The Naked Truth, Sermon on Genesis 3:1-13

Back in pre-Covid times a pastor stopped at the home of Mary Johnson for a pastoral visit.  When there was no response to his knock he left his card with a note on it that simply said Revelation 3:20.  When Mary found the note she looked up that verse which says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  That Sunday after worship Mary handed the pastor a similarly cryptic note that just said Genesis 3:10.  That verse from our text for today says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked.”

Genesis 3 is part of the second creation story in our Bible.  The first story in Genesis 1 describes 6 days of creation ending with humans created in the image of God, as Pastor Chris reminded us last week.   And at the end of that chapter God pronounces all of creation very good.  Genesis 1 is what theologian Matthew Fox calls our “original blessing.  Scholars believe that chapters 2 & 3 were written by a different author and describe in more narrative form the origin of sin and its consequences. 

I have no scholarly evidence for this, but I have a theory that the author of the second story looked over the sorry state of the human race and said, “This is not very good.  If we were created in God’s image what went wrong?”  Genesis 2 & 3 are an attempt to answer that question.  We sometimes mistakenly think these creation stories are historical descriptions of how we and our universe were created, but they’re not.  No one was around to observe the beginning.  These stories are poetic attempts after the fact by ancient humans to make sense out of why we are here and how we got here.

Here’s a problem I’ve been having recently.  I’ve always been a believer in Imago Dei, which is the Latin term for “in the image of God.”  But I’m having an increasingly hard time believing humans are created in God’s image when I look at the mess our world is in right now.  There have been at least 63 mass shootings in the US in the month of May alone and 242 since January 1. That’s 1.5 mass shootings per day!!  Here in Columbus there have been more than 70 deaths from gun violence already this year which is twice the number compared to the last three years.  I don’t even know how many brown and black people have died at the hands of police since George Floyd was killed a year ago.  Whatever we are doing to address these problems isn’t working, and yet the bitter partisan warfare in Congress keeps any new ideas from even being tried.  And don’t get me started on climate change.  In those Genesis stories God specifically charges humans with being good stewards of God’s creation, and we have failed miserably.

So how do we resolve these conflicting accounts of human nature?  Are we created in God’s image or are we disobedient and selfish like Adam and Eve, wanting to be like God?  The answer is Yes, we are both.  At our very essence humans are in harmony with God and all of creation.  But our image of God is tarnished by the temptations of the world.  There was a commercial years ago for Michelob beer that fanned the flames of consumerism by asking “Who says you can’t have it all?”  God says, that’s who.  God is the creator and we are the creatures, and when we try to reverse that order of things all kinds of calamity ensues.  Our history as a human race constantly at war with one another has left a trail of tears all over this planet.

Another question this text raises is why were Adam and Eve afraid because they were naked?  Is it like when I’m afraid when I look at my naked body in a mirror?  No, this is not about body shaming.  It is a metaphorical nakedness that means we are all spiritually exposed.  God knows us inside and out.  We can run from God and our own sinfulness, but we can’t hide – just ask Adam and Eve. 

Doesn’t being able to take your mask off feel good? We can breathe better after a long year.  Well it also feels good to be unmasked before God because confession is the only pathway to forgiveness.  We can’t be forgiven for something we refuse to acknowledge in our selves.  But this second creation story has all too often been interpreted to mean life is hard for all of us because of Eve’s original sin, which is a bad rap for women because Adam was just as guilty.   

So does this story mean Adam and Eve were punished by being evicted from the Garden?   No, this is a way of explaining why life is so hard, and we make it harder whenever we put anything else first before God. 

One of the best things I’ve been able to do during this Covid year has been to participate via zoom in an excellent book study group with some of our church members and other interested folks.  We have learned a great deal from several books about racism.   One of the added benefits is that the group has introduced me to the work of Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker and research professor at the University of Houston.  Her ideas have come up so often in our discussions that we are on a first-name basis and have made her an honorary member of our group. 

