I discovered the work of Diana Butler Bass last year and continue to be challenged and inspired by her writing. Her training as both an historian and a theologian gives tremendous new insights into how to read Scripture. One of the most helpful of those commentaries on a familiar passage about Jesus’ call of his first disciples to follow him and “fish for people” broke open for me exciting and challenging new ways to read those texts in their historical context.
[Note: This post was written on January 2 but not posted until January 4. It will make more sense with that timeline in mind.] My year of practicing gratitude literally began with a tough challenge. For almost all of my adult years the new year has begun with watching the iconic ball drop in Time Square. Thanks to my own and our cultural addiction with football, 2023 was different. Along with a group of friends I watched a different ball drop this year—a ball that will linger in Ohio State fans’ memories as “wide left.” 2023 was literally just a few seconds old when what would have been a game winning field goal over #1 Georgia sailed like a wounded duck far left of the goal post.
That was almost 36 hours ago, but today as I read several articles about the game in today’s Columbus Dispatch I relived that moment and the frustration of a controversial call that dramatically affected the outcome of the game. I should not have subjected myself to that memory, but I was unable to let it go.
For me, that is a prime example of my biggest obstacle to practicing gratitude. I mentioned one of my mentors, Dr. Bill Brown, and his rhetorical theory called attention shifting in my last post, and this is exhibit A for 2023. In the larger scheme of problems on the world stage or even in my personal life the outcome of a silly game should not be my prime focus. The Peach Bowl is over and done. My dwelling on a terrible call by the refs does not deserve the amount of my attention I am choosing to spend on it. And it is a choice. I can shift my attention to a whole host of things that deserve my attention so much more if I choose to do so. [Remember, I wrote this a few hours before the near fatal football injury to Damar Hamlin, but that tragedy underscores in spades that all football games and other athletics must be kept in proper perspective.]
Notice I did not say that this is a simple or easy shift to make. The local media, my friends, and my social media are full of conversations about the Ohio State game. It is not easy to shift my attention away from all that chatter, but it can be done. I can choose to not read about the game. I can literally switch the tv channel when discussion of that game comes on. Unfortunately I don’t have a remote that can switch the channels in my brain when I think about that loss or my own aches and pains, or other negative and depressing problems in our world. But attention switching is a skill that I can learn if I choose to do so. And making practicing gratitude my priority for 2023 is step 1 in that process
I had the privilege again this past Advent to create liturgies for the lighting of each advent candle for our church. When we got to the third Sunday and the candle of joy (12/11/22 post) I asked some of my fellow fans of Dr. Brené Brown to help me find what she has said about joy. My friend Jean Wright came through with this gem from Dr. Brown: “In our research we found that everyone who showed a deep capacity for joy had one thing in common: They practiced gratitude…A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean in to pure joy without denying the struggle in the world. It’s not always easy or comfortable – but what makes joy possible is a front made of love and a back built of courage.”
There’s an old joke about someone asking how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer is “practice, practice, practice.” Well, apparently the way to get to Joy is also, like any other life skill, to practice. Since I am by nature a skeptical, glass half empty kind of person, learning gratitude for me is something that requires lots and lots of practice. Practice is hard. Playing scales on the piano is work. Practicing on the putting green for hours is not nearly as much fun as hitting the crap out of a ball on the driving range. But no one will master the piano or lower their golf score without those basic practices.
It is no coincidence that my friend Jean Wright’s daughter, Katy, recently shared her wisdom about gratitude that she learned from podcasts with Kate Bowler and Kelly Corrigan who indirectly address the practice of gratitude by dividing life experiences into two categories, the “happies” and the “crappies.” The trick, of course, is paying at least an equal amount of attention to the former as we do the latter.
One of my mentors in grad school, Dr. Bill Brown, developed a rhetorical theory that helps with this task. He calls it “attention shifting,” which I will oversimplify here by saying it means intentionally shifting our focus or attention from one thing to another. I was reminded recently of another related skill for keeping things in perspective and practicing gratitude when my wife and I attended a high school production of “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” produced by the excellent Theater Arts Department at Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, OH. Our great nephew Ryan Buckley has been part of that program for all four of his high school years, and we have enjoyed many plays there; but one scene in this production really resonated with me.
The Kindergarten play is based on the book by the same title by Robert Fulghum. I have read most of Fulghum’s stuff; so this story was familiar, but I must have been ready to hear it again. It’s a little long for a blog post, but I am going to include it here in full because it is so good.
