Creation Prayer

O divine spirit of creation and re-creation, I am grateful that here in my little spot of your creation we got a beautiful blanket of white fluffy snow covering the naked brownness of winter.  Thank you for the birds that flutter about the feeders because they cannot find food under the snow.  But not far from this peaceful place others are shivering in the cold without electricity because of the same weather system.  My sisters and brothers in Tonga are living with entire villages buried in ash and the threat of another eruption from the underwater volcano that shot ash 63000 feet into the air last week.  I’ve flown 30000 feet above Mother Earth, but can’t imagine the power to send debris twice that high. 

We are reaping the whirlwind of what we have sown pillaging the earth you have given us.  That makes me sad and angry.  I need and want a way to channel that energy into something that will help save this tiny little planet from extinction.  I want a way to jar the fools in Congress who are slaves to party loyalty above all things.  I want to put earthly mud in their eyes like Jesus did for the blind man so they will be able to see the evidence all around us that is a cry for help from the earth.

We have seen deadly tornados in December, tsunamis in January, extreme winter storms over half of country, and ghastly wild fires springing from nowhere to destroy homes in Colorado.  But still our elected officials fiddle while our earthly home burns.  We are slaves to capitalism.  We are addicted to fossil fuel and individualism.  We want the immediate gratification of having our own vehicles so we can go where we want when we want.  We refuse to pay for adequate public transportation so we can sit in traffic jams spewing poison into the air we breathe.  We keep to regimented work schedules that create “rush” hour frustration. We fail to replace lead pipes for others because it’s not our problem.  Are we our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers?

Dear creator, you know all of this already, and my prayer is not to surrender our problems for you to solve.  I pray because you are always more ready to listen than I am to share the concerns of my heart.  Help me, please, to see how I am part of the problem.  Take the log from eye so I can better see the beauty of your creation and accept anew my role as steward and caretaker of it all.  Amen

Dream or Mirage?

There is so much on my mind and heart on this 2022 version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The demands of other commitments keep me from sharing those today.  Instead I want to share some less familiar quotes from King that are not from his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech.  These lines from King’s 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech were quoted in a powerful article by John Blake two days ago:

“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history,”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” 

Blake goes on to say, “Those are words that lift the soul. How much will they mean, though, if the US becomes a performative democracy — a country with the veneer of fair elections but run by White minority rule? 

If that happens, January 6 — not January 15 — will be a truer reflection of what the US stands for.

And what King said in 1963 will no longer be a dream. It’ll be a mirage.”

John Blake, CNN, January 15, 2022, “MLK had a dream. Trump had a mob. How two days in January offer competing visions for America”

Dear God

January 15 is the birthday of Russell Sawmiller, Jr., a dear friend who joined that innumerable caravan of the saints in 2020. Russ was many things to me: senior pastor, colleague, mentor, a distant cousin on my mother’s side, and most of all a life-long friend. I am reposting here a letter to God I wrote after his death as a tribute to Russ on this his 95th birthday.

April 17, 2020

Dear God,
I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.

I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.

Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”

Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”

I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.

I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.

In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.

You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.

We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”

Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!

By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.

I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway.
When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you.
I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.

I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.

I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.

I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.

I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.

So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”

Peace and love,
Steve

Time and Life’s Purpose, A sermon on Luke 2:22-38

[I preached this sermon at Epworth UMC, Columbus, OH on January 2, 2022.  To watch the livestreamed sermon go to epworthkarl.org, click on “Worship,” and then on “Archived Worship Services.”]

My Facebook news feed has been full this week about a saint the world lost last week, and I’m not talking about Betty White; although I think she might qualify.  One story about Bishop Desmond Tutu especially caught my attention because it dealt with what inspired Tutu to choose the career path he followed.  “When Desmond Tutu was a child he would go after school to the kitchen of a small hospital where his mother worked as a cook. He would remain there, helping his mother and doing his homework until they both went home at the end of the day.