Brene has spent over twenty years studying the effects of shame and guilt on human development and behavior.  She stresses that shame and guilt are not synonymous terms even though we often use them that way.  The distinction Dr. Brown makes is that we feel guilt over a bad thing we have done, but we feel shame when we confuse bad behavior with our basic value as a person.  On one of her podcasts Brene uses a real-life example she actually observed in a classroom where a teacher was berating a student in front of her class for constantly failing to turn in assigned work.  That’s awful enough, but the teacher went on to take the student’s paper and write S T U P I D across the top of it.  In other words the teacher was passing judgment not on the student’s school work but on her value as a person.  I truly hope that teacher has found a new line of work.  I also hope none of us have experienced that kind of shaming from a teacher or parent on a preacher, but I fear many of us have. 

I bring that up because it is critical to the way we interpret the Fall, as this second creation story is often called.  If you aren’t familiar with the consequences for Adam and Eve, hear what the rest of Genesis 3 says: 

“To the woman God said,  ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you’  (As an aside, that verse has been used to justify sexism and patriarchy for millennia, but the women among us already knew that.)

And to the manGod said,  ‘…cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, …’”

Those verses have often been misused to shame people when they really are about guilt, not about shame.  Remember the difference – guilt is for bad behavior, shame is calling someone a bad person.  Bad behaviors have consequences, but they do not forever make us bad people.    Before they were written down these stories were passed down orally for centuries as a way for people to make sense of their lives.  Women wondered why childbirth is so painful, and this story is a pre-scientific attempt to answer that question.  Rather than add a load of guilt to the pain of childbirth why not accept the simple fact that pushing a baby’s head through a very small opening really hurts? 

Similarly, ancient people, like many of us today asked why life is so hard.  Remember this was a very agrarian culture.  There were no Kroger’s in town to buy food.  They had to plant, grow, hunt or harvest everything they needed on land that is mostly desert, and they naturally wanted to know why. 

Unfortunately the story of the Fall has been misused many times by the church to control people by shaming them.  For example, the communion ritual for United Methodists used to include a prayer where congregations were asked to confess by saying, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed.”  And we wondered back then why many people stayed away on Communion Sunday!  Yes, we still need confession more than ever, but we don’t need to be shamed for being the fallible human beings we all are. 

The Gospel is like a meme I saw on Facebook recently which said, “I’m so grateful that neither my sin nor my stupidity keep God from loving me.”  Yes, our lives are often hard, but God loves us all so much that God was willing in Jesus to come and share our experience of life and even death.  That’s what love is; sharing both the joys and sorrows of life with each other, even those who are hard to love.

I recently watched an on-line workshop with Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  Bishop Curry has a recent book out entitled “Love is the Way.” That title sounds a bit simplistic to me given the hurricane of hate we are living in as a society right now.  When it was time for Q&A I asked how can we reconcile the Gospel of love with the righteous anger we see in the Hebrew prophets and even on occasion from Jesus himself.  I didn’t include this, but I often want the angry Jesus who turns over tables in the temple to come and clean up the mess we’ve made of things.

Bishop Curry’s response to my question was that as Christians we must speak out against injustice, but in his words we judge “policies not people.”  In other words hate the sin but love the sinner: call out guilty actions or attitudes, but don‘t try to shame anyone, not even the worst among us. Shaming doesn’t work. Besides, whoever you or I want to nominate as the worst people among us the answer is yes, God still loves those people – all of them; the other – enemies, foreign and domestic – those we fear – or vehemently disagree with – be they across town or across the dining room table. 