Fulghum writes: “In the summer of 1959, at the Feather River Inn near the town of Blairsden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. A resort environment. And I, just out of college, have a job that combines being the night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables. The owner/manager is Italian-Swiss, with European notions about conditions of employment. He and I do not get along. I think he’s a fascist who wants pleasant employees who know their place, and he thinks I’m a good example of how democracy can be carried too far. I’m twenty-two and pretty free with my opinions, and he’s fifty-two and has a few opinions of his own.
One week the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every single day. Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls. To compound insult with injury, the cost of meals was deducted from our check. I was outraged.
On Friday night of that awful week, I was at my desk job around 11:00 P.M., and the night auditor had just come on duty. I went into the kitchen to get a bite to eat and saw notes to the chef to the effect that wieners and sauerkraut are on the employee menu for two more days.
That tears it. I quit! For lack of a better audience, I unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman.
I declared that I have had it up to here; that I am going to get a plate of wieners and sauerkraut and go and wake up the owner and throw it on him.
I am sick and tired of this crap and insulted and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it and who does he think he is anyhow and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut and this is un-American and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat it one day for God’s sake and the whole hotel stinks anyhow and the horses are all nags and the guests are all idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to the pigs. Something like that. I’m still mad about it.
I raved on this way for twenty minutes, and needn’t repeat it all here. You get the drift. My monologue was delivered at the top of my lungs, punctuated by blows on the front desk with a fly-swatter, the kicking of chairs, and much profanity. A call to arms, freedom, unions, uprisings, and the breaking of chains for the working masses.
As I pitched my fit, Sigmund Wollman, the night auditor, sat quietly on his stool, smoking a cigarette, watching me with sorrowful eyes. Put a bloodhound in a suit and tie and you have Sigmund Wollman. He’s got good reason to look sorrowful. Survivor of Auschwitz. Three years. German Jew. Thin, coughed a lot. He liked being alone at the night job–gave him intellectual space, gave him peace and quiet, and, even more, he could go into the kitchen and have a snack whenever he wanted to–all the wieners and sauerkraut he wanted. To him, a feast. More than that, there’s nobody around at night to tell him what to do. In Auschwitz he dreamed of such a time. The only person he sees at work is me, the nightly disturber of his dream. Our shifts overlap for an hour. And here I am again. A one-man war party at full cry.
“Fulchum, are you finished?”
Lissen, Fulchum. Lissen me, lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not wieners and kraut and it’s not the boss and it’s not the chef and it’s not this job.”
“So what’s wrong with me?”
“Fulchum, you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem.
“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire–then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.
“Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much. Good night.”
In a gesture combining dismissal and blessing, he waved me off to bed.
* * *
Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes with a truth so hard. Years later I heard a Japanese Zen Buddhist priest describe what the moment of enlightenment was like and I knew exactly what he meant. There in that late-night darkness of the Feather River Inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously kicked my butt and opened a window in my mind.
For thirty years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something really stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks: “Fulchum. Problem or inconvenience?”
I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference. Good night, Sig.
As I reflect on the year 2022 it is very easy for me to see the entire year through the lens of the last couple of months which have been rather crappy for me. Following my 76th birthday at the end of October my 77th trip around the sun began with an unexpected hospital stay because of a very serious urinary tract infection. That urinary infection has turned out to be one that is very hard to get rid of and has been bothering me off and on for about seven weeks now. Because of that it has been easy for me to throw a pity party for myself if I forget to keep my focus on the larger scheme of things. This illness is just an inconvenience. Other than the time I spent in the hospital and I a few days after that, I have been able to continue my normal daily activities. Those activities included the aforementioned opportunities to create Advent liturgies for worship in our church. And by sharing those liturgies in my blog, they have also been used by a number of other readers and worship leaders, for which I am grateful. I even got a bit of a chuckle each week during Advent when I noticed that the number of clicks on my Advent liturgies always seemed to go up about Thursday or Friday. I remember from my days of active pastoral ministry those were the days of the week when I suddenly realized I needed some help with worship resources for the coming Sunday.
I also realized this week that part of the attention shifting/gratitude practice is keeping my focus on the big picture and not just what is immediately in front or behind me. By paying too much attention to my recent illness I had completely forgotten about an amazing therapeutic golf program I became a part of this summer. That program is quite appropriately called “Fore Hope.“ In brief, this program pairs a wonderful volunteer “caddie” with each golfer. These caddies help the golfers with whatever that individual needs, from loading clubs on the golf cart, putting the ball on the tee, hunting for wayward balls, or literally holding the golfer up while he or she swings if there are balance issues. Having the opportunity to be a part of that program has given me a lot of hope and a new lease on life because I have been able to do something that I dearly love, which I thought was gone forever because of my health concerns. It has enabled me to play golf again with my son, and for the first time with two of my grandsons, and to my surprise as an introvert it also made me a part of a whole new community of friends.
