The Dream That Will Not Die

They say “misery loves company,” whoever “they” are, and I experienced a little “comfort” from being in the majority yesterday, MLK Day. NPR did an excellent job all day of doing interviews about people who influenced Dr. King and vice versa. I was listening while driving so couldn’t take notes, but I was struck by one professor’s comment. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s important to remind people today who rightfully honor King for being the great civil rights leader that he was that he was not loved and was even reviled by a majority of Americans while he was alive. He cited stats indicating that about 60% of white Americans regarded MLK as a rabble rouser and trouble maker during his lifetime, and a bit surprising, that 50% of black Americans disagreed with King’s tactics and felt he was making their lives more difficult.

Those stats helped ease some guilt I’ve carried for 50 plus years for being one of those whites who dismissed Dr. King as a troublemaker. I even remember thinking the horrible thought that “he got what he was asking for” when he was assassinated. Given my upbringing in an all white, very conservative family and community where in the words of a Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song from “South Pacific” I was “carefully taught to hate all the people my relatives hate” that is not too surprising. In fact I learned just a few years ago that there was a KKK chapter in my NW Ohio community and that one of my great uncles was one of the leaders in that ugly movement. My younger self had no chance but to breathe in the putrid stench of racism.

I was a senior in college, however, when King was gunned down in Memphis and should have begun to know better. My old worldviews were being stretched a bit at that point, but I still remember hearing a sermon the Sunday after Dr. King’s murder where the preacher referred to King as a “Christ figure.” That was more than my puny mind could handle back then, and in hindsight I think it might have been too much for his congregation too since he was soon forced out of that church after only two years there. And that was one of Methodism’s more “liberal” churches. Ironically that pastor became a good friend, colleague, and mentor to me 5 or 6 years later when I was appointed associate pastor to that same congregation after graduating from seminary.

By then I had been converted to a social gospel theology by my seminary professors, and I too got in some hot water for crossing the imaginary line between church and politics. A few years later when I went back to grad school to study rhetoric, which classically is the art of persuasive discourse, I wrote a paper I titled “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?” That paper was partly my excuse for not being a more outspoken social critic and partly my more scholarly attempt to understand the very real historical phenomenon I had lived through in the assassinations in Dallas, Memphis, and L.A. in just 5 years between 1963 and 1968.

Prophets are much easier to love from the perspective of history — when they are not goring our current oxen. Lincoln was reviled and hated in his lifetime. Gandhi was assassinated. And let’s not forget about Jesus. We’ve sanitized his crucifixion with the flawed doctrine of substitutionary atonement when the cold hard truth is that Jesus was executed because he was a thorn in the side of the Jewish and Roman authorities who had to go.

One other thing I remember about grad school 30 plus years ago is that I wrote a different paper analyzing the rhetorical effectiveness of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My argument then and now is that the reason that speech was so powerful is because the dream MLK delivered so eloquently on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was not a new dream. King’s dream speech was brilliantly built on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition all the way back to Amos and Micah and Isaiah. Those visions of “righteousness rolling down like waters,” of “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” were also woven into the founding documents of our nation by Jefferson. King reminds us all in his powerful voice and vibrant images of those very values our common life aspires to.

That dream has survived crucifixion, persecution, crusades, pogroms, Holocaust, genocide, and systemic racism for over 2800 years. It is so easy to be discouraged that the forces of evil have risen up in recent years to seemingly defeat that dream, but the lesson of history is that truth and justice will prevail someday. It’s very frustrating that we have regressed in our pursuit of the dream Dr. King lived and died for. Our schools and neighborhoods and churches are still segregated. Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate Robert E. Lee day on King’s birthday. White supremacy has polluted the political mainstream and taken over the party of Lincoln. But we still have a dream that is stronger than hate, and “deep in my heart I do believe, that dream will overcome someday.”

