21 Day Attitude Adjustment

For those who don’t know what this contraption is, it’s a post hole digger. And it doesn’t work. I put it in the ground and waited for it to dig a hole, and the darn thing just sat there. It didn’t dig a lick.

Now it happens I was working on this project on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon; so maybe my digger was just trying to keep the Sabbath. But I’ve used it on other days of the week with similar results. Yes, I was working on the Sabbath, an occupational hazard for preachers. But I hasten to add that yesterday, a rainy football Saturday, was my day of rest in my recliner in front of the TV. I believe, especially in our crazy busy world, it’s more important to get some regular rest than to be legalistic about which day or days we do so. Jesus thought so too. When criticized for healing on the Sabbath he said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV)

But I digress. To be honest, I’m not very adept at manual labor — but even I know tools don’t work by themselves. Maybe someday, but not yet. My project in this case is putting a fence around our garden to deter or at least discourage rabbits, deer, and other critters from nibbling our produce. Fortunately I only need post holes for the gate, but digging even 2 post holes is hard work. So it didn’t take long before I was tempted to go negative about how hard it was and how I’d much rather be watching more football or playing golf on such a glorious day. And then a little voice in my head that sounded strangely like my wife’s was whispering in my ear, “Attitude is a choice. I can either feel put upon for working so hard— or I can enjoy being out in God’s beautiful creation, breathing fresh air, and getting some wonderful (and much needed) exercise!”

To be honest I don’t always or even often listen to that cheerful voice, but I’m trying to practice more gratitude and nourish a more positive attitude. Yes, I know there’s so much in our world today that is way too easy to be negative about, but I do have a choice. I can either focus on the negative or the positive. It’s really as simple, and as hard, as following the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Would I rather hang out with some David Downer or someone with a positive approach to life’s challenges? Pretty easy choice isn’t it? So if that’s who I’d rather be with then that’s who I need to be, even when I’m all by myself. Not only does my throwing a pity party for myself do me no good, it’s a bummer for those around me.

I continue to marvel at and be inspired by people who exude faith and positive vibes when life deals them so much unfair pain and suffering: people who are confined to wheel chairs who refuse to stop living and express gratitude for friends and family and good memories of lives well lived; parents who give nothing but unconditional love to children who break their hearts with rebellion and rejection; or someone like President Jimmy Carter who takes brain cancer and the limitations of being 95 in stride and keeps working to make the world a better place for his sisters and brothers. It’ a choice!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my wife Diana at this point. The reason I said the voice in my head sounds like her is because she is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. I don’t always appreciate it when she urges me to be more positive, but I know she’s right because she practices what she preaches; and I am blessed to have a front row seat to see how it works for her and the way she influences others.

On this day choosing a more positive attitude worked for me, and like any other discipline each time I practice that behavior it becomes easier to do it next time and eventually will become a habit that I don’t have to talk myself into. Easy? No, or I’d have mastered it long ago. You may have heard as I have many times that it takes 21 days of practicing a new behavior for it to become a habit, but I just learned recently from a Physical Therapist why that’s so. She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.

It’s a choice; and just like my post hole digger, it’s up to me to make it work.

The Wedding Nazi and a Marriage Metaphor

Two young girls were talking about marriage one day, and one asked the other how many husbands they were allowed to have. Her friend said, “Sixteen. Four better, four worse, four rich and four poor.”

I remember some of the 200 plus weddings I’ve officiated better than others, but there is one that stands out in my mind for the wrong reasons. I performed that wedding as a visiting pastor in the bride’s church. Let me say up front that many churches have wedding coordinators that provide valuable assistance to the wedding party and make the officiant’s job much easier. They distribute flowers, help wedding party members and families know when to be seated, when to line up, when to process and generally provide hospitality.

One of the most helpful functions for a wedding coordinator, especially with a visiting pastor, is to help organize the wedding rehearsal. But not always. I normally begin my wedding rehearsals by introducing myself to the wedding party, offering a prayer and some general comments including a statement meant to reassure and relax everyone like this: “Weddings have lots of moving parts; so it’s very likely that at least a thing or two won’t go exactly as planned tomorrow, but that’s ok. The bride and groom will still be married even if one of us makes mistake.”

At the wedding in question I got only to the part of my speech where I said that it was likely something could go wrong when the wedding coordinator interrupted me and said very sternly, “Nothing will go wrong when I’m in charge.” I know she meant well, but that kind of expectation of perfection only added more stress for the wedding party. I was taken aback to say the least, and I don’t remember what I said to her, but here’s what I wish I had said.

“You know, weddings are like marriage itself. Both are complicated and can be stressful. We’re all fallible human beings, and we make mistakes. People from out of town get lost on the way to the church and are late. Sometimes a groomsman forgets his tux. I had one wedding when the flower girl’s parents thought the grandparents were bringing her and vice versa, and she was left home alone. She was ok, but we had to hold up the wedding till someone could go back and get her. Jesus even went to a wedding where they ran out of wine!

