Exercise, Meditation & Solitude

“Swimming is the trifecta for me – exercise, meditation and alone time.”  Brene Brown, “Atlas of the Heart,” p. 18

I had been thinking the same thing about swimming lately, and it was so good to have those feelings affirmed by someone whose work I admire so much.  As some of you know I took up swimming as my primary form of exercise about a year ago.  It happened almost accidently when I began doing some of my physical therapy for recovery from back surgery in the water.  One of the blessings of the pandemic is that our YMCA’s began letting people reserve a lane in the pool to control numbers of swimmers and maintain social distance.  The reservations are for 45 minutes; so the first time I went to the pool it only took me 15 minutes to do my PT exercises, and I still had 30 minutes left in my allotted time in the pool.  So I decided I might as well see if I could swim a few laps – with the emphasis on “a few.”

That first time I managed 3 laps before I was exhausted.  I have never been a strong swimmer.  When I was in Boy Scouts many decades ago I needed to earn merit badges in both swimming and lifesaving in my pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout.  I passed both of those, but just barely.  I was literally a 98 pound weakling in those days and also had a very hard time passing the requirement for running ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes.  My 13 year-old self would never believe that as a 40 something I could actually run 5 miles in 37.5 minutes; nor would he believe that I can now swim 900 yards in less than 45 minutes. 

Because of several health concerns swimming is the ideal low-impact aerobic exercise for me.  And over the last 12 months I have not only increased my endurance but have come to truly enjoy swimming.  Dr. Brown captures some of the reason for that when she says, “When I’m swimming laps you can’t call me or talk to me, it’s just me and the black stripe.”  As an introvert I need solitude, and especially since I got a new mask and snorkel and can actually do most of my laps under water where I can’t see or hear anything that solitude has been like icing on the cake. 

Even though I was a fairly serious runner for 25 years I never experienced what others describe as the “runner’s high.”  Running was always work for me, I think in part because I ran most when I was going through some particularly rough patches in my personal, professional, and married life.  I wasn’t running for fun but literally running away from problems I didn’t know how to handle.   But I realized today as I set a personal record of 900 yards that I am feeling a swimmer’s high.  The water supports me, relieving pressure on my joints, and I truly felt like I could have gone much further today.  Today I was in a pool that does not reserve lanes; so I had no time limit on how long I swam.  I enjoy being in the pool so much now that I can even do it without resistance or hesitation even on very cold winter days.   

The meditation aspect of swimming has taken the form for me of repeating a couple of mantras that resonate with where I am now in my faith journey.  Those phrases include several Hebrew and Greek words for God (Yahweh, Elohim, and Abba), spirit (ruach), justice (mishpat), and love (agape).  I hope my seminary professors will forgive me for my awkward combinations of several languages, but my current mantras are: Ruach Abba, Ruach Elohim, and Yahweh Mishpat.  I especially like using “Abba or Daddy” for God as Jesus did because my other inspiration for swimming is remembering the 12 frightening hours my dad spent in the cold North Atlantic waiting to be rescued from the crash of his B-17 at the end of WWII. 

Everyone needs to experiment and find what works for you, and that can change as we change.  Today I added a new combination inspired by our congregation singing “We Are Called” in worship yesterday.  That hymn is based on my very favorite summary of faithful living in Micah 6:8; so I swam several laps today repeating “Do Mishpat, love Agape, and swim humbly with Abba.”  I have had trouble creating a regular meditation practice on land—too many distractions, but in water, which has so many theological conotations for me, I feel especially focused, close to, and sustained by the mystery we call God. 

Leading with Your Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Intelligence Quotient (IQ)

2) Emotional Quotient (EQ)

3) Social Quotient (SQ)

4) Adversity Quotient (AQ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Doings

I don’t remember where I first heard this piece of wisdom, but it surfaced from my memory bank today as I was mowing our lawn. The sage advice comes from that philosopher known to my generation as “Old Blue Eyes.” No, you don’t have to Google that, I’ll tell those of you too young to know, it’s Frank Sinatra. One of Sinatra’s many hit song was “Strangers in the Night,” and that song has a profound refrain that goes “do be do be do.”

That nonsense phrase truly became profound for me when someone pointed out to me that if you take the “be’s” out of that phrase all you have left is “do do.”