Practice Gratitude, Part 2

[Note: This post was written on January 2 but not posted until January 4. It will make more sense with that timeline in mind.] My year of practicing gratitude literally began with a tough challenge. For almost all of my adult years the new year has begun with watching the iconic ball drop in Time Square. Thanks to my own and our cultural addiction with football, 2023 was different. Along with a group of friends I watched a different ball drop this year—a ball that will linger in Ohio State fans’ memories as “wide left.” 2023 was literally just a few seconds old when what would have been a game winning field goal over #1 Georgia sailed like a wounded duck far left of the goal post.

That was almost 36 hours ago, but today as I read several articles about the game in today’s Columbus Dispatch I relived that moment and the frustration of a controversial call that dramatically affected the outcome of the game. I should not have subjected myself to that memory, but I was unable to let it go.

For me, that is a prime example of my biggest obstacle to practicing gratitude. I mentioned one of my mentors, Dr. Bill Brown, and his rhetorical theory called attention shifting in my last post, and this is exhibit A for 2023. In the larger scheme of problems on the world stage or even in my personal life the outcome of a silly game should not be my prime focus. The Peach Bowl is over and done. My dwelling on a terrible call by the refs does not deserve the amount of my attention I am choosing to spend on it. And it is a choice. I can shift my attention to a whole host of things that deserve my attention so much more if I choose to do so. [Remember, I wrote this a few hours before the near fatal football injury to Damar Hamlin, but that tragedy underscores in spades that all football games and other athletics must be kept in proper perspective.]

Notice I did not say that this is a simple or easy shift to make. The local media, my friends, and my social media are full of conversations about the Ohio State game. It is not easy to shift my attention away from all that chatter, but it can be done. I can choose to not read about the game. I can literally switch the tv channel when discussion of that game comes on. Unfortunately I don’t have a remote that can switch the channels in my brain when I think about that loss or my own aches and pains, or other negative and depressing problems in our world. But attention switching is a skill that I can learn if I choose to do so. And making practicing gratitude my priority for 2023 is step 1 in that process

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.

All Nighter Prayer

Hey God, do you ever have trouble sleeping? Oh, if you are omnipresent, I guess you can’t ever sleep can you? Or do you let the angels take over sometimes to give you a break? Yes, I know that anthropomorphic stuff isn’t real, but it’s 1:20 am; and I can’t sleep. I don’t know anyone else who’s awake at this hour that I can talk to; so you’re it. My sleeping pills have let me down. Reading and doing Wordle haven’t worked; and my blasted neuropathy has my feet feeling like they are on fire.

The more I think about my feet the more they hurt. The harder I try to shut my mind off, the louder the racket in my brain seems. At this hour all my aches and pains seem worse, and my list of things I need to get done in the next few days looms like some Sisyphusian boulder daring me to push it up that damn hill again.

I’m actually scared, God. The pain in my feet has never been this bad before. I’ve always been able to manage it with cream, drugs, and/or ice; but tonight/this morning nothing is working, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t handle sleepless nights like I used to when my youth groups did all night lock-ins at the church, or when I pulled all nighters to study for an exam or finish a term paper.

When you wrestled with Jacob all night long I guess he must have had a lot of adrenaline flowing to keep him going that long. That night near the Jabbock river Jacob had even more things on his mind. He was about to face the music of meeting his brother Esau years after he had swindled him out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Jacob has sent huge amounts of cattle and other gifts across the river to assuage Esau’s anger, but restless Jacob is afraid it is not enough to buy his brother’s forgiveness. This one who has stolen his brother’s blessing is not satisfied with all his ill-gotten gain. What he asks of God to end their marathon wrestling match is a blessing. Will that salve his guilty conscience? Does a divine blessing imply grace and forgiveness?

In a way yes because the blessing God grants to Jacob is a whole new beginning – a new identity in the form of a new name. He is “born again” long before that New Testament term is coined. Jacob no longer is stuck with his birth name which means “heal grabber” because he tried to yank Esau back into their mother’s womb so Jacob could be the first born. His new name/identity is “Israel” which means “one who contends with God.”

