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.

Unexpected Inspiration

I have been a football fan since the days of Hop Cassady, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, and Jim Brown. I’ve been around so long that I was already in my 20’s when Super Bowl I was played, and this year was number 55!

That all may seem like ancient history to some of you, but I bring it up because of the love-hate struggle I’m having this year with the game of football. I’ve been a football fan, some would say a fanatic, since I was the age of my 7 year-old grandson Brady who is, thanks to technology, a much bigger football fan than I was.

You see when my family got our first television when I was Brady’s age I had access to 3 channels, not the hundreds kids today have. In my childhood there was one college game and one pro game on per week, period. I had no internet to study football history. Instead of Madden Football with unbelievable graphics I had a metal football field that vibrated to make miniature players move erratically around on the field.

But there’s another advance in technology that has impacted my enthusiasm for watching 300 pound men crash into much smaller men with bone-jarring force. Medical technology has taught us so much about the life-long damage this sport inflicts on the bodies and brains of players, and when I hear about that my enthusiasm for the game is dampened.

That scientific knowledge has made me hope that my grandson will channel his athleticism into a safer sport. And yes, I know that I should be just as concerned about the well being of other young men, but that rational and ethical knowledge has still not been able to cure me of my nearly 70 years of watching football.

All of that is a very long way to explain or rationalize why I still watch football and why I recorded the two hour NFL Awards show that was on the night before the Super Bowl. I almost didn’t watch that recording the afternoon of Super Sunday because I figured 4 hours of Super Bowl was plenty of football for one day. But for some reason I turned it on and am very glad I did. It was far more interesting than the game that evening.

Running the risk of sounding irreligious I must say that several parts of the NFL Awards show were more motivational and emotional for me than many worship services in which I’ve participated and/or led.

Alex Smith’s super human recovery from having his leg crushed in a game, Russell Wilson’s charity & hospital visits, and all the league is finally doing to support social justice and anti-racism. And yes I hate the hypocrisy after what the league did to Colin Kaepernick for kneeling a few year’s ago. But better late than never?

Alex Smith’s story inspired me the most. His determination to make it back onto an NFL field after his leg was damaged so badly two years ago that the doctors thought they might have to amputate struck me personally. I personally think he was crazy for ever wanting to play the game again, but that was his dream and I will not pass judgement on it.

I had seen a short clip on the CBS Evening News about Smith’s grueling road to recovery, but the story on the NFL Award’s show was far more detailed and therefore more moving. They showed X-rays of his lower leg where the pieces of his tibia and fibula looked like the old game of pick up sticks I played as a kid. Multiple surgeries and infections ensued and grueling rehab and physical therapy.

Then Alex went to do even more challenging rehab at a hospital where wounded American service members were trying to put their lives back together after leaving body parts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those brave men and women were Smith’s inspiration when he wanted to give up, and because he didn’t he was back on the field with The Washington Football Team last fall.

For him that was a dream come true. That’s not my dream. but to each his own. What was relevant to me as I am struggling to recover from back surgery 5 months ago is the amazing determination and refusal to give up Alex Smith displayed for two long years. Granted I’m like 45 years older than Alex Smith, and my injury is like a hang nail compared to his, but I still need the courage and motivation to do my physical therapy on days when I just don’t feel like it; on days when it all seems hopeless; on days when I feel like I’m worse off now than I was before surgery.

On reflection about all this I’m thinking part of what I’m lacking is a specific goal like Smith had to sustain him on the terrible days; so that’s something I will work on. But for now my belated new year’s resolution is to remember and imitate the courage of Alex Smith and thousands of others like him who dig deep and refuse to give up.

Prayer for January 2021

Oh God of unconditional love and grace, we your children are hurting and afraid.  We are still living through a never-ending pandemic.  We thought 2021 would be better than 2020, but these first two weeks have just been more of the same with the threat of civil war thrown in for good measure.  

We are so divided, God, and we know you are calling us to be Christ followers, to be peacemakers among our families and neighbors.  But we don’t have a clue what that might look like.  None of us have ever lived through anything like this.  How can we possibly know how to be your witnesses, your disciples?  

Reassure us again, Holy One, that we can trust your call.  The Scriptures tell us story after story of the unlikely people you have called to do great things.  Moses and Esther, David, a bunch of uneducated fishermen, and Saul the Christian persecutor.   May we draw strength and confidence for the living of these days from the saints who have gone before us, Mother Theresa and Dr. King and thousands of unknown servants who bravely respond to your call, not knowing what that means, with no guarantee of success of safety.  