We all make “to do” lists, and there are even apps that will help you organize your to do list(s), and I’m guessing most of us have more than one. I’ve tried multiple ways to keep, organize, and prioritize my personal and professional tasks over the years, and if anyone tells you that retirement means you can throw your to do lists away, don’t believe them.

Most of you know I’m older than dirt; so I don’t have to worry about dating myself when I reminisce how years ago all the United Methodist pastors I knew organized their lives in a small pocket sized calendar. It came in the mail every year from our denominational publishing house, and it was free; so few of us ever questioned its efficacy. My only complaint about it was that since it also had pages in the black that served as an address book all of that information had to be updated and re-entered into the new little black book every January.

Somewhere along the line I let my human doings multiply, and I had to learn to write smaller to fit each day into a tiny space, and of course because life is full of surprises, to never write anything in ink. So when it was introduced I became an early adopter of the Palm Pilot, remember those? They were basically a digital calendar and address book that replaced paper calendars and Rolodexes in one handy gadget that didn’t have to be replaced or updated every year. And of course the Palm Pilot was soon replaced by iPhones and Androids that could do all those things and serve as a phone too, and eventually took over our lives by adding internet access.

Sorry to get distracted going down memory lane. My initial point was to reflect on being and doing. We all have to do lists regardless of how we record them, but who has a “to be” list? My reflections on that question emerged because I am home alone this week while my wife is visiting family in Texas. I had grandiose plans for the week: to organize my office that resembles the aftermath of a natural disaster, to clear out and donate clothes I no longer need, and even to sort through several drawers in my desk and bathroom which should say “Enter at Your Own Risk!”

Oh, and my to list for this week also included the simple task of assembling a new exercise bike that is still in a million pieces in my basement. I am now more than half way through the week, and not one of those major projects is even started and somehow my to do list is even longer than it was on Sunday. And I have been busy all week – going to doctor appointments, running errands, swimming at the Y to maintain what little physical fitness I have left, and oh yes, dealing with the aftermath of a car accident I had about a month ago.

I may deal with the latter issue in another blog, but suffice it to say for now that I have been somewhat overwhelmed with the complexities of filing insurance claims, arranging rental cars and other transportation, while still trying to keep up with my daily activities as much as possible.

Another big item on my “to do” list for this week was to do some writing. I’ve had multiple ideas for blog posts in the last three weeks but have not had or taken the time to pursue them. So today while mowing the lawn (which should not still be growing in October, right?) I made an executive decision to just stop, put the to do list on hold, and see what emerges if I start trying to capture a somewhat chaotic collection of thoughts and feelings in writing.

What I’ve been reminded of in doing that is how difficult, if not impossible, it is to flip a switch from being a human doing governed by the almighty to do list to reflecting on being itself. I believe the reason for that is that digging into our inner lives is 1) hard because we aren’t used to going there, and 2) scary because we may not like what we find. And once we look honestly at what meaning or purpose our lives really have we can’t unknow it. That toothpaste will not go back into the tube no matter how hard we try to put it there.

What I know for sure from trying to write this after a busy day of doing is that awareness of my being needs to inform all of my doing. If I try to separate the two I am too tired from doing to really give any meaningful attention to my inner/spiritual being.

Lost and Found

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15:8-10 (This is one of the three parables in Luke 15, the other two are about a lost sheep and a lost/prodigal son.)

Somehow yesterday I committed the unforgivable sin for those of us living in a 5G world. I lost my phone. It was not in any of the usual places I put it in the house, not in my office, bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. I wasn’t expecting any important calls or texts, but I was still feeling lost without that device which has become my constant companion and link to 24/7 news of the world.

After trying several times to call my phone with no luck I remembered that I had taken a walk earlier around our small pond and out to the mail box; so my wife and I made several trips retracing my steps. Since we looked everywhere inside we were sure the prodigal phone must be somewhere outside.

Finally I decided to try the “Find My Phone App” on my iPad to locate the wandering phone. That app gave me some confusing information that said the phone was anywhere from 40-800 feet away. Not helpful, iPad. As darkness began to descend on our outdoor search we retreated indoors. I switched the map on my iPad to a satellite view of our property, and on that map the location of the missing phone appeared to be in the house.

