there’s a streaker in the Gospels?  The Gospel of Mark includes this line right after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mark 14:51 says, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him,but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”  And even more curious is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels.  Mark and Matthew even say of her,

“Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” And yet thanks to the patriarchal rulers of the church for centuries she is mostly forgotten.  

I found something very helpful in a book I read recently by Brian McLaren to describe the dilemma about how to interpret Scripture.  McLaren suggests we need to take a literary approach to biblical stories and not a literal one. 

Here’s part of what McLaren says: “The literary approach begins with this assumption: Jesus must have been so extraordinary as to become legendary. The Latin root of the word legendary means read, so the word suggests, ‘This person is so extraordinary that people will read about him or her in the future. ‘The word legendary can also mean fictitious. And many of us feel the tension between extraordinary and fictitious every time we read the gospels. When traditional Christians tell us that we have to take every word, every detail as literal fact, we find that hard to do, as much as we might like to. But that doesn’t mean we must throw out the gospels—and Jesus—entirely.”

I like the way McLaren describes that approach because of the power stories have to affect us holistically – that is, to move us emotionally and ethically, not just rationally or logically. And what’s more, stories are easy to remember and pass along. Remember, none of the Gospels were written until decades after Jesus’ resurrection.  So stories about Jesus passed from person to person were what gave those early Christians the courage to keep the faith in spite of horrible persecution by the Roman Empire. 

And consider this story about the boy with a lunch; there’s nothing logical about giving up my lunch with no promise that I’ll get it back or even more crazy to believe I’ll get more back counting the leftovers.  A literary approach doesn’t make Bible stories less “true.”  Truth with a capital T is more than just cold hard facts.  We feel Truth in our hearts, not just our heads.  A tear in our eye when we hear a special song or witness an act of compassion reminds us that whatever builds the blessed community and makes for peace and justice is True, and anything that destroys community is not the Truth Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  

How many of you are or were Beatles fans?  I have a trivia question for you.  Which Beatles’ song mentions a preacher?  Here’s a hint:  “Father McKenzie, (pause) writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, No one comes near.”  Ok, that’s a little depressing.  The song is “Eleanor Rigby,” but it’s the refrain of that song that comes to mind when I think of this crowd that comes to Jesus when he and his disciples are trying to find a quiet place for some much needed R&R.  Mark’s account of this story says they were so busy teaching and healing that they didn’t even have time to eat.  So the disciples were hungry too.  And the refrain to Eleanor Rigby speaks to that hunger.  It says “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Jesus sees the crowd coming and immediately recognizes their hunger.  It’s not just hunger for pumpernickel and sardines; it’s a deep hunger for the bread of life.  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”  Neither John nor the Beatles tell us where they come from, but we know to whom they come – the church, and that doesn’t mean this building or The Church for All People, NNEMAP, or the Manna Café; it means the Universal Worldwide Church, the body of Christ that alone can satisfy our deepest hunger.  

But of course we do know where some of the lonely/hungry people come from.  They come from Wright Elementary School, from Abby Church and other neighborhoods right in our zip code, from homeless shelters and from people who are just down on their luck.  They come as refugees from violence in Central America, or from war – Ukrainians and Russians alike.        They are victims of Hurricane Ian and climate refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa.  All the lonely people, where do they all come from? And like the startled disciples we ask, “Where are we to buy food for all these people? We’re having enough trouble just dealing with our own hunger, grief, and loneliness!”

But you know what?  Those lonely people can feed us also.  Our amazing Brown Bag Lunch crew has provided thousands of lunches to families in our neighborhood over the years, but listen to these stories of sharing in return.  Denise Gorden told me of a day she and Doris were invited in to share a snack with an Iraqi family on the brown bag route. “With so little,” she said, “They brought out fruit and other goodies for us to eat. It was very moving.”