God loves them all, and all means all.  Jesus did not say, “Come to me those who look like me, or think like me, or love like me.”  Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Like Adam and Eve, we are all naked before God, no matter how hard we try to hide.    That sounds really scary, but it’s not, because God is Love.  These days we all have to decide where it’s safe to take off your mask.  We are wearing them in our church building still out of love for those who may not be able to be vaccinated, but here’s the Good News – When we come into God’s presence, wherever we are, or to the Lord’s Table we can come just as we are with nothing to hide.  Amen

Originally preached at Northwest UMC, June 6, 2021

“Hurt People Hurt People”

“Hurt people hurt people.”  I first heard this piece of wisdom from Brene Brown, a popular speaker and author.  Brene is a research professor at the University of Houston who spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. I thought about her  words this morning when I awoke to yet one more horror story of 8  people shot to death at an Indianapolis Fed Ex facility. After reading the news article I decided to google that phrase to see where it occurs in Brown’s writing.

I didn’t find it which means I probably heard her say it in one of her podcasts.  But what I discovered is that dozens of people have expressed that phrase in a variety of ways.  One that especially caught my eye was this one: “Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns get passed on generation after generation after generation.  Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.”  That quote is from Yehuda Berg, a contemporary Jewish Rabbi and author, and his words reminded me of a key Christian teaching.  

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-39.)  Nowhere in the Bible is the stark contrast between the different ethics of the two testaments more clearly stated.  Interestingly as different as the older quote in Leviticus 24:19-21 is from Jesus’ teaching; both represent radical new thinking for their time and context.  In the Hebrew Scripture an eye for an eye was an attempt to set boundaries on the amount of revenge a person could take on someone who had wronged him/her.  In other words its aim was to redefine justice so the punishment fit the crime.

Fast forward approximately 600 years and Jesus attempts to set an even higher standard by urging his followers to “turn the other cheek.”  Suffice it to say this is a very high bar to live up to, and most of us who call ourselves Christians fall far short of emulating the sacrificial love of Jesus.  What I like about Berg’s quote on this theme is that he unpacks what it means in terms of how the retaliation ethic results in generation after generation passing that way of living on to their children and grandchildren.

I have no way of knowing what motivated  this recent shooter to commit his violent act, and we may never really know since he, like many of the other mass shooters, killed himself.  We have now learned that he was a 19 year-old man, and that is significant because research into male emotional and mental development has shown that young men are not fully developed in those areas until their early 20’s.  Obviously this young man was not responsible enough to have a gun, much less an assault rifle.

It seems to me the rash of gun violence may have something to do with the stress we have all been under for over a year now due to COVID-19.  We are all hurting, some more than others, from the restrictions, grief and fear from this invisible enemy that has killed 560,000 Americans and millions more globally.  If we are all hurting and hurt people hurt people it makes sense that the stresses of this past year could account for some part of this awful trend. But if that is true why have we not seen similar violence in other countries?

Knowing that it can take less stress in a pandemic to trigger a violent response to others is complicated by the number of guns in this country.  In Moses’ day when the Levitical laws were developed the only weapons available to folks were clubs, swords and spears which could of course be deadly, but they were weapons designed for one-on-one combat.  They could knock out a tooth or put out an eye, but they were not capable of killing multiple people in a matter of a few seconds.  And I would note that weapons had not advanced into the ability to create mass destruction and killing by the time our second amendment was written.

My theory is that the fears and dis-ease of the pandemic motivated frightened people to own firearms, including assault weapons.  There were more guns sold in this country in 2020 than ever before.  Coincidence?  I think not.  And the fact that many radical members of the Republican party want to still live in the days of Levitical law makes the spiral of violence begetting more violence all the more dangerous.  Since I began writing this blog this morning there have been two more incidents of gun violence that I know of in this country.  One was in a Bob Evans restaurant in Canton, Ohio and the other in a routine traffic stop in San Antonio, Texas.  There have been at least 45 mass shootings (which means 4 or more people killed or wounded) already this year.  45!!  That’s about 3 per week.

What is unique about Americans that we cannot resolve this issue?  It took just 1 mass killing in Australia in 1996 to institute strict gun control.  It also only took 1 in New Zealand 2 years ago for them to do the same.  The rash of killings this time in the U.S. began at Columbine in 1999 and has run unabated ever since. Why can’t we Americans agree on common sense gun control?  If guns made us safer we could be the safest country in the world, but that is certainly not the case. 

