Happy Father’s Day to My Village

My relationship with my biological father wasn’t all Hallmark warm and fuzzy. Dad and I butted heads over lots of things, from rigid rules in my teen years to how to parent my kids, politics and theology. We made our peace before he died and I’m glad we did. But I just realized recently how unfair it is to expect any parent to provide all the physical, emotional and spiritual nurture and guidance a child needs. As the old proverb says, “It takes a village.”

That has me reflecting today on all the father figures who helped shape who I am: uncles, teachers, scout leaders, pastors, Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, friends, colleagues, bosses, professors and mentors of all kinds. I’ve even learned a bunch about being a better human being from my own kids and step-son. Watching them grow and become the wonderful parents and good human beings they are is the most rewarding part of my life.

The thank you letter I wrote earlier this week to a former boss was just one of so many letters like that I could write. I remember a young pastor from a Lutheran church in my home town. He probably didn’t even know who this young Methodist was, but he had a big influence on the path my life took without ever knowing it. I was a teenager struggling with my call to ministry. Up to that point in my life the only pastors I had known were older men that were hard for me to identify with. To be honest they were both very uncool. But one day I was in the park near our home and I stopped to watch a church softball game on one of the diamonds. And there playing third base like a regular guy was Lutheran Pastor Dave Ullery. I immediately had a huge ah hah moment – I could be a pastor and still be a regular human being. Pastor Ullery had unknowingly removed one of the obstacles to my accepting God’s call on my life, just by being himself.

That softball memory triggered another sports one about several of my uncles who played catch with me and let me practice with their little league teams when I was still too young to actually be on the team. My dad wasn’t into sports at all, and I missed being able to share that love of mine with him, but these other father figures were there to play a role that he couldn’t.

My father figures list could go on forever. Harold Taylor, my high school chemistry and physics teacher who invited me to his home in the evenings to help me prepare to take state scholastic tests, a campus minister who opened my eyes to new ways to think about religion and social justice, numerous professors in college, seminary and grad school who widened my whole perspective on the world and beyond.

Were any of these men perfect role models? Nope. Have I been a perfect father-figure for my kids and others in my churches and youth groups? Heavens no! I cringe to remember all the times I wasn’t there for my kids and youth group kids. I remember writing a story in a college English class about a Dad who was so active in his church and community service that he neglected his own family — not intentionally, but because of the other good things he was doing. He wasn’t hanging out the bar or the country club. He was doing “good” stuff. Did I heed my own advice when I became a father? Somewhat, but there was far too much time spent out in the evenings at church meetings, too many weekends on youth retreats or wrestling with difficult sermons.

How do parents balance family and career? If I had any easy answers I’d gladly share them for free, but I don’t. I just know that we dads (and moms) need to cut ourselves some slack and be grateful that we share parenthood with a whole village of others who can be there when we can’t, who can be there in ways that we can’t. And together that village weaves a tapestry that is a picture of our lives. So, love your fathers and celebrate the whole cloud of witnesses who helped raise you and are still supporting you today, even if it’s on zoom or from heaven. I’m giving my village a big virtual group hug, and I hope you will to.

As I reread this piece I had a sharp pain as God reminded me that there are millions of kids in our nation and world who don’t have a village to raise them, who have no father to provide for them and protect them. That both makes me more grateful for my own village and makes me pray for guidance about what I can do and we can do as a society to be better at creating villages where fewer children fall through the cracks.

P.s. I am not excluding all of the women in my village who were just as influential in my life, but this is Father’s Day. I’ll get to my mother-figures and sister-figures another day.

Our Jericho

I have a small tattoo on my wrist to remind me of a lesson I learned 15 years ago in a leadership development workshop presented by a California company, Klemmer and Associates. The tattoo is of Klemmer’s logo, and it comes from an exercise they do in one of their earliest workshops. The Red/Black game, like most of Klermmer’s training is very experiential. I won’t share the details of the Red/Black exercise because words can’t do it justice. You have to experience it to feel its power. What I will say is that prior to red/black experience I was ready to walk out of the whole workshop because of my own insecurities, but that game turned me around and convinced me to stick with the program, and I’m glad I did.

The Klemmer training taught me a lot about myself and a boatload of things about teamwork and collaboration, and playing the game of life as a win-win adventure, not a competition. On one of the weekend in California we did an outdoor team-building experience in a redwood forest. The location itself was awe-inspiring, but the final task/challenge we were given seemed absolutely impossible.