Marriage is messy too. If a bride and groom were exactly alike, one of them would be redundant. Intimacy is hard. Sharing a bathroom and a kitchen, not to mention a bedroom with a new partner can be dicey. No matter how much we love someone else there are times when they will disappoint us and we them. So when the wedding starts a few minutes late or the best man can’t find the wedding rings, or the ring bearer picks his nose, that’s just practice for real life. Marriages work best when we can laugh at our mistakes and forgive our partner’s. So let’s relax and enjoy this celebration no matter what surprises may occur tomorrow or in the next 50 years!”

Vita Interruptus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH
June 16, 2019

As Tempus Fugits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parable of a Broken Flag Pole

We have a 20 foot flag pole at our house that has been flagless for the last 6 months or so.  The rope on the pole broke last fall and I have not fixed it, quite frankly because I couldn’t figure out how to get up to there to string a new rope through the little pulley at the top.  I have a ladder that might be tall enough, but leaning it on a round pole that is only an inch or two in diameter would be foolhardy.  I thought about calling our electric company to see if they could do it with a cherry picker truck, but I didn’t think they would do it.  And if they did I didn’t want to pay for whatever it might cost.

On Easter Sunday my brother-in-law who is very creative at fixing things and solving mechanical problems was at our house for lunch.  We were asking his advice about some home maintenance issues which didn’t include the flag pole.  But when we happened to walk by it I was reminded of that issue and asked Don, almost as an afterthought, if he had any ideas about how to get a rope to the top of the pole.  He took one look and asked me if I had a step ladder.  I said, “Yes, but it’s only 6 feet tall.”  He asked me to get it anyway, put it by the pole and climbed up where he proceeded to reach up and remove the top section of the pole and lower it to me so I could put a new rope on it; and then he replaced it.

I was both relieved to have a problem solved and embarrassed that such an obvious solution had never occurred to me.  After all I’m the guy who installed that pole several years ago and should have remembered it was in 3 parts that can obviously be easily separated for repairing a broken rope.  Don solved a problem in 6 minutes that had stymied me for 6 months.

My problem was that I had only been seeing the big problem without ever looking closely to see how that problem could be solved by breaking it down into smaller parts.  I wonder how many other of life’s big problems could be solved by such a wonderfully simple strategy?

 

Put in Our Place

One of my goals for the New Year was to cope better with my chronic aches and pains. Now the phrase “be careful what you ask for” has new meaning for me. I injured my right shoulder a few months ago and was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, 50-50 chance that physical therapy would help me avoid surgery. I think those odds have gone down. I have reinjured it twice in last couple of weeks lifting things the wrong way. This is not the way I wanted to practice dealing better with pain.

My theologizing about pain seems to come around on a two year cycle. (cf. my post on 3/25/17 “Rejoicing When God says No,” and 5/19/15 “Encouraged and Inspired.”) As in both of those instances I keep coming back to St. Paul’s verses (II Corinthians 12:7-10) where he describes his repeated requests for God to remove an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t know if this is an actual physical ailment, a metaphor for another kind of suffering, or both. Here’s what those verses say in the NRSV:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

If this was just about physical weakness I should be getting stronger by the minute, but of course it isn’t. The repetition of “not being too elated” indicates that’s important. The “slings and arrows” of life can serve to keep us humble, and when dealing with God’s power that’s the only realistic stance to take.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses in “The Message” helps reinforce that point:
“So I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’”

I don’t like the word choice of “handicap” by Peterson. In no way do I want to tell anyone with a disability or handicap that it is a gift from God. But we all have challenges to cope with be they physical, emotional, or relational, and accepting those humbly as just the way things are is much better than either being resentful or conceited.

God is not a super being that we can call upon to intervene and pull out our thorns. That’s like complaining that roses come with thorns instead of rejoicing that thorns come with roses. For reasons that are above our pay grade to understand the human condition comes with pain. I am inclined to agree with Buddhism’s diagnosis of that pain as being caused by our “attachment” to things that are temporary. My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about letting go – letting go of things I can no longer do and humbly finding and celebrating things I can do, I hope with more wisdom gained through experience. Letting go is important practice for that inevitable letting go that comes with mortality.

And ultimately the feeling of being at home in the universe, my favorite definition of “Faith,” comes from letting go of our need to control or understand everything. As mere beings our humility/weakness makes room for the true majesty and mystery of Being itself, which we call God.

I don’t claim to have achieved Paul’s contentment with “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I am not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them!! But I do recognize that state of “being content with whatever I have” which Paul describes in Philippians 4:11 as the goal of faith.

Paul describes that feeling in different words that are very familiar: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But I also like the way Peterson paraphrases that verse because it emphasizes the Creator/creature nature of our relationship with God which is the reason humility is our ultimate reality.

Peterson says, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” That puts things in their proper perspective.