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.  

Waves of Grief

Once upon many times I have heard/read that grief comes in waves, but I have not fully realized until recently how true that is. In the past I managed to keep myself so busy doing multiple jobs, going to school till I was 48, parenting et al, you get the workaholic picture, that I didn’t allow myself to grieve that much over the deaths of my parents. I buried myself in busyness much as I learned to dive under a wave so it would not hit me full force. Thus I was able to keep grief at arm’s length.

My mom died much too young 27 years ago this month and my dad just two years ago. But now I am a stage of life where lots of friends and colleagues are dying regularly, people much to close to my own age. Combine that with living in the suspended animation of 2020 while retired and I have more time to let those waves of grief come ashore.

I had two such experiences in the last two days. Yesterday I participated in a virtual gathering of clergy from our West Ohio Annual Conference. I confess I have not attended many of these annual clergy sessions since I retired, but since I could do so this year from the comfort of my home office I decided to “attend,” if only to see how the technology worked. And it did amazingly well, and attendance was at a record high; which may lead to a new way of conferencing post-pandemic.

This clergy session is where people are approved for ordination and at the other end of the spectrum for retirement. I had forgotten that the agenda also includes recognition of clergy members who have died in the past year. I didn’t know any of the new ordinands, but I certainly new a lot of the names on the list of those who had died, including my dear friend and mentor Russell Sawmiller who I wrote about when he died earlier this year. When those names were read and prayed for, a mini-wave of grief washed over me. It made the deaths more real to see them there in print. Obituaries do the same thing for me.

This evening I got a note on Facebook from a woman I didn’t remember, and when I asked how we knew each other she said she had worked as a secretary for a short time when Russ and I worked together at Indianola UMC in Columbus, Ohio almost 50 years ago. Darla and I chatted for a few minutes on Messenger, reminiscing about the good times we remember from that chapter in our lives, and when we finished I thought “I can’t wait to tell Russ about my conversation with Darla!” And a big old wave knocked me head over heels as I remembered I can’t go tell Russ anything.

And while I’m on a roll I’ll add another mini-wave incident. I’ve had the flag from my father’s casket for over two years now and it has been in a plastic case provided by the funeral home all that time. A very good friend noticed the flag on a book case in my office recently when we were on a zoom call with a mutual friend. He said he had made wood and glass cases for flags for other people and would like to do one for me. It came via UPS yesterday, and putting the flag in the case and finding some of Dad’s WWII medals in the plastic case all brought up feelings of regret and appreciation for Dad again.

I have spent many vacations near different oceans and have experienced all kinds of waves—gentle ones that just lap at your ankles and angry ones that beat me up and tried to pull me out to sea with strong undertows. When I first thought about writing this post I was thinking more about ocean tides than waves, but I soon realized one major difference. The times for tide changes are so predictable and regular that they are published on charts that tell fisher people and beach goers, back when we could do that, exactly down to the minute when each high and low tide will be on any given day.

Waves are not predictable. They can lull one into a sense of false security, and then when least expected smack you upside the head with a big one. Grief is more like waves than tides. There are certainly times when feelings of grief can be predicted to arise—holidays, anniversaries of memorable events and of the day of death. But more often there are unpredictable waves of grief that just happen—driving by the place a loved one lived, attending the church where a service was held, hearing a particular song, looking at a picture, or just a memory that pops into one’s head uninvited. All of that is normal, and there is no right way to experience those waves or to predict how long they will last.

I knew a woman once who had been told that the normal period of grief for a spouse was two years, and she believed that as gospel. So she expected to grieve for two years, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy for her. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s great to have people come along side to share the experience when we want company, but each of us has to find our way through the grief journey in our own unique ways. As for me, I wish I had been more receptive and aware of my waves in the past, but I can’t go back and do remedial grief. I can only experience memories and emotions now in the present and welcome them with gratitude whenever they come along and actually choose to pay attention.