As I’ve been reflecting on this COVID-19 crisis we’re going through I’ve certainly had days when it too feels overwhelming, like we will never get through this. How will we ever come up with enough ventilators, masks, tests, health care workers, ICU beds, and PPE’s, an acronym I’d guess few of us knew a week ago, to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of critically ill people. We simply don’t currently have anything like the capacity we will need to meet the life and death needs that are coming. And when far too many people refuse to take the threat seriously it seems even more daunting. Some days I feel like we’re all on Apollo 13 and there aren’t nearly enough MacGyver’s around to figure out how to save us.

That’s the same feeling I had that day in the redwood forest when our group of 30-40 was taken over to a very large wooden wall that was probably 12 or 14 feet tall, and we were told to figure out a way to get everyone over that wall. I thought and may have even said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding! There’s no way this group of all ages and all levels of physical fitness, or lack thereof, is ever going to get up and over that wall!” We might try marching around it for a week like Joshua’s people did at Jericho, or being in California we could hope for an earthquake to make the wall come tumbling down; but there was no way in the world we were all going over that wall. There wasn’t even a rope on it to scale it, as if most of us would have had the strength to do that!

One of the things that amazes me about the Jericho story in Joshua 6 is how obedient the priests and soldiers were when Joshua told them his plan for conquering this fortified and seemingly impregnable city. No one raises any doubts or questions about why just marching around the city for 7 days and shouting when the trumpet blew on day 7 would work! Surely there must have been some realists in the crowd who thought, “O, come on Joshua, you’ve got to be kidding!” (By the way, if you read Joshua 6, stop when the wall falls down. The rest of that story is brutal and gory and really bad theology.)

But that day in the redwoods was our second training weekend, and we had already done several others less daunting tasks that I didn’t think we could pull off either. So we began to strategize. There was a platform near the top on the back side of the wall; so we knew that if we could get a few people up there they could help pull others up. Being one of the runts in the group it was pretty easy for the stronger folks to boost me up so I could go over. Remember this was 15 years ago; so I was in much better shape than I am today. They did the same thing with some of the other lighter members of the group, and those of us on top were able to work together to assist others. And as the collective strength of the group on top grew we were able to help bigger and heavier people up.

Slowly but surely, one person at a time was lifted, pushed, and pulled over. The stronger guys built human pyramids for people to climb, but as the group on the ground grew smaller the options became more limited. Frankly I don’t remember all the tricks employed. As the platform on top got full those of us who arrived first were allowed to come down and watch from the ground.

I do remember that one concession made to safety was that we were given a vest made out of strong netting that could be used by the last person on the ground so those above would have something relatively safe to grab hold of and hoist him up. And thanks to the stronger members of our motley crew, the obstacle that looked impossible was conquered.

COVID-19 is a humongous obstacle facing the world today. I don’t know what creative solutions will be found to overcome this challenge, but this I do know, we cannot and will not succeed in this battle without every one of us doing whatever we can for the team, i.e. the human race to survive and conquer. That means huge sacrifice and risks for exhausted medical personnel, researchers and public health officials. It means creative use of technology for people to have their social and spiritual needs met. It means unemployed folks going to work in new and different fields where critical jobs much be done, things we used to think of as menial work like stocking grocery shelves, sanitizing public spaces, and delivering life necessities to those who are in need.

But for many of us it means doing the easiest and simplest thing ever asked of us – to just stay home and not take any risks of getting or spreading this virus. There are no excuses – we can all do this; and the longer some people refuse to make that small sacrifice the longer we are going to be in this crisis and the more people are going to die. Teamwork is not doing what is good for me and my glory or comfort. It means each of us doing what is needed for the entire team to succeed.

Maybe that’s the real miracle at Jericho – everyone did what they were told they needed to do, and when they did the wall came tumbling down!

Faith for a Pandemic

Like many of you I have had a hard time tearing myself away from all the bad news about the corona virus. Maybe it’s just gallows humor or the old “laugh to keep from crying” strategy, but I have been trying to combat all the fear and trembling with humor. For example when the local news came on at lunch time today with “Breaking News” about another day of the Dow plunging like a lead balloon I found myself singing an old song from the 1960’s. Yes, I’m in the “at risk geezer group” for Covid-19, and that also means I remember song lyrics from my youth better than what I did yesterday.

The song for today begins with one of those profound lines: “Down dooby doo down down
Comma, comma, down dooby doo down down.” And reflecting on my disappearing retirement portfolio I changed the next lines to say,

“Going Broke ain’t hard to do.
Don’t take my funds away from me,
Don’t leave me broke in misery.
Don’t say that this is the end!
Instead of going broke
I wish that we were getting rich again.”