Several times a week, a young white Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston would leave his bicycle behind the hospital and would then walk through the kitchen on his way to visit the sick, and when he did he always raised his hat to Desmond’s mother and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Tutu.”

This simple act of courtesy and respect toward his mother so impressed the little boy half hidden behind his mother that it profoundly influenced his entire future as well as the future of his native land. He knew he lived in a world where virtually all white people didn’t even bother to speak to blacks, much less show them respect.

He lived in a world where a black person had to step off the sidewalk to make way for a white person who might be walking toward them.  Years later, Tutu wrote in his autobiography, “I wondered what kind of man this was and what kind of church he represented. And when I found out, I decided that I wanted to be a priest like him.”

In our Scripture for today we find Simeon and Anna who, like Bishop Tutu, knew who they were called to be.  Simeon and Anna are the first people to recognize Jesus as the Christ without some angel telling them.  Why these two old folks?  Because they are the ones looking for God’s revelation.  Other people, like us perhaps, were too busy to notice; they are like Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary.  When Jesus came to their house Martha was busy in the kitchen, not doing anything wrong.  We all love a good host or hostess taking care of us.  But sometimes we stay busy to avoid stuff we don’t want to face – including Jesus.  Maybe we’re afraid or embarrassed to face Jesus because he knows who’s naughty or nice?   Or maybe we feel unworthy because we haven’t accomplished our purpose in life.

We all know that December is the month when even the biggest sports fan can overdose on football bowl games.   And even if you aren’t a fan we all know that the purpose of a football team is winning the game-even if it means scoring 48 points as Ohio State did yesterday.  And whether or not a team is achieving that goal makes all the difference in how it behaves. If the team with the ball is winning they will take as much time as allowed between plays.  They run the ball instead of passing because an incomplete pass stops the game clock.  Their players are taught to stay in bounds when they are tackled because that keeps the clock running between plays.

But if the team with the ball is behind that’s when the last few minutes of the game can take forever.  That team calls time out as often as it can; they try to get out of bounds to stop the clock, sometimes even fake injuries or whatever they can do to stretch those last two minutes out as long as it takes to accomplish their purpose. 

Simeon is like the team that is ahead.  His life purpose is fulfilled when he sees the Christ child, and he says “Ok, God.  I’m done here.  Take me home.”

When I was in college 100 years ago my big goal after graduation was to buy a Corvette and go to California.  God had different ideas, and I bought a Volkswagen and went to seminary. Simeon and Anna spent much of their time in prayer.  They went to the source instead of buying into the popular notion of what the Messiah would look like; and that’s why they were prepared for God’s surprise.  They understood that God’s revelation may not look like anything we expect.

The next story in Luke’s Gospel after this one tells us that Jesus knew his life purpose by age 12. That’s when his parents found him in the temple learning from the teachers because as he told them he had to be about his Father’s business.  For most of us it takes a lot longer to discover our purpose.  Anna Mary Robertson was 76 when she found her calling.  When she did she painted over 600 famous paintings, and because of that we know her as Grandma Moses.  When asked why she started painting she said, “I was too old to work on the farm and too young to sit on the porch.”  Does that apply to any of us?  I’ve looked everywhere folks and the word retirement does not appear in the Bible.  Older folks in the Bible like Abraham and Sarai, like Elizabeth and Zechariah don’t get put out to pasture, they just get a new job description from God.  My dear mother-in-law was wheelchair bound in her 90’s, and still asking what she could do to make a difference in God’s world.  The secret is asking, seeking, and never giving up until we see the Lord. Then and only then can we, like Simeon, be content to let the clock run out. 

Today is the second anniversary of the tragic death of a good friend of mine and yours.  I want to honor his memory today.  Bill Casto’s death was very painful in so many ways, but this text reminded me of Bill because in his “retirement” he found his purpose and passion in a relentless ministry to homeless people in Columbus. 