This day we especially pray for a peaceful transfer of power on Wednesday and for a binding up of our nation’s wounds.

We give thanks that we are not alone in this scary time.  Even though we cannot yet be physically in one place where we can be in fellowship and share hugs with one another, we are still connected through the wonders of technology.  We are never alone and together we can be faithful and brave through any crisis.  And so we dare to pray in the name of one who said “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age,”  the one who became flesh and walked among us to show us how to live and how to love.  And so now we pray as one the prayer he taught us to pray.   

-Pastoral Prayer, Northwest UMC, January 17, 2021

Christmas Morning

The first thing I saw this Christmas morning in our beautiful snow-covered back yard was a large flock of black birds on, around and below one of our bird feeders. I can’t name most of the birds that visit our feeders but these birds were larger and more aggressive toward each other than the smaller, more colorful varieties we normally see. The size and darkness of the blackbirds was amplified by their contrast with the pure white snow. My first thought was to recall an old nursery rhyme that says, “Four and twenty black birds baked in a pie,” but that soon passed since it didn’t sound at all appetizing.

I’m also embarrassed to admit my other first reactions were less than Christ-like. I thought, “Oh, no. I didn’t brave the cold to feed blackbirds!” I was tempted to go to the door and chase them away so the smaller, “prettier” birds could get to the food. And then I stopped. I realized these birds are all creatures of our God, equally deserving of eating “our” food, which of course is not ours at all, but a gift from God that we are able to share.

And then an even more uncomfortable thought emerged in my mind as I asked myself if my aversion to these particular black birds was another example of my latent racist attitudes that I must constantly be on the lookout for. Pretty heavy stuff to look at before I had finished my first cup of coffee, but we can’t choose the times when God knocks on the door of our souls with uncomfortable feelings or thoughts.

But God wasn’t done with me yet. When I perused the morning news on my iPad I found an article about Pope Francis’ Christmas message where he challenged the wealthier nations of the world to share the COVID vaccines with other parts of God’s family that are most vulnerable. Again my first reaction was uncomfortable. I thought, “That’s fine Pope, but not until I get my vaccine!”

How often do we offer to God or others the leftovers from our tables, after we have taken care of our needs first? But the ultimate gift of Christmas is not ours to hoard! The startling message delivered to the shepherds is one we still need to hear today. “And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

The Christ child is a gift “for all the people.” And we who celebrate that gift cannot hoard it but are called to “Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Please take time today to listen to what the angels are whispering in your ear.

A blessed Christmas to all.

Advent Word of the Day: Adore

Whom or what do you adore?  Be careful; that’s a tricky question.  Some dictionaries say that the primary meaning of the word “adore” is “to worship.”  And we know that to worship anyone or anything besides God is idolatry.  Roman emperors and other egotistical heads of state throughout history have demanded that their people worship them.  And when they don’t get the adoration they thing they deserve they take great offense as Herod does in the story of the Magi in Matthew 2.  Herod tells the Magi that he wants to know where this new king can be found so he can go and “worship” him. But Herod really wants to do is go and kill Jesus because he feels threatened.  Contrast that with what the Magi do when they find Jesus:  “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” (Matthew 2:11). 

The question that story raises for us today is “To which King do we give our allegiance? Herod or Jesus?”  And secondly, “What does it mean to ‘adore’ Jesus?”  I believe that Jesus doesn’t want worshippers; He wants disciples who will be his servants in the world.  And that brings us to the other definition of “adore” which is the more common usage today.  According to Merriam-Webster that other definition is “to regard with loving admiration and devotion.”  Our relationship with Jesus should be more like that definition of love and devotion.  That devotion requires obedience and striving to live by Christ’s example. 

When we celebrate the birth of Jesus this year let’s learn two lessons from the adoring Magi.  Let’s honor Jesus by keeping our focus on him, but after Christmas we must stop following the example of the Magi.  Here’s how Matthew describes the Magi’s brief encounter with Jesus: “And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.”  (Matthew 2:11-12).

In other words when the going got tough the Magi’s fear of Herod was stronger than their devotion to Jesus.  Yes, we know that Mary and Joseph also flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus, but we also know that when it was safe they came back home and there Jesus fulfilled his mission.  That mission of grace and love is still a work in progress, and we are the ones called to turn our adoration at Christmas into the work of spreading God’s love here and now.  Come, adore, and then go out to serve!