And Doris told me that once, “On a very hot day- One second grader on the BBL route saw me getting out of the church van with lunches and ran back inside his apartment and gave me a bottle of water. He said, “Ms. Dorrie- (He calls me Dorrie since it’s easier to pronounce)  looks like you need some help- it’s too hot today, drink some water so you can keep going. On a separate day, during reading buddies- we sat down to read books outside under a large tree in front of their home, and he said, “Ms. Dorrie, here is a bottle of water for you. Since you’re giving food to everyone, why don’t you take some of mine, here are some cookies. Eat with us and then I will read stories to you.” 

Our current sermon series is exploring how the characters in the Bible are “Just Like Us.”  So what can we learn about ourselves from this unnamed boy with a lunch?  How is he just like us?

I remember my first dramatic roles in elementary school.  We did two short plays.  In one I was the star as Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.  That’s probably why I’ve been so short all my life!  In the second play my only part was from off stage where I was to make bird noise sound effects at the proper time. My prop was a small whistle shaped like a bird.  You filled it with water and blew into it to make chirping sounds.  Nothing to it, right?  Only one problem; before it was time for the birds to chirp I got thirsty and drank the water in the whistle; and those birds never chirped.  Mrs. Kay, our teacher was not pleased.  It turns out that “small” part of making bird noises was just as important as starring as Peter Pan.

To borrow a phrase from Donatos Pizza, every part counts.  Every voice in the choir or bell in the bell choir contributes to the whole musical sound.  The person who sanitizes the Operating Room prior to surgery is just as important as the surgeon or the anesthesiologist.  It’s a team effort.

The nameless boy in John 6 is used by Jesus just as much as Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene.  Most of us are fairly anonymous in the world’s scheme of things.  We are more like the gaffer or the key grip than Lady Gaga or Matthew McConaughey.   To paraphrase Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, “The world will little note nor long remember what we do here,” but God will; because every one of us counts.  We can all make a difference to someone by simply sharing what we have and who we are.  Notice in this story that Jesus doesn’t ask the boy to give more than he has; that would be very unfair.  Jesus simply asks the boy to share what he has.  After all, we are just giving back to God what God has given us.  It isn’t our stuff anyway.

When we start thinking we own parts of God’s creation we get possessive and worry about losing it or that we don’t have enough.  We live in a scarcity mindset.  But when we live in
God’s abundance and share what God has given us there is enough to feed 5000 people and have enough leftovers to feed the next bunch of hungry people already coming down the road. 

Jesus never asks us to give more than we have, just all that we have, just as he gave his all for us. 

We are all like the boy with his lunch.  We all count – nameless or not, because God knows our name and knows we can all make a huge difference in the world. 

We recently passed the day on the calendar marked Fall Equinox, but we don’t need a calendar to tell us that the hours of daylight we have now are shorter each day and the temperatures are dropping.  Calendars help us count our days, but it is up to us to make our days count.  You don’t have to be a biblical or other kind of heroine or hero.  Notice most of the characters in the Bible are just like us, flawed and fallible human beings who remind us that all of us have what it takes to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Jesus himself was a poor peasant boy who never traveled more than 200 miles from the tiny village where he was born, and yet his disciples all over the world will feast at his table and remember his call upon our lives on this World Communion Sunday.   As we gather at his table today, pray for God’s guidance to show you how to maximize your witness.  Each of us has a different role to play, but each one is important to the worldwide kin-dom Jesus calls us to help create.  Amen

Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, October 2, 2022

Wilson!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preacher’s Saturday Prayer

O God why must you work in such mysterious ways?   Couldn’t you just give me a message straight without so much work?  Your spirit came through again today as always, but couldn’t you have done that two or three days ago!  Why do I have to worry and wrestle with your Word like Jacob to find a 10 minute sermon?  Yes, the process is good for me, but I’m already limping from way too many years of sweating Saturday sermon preparation.  I do believe, Lord, honest I do.  I’ve literally experienced this miraculous process hundreds of times, but I’m old and tired and it’s harder work than it used to be.  Is that because I am afraid that I don’t have many more times to get this right?  Preaching is an awesome and awful privilege.  How can I dare to get up and presume to speak for you?  Yes, I know John Wesley said, “Preach faith till you have it.”  That’s why I’m still at it.  And this time, really “Let the words of my mouth be truly acceptable in your sight,” for I couldn’t do this if you were not my rock and redeemer.  Amen

Ukraine: Reaping the Whirlwind and Beyond

“Those who have sown the wind will reap the whirlwind.” Hosea 8:7.