I have two friends who have had near death experiences and both reported that they were told, “It’s not your time yet.  There’s something more you need to do.”   I believe trying to figure out what that one thing might be is asking the wrong question.  What if we ask instead what we need to be?  So many New Year’s resolutions or goals focus on things we want to do or not do, and we know what happens to good intentions before January runs out.  Let’s think bigger this year, namely what is my purpose as one of God’s people?  Who does God want me to be and does this action/word help me be that kind of person? 

How do we know what that looks like?  We discern who we are through prayer and sharing the journey with other pilgrims.  Simeon did that and trusted God’s promise.  Do we? Do I?  Or do I get discouraged; disappointed that what I wanted I didn’t get for Xmas?  Or  I didn’t get that promotion I thought I deserved; didn’t get to take the path I wanted to take or realized too late that I missed an important turn off the freeway and have to go miles before I can turn around and correct my course?

How do we discern what our purpose is?  Not some one time project or act, but an entire way of life dedicated to finding our purpose and aligning it with God’s will.  Simeon and Anna had found theirs and were sticking to it.  How did they know what to do?  They were in the temple where they thought God dwelled.  We know better.  God is everywhere – in burning bushes and other miracles but more often in the still voice we can’t hear unless we really listen.  Like Elijah God wants us to be still and know she is God and we aren’t.

That means tuning away from false promises like the prosperity gospel and its false prophets.  In the word of the old hymn – go to the source – take time to be holy. I know, none of us feel very holy.  We are fallible human beings who screw things up all the time.  That’s why we get a do over with a new year.  Let’s make 2022 the year we learn to forgive others and forgive ourselves.  Life in God’s grace is not like football.  In football if you fumble or commit a penalty you can’t undo it; it’s all there on the digital record of the game to be replayed in agonizing slow motion incessantly.  And if you commit the unforgiveable sin of targeting you get thrown out of the game. 

Not so with God’s grace.  We get to go back to the drawing board or the huddle and call another play and hope it is the one sent into the game by God and not by the other team?  I have always found deep meaning in the lyrics to a song called “The Impossible Dream” from “The Man of LaMancha”* from way back in 1965.  The words still speak to our following God’s purpose. 

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are to weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into hell
For that heavenly cause

And I know
If I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart
Will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
Oh, that one person, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.”

But we also need periodic rest while still seeking our purpose and fulfillment.  None of us are super heroes or heroines.  We need to take breaks from pursuing impossible dreams like exhausted nurses and doctors working with dying patients need time off.  Worship and prayer is one way we can stop the merry go round and get off for a while – take a sabbatical.  It’s there we can find the blessed assurance and be satisfied as Simeon was that his life purpose was fulfilled.   Wow – for me that rings so true and so false at same time!  Come on, God, how do I discern when I’m done?  Is resting a way of letting go and letting God or is it giving up?  The dilemma is that we only will really know when we have kept the faith, run the race, and finished the course.   

So here we are on the threshold of a new year that feels a lot like the last two.  I remember early in 2020 I kept a journal where I  measured this darn pandemic in days, having no idea it would grow into weeks, months and years.  I have been calling 2022 Ground Hog Year, after that classic movie “Groundhog Day.”  But here we are again asking what our role is as people of faith in this new covid year?  I have often begun the new year by praying the Covenant Prayer of Methodism founder, John Wesley.  I’m going to invite you all to join me in praying that prayer, but I must warn you it involves maybe the hardest thing we can do, which is to surrender to God. 

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition 

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven.  Amen.

*Lyrics to “The Impossible Dream” – composed by Mitch Leigh, with lyrics written by Joe Darion. The song is the most popular song from the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha and is also featured in the 1972 film of the same name starring Peter O’Toole and is also featured in the 2021 film Nobody.

Lighting the Christ candle

The prophet Isaiah knew all about a weary world.  He said,

“Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
    they shall walk and not faint.”

Tonight we celebrate the end of our Advent waiting. 