I played my last golf with that group in mid-October and could not have written a more satisfying script for that evening. It was chilly, as October evenings are want to be in Ohio, and I almost wimped out and didn’t go; but I am so glad that I did. You see it turned out to be one of those magical times on the golf course when every putt found its way into or very close to the cup. And what is so special about the Fore Hope Golf community is that everybody is a cheerleader. We don’t keep score; so there is no insidious competition, and when any player makes a good shot everyone genuinely affirms that accomplishment.
But here’s the thing—about three weeks later I was flat on my back in the hospital and in the ensuing recovery from that experience, because I did not practice gratitude, I forgot all about the sheer joy I felt sharing those days on the golf course with my new friends. So for me, at least, an important part of the practice of gratitude is paying attention more often to the happies, and not letting the crappies which come along for all of us knock those moments of joy out of my awareness.
My mind, per usual, has been focused on macro and micro events in the world around me – a teachers’ strike, global warming, my own physical and mental health. And then I looked out in our back yard a few minutes ago and saw a very large bird which I mistook for a chicken at first. When said bird heard me wondering out loud what it was doing in my yard it took off before I could get my phone out to snap a picture.
When the bird took to flight it became very obvious it was no chicken. It was some kind of hawk. My birding skills are not developed to the point that I could tell you what kind of hawk, but it was big. Not 3 minutes later I noticed a tiny hummingbird darting back and forth drinking from our feeder designed for just that purpose.
In those few moments I was struck by the mystery and magnificence of creation. One of the tiniest birds and one of the largest, at least in our part of the world, right there almost simultaneously in the small part of God’s universe we are privileged to call home.
And then I decided to walk out into the yard to see what the hawk had been doing. From what I had observed I thought he or she had been feasting on some other unfortunate critter. I was hoping it was one of the mice, chipmunks, or moles that are a nuisance to us. But what I found in the grass were the very gross remains of some much larger animal or bird. There was not enough left to identify what had been alive a few minutes before without DNA analysis.
I’m not sure what to make of all that. It struck me as a rather profound example of the cycle of life and how fragile and temporary our being here really is. I feel like I witnessed something messy and yet sacred and beautiful. And yes I will prepare and consume the steak I am grilling tonight with a renewed appreciation for one of God’s critters who gave his life so I can partake of his body in that mysterious chain of life.
O gracious God, we come today in this season of Lent, and during what many in our nation call March Madness. Most years the madness is just about college basketball tournaments for men and women, but this year it is also is a good way to describe the state of our world. We are heart broken by the pictures of the devastation in Ukraine and the millions of innocent refugees streaming out of their homeland.
Madness is a mild term to describe the cruelty and lack of human compassion on display by Putin and the Russian soldiers. We followers of Jesus are called to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, but those are hard words to live in a world gone mad. We pray for the people of Ukraine and for the Russians caught up in this senseless pursuit of power. Please, dear God, guide President Biden and other world leaders as they meet this week to search for ways to end the violence without lighting the fuse of a world war that no one can win.
You have taught us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. We are so hungry and thirsty, Lord. We yearn for human contact that COVID has denied us. We need assurance that this chaotic life we have been living for two years is really returning to normal. Please let your Holy Spirit be the wind beneath our wings that helps us create a new normal where love is the roadmap we follow. Teach us again that abundant lives are measured in priceless moments and not in bit coins or dollars.
We also need to have our hope restored, hope that the human race can learn to live together and fight a common enemy like climate change instead of each other. Remind us again of our history as your people. How many times do the Scriptures describe the holy city of Jerusalem in ruins like the pictures we see from Ukraine? How often has the sacred temple in Jerusalem been leveled by conquering armies? More than we can count, and yet each and every time you, gracious and loving God have redeemed your people and renewed your covenant with us. Even when we crucified your son you raised him up to show us love is more powerful than death and hate.
In this season of Lent we practice the spiritual disciplines of introspection and repentance. It is so easy to react to all the trouble in the world by looking for others to blame. Whatever the problem, we would rather fix blame on someone else and look for the specks in their eyes rather than at the log in our own. Confession is oh so hard and yet it is the only road that leads to spiritual well being and salvation.
The wide easy road is so much more appealing than the narrow wilderness path. Doing what we have always done seems so much simpler than trying something new and unfamiliar.
Staying in an uncomfortable rut where we don’t have to take risks looks better than the unknown future. But following the crowd often takes us to places we don’t really want to go. Help us loving spirit to take time this Lent to examine our values, our goals, our vision of how to grow more closely into the people you want us to be.