If you haven’t used this app you may not know that there is a button on it labeled “play sound.” I initially thought that meant it would like a gps verbally direct me to my phone, but each time I tapped that button I heard nothing. Then finally I learned by accident what “play sound” meant. I hit the “play sound” one last time and saw a promising sign when it said “connecting.” Not optimistically I went back down stairs to look one more time.

As I got half way down the basement stairs I began to heard a faint beeping sound, and it got louder with each step I took. It took a few minutes before I zeroed in on the exact spot which I had gone several times thinking I had not been in that room all day.

But then I looked down under the ping pong table, and there was my phone. And of course as soon as I saw where it was I remembered walking by there and hearing something drop to the floor, but I was in a hurry and after a quick glance back I didn’t take time to see what had fallen.

And then I remembered the parable of the lost coin, and I had a little better insight into what the joy of finding things and people who are lost feels like. Years ago I played Jesus in a children’s musical called “The Storytelling Man.” I still remember the song the kids sang after hearing the parables about the lost being found. The punch line of that song was, “Let’s have a party, let’s make a racket.”

That’s how I felt when I found something as ordinary as my phone. Can you imagine the joy God feels when a lost soul is found? Remember these parables are an attempt to give us a glimpse of what God’s reign is like. My favorite image from those parables is when the Father of the prodigal son goes running with arms wide open to meet his beloved son and welcome him home.

What or whom have you lost that is worth the effort to search diligently to find? It could be a friend or relative; it could be your passion or purpose in life. Whatever it is are you willing to put forth the effort and not stop searching until the lost is found. And if you are feeling lost yourself, drifting through life’s routines with no direction, please know that the source of all being that we call God is searching for you and will not give up until you are found.

Being Real

I do not know what the average life expectancy is for snow persons, but we have one in our front yard, thanks to my wife Diana, who has lasted longer than any I can remember in our fickle Ohio weather.

It’s not been an easy two weeks for our Frosty. The constant cold temps have kept him from melting, but the sub-freezing has turned him into solid ice. That makes him very sturdy, but it has also meant that when his nose and hands fell off they could not be reimplanted.

Frosty’s noseless, handless condition and his loss of some of his buttons reminded me of one of my favorite children’s stories, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Marjorie Williams Bianco. For me the best part of the story is a discussion between two toys in a boy’s nursery, the skin horse and the velveteen rabbit, about what it means to be “real.” Here’s their dialogue:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

One can learn a lot from stuffed toys and snow persons.

Simple Things that Heal

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)

That verse is from the wonderful story of the healing of a Syrian military commander named Naaman.  You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but here’s the abridged version.  Naaman comes down with a dreaded case of leprosy, the grossest curse of biblical times.  But in Naaman’s household is a political prisoner captured in Israel.  The slave girl is Naaman’s wife’s servant.  This nameless girl overhears Naaman whining about his plight and tells him there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him of his leprosy.  Even though this referral comes from an anonymous and powerless slave girl, i.e. someone on the very bottom rung of the cultural ladder, Naaman assumes such healing can only come from an important and powerful ruler.  So he sends a letter to the King of Israel who freaks out assuming this is some kind of political trick to make him look bad.

And then the prophet Elisha hears about the King’s dilemma and says, “Send him to me.”  Naaman shows up at Elisha’s house and gets all upset because Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him.  He just sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River 7 times.  Naaman balks at this because he was expecting Elisha to come out and stage a spectacular miracle healing, and besides they have better rivers in Syria where he could have washed without making this long journey.  He is ready to go off in a huff, unhealed, but his servants (note how the least powerful characters in this drama are again the wise ones) deliver the line at the beginning of this post.  And reluctantly Naaman listens to reason, washes in the Jordan and is cured.  

Naaman’s story came to my mind in the midst of this pandemic because like Naaman all of us are being asked to do very simple things that require no special skills or knowledge.  We can all wear a mask and stay a distance from each other, and yet for different reasons masses of Americans refuse to do the only things we can do to combat this virus that has already killed over 225,000 Americans.  

Will we listen to those wise enough now who are saying to us, “Hey, if you had to do some super heroic deed to stop the spread of this deadly disease, wouldn’t you do it?  So how much more should we do the simple things.”