Tonight we join Christians all over this weary world rejoicing and giving thanks for a God who loves us enough to become one of us.  That God shares our sorrows and removes our fears with a thrill of hope that sets us free to rejoice.  

Tonight we come as people who have walked in darkness, but we have seen the great light.  We have lived in a land of deep darkness—and on us the light has shined.

[Light the Christ Candle]

And so we light the Christ candle as a sign to all who are weary that God invites us to a stable where we, like the infant Jesus, can be wrapped in the arms of our loving God and sleep in heavenly peace.  

Never too old: Luke 1:5-25

I don’t often remember dreams that I have, but I had one recently that was very vivid and realistic and stuck with me when I woke up.  To put this dream in context you need to know that I had my 75th birthday in late October, and my wife Diana will also be 75 on New Year’s Day.   When we got engaged 20 years ago we were both in our early 50’s and Diana was teaching middle school.  When her students found out she was engaged they asked her if we planned to have a family!  She assured them we had both been there and done that. 

But in my recent dream we became parents of twins.  And if that wasn’t enough of a miracle we seemed to have done so without going thru labor and delivery.  Someone just presented the two babies to us, a boy and a girl, and they were both already named.  I didn’t remember the boy’s name when I woke up, but the girl was named Mary; like Jesus’ mother but it also happened to be Diana’s mother’s name. That Mary died 3 years ago at the age of 100.  But to make the dream even more surreal in the midst of becoming parents who have Medicare pay the maternity bills, in my dream we were making plans for my mother-in-law’s funeral while holding our two newborns.  The full circle of life was there in that one interesting if confusing scene.

That dream during this Advent season turned my thoughts to the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah in our Scripture for today.  They too were way beyond child-bearing age, and we can understand Zechariah’s reluctance to believe it was possible for his vision to be true.  But here’s the problem.  Zechariah was a priest, and as such one would assume he knew the Scriptures and would have been familiar with the story of Abram and Sarai who laughed at the angels who told them they were to be parents in their old age. 

One aside – there is a big difference between “knowing” the Abraham and Sarah story and really believing it.  I love this illustration of the difference between believing and trusting.  In the days before we had television and the internet to entertain us there were high wire artists who would perform in unbelievable places.  One of those dare devils was planning to walk a tightrope across part of Niagara Falls.  A huge crowd gathered to witness this daring attempt, but before climbing up to the wire the man walked among the crowd asking people if they thought he could successfully walk across that rope from one side to the other.  One after another the people said, “No, I think you’re crazy, but I want to watch any way.” 

Finally he found one enthusiastic fan who said, “Yes, of course I believe you can do it.”  And the aerial artist then asked, “Do you think I can do it pushing a wheelbarrow?”  “Sure, why not, said the fan.  I believe you can do that.”  “Good,” said the artist.  “You get in the wheelbarrow, and I’ll push.”  Zechariah wasn’t willing to get in the wheelbarrow.  He didn’t believe the angel, and for his lack of faith he was unable to speak until after his son, John the Baptist, was born.

But to return to the important person in our text, we find Elizabeth, who like Sarai believed she was barren, but God had other ideas.  Do you believe in miracles?  Yes, we know the Bible contains several miracle birth stories, including the birth of Jesus himself.  How do we explain these stories?  How is. It possible for a virgin to conceive or for a woman in her old age to give birth?  Does your health care here at Wesley Glen include maternity care?  

For starters let’s suspend our disbelief enough to consider that these are theological stories, not biological ones.  These miracle births are one way of saying that with God all things are possible.  What if I told you that someone your age or mine could travel into space?  And I’m not talking about billionaires pretending to be astronauts.   I’m talking about John Glenn who made his second trip to space at age 77.

Or a woman could become a world famous painter at 76?   Anna Mary Robertson, better known as Grandma Moses did just that.  Why?  She said, “I am too young to sit on the porch, and too old to work on the farm.”  She painted over 600 famous canvases and worked until she was over 100 years old.  Albert Schweitzer ministered to the sick in Africa until he was 89.  Johann von Goethe completed his masterpiece “Faust” when he was 81. 