The prophet Hosea wrote those wise words over 2700 years ago predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria. The wind they had sown in that case was putting their trust in foreign alliances instead of God.

Fast forward to 2022 CE to a confrontation between Vladimir Putin and the western world.  The civilized world is appalled at the brutal and indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians by the Russian dictator. There are many legitimate arguments being made comparing this invasion to Hitler’s takeover of Eastern Europe 80 years ago.

President Biden and the NATO allies are very reluctant to confront Putin militarily or in any way that Putin might construe as an affront to his fragile ego. The comparison of this “inaction” to British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s failed appeasement of Hitler in the run up to World War II is somewhat persuasive, but there is one huge difference. Hitler didn’t have nukes. Putin does, lots of them, and he seems unhinged enough to use them.

In other words, we sowed the atomic wind on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 80 years ago and launched a suicidal arms race with the ever so apt strategy named MAD (mutually assured destruction). Now we are reaping the whirlwind of birthing the nuclear arms race. Our ability to stop Putin’s massacre of Ukrainians is hamstrung by the fear of the very nuclear arms race we invented.

I have no solution to this conundrum. Even though I try to be a pacifist, if there was a way to blow Putin to kingdom come without escalating this whole mess I’d be all for it. No one wants to ignite WW III because we know there will be no WW IV. In my darker days, and there are more and more lately, I am beginning to believe that between humanity’s obsession with violence and our greed that fuels climate change the human race is doomed.

But here’s the thing, that is not as hopeless or as fatalistic as it sounds. Because the God of the entire universe is so much more, well, cosmic than anything our puny little planet amounts to that the loss of this 3rd rock from the sun would barely be a blip on the cosmic screen. That is a harsh pill to swallow for those of us who think we are created in God’s image, a little less than the angels (Psalm 8:5)! Ever since Galileo and Copernicus dared to question the anthropocentric belief that the earth was the center of the universe our knowledge of the infinite nature of space has made us more and more humble, or should have.

I hope and pray I am wrong about the future of humankind. At my age it doesn’t really matter much to me personally, but it makes me sick to think of that bleak future I’m leaving to my kids and grandkids. Is there still hope for humans to learn to live in peace with one another? Could the threat of climate change provide motivation for humans to finally band together to fight a common foe instead of each other? Based on our past track record I don’t see it happening. If the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki didn’t cure our warring madness, what will?

[Note: This post originally ended right here, but about 5 minutes after I posted it I heard that still small voice saying, “That’s not the end of the story.” So I unposted it and added the following.]

Here’s the good news—the whirlwind doesn’t get the last word. The name “Hosea” means “salvation.” And even though Hosea proclaims Yahweh’s anger at Israel he also shares God’s compassionate nature for the Souther Kingdom, Judah.

“But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; (1:7a). But listen to the rest of that sentence: “I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”(7b). God’s salvation does not come by instruments of death and destruction. Those ways are anathema to the One who dreams of a day when swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and the ways of war are learned no more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The biblical narrative has rightly been called the salvation history of humankind. How many times do the chosen people break their covenant with God? How many times is Jerusalem leveled like one of the horrendous images we have from Ukraine? Pick a number, any number, say x. And whatever number we pick the answer to the next question, how many times does God redeem her people, is x + 1.

Even as he proclaims judgment on Israel’s unfaithfulness just three verses later Hosea assures his readers that the alienation and suffering is not the final word.

“Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 1:10)

What does this say to our broken, fearful world today? We know not when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in resurrection that assures us that nothing in all creation, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Amen

Random thoughts from Ash Wednesday, 2022

From my pastor, Chris Rinker:  “Giving up something is not punishment but making a space for God to create something new in us.”  He followed that with a question I will be pondering for awhile:  “What can I do or not do for Lent that will make space for God in my life?”