It is obviously more important in 2021 than ever before and perhaps harder to “Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.” This seems so hard if not impossible to do, but individually for Christians and other pacifists turning the other cheek and breaking the chain reaction of violence is the only way we will survive without creating a whole population of blind, toothless or dead people. 

Grace is Not Transactional

As we were reciting the Lord’s Prayer in worship today I was reminded of an insight I had recently about that prayer. Having said that prayer well over 3000 times in my life I’m embarrassed I didn’t realize this much sooner. In particular I’m talking about the part of the prayer that says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” In our congregation we have replaced the rather nebulous “trespasses” with the much more powerful and truthful “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

For far too long I have been uncomfortable with however we say that line because I thought of the forgiveness there as being a quid pro quo. In other words it is a transaction asking God to forgive me in the same way I forgive others! I always was uncomfortable because if God’s forgiveness is limited to how well I forgive others I am in deep do do. It is a very common anthropomorphic mistake whenever we model God after our own behavior instead of the other way around.

In other words I now understand the second part of the phrase about forgiveness to be our response to God’s unconditional grace and mercy for us. We are once again renewing our promise to forgive those who have wronged us just as God has forgiven us. My recasting those words then becomes “forgive us our sins as we promise again to forgive those who have sinned against us.” That may not be the most accurate translation of the Greek or Aramaic, but I think it is very faithful to the nature of God revealed in Christ.

Forgiveness is one of the essential elements of love. We are all flawed human beings and that line in the Lord’s prayer is first an admission of our own fallibility and then a promise to extend the acceptance and love God gives us to others. It is not a deal or a transaction. Grace is free. All we have to do is humbly ask for it, and when we receive that priceless gift it won’t last if we try to hoard it. We have to pass it on.

Obsessed with Fighting

Garden of Gethsemane:

JESUS

“Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?

PETER

What’s the buzz?
Tell me what’s happening. (Repeat a few times)

PETER AND APOSTLES

What’s the buzz?
Tell me what’s a-happening.
Hang on, Lord,
We’re going to fight for you! (Repeat)

JESUS

Put away your sword
Don’t you know that it’s all over?
It was nice, but now it’s gone.
Why are you obsessed with fighting?
Stick to fishing from now on.” (From “The Arrest” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice)

During this Holy Week when deaths by gun violence are more numerous than commercials during March Madness those lyrics from “Jesus Christ Superstar” speak volumes about the state of our world. I’m especially moved by the question Jesus puts to his disciples, “Why are you obsessed with fighting? Stick to fishing from now on.”

Jesus is asking us Americans the same question 2000 years and hundreds of wars later. These men with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane have been with him throughout his entire ministry. They have heard him preach and teach many times where he has consistently proclaimed a pacifist life style.

They’ve heard him say “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” “forgive 70 x7,” and “love your enemies.” And yet when the armed crowd comes to arrest Jesus Matthew tells us, “Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” (Matt. 26:47-51)

What does Jesus do? Does he commend this disciple for trying to protect him? No, he reprimands him, saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)

For those worried about the servant of the High Priest, he does not end up a forerunner of Vincent Van Gogh. Luke’s account of the arrest includes this verse: “But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Luke 22:51) Because he is not afraid Jesus responds with compassion instead of more violence.

There are many reasons we are still obsessed with fighting, but many flow from a mindset of scarcity which leads to a constant state of fear. The scarcity myth has convinced most of us that life is a zero sum game where we are all in competition with everyone else for whatever it is that we want or think will make us feel secure. The scarcity mindset is the engine that drives our over-consumption economy. We buy new models of cars and electronic gadgets, not because we really need them, but because clever marketers know how to play us. For example, I have a Fitbit Versa Lite that I use to track my daily steps, my sleep patterns, and my heartrate. It shows me text messages and emails in real time. A time traveler from 20 years ago would be blown away by such a marvelous little machine. But then I see people with Apple watches that can do everything my Fitbit does but lets people actually take calls and talk back through their wrists like Secret Service agents or Dick Tracy, and I think I really need one of those. Jealousy is scarcity’s first cousin, and it shows up when I am afraid that I’m not cool enough if I don’t have the very latest technology at my fingertips.