I could use a new identity too, holy parent. My physical aches and pains try mightily to label me as a victim of old age, but when I am caught up in that identity I have little to offer you. I am like a fly trying to escape from a spider’s web, turned in on my chronic ailments instead of focusing my energy on all that is right for me and how blessed I already am.

I could do a lot worse for a new name than “one who contends with God,” even if that means walking with a limp. Please help me, eternal Being, to appreciate my gray beard and arthritis as reminders that I have been blessed with decades of life to wrestle with you and your call upon my life. Like Jacob let me know again that you are not far off at the top of some stairway to heaven, but right here in the sweaty ring of life with me even in the wee hours of the night.

Thanks and Amen

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

Existential Equinox

“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Psalms 90:12

(365 x 76) + 19 = x? One of the blessings/curses of autumn means that the anniversary of my birth is once again on the horizon. That means if I make it another six weeks I will have logged 27,259 days on planet earth!!!! Yes I know that isn’t what the Psalm means by “counting” my days, but it is a very daunting number that raises the question, “what difference have I made in the world in all those days?” And for me it means it recent years asking the other uncomfortable question – how many more days do I have left? Wouldn’t life be easier if we knew the answer to that, or would it? For the next logical question is what do I want to do with whatever that unknown number is?

I do most of my calendaring on my phone these days, but I still like a paper calendar on my desk to get a wider angle lens on my schedule. I also mark the days of the month off on a wall calendar above my desk, not so much to mark time as to make it easier to see at a glance what day it is.

That is kind of redundant since my watch also shows the day of the week and the date. But with all those reminders I still forgot a PT appointment this morning until it was almost too late to get there. A friend of mine who has a four year old said her daughter has underwear with the day of the week on them, and she uses those to keep track of which days she has pre-school. I think something like that might be useful for retirees!

I mentioned to my therapist recently that turning the page on the calendar gives me a sense of pause now that it didn’t do in my younger years. Having surpassed the 70 year life span mentioned in Psalms 90:10 several years ago the still small voice of mortality keeps reminding me with each passing month or season that numbering my remaining days now takes much smaller numbers than it used to.

When I told my counselor about those feelings he said, “So changing the calendar is existential for you?” I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, but I guess it is. And the arrival of fall is especially so when we drop 30 plus degrees in one Ohio day! The fall season is full of mortality reminders as plants wither and leaves fall with the temperature. And more so for me since I also have the aforementioned October birthday just waiting to add another notch to my solar orbits odometer.

They say age is just a number – an ever larger number! I have the feeling the Psalmist knew it takes more than just adding years and decades to get a wise heart. It takes wisdom not just to mark off 24-hour cycles each day but to live each day we are given to make those days count.

Schism: Ecclesiastical Divorce

The long-expected schism in the United Methodist Church finally hit close to home for me. I learned recently that the congregation I grew up in will be voting soon to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination. The move to sever ties, as in other congregations, is being officially described as being based on the one true (literal) way to apply “Christian” scripture, values and laws to contemporary issues of ethics and morality.

Hidden among the pious platitudes proof texted from the Bible is the real reason for the denominational divorce. No matter what the Wesley Covenant Association, the architects of the new Global Methodist Church claim, the real reason for the schism is fundamental disagreement over a few sentences inserted into our “Book of Discipline” 50 years ago excluding LGBTQ persons from ordination.

The debate has become more heated in recent years as LGBTQ rights have been recognized in society and not in the church. Instead of transforming the world as forerunners of radical hospitality the church has been playing catch up. Many courageous and progressive UMC bishops have decided to be loyal to the all-inclusive Gospel proclaimed by Jesus instead of the legalistic and exclusive letter of the United Methodist law. The modern day Pharisees in our denomination are calling those bishops and those of us who agree with them heretics subject to hellfire and damnation unless we repent and see things their way.