Naaman came to his senses and was humble enough that he listened to his servants and was healed,  Give us ears, O God, to hear and heed the simple things we can do to be restored to health.  

Plagues, Prayer and Peace

O Creator God, mysterious and magnificent, whose name was considered unpronounceable by our Hebrew ancestors, forgive us when our feeble attempts to describe you and name you turn you into pious platitudes. Unlike Moses we dare not put ourselves in your imminent presence. Your power is too much for us to confront directly, but when we hide ourselves from your majesty and keep you at arms length we rob ourselves of that peace that is beyond our comprehension.

It is a delicate balance between revering you and embracing you. Our fallible brains cannot grasp your simultaneous imminence and transcendence, and so we bounce back and forth like ping pong ball from one extreme to the other. And yet in these dark days of 2020 we desperately need both your motherly, tender love and your booming power to transform and heal our broken world.

We’re feeling like Pharaoh, God. Our plagues today are fires, hurricanes, flooding, racism, homophobia, earthquakes, pandemic, and the angry vitriol of deep, seemingly unbridgeable tribal cultural wars. At a time when we need each other and the milk of human compassion more than ever we don’t even know how to talk to one another. Nerves are so frayed that even something as simple as wearing a mask can become a trigger point for insults, shunning and worse.

Where are you in the midst of our human catastrophes, O God? You told Elijah that you were not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in a still small voice. We are deaf to that voice just now O great one. Weeping and wailing, screaming and cursing, hopeless self-pity and sheer exhaustion are ringing in our ears so loudly that we cannot hear you. When we need to feel the embrace of a good shepherd so much we feel like the lost sheep, afraid to even hope that you can or would come looking for us and leave the other 99. Our tiny minds can’t comprehend that you can seek us out and still be present with all the others who also need you. Your transcendent ability to be everywhere in the world and universe boggles are minds.

So for just a moment, a fraction of a second help us to be still just long enough to hear your voice whisper in our ears, “Fear not my children, for I have overcome the world. Come to me when you are weary and burdened. Trust me, and I will restore your soul even in this year of tumult and pain.”

Speak, O God, and give us ears to hear. Amen

Waves of Grief

Once upon many times I have heard/read that grief comes in waves, but I have not fully realized until recently how true that is. In the past I managed to keep myself so busy doing multiple jobs, going to school till I was 48, parenting et al, you get the workaholic picture, that I didn’t allow myself to grieve that much over the deaths of my parents. I buried myself in busyness much as I learned to dive under a wave so it would not hit me full force. Thus I was able to keep grief at arm’s length.

My mom died much too young 27 years ago this month and my dad just two years ago. But now I am a stage of life where lots of friends and colleagues are dying regularly, people much to close to my own age. Combine that with living in the suspended animation of 2020 while retired and I have more time to let those waves of grief come ashore.

I had two such experiences in the last two days. Yesterday I participated in a virtual gathering of clergy from our West Ohio Annual Conference. I confess I have not attended many of these annual clergy sessions since I retired, but since I could do so this year from the comfort of my home office I decided to “attend,” if only to see how the technology worked. And it did amazingly well, and attendance was at a record high; which may lead to a new way of conferencing post-pandemic.

This clergy session is where people are approved for ordination and at the other end of the spectrum for retirement. I had forgotten that the agenda also includes recognition of clergy members who have died in the past year. I didn’t know any of the new ordinands, but I certainly new a lot of the names on the list of those who had died, including my dear friend and mentor Russell Sawmiller who I wrote about when he died earlier this year. When those names were read and prayed for, a mini-wave of grief washed over me. It made the deaths more real to see them there in print. Obituaries do the same thing for me.

This evening I got a note on Facebook from a woman I didn’t remember, and when I asked how we knew each other she said she had worked as a secretary for a short time when Russ and I worked together at Indianola UMC in Columbus, Ohio almost 50 years ago. Darla and I chatted for a few minutes on Messenger, reminiscing about the good times we remember from that chapter in our lives, and when we finished I thought “I can’t wait to tell Russ about my conversation with Darla!” And a big old wave knocked me head over heels as I remembered I can’t go tell Russ anything.