My apologies to Neil Sedaka and a lot of other artists who recorded “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” and assurance that I was home alone and didn’t inflict my lousy singing voice onto any other living creatures. Although if Alexa was listening she may have been traumatized.
On a more serious note the Scripture that is running through my head today is one from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Times of crisis force us to examine what really matters in life, what is really of lasting value. As all kinds of sporting events, performances, concerts and other gatherings are being cancelled we can use the time we normally would have spent there to reflect, pray and ponder where our treasures really are. Unlike most other parts of the world many of us Americans don’t really know what it’s like to “walk in the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4) Words of Scripture in times like these can become more than pious platitudes and be words of hope and assurance when fear threatens to shake the foundations of our faith.

So one suggestion for these troubled times is to be grateful for the gift of time to meditate on the real treasures of life. Give thanks for extra time with family, for time to check on your elderly neighbor. Formal worship services are being cancelled in some places as a valid precautionary measure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t worship wherever we are in whatever way nourishes our souls. Take time every time you feel the tentacles of fear taking hold to just breathe deeply and “Be still and know” you are embraced by the ground of all being that is bigger, stronger and more enduring than this or any crisis we will ever face.

New Year Epiphany Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and Goodwill

Note: I am pleased to share these good words from the Christmas letter of a fellow pastor. Bill Hull was a classmate of mine in seminary and has been a cherished friend now for over 50 years. I am pleased to share his thoughts as a guest contributor and offer a hearty Amen.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace among people with whom God is pleased.” Luke 2:14 RSV

As we draw near to Christmas, this is a season of anticipation, a time of promise. It is the promise of peace and goodwill, not as pie in the sky by and by or among only heavenly beings, “but on earth…among people with whom God is well pleased.” I take that to be all people.

When God created, God proclaimed the work to be “good” as in “God don’t make no junk.” We on the other hand tend to criticize or to reject and exclude those whose sins are different from ours. To do so, we pick and choose from the buffet of laws and prohibitions in the Scripture to justify our inclusion among those “with whom God is pleased.”

The promise of peace and goodwill is sometimes hard to believe. We live in a time of deep division within our own country, of alienation from those who have been our historic allies and of threats of destruction from our enemies. We live in a time of domestic and foreign terrorism, a time of increasing hatred for those whose skin color, religion or lifestyle are different from ours. We live in a time when violence, death and duplicity are all around us. How do we believe in the promise of peace and goodwill among people?

I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. I believe that a part of the answer to believing the promise is to be the promise. I believe that part of the answer is to act as if being loving is more important than being right. I believe that part of the answer is treating all people as beloved of God, created in God’s image. I believe that it means being peacemakers, that it means being neighbors to all who need what we have and what we are.

To be the promise is eternal life here and now. It is all that we can do. The rest is up to God.

LIFE IS LIKE BASEBALL….

Note: A high school classmate of mine wrote this piece a few weeks ago while recovering from an illness, and it resonated with me on a variety of levels. So I asked her for permission to share it, and what better time to do so than on the first night of this year’s World Series? Thanks Stella.

“My grandparents, parents, and family members before me are now gone. It is a bit daunting to realize that I am now the oldest living person on my family tree.

Perhaps life is like a baseball game after all.
I feel like I am in the middle of the 9th inning.
I have been challenged, but made tougher, and hopefully wiser, by mental and physical injuries from many games played, though often a designee on the disabled list. As the passing of my dear aunt draws near at 99, I remember that she always loved and cheered and rooted for me no matter how I played the game.

My children, however, are still at bat and playing the game and experiencing all that is entailed. Running the bases. Vying for a better contract. Suffering the strike-outs. And occasionally a home run. On the other hand, my grandchildren are all at spring training, some in the minor leagues.

I may not have always been in first place. But there will be a time when my season ends, as they all do. The Umpire will shout “You’re Out!” However, I will have won the World Series, no matter my batting average, if, when my season ends, I remained loved by supportive fans who I have loved and supported during my game.”

Stella Mowery, fall, 2019

Moon Shot Memories

Fifty years ago this week, like most people who could I was glued to my little black and white TV watching coverage of Apollo 11’s journey to the moon. By a quirk of fate I happened to be living that summer of ’69 on Kelly Drive in my hometown. I was working that summer after my first year of seminary as the associate pastor of the church I grew up in. Kelly Dr. has been renamed since then, not because I lived there, but because the house the church rented for us that summer was next door to Steve and Viola Armstrong, parents of the first man on the moon. So Neil’s “one step” was especially memorable for me, living on what is now Armstrong Drive.

While I’m enjoying reliving that exciting time this week I am also feeling cowardly for not being more prophetic in my ministry all these years. Neil risked his life flying fighter jets in Korea, as a test pilot for experimental rocket planes, regaining control when his Gemini 8 was tumbling through space in a near fatal spiral, and of course commanding Apollo 11. And what have I ever risked for fear of conflict with others who see things differently, who in the 1960’s and still today shout “America, Love it or Leave It” at any who dare to offer honest criticism of our country?