I read this one from a fellow pastor in a Facebook group responding to a question about what words to use while imposing ashes.  I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, but his words have stuck with me.  He suggested saying  “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  

That got me thinking.  We are dust of the earth but also star dust spewed forth billions of years ago by the Big Bang that is still creating and expanding God’s universe.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder to accept our mortality so we, like Buzz Lightyear, can leap into the future and go to “infinity and beyond.”  We chuckle at a Disney toy making that kind of foolish leap, but on the days we believe** we know that it is exactly what we are called to do—to  trust without fear, even when the foundations of our world are shaken by rockets and bombs; even when we fear what a madman with nuclear weapons could do to life as we know it; even when we fear that human kind is hell bent on destroying Mother Earth with our pursuits of greed and power.  

To trust God in such a time as this is to surrender all that we rely upon to give us security—all of that earthly stuff because to quote Kerry Livgren of the rock band Kansas, “all we are is dust in the wind.”   But that wind is the Holy Spirit/Wind that breathes life into dust, that shapes star dust into us who are, on the days we believe and on those we don’t, truly created in the image of Being itself.  Our current form goes from dust to dust, but our essence, our being is eternal.  When this mortal life is over we trust that we will be forever in the heart of God who is love itself.  Amen

** “On the days we believe” is a phrase I have adopted from Rachel Held Evans’ book “Wholehearted Faith” where she dares to write what I have often been afraid to say out loud. I will be forever grateful to her for her gift of honest vulnerability and helping me claim that I too have good days when I believe and many others when I’m really not sure.

Silence Over Words

“The Godhead deserves our attention, and we approach and honor it through silence more than through words.”  This quote from Meister Eckhart was in my devotions this morning from Christian Mystics, by Matthew Fox.  It is devotion #134 of 365, and it really hit home today.  I posted a piece in my blog yesterday afternoon on “Respectful Disagreement” and a short time later got a notice from WordPress, my blog platform that I have never seen before.  It simply said that my blog stats were taking off.  I looked up the stats and was amazed that there had been 48 views of that piece in just an hour.  And the hits just kept coming all day!  There were 130 views by days end and another 29 this morning, far more in 24 hours than anything I’ve written in 11 years of blogging. 

I’m quite sure that it is not my writing but the urgency of the topic that is attracting the attention.  There are obviously a lot of people feeling the need for respectful disagreement, and God knows we should be.  But all that aside I could not help from feeling pretty proud of myself.  And along comes God speaking thru Meister Eckhart and Matthew Fox to put me in my place yet again. 

Here’s the full quote from Eckhart –

“God is a being beyond being and a nothingness beyond being. The most beautiful thing which a person can say about God would be for that person to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth. So, be silent and quit flapping your gums about God.” 

That smarts for a preacher and writer who has spent the last 53 years talking about God.  It reminds me of hearing somewhere that trying to talk about God is like biting a wall.  Words as inadequate as they are remain the primary tool we use to try and communicate the uncommunicable mysteries of existence.

Of course here I am still trying to capture the uncapturable with my puny words instead of just shutting up and living in mystery.  Silence and surrender are just so uncomfortable that I cannot tolerate them for long.  I know I will write about this again soon, but OK, God, for now I will be still and know what I cannot “know.” 

Respectful Disagreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading with Your Head

“Words alone are cheap.  Breathing deeply is required also.  Connecting to the heart, not just the eyes. Meditation, mindfulness, contemplation, art and creativity–accessing the right hemisphere of our brain, not just the verbal hemisphere, is needed. 

Incorporating and honoring our bodies, breathing deeply, not just leading with our heads.  The heart after all resides in the body and disperses its blood and values from that center.  And breath is the same word as “spirit” in many languages (including Biblical ones).”

Yes, words are cheap, but they are all we have to express our thoughts and feelings.  That quote is from Matthew Fox in his “Daily Meditations” for today, (January 29).  The phrase that jumps off the page for me is “not just leading with our heads.”  We know with our heads and hearts that we are holistic beings and certainly not the Cartesian model of rational-logical critters who only exist because we think.  We also feel and act.