I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper recently in response to an article describing another congregation’s decision to vote on disaffiliation. In response a member of that congregation wrote his own letter to the paper making the standard arguments and accusations. I had to chuckle over his attempt to rebut my claim that the real issue was LGBTQ ordination and marriage. He cited a church he knows of that has a head usher who is gay. Translation: “We’ll let them in the pews, just not the pulpit,” completely ignoring the central issue of this argument which is ordination. Our current “Book of Discipline,” in similar fashion talks out of both sides of its mouth. It says LGBTQ persons are “of sacred worth,” and in the next breath says that does not make them “sacred” enough to be ordained.

Talking to a friend who is still a member in my home church reminded me that I wrote a short post about all this way back in the pre-covid era. It was after a special General Conference of the UMC was held in 2019 to once more attempt to come to some mutual agreement over this controversial topic which is an existential reality for our LGBTQ siblings. What I wrote then still pretty well sums up how I feel. I titled it “Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run.”

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.”

Prayer for an Ordinary Day

Holy One, it’s just another ordinary day.  My calendar is clear but my to-do list is long and getting more so every day.  How do I rejoice and be glad in this day you have made?  On Sunday we were reminded in a sermon on the book of Esther that we are made “for such a time as this?” (4:14) If I read those words in context I see that Esther is being called to engage in civil disobedience by confronting her husband the king.  She is a biblical profile in courage and I admire her greatly for that.  But as I read just two verses later I am not so bold any more.  Esther says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” 

How do I translate Esther’s call to my ordinary life and day?  What am I created for in this time and place where our way of life is threatened by calls for civil war; where autocratic political leaders in Russia, China, Turkey, and our own nation continue to threaten our peace; where experts warn us of more brutal heat, fires, draught, and floods that will become the norm unless we take drastic measures to save our planet?

O Holy Parent, those macro measures make my puny to-do list look like someone rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Am I called to fiddle with daily chores while Rome burns?  I know that “for everything there is a season,” (Eccl. 3:1) but sometimes I wonder how mowing the grass or taking out the trash fits into your purpose for my life.  Yes, Lord, I know things are usually both/and, but where is the holy balance point between doing justice and doing the dishes? 

At a young age Jesus had to tell his parents that he was called to be about your business.  I don’t have a Messiah complex, but I answered my call to ministry many years ago.  The pastoral duties I had structured my days for many years, but now in my retirement what does that call look like?  I can rejoice in having a clear day on my calendar, but I know my biological clock is ticking; and every morning I wrestle with what I am supposed to write in that blank space to be a “good and faithful servant” in this final stage of my life.  My spirit is willing, maybe, but my flesh not so much.  I know I will never “retire” from your claim on my life, but I could use some guidance on how to live this ordinary Tuesday.  I’ll be busy doing my chores, but please feel free to interrupt me with a text or a burning bush or whatever it takes to get my attention.  Amen

Anointed: Messiah Complex, John 12:1-8

Do you remember who your childhood heroes or heroines were?  Being vertically challenged all my life I’m sure influenced mine.  I was never big enough to imagine myself as Superman, but I could identify with a little flying caped rodent who came on every Saturday morning in the cartoons on TV.  I don’t remember much about him, but the theme song that introduced the show said something like “Mighty Mouse is here to save the day.” Yes, like most of our superheroes Mighty Mouse used too much violence to dispatch the bad guys, but he was always on the side of what my 8 year-old self understood as justice.  Life was so much simpler then.  Things were either right or wrong without all the messy ambiguity that I see in so much of life as an adult.

How many of you are familiar with the term “Messiah Complex?”  That’s an occupational hazard for preachers – to think that we and we alone have the Truth that will save the world.  It’s a dangerous and heavy burden to carry around.  I had a senior pastor advise me once when I was fresh out of seminary that I should “never lose my idealism.”  That was lousy advice.  Life on this side of heaven is not now nor ever has been “ideal.”  A better word choice would be to never lose Hope.  Idealism for me implies a kind of utopian ideal we humans can create.  Hope on the other hand is an unshakeable faith in God’s power to triumph over evil. 