As we navigate whatever March Madness looks like for us this Lent, help us remember the example of Christ who has gone through the wilderness before us, who set his face toward Jerusalem rather than running from trouble, and who went to the cross rather than betray his God and his true values.
We offer our lives and our prayers to you our heavenly parent in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen
From my pastor, Chris Rinker: “Giving up something is not punishment but making a space for God to create something new in us.” He followed that with a question I will be pondering for awhile: “What can I do or not do for Lent that will make space for God in my life?”
I read this one from a fellow pastor in a Facebook group responding to a question about what words to use while imposing ashes. I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, but his words have stuck with me. He suggested saying “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”
That got me thinking. We are dust of the earth but also star dust spewed forth billions of years ago by the Big Bang that is still creating and expanding God’s universe. Ash Wednesday is a reminder to accept our mortality so we, like Buzz Lightyear, can leap into the future and go to “infinity and beyond.” We chuckle at a Disney toy making that kind of foolish leap, but on the days we believe** we know that it is exactly what we are called to do—to trust without fear, even when the foundations of our world are shaken by rockets and bombs; even when we fear what a madman with nuclear weapons could do to life as we know it; even when we fear that human kind is hell bent on destroying Mother Earth with our pursuits of greed and power.
To trust God in such a time as this is to surrender all that we rely upon to give us security—all of that earthly stuff because to quote Kerry Livgren of the rock band Kansas, “all we are is dust in the wind.” But that wind is the Holy Spirit/Wind that breathes life into dust, that shapes star dust into us who are, on the days we believe and on those we don’t, truly created in the image of Being itself. Our current form goes from dust to dust, but our essence, our being is eternal. When this mortal life is over we trust that we will be forever in the heart of God who is love itself. Amen
** “On the days we believe” is a phrase I have adopted from Rachel Held Evans’ book “Wholehearted Faith” where she dares to write what I have often been afraid to say out loud. I will be forever grateful to her for her gift of honest vulnerability and helping me claim that I too have good days when I believe and many others when I’m really not sure.
Like many wiser minds I have been very troubled about the state of our nation and the world in general. In particular I’m most concerned about the chasm of polarization that seems hopelessly wide and deep, making any productive discourse almost impossible. This impasse is a huge impediment to resolving everything from American culture wars to Vladimir Putin waiting to pounce on Ukraine.
It may seem naive or trite, but what the Judeo-Christian world knows as “The Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” seems like such a simple solution to most of the world’s problems. Knowing that words similar to Matthew 7:12 or Leviticus 19:18 appear in other world religions I googled that phrase and, please excuse the pun, I struck gold on my first try. Here’s what I found:
The Saturday Evening Post: cover, April 1, 1961 was a Rockwell collage of a group of people of different religions, races and ethnicity as the backdrop for the inscription “Do Unto Other As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” Rockwell was a compassionate man, and this simple phrase reflected his philosophy. “I’d been reading up on comparative religion. The thing is that all major religions have the Golden Rule in Common. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Not always the same words but the same meaning.” – Norman Rockwell
Here are Norman Rockwell’s notes on the way that the Golden Rule is expressed in different religions…
Such a list is an example of what some contemporary theologians (e.g. Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox) would call cosmic or deep ecumenism.
All of that is wonderful wisdom, but I want to share with you a concrete example, a snapshot in time if you will, of what that kind of mutual respect looks like in action. In response to my blog entitled “Leading with Your Head,” (Jan. 30, 2022) I received this comment from a friend and colleague, Rev. Phyllis Fetzer. She wrote,
“Hi, Steve, I enjoyed this blog post and thank you for the reminder re: being holistic and not just “leading with our head.” I mean no disrespect when I point out two things about your digression re: traumatic brain injury suffered by (football) players: (1) It’s not a “maybe;” it’s almost a certainty that players will experience damage to the brain. One recent (respected) study showed traumatic brain injury in 110 out of 111 players; that’s basically 100%. (2) May I gently point out to you (and hope that you would do the same to me) that having a lifelong habit of watching football doesn’t mean that that habit can’t change, right? Thinking of other ethical areas where people have said, “I just can’t change because it’s been this way my whole life.” E.g., men referring to women as “girls”. We *can* change in light of new learning, yes? I hope and think that you know that I respect you very much, and am also aware that I’m sure that I have (an) ethical blind spot(s) in some other area. Thanks for the good post.”
Wouldn’t the world be a much kinder and more productive and loving place if we could learn or relearn to disagree constructively and respectfully. I can tell you I certainly receive that kind of feedback with open arms and an open mind rather than putting up my defenses when I feel attacked. And I hope I have learned to live by that old golden rule just a little more thanks to Phyllis.