Stages of Grief in a Pandemic

I have been angry and depressed a lot lately, and I have been reflecting on how the stages of grief made famous by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might help us figure out how to navigate a pandemic better. The five stages of grief Dr. Kubler Ross described are: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. These stages are not linear or in any particular order and are most often thought of in terms of dealing with grieving the death of a loved one. But they can be helpful in understanding any kind of significant loss, including the loss of freedom, normal routines, contact with friends, family, etc. caused by Covid-19.

Denial: we have all been in this stage from time to time in the last few months, from the President on down. Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. None of us wants to believe a loved one is gone forever or that our health and ability to do normal activities has been drastically curtailed. I remember hearing the news that the Arnold Classic, a huge annual event with huge economic ramifications here in Columbus, Ohio had been cancelled. It was the first real evidence we had a serious problem, and I found it hard to believe when I heard that news. In retrospect it was a great decision made with courage and great insight by our government leaders. An event of that size that brought thousands of people to Columbus from all over the world would have been devastating to Ohio and made the death toll from the Coronavirus so much worse.

Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. It’s a defense mechanism that helps shut our bodies down the way novacaine numbs your gums to withstand the pain of a tooth filling or extraction. But denial is a stage, not a destination. We need to go there to survive a shock, but we can’t pitch a tent and stay there as a way to deny reality on a long term basis. Unfortunately the U.S. has failed in our response to the the pandemic because key leaders, including the President have hindered essential responses to the virus by denying the reality of the crisis. People who follow the lead of those who ignore the uncomfortable advice of experts from the medical and scientific communities are living in denial and get stuck in the grieving process, which in this case has deadly consequences not only for them but for our whole society.

Anger: Like spoiled children we all feel some level of anger when told we can’t do something we really want to do. I was really mad in the spring when my all time favorite sports events were killed off one after another in just a few days in March. College basketball tournaments died first and then in rapid order March Madness and the Masters golf tournament. In a blink of an eye my favorite few weeks of the year were felled like dominoes lined up back to back.

Students and families were robbed of graduations, final sports seasons for seniors dropped like flies, wedding plans trashed and countless other special occasions died painful deaths. And as the whole rest of the school year was cancelled and our economy shuttered the frustrations and anger increased exponentially as weeks dragged into months. Since it’s hard to be angry at an invisible enemy our anger got directed at public health officials who were just trying to do their jobs, at courageous governments leaders who made difficult and unpopular decisions to shut down any and everything we enjoy doing. Throw that kind of anger into an already politically divided society and you have armed protestors descending on state houses and the homes of public health officials, and that anger gets misdirected into rebellion against simple requests for the good of us all like wearing masks.

A friend of mine expressed that anger well when he said he rebelled at being told he had to wear a mask at a local retailer. His response, more fitting for a child than an adult, was to wear his mask on the back of his head. His argument, like those who decry the loss of their personal liberty, was that if asked to wear a mask he would have complied, but when he was told he had to that offended his personal freedom.

Depression: As our ability to deny a loss or lessen the pain with anger prove ineffective it is easy to fall into depression. When we feel powerless to change a situation and helpless to do anything about it depression is a natural and normal emotion to feel. And because we are still not good at talking about mental health issues it is easy for this one to be compounded by denying our depression. I was at the doctor this week and had to fill out a medical history and check any previous or current illnesses, and when I came to “depression” and “anxiety” I was reluctant to check those boxes even though I am currently in therapy and taking medications for both. When we are already feeling down or overwhelmed by other life issues or crises throwing a pandemic into the mix is like putting gas on a fire. Depression and its cousins, fear, worry, and despair in some degree are affecting us all just now, and as we are seeing a new surge of cases it is easy to play the blame game, go into victim mode and be overwhelmed.

Multiple grief over jobs, chronic illness, loss of contact with loved ones and friends, and support communities, loss of physical closeness and contact with others all compound the tendency to despair and surrender to our frustrations. Zoom contacts with friends, teachers, business colleagues, congregations and other significant contacts are a godsend, but they cannot replace real live human contact. Even those of us who are introverts are admitting we need people.