Now we can say yes, but those folks didn’t have to deal with a global pandemic.  Or we can make other excuses about why we can’t do x, y, or z.  Believe me, I have a long litany of things I no longer can do, and it is oh so easy to get sucked into a quagmire of depression about the negative aspects of the aging process.  I throw plenty of pity parties for myself, and do you know how much good they do me or anyone else?  Not one darn bit.  

Does this story about the parents of John the Baptist mean that we need to expect a baby boom here at Wesley Glen?  I don’t think so, but it does mean that we need to open our hearts to whatever it is that God is calling each of us to do in this stage of our lives.  None of us expected old age to come quite so soon, did we?  But every one of us is younger today than we ever will be again.  What if we shift our focus from the past and all those things we miss that we can no longer do toward a future that God is laying out before us to claim joyfully.  I don’t know what hidden talents each of you possess, but God knows and is inviting you to embrace those and put them to work for the betterment of your life and those of your neighbors.

-Preached at Vespers service, Wesley Glenn Retirement Center, Columbus, OH 12/19/21

The Kindness of Strangers

“Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” (John 5:2-7)

Our modern fast-paced living makes it easy for me to understand the apathy or selfishness of strangers that would jump in line and leave a sick man unhealed for 38 years. I have to admit I too often am so turned in on myself and my problems that I have done somethings like that. I apologize to anyone I’ve disrespected, even if I didn’t know I was doing it.

One way I try to change my negative thoughts and behaviors is to counter those painful memories by noticing the many acts of kindness that will never make the nightly news. One of my favorite personal memories of the kindness of strangers happened many years ago, 52 to be exact, when I was in New York City for the very first time. I was a young 23 year old who had lived a very sheltered small town life up to that point; so I was quite intimidated by the sights and sounds of the big city.

It was the end of a five-city tour I took with some fellow United Methodist seminarians. We had toured United Methodist boards and agencies as a group; so all of our transportation and hotel needs had been taken care of by the trip leaders. But now at the end of the trip we were all on our own to get to one of the New York airports for our flights home. So the two of us from Methesco (the Methodist Theological School in Ohio) set out from our hotel in Harlem for JFK airport. My traveling partner was an equally inexperienced traveler, and remember this was 1969, way before cell phones and gps that we rely totally upon these days to help us navigate strange places.

Carrying our luggage (in those days before roller bags), craning our necks to read street signs we undoubtedly looked as lost as we felt. We had grown up hearing and fearing how impersonal city folk were, but that day time after time strangers came up to us without being asked and offered to help us get on the right subway or bus. Without their help I doubt we would have made it to JFK in time for our flight.

And even as I write this I remember a very similar experience some 40 years later when my wife and I were in Tokyo trying to figure out which train to take toward downtown. We were about to board one going the wrong way when a kind Japanese gentleman noticed our indecision and not only told us how to get to the other side of the train platform and on the right train, he actually walked with us to make sure we did it right.

Such acts of kindness from strangers unfortunately was not the experience of the man in the text from John. Many years ago I heard the late Fred Craddock preach on this text. He explained the story this way: he said that the reason the man couldn’t get into the pool fast enough to be healed was because people with hang nails, skinned elbows and runny noses were quite mobile and always got into the pool first.

I was reminded of that story when we were flying home from a family Thanksgiving Friday night. Because of my bad back and balance issues due to neuropathy handling luggage when we travel has become a huge challenge for me, especially when other people are waiting behind us in the plane’s aisle during boarding and deplaning. So we have tried to mitigate that problem a bit on recent trips by staying in our seats while others exit the plane so we aren’t blocking the aisle and inconveniencing others. We did that Friday night when we arrived back home in Columbus, and most people were off the plane when a nice young man stopped to ask if he could get our bags out of the overhead bins for us.