Calm

Our church is centering daily devotions during Advent on a word for each day. Here is what I wrote about the word for today.

We are sailing in very rough waters this Advent that is like none other any of us have experienced.  Not often in 2020 have I felt “calm.”  Worried, angry, depressed, all of the above!  But I haven’t achieved a state of true calmness very often this year.  ‘And that’s why Advent in 2020 is so necessary and so relevant. Mary wasn’t calm when the angel told her she would be pregnant with God’s son.  And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t calm when Joseph told her they were going to bed down in a stable, or when she went into labor there among the livestock.

As soon as I was asked to write this devotion on the word “Calm” I thought about this story from Mark 4: “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. “ 

That calming of the sea reminded me of another experience Diana and I had two years ago when we were blessed to be able to visit Australia and New Zealand.  The picture here was taken on a sail boat in the bay of Akoroa, New Zealand.  The water that day there was perfectly smooth and peaceful, but the calmest part of that excursion was when the captain sailed near the cave in the picture.  As we sat there perfectly still he played some recorded organ music.  Echoing off the walls of that cave, the music was as awe inspiring as any pipe organ in a Gothic cathedral.

That was one of the calmest experiences of my life.  But here’s the thing.  We don’t have to go clear to New Zealand to be calm.  All we have to do is have enough faith to ask Jesus to calm whatever stormy sea we’re in right now—and believe the God of Advent will provide.  

Advent: He’s Coming!

It’s Advent, that means He’s coming soon!

Will he come down the chimney?

No, that’s Santa.

Will he come with flying reindeer?

No, that’s Santa too.

Will he bring me toys?

No, that’s Santa, but He’ll bring much better gifts that our broken world needs so much right now: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love!

His name is Emanuel, which means “God With Us,” no matter what. And no virus or pandemic, no disaster, not even our sin will ever keep Him from holding us and loving us.

He’s Coming, and Advent is the time to prepare our hearts to celebrate His holy presence with us, even on the darkest days of the year.

Prayer for the Depressed

“God has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; 8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; 9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.” (Lamentations 3:7-9)

O Dear God, I pray today for those battling depression.  The stew of discouragement is made of so many ingredients that it’s hard to tell what should be tackled first – and every “breaking news” item just makes the pot more toxic.  A cup of COVID, an overdose of lying campaign ads from both parties, a heaping tablespoon of cold damp weather, incessant robocalls, all stirred into a gallon of fatigue from zoom calls and home schooling.  We feel like we’re swimming in an ocean of molasses against a deadly rip tide.  There’s no lifeguard in sight, and our arms are too weary to carry on much longer.

Dear God of past, present and future, do you hear our lament?  Where are you in the midst of our suffering?  We beg for relief and a restoration of the life we used to know.  Throw us a lifeline of hope before we drown.

Yes, we confess we have contributed to the mess we’re in. We have not taken every precaution we could against the virus.  It’s much easier to point the finger of blame at others.  We have added a brick here and there to the great wall of polarization that divides neighbors and family and poisons friendships.

And yes we know you rescued the Hebrew people from much worse calamities, but that was so long ago.  We are living a nightmare right now in real time that doesn’t even feel like real time!  We feel like the people of Israel mourning the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem, like the victims of never ending wildfires combing through the ashes of their former lives.   We feel like the people of Louisiana bracing for yet another hurricane before they can clean up from the last one!  O God hear your people praying.  Amen

p.s. Just a reminder that the book of Lamentations was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who began a siege of Jerusalem in December 589 BC.  During this siege, the duration of which was either 18 or 30 months the Bible describes the city as enduring horrible deprivation.  The laments were certainly justified, but they did not destroy the faith honed in the fires of other wilderness times for God’s people.  How do we know that?  Because just 12 verses later the author says,

“But this I call to mind,  and therefore I have hope:  22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. 24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”  Lamentations 3:21-24

May it be so for us 2600 years later in the siege of 2020!

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.  

Rituals: The Fall Classic

Humans are creatures of habit. We function best in situations where this is some degree of normal routine so we don’t have to think about every little thing we do. Rituals, holidays and regular annual events mark the passage of time and give structure to our lives. In this weird year of pandemic when so much of our “normal” life has been knocked cockeyed ritual has taken on a whole new meaning and importance.