Bargaining: In the case of physical death and mortality this stage is characterized by promises to do x, y, or z if we or a loved one can just live a little longer or a miracle cure can be found to postpone the inevitable. In pandemic grief I’m not sure what this stage looks like. For some of us it may be if we are spared from this plague we will change our ways and correct some flaw in our lives. It may be a bargain for a loved one to be kept safe from the virus in spite of their risky behavior. This stage can take many forms; so it’s just good to be aware of when we find ourselves in that deal making mode with God or whomever we are negotiating with.

Acceptance: There’s no timeline or “normal” prognosis for how long it takes to get to the stage of accepting a loss we are grieving. Every person and every situation and relationship is different. Sometimes when we know a loved one or even oneself is dying there is time to do anticipatory grief, to be prepared, to say good bye, to make peace with the coming reality. Other times loss is sudden and unexpected and all the grieving must be done after the loss of a job or a relationship or a life. But regardless of the circumstances or timeline, good grief moves us toward a state of acceptance and peace with a new reality. This stage does not mean there will not be days when anger or denial come surging back like Covid-19, but those pangs of sadness become less frequent and less painful the more accepting we are of our new normal.

And so it is with this nasty virus. The more we can accept the reality of how pervasive and deadly this disease is, the better we can cope on a daily basis and the sooner we will be free of its hold on our lives. If we are impatient and fall back into denial and angry foolish behavior we jeopardize everyone’s life and prolong the hardship both personal and economic.

Acceptance does not mean being happy with the new reality. I am not happy that my parents are dead but I have learned to accept the reality that I am now an orphan and the oldest living member of my family. Am I sometimes angry or depressed about that, sure, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to believe all those things are true. Am I tired of wearing a mask and debating if it’s safe to go shopping or to see my kids, you bet. I’m exhausted by having my routines in life screwed up for over 3 months and for the foreseeable future.

I know that our collective denial in the early days of the pandemic cost us many lives. I know that on-going denial of the cold hard facts by the President and misinformation by his favorite news outlets is going to cost more lives and economic hardship. If wishing could make this virus go away it would have disappeared months ago. If firing the messengers who bring us inconvenient facts would change reality I’d be all for it. But that’s not how viruses work, and the sooner we as a total society accept the reality of our situation we will begin to win this fight. And if we don’t the awful history of how people rebelled against masks and restrictions during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and created a second and third wave much more deadly than the first will be repeated. So please friends, wear your mask. It won’t kill you, but denying the need to do so may kill us both.

Happy Father’s Day to My Village

My relationship with my biological father wasn’t all Hallmark warm and fuzzy. Dad and I butted heads over lots of things, from rigid rules in my teen years to how to parent my kids, politics and theology. We made our peace before he died and I’m glad we did. But I just realized recently how unfair it is to expect any parent to provide all the physical, emotional and spiritual nurture and guidance a child needs. As the old proverb says, “It takes a village.”

That has me reflecting today on all the father figures who helped shape who I am: uncles, teachers, scout leaders, pastors, Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, friends, colleagues, bosses, professors and mentors of all kinds. I’ve even learned a bunch about being a better human being from my own kids and step-son. Watching them grow and become the wonderful parents and good human beings they are is the most rewarding part of my life.

The thank you letter I wrote earlier this week to a former boss was just one of so many letters like that I could write. I remember a young pastor from a Lutheran church in my home town. He probably didn’t even know who this young Methodist was, but he had a big influence on the path my life took without ever knowing it. I was a teenager struggling with my call to ministry. Up to that point in my life the only pastors I had known were older men that were hard for me to identify with. To be honest they were both very uncool. But one day I was in the park near our home and I stopped to watch a church softball game on one of the diamonds. And there playing third base like a regular guy was Lutheran Pastor Dave Ullery. I immediately had a huge ah hah moment – I could be a pastor and still be a regular human being. Pastor Ullery had unknowingly removed one of the obstacles to my accepting God’s call on my life, just by being himself.