For far too long I have been in the habit of declining such help because my pride made it hard to accept that I am officially old and really do need help. But this time I was simply grateful for this young man’s help. He was so much stronger and taller than I that he made handling our luggage look so easy, and it only took a few seconds for him to do what would have taken my wife and I so much longer. Yes, I hate not being more self-sufficient, but mostly I am just humbled by the kindness of strangers and vow to pay that forward more often when I can.

For the record, here’s how the story in John ends: “Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.“ (John 5:8-9)

No, I can’t heal people like Jesus did, and I will not be lifting 40 lb. suitcases anytime soon; but there are plenty of things we can all do for others if we aren’t rushing to beat them into the pool or the best parking place. It costs nothing to treat servers or store clerks or random strangers with kindness; so let’s do it. We will never know what a difference it might make in someone else’s life, but we will know the joy of human connection.

GPS: God’s Positioning System

Thanks to circumstances, both good and bad, beyond my control I am driving the first brand new car I’ve owned in over 20 years.  I was forced to replace a car I really intended to keep quite a while when it was totaled in an accident in September.  To say the least new cars have changed just a bit since 1988.  I’ve had my new Toyota Venza for two weeks now and the learning curve for this old dog to learn new technological tricks feels steeper than Pike’s Peak.

The woman at the Toyota dealership who helped me sign my life away spoke truth when she told us that the car was basically a big computer on wheels.  And like the love/hate relationship I have with all things technological, this car both amazes and frustrates me.  Sunday morning on my way to church I discovered that the car will give me both a weather forecast and a live weather radar map.  Since we got our first snow of the season that morning that weather info was both unnecessary and unwelcome.  The white stuff falling on my windshield told me all I needed to know about winter’s inevitable arrival.

Some of the most welcome and fascinating things this car can help keep me safe – even when I am distracted by trying to figure out simple things like how to turn the radio off while driving.  And yes, I know that’s a no-no.  I have no idea how it does it, but this car has a built in way of both keeping me in my lane and slowing me down when I get close to another vehicle.  Unless I communicate my intention to change lanes or turn by using the old and often-ignored technology called a turn signal, the Venza tries to steer me back toward the center of my lane.  If I fail to tell the car I mean to change lanes it literally fights my efforts to do so like a horse intent on heading for the barn before its rider wants to.

I was talking to my spiritual director last week about some of these gadgets, and I realized that the lane assist and other safety features are much like the Holy Spirit.  How God’s spirit works to guide my feet in the direction I need to go is also a complete mystery to me, but it’s real.  We can call it conscience or intuition or spirit, but it’s a nudge or push or pull or a closed door that forces me to get creative and choose another direction.  Like my car’s guidance system I can choose to override God’s spirit because I have free will.  When I change lanes or turn without signaling I feel resistance in the steering wheel, just as I feel a twinge of guilt or regret when I ignore a chance to do something that I know I should do. 

There’s one place where this analogy breaks down.  If I get very close to someone or something that I’m in danger of hitting, the car actually slams on the brakes and flashes a big red warning sign on the instrument panel.  Because we are free agents God doesn’t do that for us, even though there I times I wish she did. 

How does God’s GPS show up in your life? 

What happens when you choose to follow or not to?

All Saints Day Prayer

O Holy One, as one great saint, Meister Eckhart, said, “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that will be sufficient;” so today we gather in this sacred space to give thanks to you:  

Thanks for this holy ground and for those who had the vision to create this memory garden.  

Thanks for the memories of those who have finished the course of their mortal lives and joined the great cloud of witnesses in your presence.  

Thanks that the earth here contains all of them that it can, and that we know their eternal souls have been set free of the pain and struggle and limits of human existence.  

Thanks for the assurance to us who remain that nothing in all creation can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus.  As another saint, Julian of Norwich said, “My own sin will not hinder God’s working goodness.” 