Our church is doing a series of Advent devotions on words that reflect facets of the Advent and Christmas season. I wrote this one on the word “rescue.”
When I signed up for this word I was thinking about our granddaughter Olivia and the cat rescue organization she started last year. She named her rescue operation “Little Boo Rescue of Ohio” in honor of “Boo,” one of the first kittens she rescued who unfortunately was too sick to be saved.
The three cuties pictured here are Cherry, Mango and Honeydew. They along with their siblings, Apple and Bianca were near death when rescued, but thanks to a lot of TLC and excellent medical care all five are healthy again and looking for their forever homes. Olivia has always had a huge heart for our four-legged friends, and we are very proud of the work she and her colleagues are doing, all of which is over and above their full-time jobs.
Their rescue work often requires responding to calls from someone with a feral cat problem. She and her friends respond by going out in the dark to capture cats so they can be neutered, vaccinated, and nursed back to health. They are then either adopted or sent to foster homes. It is a true labor of love.
Such caring work reminds me of Jesus’ story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go searching for the one lost stray. We are all that lost one at some time in our lives, and we run and hide from God all too often. But God never gives up and will be there to cuddle us back to health whenever we admit we need to be rescued.
We’ve all heard the joke about how hard it is to herd cats, and if she could I’m sure Olivia would transform herself into a cat so the lost ones would trust her and be easier to rescue. And that’s exactly what God did for us in the human baby born in Bethlehem so long ago. The incarnation means that God is with us no matter how many times we need to be rescued.
I have been swimming 2-3 times a week since March as part of rehabbing after back surgery. During today’s swim I had another insight about God’s Positioning System (GPS), building on my last post about the guidance system built into my new car.
To state the obvious, the black line down the center of each lane in a pool is there to provide guidance to swimmers. In competitive swimming this is especially important because the shortest and fastest distance between one point and another, or one end of a pool and the other, is a straight line. So the closer a swimmer can come to staying directly above that line the faster he or she can complete each lap.
But for far from expert swimmers like me those lines are equally or even more important. Not only is swimming in a straight line better than zigzagging back and forth between the plastic lane dividers, it is also much safer. I have learned that lesson the hard way by whacking my hands on the lane dividers more times than I care to remember. To do that is usually just a minor annoyance, but if my hand comes up under the divider too hard the plastic can cause painful bruising and on one occasion cut my hand forcing me to stop my swim and seek first aid from the life guard.
Case in point is this picture I took of my hand after an encounter with the lap divider during today’s swim. This problem is worse for me because I have learned the aging process makes one’s skin get thinner and more susceptible to ugly bruises. But that would not be a factor if I stay on course in the center of my lane.
That all became another metaphor for God’s GPS while I was swimming today. Just as my car helps me stay in my lane on the road, the black line on the bottom of the pool is there to assist me in doing the same thing in the pool. Both are similar to how the Holy Spirit provides guidance for us IF we choose to follow it. These aides do not prevent me from straying out of my lane in either case, and neither does God force me to stay on the course she has called me to follow.
As I said last week, we are free agents. There are times I wish God or the lap lane marker would force me to stay on the straight and narrow because it would prevent me from experiencing the painful consequences of straying off course. But then I realize the loss of free will would be much more painful than a bruised hand or a dented fender.
God’s wisdom provides good guidance, should we choose to follow it, but that does not mean God reaches out to punish us for our wandering away. We suffer because our behavior has consequences. God doesn’t make that lane divider jump out and hit my hand if I go off course. Those bruises are my own fault because I didn’t swim in a straight line.
What other guidance systems are out there to help save us from painful consequences if we choose to use them?
I walked our church’s new labyrinth this morning after church. I think it is the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen and am so grateful to those who worked to build it. I know it’s true of all labyrinths, but I was struck again today by how close one gets to the cross in the center on numerous occasions only to turn away and double back in the other direction. Isn’t that true of our faith journey? We feel especially close to God one minute, and the very next life hits us with a body blow we didn’t see coming; and all of a sudden God seems so distant that we feel lost and confused. That’s when spiritual discipline is needed to stay the course and trust that road less travelled will eventually lead us back to the cross.
There are no short cuts in our faith journey, only perseverance and trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us home. If you notice in the picture the entry path very quickly takes you within a few feet of the cross before it takes a sharp left turn that leads to the far side of the labyrinth. It would be so easy to step right over that blue line and in two steps be right at the foot of the cross. No one else was there to see if I cheated when I took my walk, but I knew that those who promise a short easy way to salvation are false prophets. To take a short cut would have robbed me of precious time for communion with God and defeated the whole purpose of being there.