We are living in a dark and ugly period of human history in so many ways.  Our hearts break every time we see pictures of what’s happening in Ukraine.  I have to turn the news off when I can no longer take the anger and helpless feeling to do anything to stop the cruelty.  Where is Mighty Mouse when we need him?  Or Wonder Woman?

At the beginning of the Gospels we have John the Baptist preaching hell fire and brimstone for all those who refuse to repent of their sins.  He’s expecting a superhero to overthrow the hated Roman oppressors.  But Jesus is not that kind of Messiah. We want a Rambo to save us and instead God sends us a Gandhi.   Jesus goes to the wilderness immediately after his baptism and rejects the temptation to use worldly power.  We long for a savior on a white stallion, but next week Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey.  We expect our heroes or heroines to arrive in a stretch limo or a Batmobile, but instead Jesus appears in a beat up old Volkswagen bug. 

But this 5th Sunday of Lent, before the Palm Sunday parade, the Gospel of John tells us that six days before the Passover, two days before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he came for dinner in Bethany at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  This is just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead in John, chapter 11.  So this could have been a joyous celebration of Lazarus new life, but at least some around that table know that they will be dealing with another death and resurrection the following week. 

Mary understands, and she anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume and wipes them with her hair.  It is an act of love that foreshadows Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the following Thursday, but it is more than that.  The word “Messiah” means “anointed one.”  Mary and Martha and Lazarus know better than anyone that Jesus has the power over death itself; he is truly God’s anointed servant.

And so are you, and you and you and me.  Let me say that again in a different way.  When we are welcomed into the family of God at our baptism, no matter when or how that happened, we are claimed, just as Jesus was, as God’s beloved children.  Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe billions of years before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet.  God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one.  And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire. 

There is nothing we can say or do, no matter how stupid or awful or sinful it may be that can ever change that.  Believe me, I’ve tried.   Jesus showed us that in the wonderful parable of the prodigal son where God the heavenly parent runs with open arms to welcome his wayward son back home.  St. Paul says it when he says “Nothing in all creation, not power, or Putin, or principalities, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” 

One of my favorite descriptions of resurrection came from a sermon by Bishop Dwight Loder at our annual conference many years ago.  He said, “Jesus wasn’t resurrected by the church; Jesus wasn’t resurrected for the church; Jesus was resurrected as the church.”

That’s the good news of the Gospel that we resurrection people draw strength from to be God’s servants in the world.  We all have a super power that enables us to hope when things seem hopeless; to love the unlovable, even when it hurts too much; to believe in peace and justice in a world that has gone mad.  That’s the kind of Messiah Complex we all need for these trying times to keep on keeping on.  A friend of mine reminded me recently of that old saying, “My get up and go got up and went.”  We all know that feeling.  But the power of the Holy Spirit tells us that even the “old will dream dreams” and “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up on wings like eagles.”

The Lenten journey is long.  We began on Ash Wednesday being reminded that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”  Don’t you hate being reminded of that?  A colleague in ministry told a group of us that he likes to change that up and say, “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  I like that so much better and just wish I had learned that earlier in my ministry.  “We are dust, but remember what God can do with dust.” 

Another way to say that might be, we know the pain and suffering Jesus will face in Jerusalem, but we also know the end of the story.  God wins!  Love wins!

When I get discouraged about my own life or the mess the world is in I often return to the words of an old song from my past.  Isn’t it funny how we can remember the lyrics to a song from 50 years ago but can’t remember if we took our meds this morning??  Anyway here’s the song from

“The Man of LaMancha.”

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into Hell
For that Heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, (or woman) scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with the last ounce of courage

To reach the unreachable star.”

Amen

[Preached at Wesley Glen retirement center, April 3, 2022]

The Kindness of Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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