Because of Christ’s triumph over death we dare to live as your humble saints and servants because we know we have been created in your image from the dust of the earth.  That dust from those whose ashes have been tenderly laid to rest here continues to nourish your good earth as you nourish our souls, surrounding us with the power of the Holy Spirit in this life and the next.

Thank you creator God for all the saints laid to rest in this sacred space.  In holy silence we now give thanks for all the memories of their lives on earth.  

Renew your blessing, we pray, on this place, on those we honor today, and on us all as we strive to be your saints on earth.  By the power of the Holy Spirit we will share the precious gift of hope and trust in you to others by the example of our lives until we too are set free to fully live in your heart with those who have gone before us.

We offer our prayers of thanksgiving in the name of the one who conquered death and is the way, the truth and eternal life.  Amen

[Prayer for a service in the memory garden, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH]

PREQUEL TO LAZARUS UNBOUND

This post is something different than I’ve done before.  What follows are the notes I took as I dialogued with the John 11 text about the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Although I am not preaching on this text right now, it’s an example of how I would begin to study a text for preaching.  It is the prequel to the post I wrote earlier this week entitled “Lazarus was unbound, are we?

John 11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”
11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”

John 11 includes the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. There is no suspense or surprise about the outcome of this story.  Most of us know how the story ends, but the various theological assumptions revealed by how people respond to Lazarus’ death are worth careful examination.  (NRSV) 

The passage opens with Mary scolding Jesus for not being there sooner to keep her brother from dying, just as her sister Martha had done in verse 21.  We are not ever told Lazarus’ cause of death, but Martha and Mary apparently believes in a God who won’t let bad things happen to good people.  Earlier in the chapter John makes a point of telling us what a faithful disciple she was by reminding us that Mary has been in charge of the church kitchen for as long as anyone can remember. (Actually it says “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” 11:2).  Mary’s complaint is more confusing because we know from the early part of this chapter that Jesus has said Lazarus will not die, but his illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Vs. 4). 

Does that sound a bit self-centered for Jesus?  It does to me.  John tells us repeatedly how much Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and yet he uses their suffering for his own glorification?  In fact John tells us in verse 6 that “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  And it gets worse.  It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t understand the severity of Lazarus’ condition.  After using the euphemism of sleep to describe Lazarus’ conditions, he learns that, as usual, the disciples don’t get it, “then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”  (Vs. 14).  

All of that is back story and laden with John’s own theological perspective on the divinity of Jesus.  Ironically this passage also is most famous for the shortest verse in the Bible, in some translations, that shows Jesus in one of the most human moments in the Gospels.  Jesus weeps over the death of his dear friend and John tells us twice to be sure we get it that Jesus was “greatly disturbed.”  Even that quite natural emotion in the presence of death gets interpreted differently through two theological lenses.   Some of the spectators see Jesus’ tears as a sign of how much he loved Lazarus while the critics murmur that Jesus who has a great track record of miracles really could have saved Lazarus if he chose to.  

Speaking of theological lenses, John makes sure to let us insider readers of his Gospel know what the real subtext of this whole scene is.  There is a large stone in front of the tomb where Lazarus has been for four days.  Wouldn’t 3 days have been a better analogy to Jesus time in the tomb?  And yes, Martha reminds that the body is going to stink because he is really dead.  And then after John inserts an aside between Jesus and God to be sure we all understand this is all done for the glory of God, Jesus shifts to the imperative tone.  He says in a voice so loud the dead can hear it, “Lazarus, come out!”  

And then he does the second imperative: “Unbind him and let him go!”

What do we need to be unbound from to really come alive?  That question can take those who hear it in many different directions— materialism, nationalism, self-centered ness….

Emptiness – letting go, being unbound from striving for meaning –unbound from fear, doubt, anger, things that don’t satisfy the soul.  For those of us forced to let go of so many things in old age it can be anger, frustration, hopelessness, resentment, or mistrust. 

Lazarus’ resurrection led some to believe and some to go to Caiaphas and start plotting the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb to save the nation.  What rationalization do I use to justify my own selfish desires?