I first really understood that in graduate school working on my doctorate in rhetoric.  It wasn’t until then that I learned that the traditional three-part sermons I grew up with were originally not just three sections of a sermon linked together more or less successfully.  The three point idea originated clear back in the 4th century BCE with Aristotle.  In his classic “Rhetoric” Aristotle describes a holistic approach to persuasive discourse that appeals to “logos, pathos, and ethos,” terms best translated into English as “reason, emotion, and ethics.”  Effective persuasion needs all three elements because humans are rational, emotional and ethical beings.  The latter term applies to our behavior that is shaped by our reason and emotion.

Western philosophy and education have majored ever since Descartes in developing and teaching that primarily addresses the mind to the detriment of emotional and ethical development.  In other words as in the quote I began with we “lead with our heads.” 

As I was writing this piece I saw a very timely post on Facebook that seems relevant.  I can’t verify the source from a Facebook called “Compass,” but it certainly fits my life experience as one who led with my head through twelve plus years of higher education.  Here are the key points of the post:

“According to Psychologists, there are four types of Intelligence:

1) Intelligence Quotient (IQ)

2) Emotional Quotient (EQ)

3) Social Quotient (SQ)

4) Adversity Quotient (AQ)

1. Intelligence Quotient (IQ): this is the measure of your level of comprehension. You need IQ to solve math, memorize things, and recall lessons.

2. Emotional Quotient (EQ): this is the measure of your ability to maintain peace with others, keep to time, be responsible, be honest, respect boundaries, be humble, genuine and considerate.

3. Social Quotient (SQ): this is the measure of your ability to build a network of friends and maintain it over a long period of time.

People that have higher EQ and SQ tend to go further in life than those with a high IQ but low EQ and SQ. Most schools capitalize on improving IQ levels while EQ and SQ are played down.

A man of high IQ can end up being employed by a man of high EQ and SQ even though he has an average IQ.

Your EQ represents your Character, while your SQ represents your Charisma. Give in to habits that will improve these three Qs, especially your EQ and SQ.

Now there is a 4th one, a new paradigm:

4. The Adversity Quotient (AQ): The measure of your ability to go through a rough patch in life, and come out of it without losing your mind.”

The phrase “leading with your head” reminded me of something I’ve been concerned about as I have watched way too much football in recent weeks.  Last weekend was an especially exciting one for National Football League fans.  There were four playoff games last weekend that were all as closely matched as mathematically possible.  Three ended with winning field goals as time expired and the fourth game went to overtime.  

First a confession and/or disclaimer:  I know the game of American football has become dangerously violent.  Players are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, and therefore bodies collide with much greater force.  Padding and helmets are certainly much better than the days of leather helmets, but we still know many former players are suffering from traumatic brain injury, dementia, and Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) because of their years playing football.  Knowing all that makes me uncomfortable watching, but it’s something I’ve been doing for nearly 70 years and is a very hard habit to break.  I also think the way football has replaced our former much more civil national pastime (baseball) is another sign of the toxic masculinity that I wrote about plaguing the American psyche that I wrote about last week.

But I digress a bit.  What I noticed watching so many games last weekend was a troubling difference between college and professional football.  The college game has a rule against “targeting” which is aimed to limit hits to the head and neck area and crashing into an opposing player with the crown of the helmet.  That rule is designed to protect both the player on the receiving end of the targeting and the cranium of the deliverer of the blow.  

Yes, targeting is a judgment call that referees spend much time reviewing replays before enforcing.  They take it very seriously because the penalty for targeting is ejection from the game, and that has and will cut down some on the most dangerous hits in an inherently violent game.  I think the NFL needs to do something similar to prevent more life-threatening injuries from “leading with one’s head.”

I offer that football reflection as a metaphor for the rest of us in real life.  When we lead with our heads, divorced from understanding the emotional, social, and I would add spiritual aspects that are co-partners with the head in human beings we are failing to maximize a healthy comprehension of human behavior.  We are not just rational/thinking beings.  The various components of our humanity need to work in partnership with each other or we are not living up to our potential.  And the huge existential problems facing the human race will not be solved if we are not playing with a full deck.