The moon shot helped unite a badly broken country briefly for 8 days in July of ’69, but that was also a year after the MLK and RFK assassinations and the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam. The country was plagued by civil rights and anti-war protests, the prelude to students being killed at Kent State and Jackson State the following year. And 50 years later it is so discouraging to see us reverting back to hate and division at this stage of my life.

And so I ask myself what difference have I made? The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it gets twisted like a pretzel on the way. Neil took one giant leap for (hu)mankind but came home to a broken world that is more fractured and battered now than ever. But the real question is not what I’ve done in the last 50 years for justice and mercy, but what do I do now, today and in the future? How do I deal with my thorns in the flesh and the drain of time and energy they demand of me when there is so much I want to write, say, and shout from the rooftops?

Hamlet’s question “To Be or Not to Be?” or Descartes’ assessment of human life, “I Think therefore I Am” don’t go far enough. Thinking doesn’t change anything, and just “being” as in existence means no more than the life of a hamster in wheel going nowhere. The question is what will I be, what will I become or do with however much time I have left? What am I willing to risk? I gave money yesterday to support our church’s brown bag lunch ministry and that was painless and easy – but I haven’t taken time to go pack one lunch or deliver one brown bag because I’m too busy stringing and unstringing my instrument instead of playing a tune; mowing my lawn, cooking my meals, shopping for stuff or stretching my old achy muscles.

Is that the report I want to give to God about what I’ve done to win the battle in my sector? No pain no gain doesn’t just apply to exercise – it also means that without risk and moving out of my comfort zone I don’t grow and don’t influence anyone else. God’s question to Elijah on Mt. Horeb is the same question she has for me and everyone – “What are you doing here?” “Don’t whine and tell me Jezebel is out to get you and you are the only one left. Go enlist Elisha and other allies. You’re not done till I say so.”

Prayer for a 55th Class Reunion

Gracious God, two score and fifteen years ago to the surprise of our teachers and relief of our families the class of 1964 walked across the stage at Wapakoneta High School. Just five years later our fellow alum, Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon. Now some days we struggle to just walk across the room. The circle of life seems to spin faster each year like a spaceship re-entering the atmosphere as it returns from space.

But we are here together again tonight, and we give you thanks for the chance to renew friendships, to reminisce about old times, to complain about our ailments, to brag about our grandkids or to exercise a little poetic license and make up some stories.

We are a class that will never forget where we were seventh period that November day when we heard about President Kennedy’s assassination over the school PA system. But we also cherish memories about decorating for prom, band shows, musicals, FAA projects, cruising through town on Friday nights, or our senior picnic. For it all we give thanks, even the painful breakups and the embarrassing moments. We survived our mistakes and learned important life lessons from them; and we’re forever grateful we grew up before cell phones and social media could record and spread around our stupider activities.

We remember the thrill of getting a driver’s license, of picking up a class ring that we were anxious to share with our “steady.” We also know there were some immature cruel and unkind ways we treated some of our classmates. Forgive us those indiscretions and help us now in 2019 to find ways to promote civility and understanding in our badly bruised and divided country and world. Remind us that how we live our lives every day does matter, even and especially as the elders in our society.

Many of us are now the matriarchs or patriarchs in our families. Help us embrace that role, to celebrate the freedom that comes from retirement. We are no longer responsible to bosses and careers and that’s liberating. We have more time to do good in small and large ways, to commit random acts of kindness wherever we are. Hold us accountable, Lord, to be the best we can be each and every day you give us to keep walking on spaceship earth. We graduated a long time ago from high school, but we are still students of life and mentors to those who walk behind us.

Yes, Lord, we have walked many miles in the last 55 years, but we aren’t done yet. We don’t know how many more reunions we have yet to come, but we know we have this one. Help us make the most of this present moment—to rejoice and laugh together again over things we took too seriously back then, including ourselves.

We want to pause and remember our classmates who have “graduated” into the higher education realm of eternity. We pray your blessing on them and on those who are unable to be with us tonight for whatever reason. We give thanks for those who gave of their time to organize this reunion. We give thanks for the food we are about to share and ask your blessing on it and on the fellowship we share as we break bread together.

As our alma mater says, “Wapak High School we (still) adore thee and we’ll guard thy sanctity. Our gratitude we offer as we roam through many lands.”

Amen

As Tempus Fugits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Meaderings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He has thirty-two teeth!

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

He wears a red carnation behind his ear!

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

This is the outside Zorba!

Look at that, old and feeble Grandpapa”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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