A much more serious form of scarcity fear shows up on the world stage, for example, when the U.S. is afraid we will run out of climate-killing fossil fuel we engage in endless, futile wars in the Middle East where the oil happens to be. On our national scene fear and scarcity rear their ugly heads in so many ways I will just mention a few. A fear of not having enough power results in bitter political divisions that threaten our democracy itself. This shows up in gerrymandering Congressional districts by both political parties to get or preserve their power. This is a hot topic right now as voter suppression laws disguised as “election security” are a national movement. Power scarcity shows up in judicial appointments for life, not based on qualifications of the candidates but on ideological viewpoints and partisan loyalty. And tragically that fear was fed by Trump’s big lie about the election and emerged in full force when people afraid of losing political power stormed the U. S. Capitol on January 6.

Sadly, fear is personified in the epidemic of gun violence in this country–from Columbine 22 years ago to Orange County California yesterday. Fear is a vicious cycle. After each mass shooting gun sales go up because people are afraid and want to protect themselves and their families and property. I get that, but we are at a point where fear is turning into paranoia where far too many people who shouldn’t feel the need to be armed. Then when an argument occurs somewhere and escalates into a situation that would have been settled with fists years ago instead results in a fatality.

Any reasonable person can see that responsible gun owners don’t need assault weapons designed for one thing by the military–to kill other human beings. But fear warps our thinking. We fear that “they,” whoever they are, may have more fire power than we do, and the cycle of armament proliferation on our streets is the same scarcity mentality that plays out internationally in nuclear arms races and spending obscene amounts of money on weapons of mass destruction.

The scarcity fear goes clear back to Cain and Abel; so there seems little hope it will be solved anytime soon, but it surely would help if more of us can take a step back and ask ourselves why am I, why is humankind still obsessed with fighting when it ultimately doesn’t work. Jesus’ warning is oh so true, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Righteous Anger: Cymbal or Symbol

We are half way through March, and I can’t remember a day this year that I have not have read about another shooting in Columbus every time I open the local newspaper or turn on the local news.  Gun violence in upscale malls and communities of color, hate crimes against my sisters and brothers who are Asian Americans,  the pain of illness and aging my family members are going through!  I’m mad and I don’t know what to do with my anger.

The violence became more personal this morning when a beloved Asian American sister and friend invited our church staff to a prayer vigil tomorrow to pray for an end to the fear and violence against Asian Americans.  And yes I am angry at Donald Trump and those who cannot see or refuse to see the harm they are doing.   I know I need to love them and forgive them, but this crap lies squarely at Trump’s feet for his racist speeches about the pandemic and China.  Forgive 70 x 7?  He’s gone way over that total years ago, and I feel helpless about letting that anger eat at me!

But I don’t know what to do with the anger that would be constructive.  I want the temple-table turning-over Jesus right now, not the “love your enemies” one. And yet that same Jesus says “put away your swords” to those who would protect him, who forgives his executioners and their ignorance.  It’s too much.  I can’t love like that, and I’m ashamed to admit it.  If I cannot be part of the solution I am part of the problem.  If I can’t confess my white privilege and witness against the systemic racism in our country “I am a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13) instead of a symbol for love and justice.

I’m so longing for Easter but know we are a long way from the empty tomb, and the path that leads there goes through Gethsemane and the place of the skull.  Isn’t there a short cut, a way around the passion and suffering, a way to avoid the mess and the command to take up a cross and follow Jesus?