And while I’m on a roll I’ll add another mini-wave incident. I’ve had the flag from my father’s casket for over two years now and it has been in a plastic case provided by the funeral home all that time. A very good friend noticed the flag on a book case in my office recently when we were on a zoom call with a mutual friend. He said he had made wood and glass cases for flags for other people and would like to do one for me. It came via UPS yesterday, and putting the flag in the case and finding some of Dad’s WWII medals in the plastic case all brought up feelings of regret and appreciation for Dad again.

I have spent many vacations near different oceans and have experienced all kinds of waves—gentle ones that just lap at your ankles and angry ones that beat me up and tried to pull me out to sea with strong undertows. When I first thought about writing this post I was thinking more about ocean tides than waves, but I soon realized one major difference. The times for tide changes are so predictable and regular that they are published on charts that tell fisher people and beach goers, back when we could do that, exactly down to the minute when each high and low tide will be on any given day.

Waves are not predictable. They can lull one into a sense of false security, and then when least expected smack you upside the head with a big one. Grief is more like waves than tides. There are certainly times when feelings of grief can be predicted to arise—holidays, anniversaries of memorable events and of the day of death. But more often there are unpredictable waves of grief that just happen—driving by the place a loved one lived, attending the church where a service was held, hearing a particular song, looking at a picture, or just a memory that pops into one’s head uninvited. All of that is normal, and there is no right way to experience those waves or to predict how long they will last.

I knew a woman once who had been told that the normal period of grief for a spouse was two years, and she believed that as gospel. So she expected to grieve for two years, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy for her. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s great to have people come along side to share the experience when we want company, but each of us has to find our way through the grief journey in our own unique ways. As for me, I wish I had been more receptive and aware of my waves in the past, but I can’t go back and do remedial grief. I can only experience memories and emotions now in the present and welcome them with gratitude whenever they come along and actually choose to pay attention.

Stages of Grief in a Pandemic

I have been angry and depressed a lot lately, and I have been reflecting on how the stages of grief made famous by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might help us figure out how to navigate a pandemic better. The five stages of grief Dr. Kubler Ross described are: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. These stages are not linear or in any particular order and are most often thought of in terms of dealing with grieving the death of a loved one. But they can be helpful in understanding any kind of significant loss, including the loss of freedom, normal routines, contact with friends, family, etc. caused by Covid-19.

Denial: we have all been in this stage from time to time in the last few months, from the President on down. Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. None of us wants to believe a loved one is gone forever or that our health and ability to do normal activities has been drastically curtailed. I remember hearing the news that the Arnold Classic, a huge annual event with huge economic ramifications here in Columbus, Ohio had been cancelled. It was the first real evidence we had a serious problem, and I found it hard to believe when I heard that news. In retrospect it was a great decision made with courage and great insight by our government leaders. An event of that size that brought thousands of people to Columbus from all over the world would have been devastating to Ohio and made the death toll from the Coronavirus so much worse.

Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. It’s a defense mechanism that helps shut our bodies down the way novacaine numbs your gums to withstand the pain of a tooth filling or extraction. But denial is a stage, not a destination. We need to go there to survive a shock, but we can’t pitch a tent and stay there as a way to deny reality on a long term basis. Unfortunately the U.S. has failed in our response to the the pandemic because key leaders, including the President have hindered essential responses to the virus by denying the reality of the crisis. People who follow the lead of those who ignore the uncomfortable advice of experts from the medical and scientific communities are living in denial and get stuck in the grieving process, which in this case has deadly consequences not only for them but for our whole society.

Anger: Like spoiled children we all feel some level of anger when told we can’t do something we really want to do. I was really mad in the spring when my all time favorite sports events were killed off one after another in just a few days in March. College basketball tournaments died first and then in rapid order March Madness and the Masters golf tournament. In a blink of an eye my favorite few weeks of the year were felled like dominoes lined up back to back.

Students and families were robbed of graduations, final sports seasons for seniors dropped like flies, wedding plans trashed and countless other special occasions died painful deaths. And as the whole rest of the school year was cancelled and our economy shuttered the frustrations and anger increased exponentially as weeks dragged into months. Since it’s hard to be angry at an invisible enemy our anger got directed at public health officials who were just trying to do their jobs, at courageous governments leaders who made difficult and unpopular decisions to shut down any and everything we enjoy doing. Throw that kind of anger into an already politically divided society and you have armed protestors descending on state houses and the homes of public health officials, and that anger gets misdirected into rebellion against simple requests for the good of us all like wearing masks.