This may seem trivial to some or most of you, but for as long as I can remember fall for me has meant the Fall Classic, i.e. the baseball World Series. For much of my life I have been a huge baseball fan, and in particular an avid supporter of the Cincinnati Reds. But even on those quite often years that the Reds failed win the National League Pennant I still would not miss the World Series. My memories go back so far that my family didn’t yet have a TV, and I had to listen on the radio. And even well after I was married and had my own television I remember faithfully listening to almost every Reds game on the car radio or a portable set while washing dishes or doing other household tasks.

For real (and old) fans my memories include Willie Mays’ basket catch in deep center field that helped the Giants sweep the Indians in 1954. I remember great subway series when the Giants and Dodgers still lived in New York. I’ve never ever rooted for the damn Yankees but I still cherish the picture in my mind of Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larsen’s arms after the latter pitched a perfect game in ‘56 against the cross-town rival Dodgers.

As a child I got to witness a Reds game at old Crosley Field in the days of big Ted Kluszewski,

Gus Bell, Wally Post, Bob Purkey, and Frank Robinson. Other moments in my personal highlight reel include Pittsburg’s weak hitting Bill Mazeroski’s walk off homer in game 7 against the Yankees. I saw that one back when the Series was still played in the daytime so kids could actually watch. And we even were allowed during study halls at school to go down to the cafeteria and watch.

The very first time my beloved Reds made it to the Series in my lifetime was of course against those stinking Yankees. And if that wasn’t bad enough it was in 1961, the year that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris both put on a season-long home run derby in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs (60) in a pre-steroid season. (If you don’t know Maris managed to hit 61 but was cursed with an * next to his record because the season was 8 games longer than when the Babe hit 60.). Suffice it say about that painful memory that the Bronx Bombers and ace pitcher Whitey Ford dispatched the overmatched Reds in 5 games.

Nine years later the team now nick-named the Big Red Machine met the Baltimore Orioles in the Series. Both teams had run away with their league pennants. Sad to say a slick fielding 3rd baseman named Brooks Robinson made so many highlight reel plays on defense that the boys of Cincy went down 4-1. Just two years later the Big Red Machine made it back to the fall classic against Reggie Jackson, aka Mr. October, and the Oakland A’s. Rose, Morgan, Perez, Bench and company held their own in an exciting 7 game series but came up just short.

And then in my 29th year of life and 21st year of fandom it finally happened. That 1975 match up between the Big Red Machine and the Boston Red Sox is still considered one of the very best Series of all time. It featured a dramatic 12th inning walk off homer by Sox catcher Carlton Fisk in game 6, and most baseball fans have seen the iconic video of Fisk standing at home plate waving his arms urging the ball headed over Fenway Park’s Green Monster to stay fair. It did, but the next day the Reds pulled out a heart-stopping game 7 victory. I must confess that I was so happy for that win that I expected it to be a world changing event. I’d waited a lifetime to see that World Champions label applied to my very own Reds. At that point in my life I didn’t have a bucket list, but if I had that win would have been one huge items to check off. Sad to say when the sun came up the next day it was just another Monday, and the world had all the joys and sorrows it always has.

The Reds followed that the next year by not only vanquishing the damn Yankees, but they swept them in 4 straight games. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

Then for a lot of reasons my love of baseball faded over the years. I no longer watch “Bull Durham” as part of my spring ritual. I was even in Phoenix this spring where many Major League teams do their spring training and didn’t attend even one game. I blame a lot of my loss of interest on disgust with the obscene size of salaries and how often players move from one team to another. I can’t identify with any players when they are here today and show up in a different uniform tomorrow. I did enjoy going to a game at Fenway a few years ago, another bucket list item, and I enjoy a minor league game occasionally at the beautiful stadium that is home for our local Columbus Clippers. I also enjoy, or at least did pre-COVID, going to a local ball field on a summer’s night to watch one of our younger relatives play. Brings back nice memories of my playing days in Little League and church league softball.

And yet as I write this I am watching the first game of this year’s World Series. I have no skin in this game. I truly don’t know any of the players and don’t care if the Rays or Dodgers win, but there is still a sense of order and normalcy in this most abnormal year to sit here and watch two teams compete for the World Championship.

And if you don’t believe me I’ll leave you with one of Annie’s final lines from “Durham”:

“Walt Whitman once said, ‘I see great things in baseball. It’s our game. The American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.’ You could look it up.”