That softball memory triggered another sports one about several of my uncles who played catch with me and let me practice with their little league teams when I was still too young to actually be on the team. My dad wasn’t into sports at all, and I missed being able to share that love of mine with him, but these other father figures were there to play a role that he couldn’t.

My father figures list could go on forever. Harold Taylor, my high school chemistry and physics teacher who invited me to his home in the evenings to help me prepare to take state scholastic tests, a campus minister who opened my eyes to new ways to think about religion and social justice, numerous professors in college, seminary and grad school who widened my whole perspective on the world and beyond.

Were any of these men perfect role models? Nope. Have I been a perfect father-figure for my kids and others in my churches and youth groups? Heavens no! I cringe to remember all the times I wasn’t there for my kids and youth group kids. I remember writing a story in a college English class about a Dad who was so active in his church and community service that he neglected his own family — not intentionally, but because of the other good things he was doing. He wasn’t hanging out the bar or the country club. He was doing “good” stuff. Did I heed my own advice when I became a father? Somewhat, but there was far too much time spent out in the evenings at church meetings, too many weekends on youth retreats or wrestling with difficult sermons.

How do parents balance family and career? If I had any easy answers I’d gladly share them for free, but I don’t. I just know that we dads (and moms) need to cut ourselves some slack and be grateful that we share parenthood with a whole village of others who can be there when we can’t, who can be there in ways that we can’t. And together that village weaves a tapestry that is a picture of our lives. So, love your fathers and celebrate the whole cloud of witnesses who helped raise you and are still supporting you today, even if it’s on zoom or from heaven. I’m giving my village a big virtual group hug, and I hope you will to.

As I reread this piece I had a sharp pain as God reminded me that there are millions of kids in our nation and world who don’t have a village to raise them, who have no father to provide for them and protect them. That both makes me more grateful for my own village and makes me pray for guidance about what I can do and we can do as a society to be better at creating villages where fewer children fall through the cracks.

P.s. I am not excluding all of the women in my village who were just as influential in my life, but this is Father’s Day. I’ll get to my mother-figures and sister-figures another day.

Fight the Good Fight

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” II Timothy 4:7

Listening to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s daily update on the COVID-19 war yesterday reminded me of one of my all-time go-to quotes from my favorite authors. The passion and effectiveness of the Governor’s plea to every Ohioan to do their part in this battle moved me. I have been very grateful for his leadership and that of Dr. Amy Acton, our Director of Public Health during this whole crisis.

But yesterday I was impressed by the Governor’s rhetorical style. He did what I always urged my preaching class students to do, i.e. use Aristotle’s holistic appeal to reason, emotion and will. The Governor gave us something to think about, something to feel and then a call to action. To paraphrase, he said that every night when he goes to bed he asks himself if he has done everything he could to help lessen the deadly impact of this pandemic, and then he urged every one of us to ask ourselves the same question every night.

Helplessness in the face of this crisis is a common feeling for all of us. We can easily focus too much on all the things we can’t do right now. But the Governor reminded us we are not helpless. There is one vital thing we can all do that will help flatten the now familiar curve and save lives. And that thing is to simply stay home and do absolutely nothing that will endanger ourselves or the lives of others.

So here’s the quote from Nikos Kazantzakis:

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.
My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (“Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

We will survive this pandemic if we all do our part. How do you plan to fight it today?

Be safe and well.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Pastoral Prayer on John 4

O Gracious God, it’s hard to know where to start today. It’s a day of National Prayer inspired by a pandemic. But for people of faith every day is a day of prayer. Please hear the deep desires of our souls that defy expression in mortal language.

We’re thirsty, Lord, but not for the water we can store up in our pantries and garages. We’re thirsty for living water, for blessed assurance that we don’t have to keep social distance from your eternal spirit. Remind us again of the wilderness time of our ancestors who were also thirsty, and you provided water and manna to sustain the–one day at a time. Like us they couldn’t see where they were going. They had no GPS that would give them an ETA. They didn’t know how long their wilderness time would last, and neither do we.