A friend of mine expressed that anger well when he said he rebelled at being told he had to wear a mask at a local retailer. His response, more fitting for a child than an adult, was to wear his mask on the back of his head. His argument, like those who decry the loss of their personal liberty, was that if asked to wear a mask he would have complied, but when he was told he had to that offended his personal freedom.

Depression: As our ability to deny a loss or lessen the pain with anger prove ineffective it is easy to fall into depression. When we feel powerless to change a situation and helpless to do anything about it depression is a natural and normal emotion to feel. And because we are still not good at talking about mental health issues it is easy for this one to be compounded by denying our depression. I was at the doctor this week and had to fill out a medical history and check any previous or current illnesses, and when I came to “depression” and “anxiety” I was reluctant to check those boxes even though I am currently in therapy and taking medications for both. When we are already feeling down or overwhelmed by other life issues or crises throwing a pandemic into the mix is like putting gas on a fire. Depression and its cousins, fear, worry, and despair in some degree are affecting us all just now, and as we are seeing a new surge of cases it is easy to play the blame game, go into victim mode and be overwhelmed.

Multiple grief over jobs, chronic illness, loss of contact with loved ones and friends, and support communities, loss of physical closeness and contact with others all compound the tendency to despair and surrender to our frustrations. Zoom contacts with friends, teachers, business colleagues, congregations and other significant contacts are a godsend, but they cannot replace real live human contact. Even those of us who are introverts are admitting we need people.

Bargaining: In the case of physical death and mortality this stage is characterized by promises to do x, y, or z if we or a loved one can just live a little longer or a miracle cure can be found to postpone the inevitable. In pandemic grief I’m not sure what this stage looks like. For some of us it may be if we are spared from this plague we will change our ways and correct some flaw in our lives. It may be a bargain for a loved one to be kept safe from the virus in spite of their risky behavior. This stage can take many forms; so it’s just good to be aware of when we find ourselves in that deal making mode with God or whomever we are negotiating with.

Acceptance: There’s no timeline or “normal” prognosis for how long it takes to get to the stage of accepting a loss we are grieving. Every person and every situation and relationship is different. Sometimes when we know a loved one or even oneself is dying there is time to do anticipatory grief, to be prepared, to say good bye, to make peace with the coming reality. Other times loss is sudden and unexpected and all the grieving must be done after the loss of a job or a relationship or a life. But regardless of the circumstances or timeline, good grief moves us toward a state of acceptance and peace with a new reality. This stage does not mean there will not be days when anger or denial come surging back like Covid-19, but those pangs of sadness become less frequent and less painful the more accepting we are of our new normal.

And so it is with this nasty virus. The more we can accept the reality of how pervasive and deadly this disease is, the better we can cope on a daily basis and the sooner we will be free of its hold on our lives. If we are impatient and fall back into denial and angry foolish behavior we jeopardize everyone’s life and prolong the hardship both personal and economic.

Acceptance does not mean being happy with the new reality. I am not happy that my parents are dead but I have learned to accept the reality that I am now an orphan and the oldest living member of my family. Am I sometimes angry or depressed about that, sure, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to believe all those things are true. Am I tired of wearing a mask and debating if it’s safe to go shopping or to see my kids, you bet. I’m exhausted by having my routines in life screwed up for over 3 months and for the foreseeable future.

I know that our collective denial in the early days of the pandemic cost us many lives. I know that on-going denial of the cold hard facts by the President and misinformation by his favorite news outlets is going to cost more lives and economic hardship. If wishing could make this virus go away it would have disappeared months ago. If firing the messengers who bring us inconvenient facts would change reality I’d be all for it. But that’s not how viruses work, and the sooner we as a total society accept the reality of our situation we will begin to win this fight. And if we don’t the awful history of how people rebelled against masks and restrictions during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and created a second and third wave much more deadly than the first will be repeated. So please friends, wear your mask. It won’t kill you, but denying the need to do so may kill us both.

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.