I know the answer to that question.  So I just keep praying to the source of all being to “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days1” and for the faith and strength

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

To right the un-rightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star.2

  1. “The Impossible Dream,” Mitch Leigh and Joe Darian
  2. “God of Grace and God of Glory,” Harry Emerson Fosdick

Patience

Many years ago my grandchildren were big fans of Thomas the Tank Engine. I still remember from those days a song that I heard multiple times from that show which said “Patience is a virtue.” I wish all of us pandemic-weary people could take that advice to heart.

Biblically two of my favorite verses proclaim the same advice. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46:10) And “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…” (Isaiah 40:31)

Be still and wait; two things that we instant gratification Americans are very poor at doing, especially 12 long months into a pandemic. I get that, and I too am tired of masking and sanitizing my hands every whip stich. So I understand why some impatient governors have lifted all restrictions even as health experts urge them not to.

I understand why we cold northerners want to flock to warm, sunny beaches for spring break. I get it, but it is too soon. We are able now to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but it is still a long way for us to journey before we get to the light.

One of my literary heroes is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I wish I could be more like carefree and adventurous Zorba, but it is Nikos, the narrator of the story and Zorba’s companion that I really identify with.

There’s a moment in the Zorba story where Nikos finds a cocoon with a butterfly just beginning to emerge. Seeing the butterfly struggling to be born Nikos holds the cocoon in the palm of his hand and blows his warm breath on it to speed up the process, which it does. But then to Nikos’ horror the beautiful butterfly struggles to unfurl its wings, but because it has been born prematurely its wings are stuck together and will not spread out. The butterfly dies there in Nikos’ hand.

In the musical made about Zorba it is there that Nikos’ sings a lament called “The Butterfly” which includes these lyrics:

“Every man/woman has a moment and I’m waiting for mine, when I’m finally free.
But I mustn’t be hurried.
Give me light…give me time.
Like the butterfly…
Not too fast, not too fast,
Let it grow, let it last,
Nature knows when and why… Think about the story of the butterfly.”

Here’s the rest of what Isaiah says in 40:31: “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.”

This is one of those times when we need to be still and wait patiently.

From Lament to Repent

My church is using “Lament” as the theme for worship this Lenten season. I wrote the following piece as one of the daily devotions for this Lent.

Most of the times I lament it is because of something painful or unjust (at least in my mind) that has happened to me or someone I care about.  But recently I had an experience that reminded me that sometimes laments can also lead to confession of something wrong I’ve done or a good thing I failed to do. 

I am part of a group from our church that is studying a book called “Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation” by Latasha Morrison.  We’ve just read and discussed the first chapter so far, but Morrison has already challenged me with some provocative and uncomfortable questions at the end of Chapter 1.  For example, “Have you studied the history of non-White cultures in America and how those cultures came to be here?  If so, what books and articles have you read and what videos and documentaries have you watched about the history of those cultures prior to their forced migration?”  I am embarrassed to admit that my answers to those questions were very short.

That experience reminded me of one of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Scriptures (II Samuel 12) where the prophet Nathan confronts King David with his sin in taking Bathsheba from her husband Uriah in a most diabolical manner.  Nathan approaches David with a parable about a rich man who takes his poor neighbor’s sheep instead of killing one of his own large flocks for a big dinner party.  David of course recognizes the injustice and says, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”   And Nathan simply says to David, “You are the man!”

I like that story because I’ve always seen it as someone else getting his or her comeuppance, but this time the shoe was on the other foot. Through reading this book I heard God clearly saying to me “Steve, you are the man!”  It took my laments over the systemic racism that has infected our American history for 400 years and how I have blamed others for that horrible injustice and held a mirror up to my own guilt.   So now I can lament my own failure to do more to address this critical mistreatment of God’s beloved children of color. 

The hope in that process is summed up this way in “Be the Bridge:”  “I have seen awareness lead people out of denial and ignorance, into lamentation, and ultimately into racial solidarity.”

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