The Hebrew pilgrims were scared and wanted to go back to the familiar life they knew in Egypt, even if that meant being enslaved again. We’d like to go back too, God, to the “normal” routines we had just a week ago. We don’t always like our jobs or our schools, but they look really good to us now that we have to suspend them.

It’s no use hiding our fears and feelings from you, Lord. We know what the Samaritan woman at the well learned, that you know everything about us. You know some of us are mourning the loss of March Madness. Remind us of others who mourn the loss of loved ones. Some of us are already feeling trapped at home and getting cabin fever. But we know there are others who have no home to go to. We know health care workers would love to spend time with their families, and we thank you for all of those who are sacrificing their own safety on the front lines of this global struggle with a deadly invisible foe.

Calm our fearful hearts, Holy One. Help us be scared without being scary in the ways we treat others. Save us from playing the blame game so we can focus on accepting and living faithfully in the uncomfortable present. Most of us know little about the struggle for existence that people face every day in other places in our world. Forgive us our self-preoccupation. Guide us by the power of your Holy Spirit through this wilderness so we can live out of the abundance of your Living Water instead of a scarcity mentality fueled by fear.

Comfort us and everyone who is suffering just now. We pray for those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, especially for those in nursing homes and their caregivers. We pray for young people whose dreams have been shattered by cancellations of tournaments, performances and educational opportunities. Save us from dispensing pious platitudes about “learning life lessons” and show us how to just offer empathy and love instead.

Guide our government leaders on every level. Inspire the researchers desperately searching for ways to unlock the mystery of this virus. Help us all learn from this time in the wilderness so that when we emerge on the other side, whenever that is, we may be a stronger and better people, not just in America but in unity with our sisters and brothers around the world. For this virus has shown us how interdependent we really are on this little planet.

You have also taught us again the true danger of storing up our treasures on earth. Most of us have less net worth today than we did a week ago, by the world’s standards. Please don’t let our fear about that loss reduce our compassion for those who had no worldly net worth to start with. As our financial standard of living declines please let our standard of loving increase faster than this virus can spread.

Finally, O well of eternal wisdom; help us to be open to the heavenly surprises around us even in dark days. The water we are thirsting for may come from a total stranger like a woman at a well, even one we consider an enemy. May we, like that woman, go and share the good news of the Gospel with others in new and creative ways. We know fear is contagious, Lord. Remind us again that love and hope are even more so. Quench our thirst; give us living water that we may find ways even now to start an epidemic of compassion and love. Amen

Life-long Learning: Gratitude 101

Three and a half weeks ago I saw a “self-help” suggestion on Facebook about gratitude. I don’t believe in “self-help” because I know I don’t change without help from other people and/or God. But because I’m going through yet another late-life metamorphosis and because a very wise physical therapist helped me understand brain function better last year I was open to a challenge. After all it sounded a lot easier than the ice bucket thing we did a few years ago. (I wrote about the brain physiology in a piece about a post hole digger last October, “21-day Attitude Adjustment,” but here’s the gist of what I learned from my PT: She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.)

The challenge this time was to express gratitude for at least three things every day for 21 days with the promise being that after that spiritual practice the habit of being more grateful would be established. Because it actually helped this old dog learn some new tricks I want to share my experience.

I recorded my gratitude in my journal, and yes some days I had to really work at finding things to be thankful for. The list some days included simple conveniences we take for granted, like a working furnace on a cold winter day and ran the gamut from catching a green light while driving to getting good results from a prostate biopsy. Here’s what I’ve noticed after 25 plus days of this experiment. I am more at peace and more grateful for life in general. It has become a habit for me to look for things to be thankful for in situations where I usually would have gone victim to my circumstances or failure to accomplish some simple task on the first try. For example, when the toilet got stopped up a few days ago instead of throwing up my hands in frustration because my other activities were interrupted I reminded myself to be grateful for indoor plumbing and went about the crappy job of clearing the clog.

Being more positive was also a major factor in my decision to take a sabbatical from all political discourse this week. I am in day 6 of that 7-day sabbatical and finding it refreshing for my soul. (I will definitely continue this sabbatical into Lent in some modified form.) I’m listening to music and books on tape instead of 24/7 political diatribes. I still care deeply about the fate of our country and our planet, but I’ve decided that being angry about things without creative action is not only useless but unhealthy for me and those around me. Instead I chose to sign up to do some volunteer work for a local candidate, a concrete action that supports my values and the democratic process.

As an aside, I need to give a shout out to my wife Diana and another good friend who have been trying to tell me for months that my negative feelings about our current political mess were unhealthy, and as my friend put it “interfering with my walk with God.” I didn’t want to or couldn’t hear those words then. They aren’t the theological language I would use, but they are true; and yes truth is liberating (John 8:32).

For me truth often makes me angry before it sets me free. I don’t take criticism well. I get defensive. But this time I have new ears, at least for now, to hear truth, and I am grateful. I give thanks for those who put up with my negativity and anger and believed in me when I didn’t.

No, this is not a “happily ever after” story. I still get angry at times when things don’t go my way. But I’ve learned in these three and half weeks to be more grateful for second, third and forty-third chances to learn from my mistakes and try again. I’m also grateful for the freedom to share my thoughts and feelings and for those who take time to read my ramblings. “Self-help” is a misnomer. Communal and divine support is what life is about. And I’m here to tell you we are never too old to learn and relearn that lesson.

Thanks be to God.

INTROVERT PSA

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me – a much-needed rest! For my fellow introverts that sentence needs no explanation, but for the other 75% of the population this is a PSA. That acronym has new meaning for me since my prostate started acting up several years ago, but in this instance it means what it originally meant, a Public Service Announcement.

First indulge me a bit of introspection, because that’s what introverts do best. I’ve been a bah-humbug kind of guy when it comes to how we Americans celebrate Christmas for as long as I can remember. I’ve attributed that to two things – the hectic work schedule of church professionals in December and my disdain for the way commercialism has hijacked the essence of the Christmas message.

But lo and behold this old dog can still have a new insight, and this year it dawned on me that my introverted personality may be an even bigger factor in my attitude about the holiday season. First, let’s be clear I’m not talking about the common misunderstanding that having an introverted personality style means being “shy.” Introverts can be just as out-going, warm, and friendly as extroverts. The difference is being all those things takes a lot more energy for introverts than extroverts because of the way the two personality types are energized.

Introverts need some downtime, some solitude to recharge their batteries, and that kind of quiet time is hard to come by in the busyness of the holiday season. Extroverts on the other hand naturally get more energized from being around people in all the family, business and social gatherings that December has to offer. And here’s an important fact that all of us need to understand. Research shows that about 75% of Americans have an extroverted personality preference and 25% are introverts. That’s important because the majority of the population is naturally going to set the tempo and determine what kind of culture we have; therefore all of us live in a world better suited to extroverts than introverts.

That’s not a judgment. Neither personality type is better or worse than the other. They are just two different ways we are wired, and we can’t change that. My anecdotal/personal experience with that is that I’ve taken a variety of personality type indicator tests, and even when I “cheat” and try to give answers that I think are what an extroverts would say I still score as an introvert.
One’s personality preference per se is not a problem. Introverts can function well in extroverted situations and vice versa, but it helps everyone to get along better if we realize how such situations affect our energy levels. For example, my wife Diana and I had a very full social calendar from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. During that 9 day period we had at least one and often more activities scheduled on 8 of those days. All of them were fun (except for a couple painful football and basketball games that didn’t turn out as we hoped) and with people we love and enjoy being around. For Diana, an extrovert, being with family and friends, going to parties, a concert, celebrating the New Year and her January 1st birthday were energizing. (Although I think even she is ready for a break now.)

For me, and I’m guessing for other introverts, that same string of busy days and nights felt like a marathon with precious little time to catch my breath and recharge my batteries. I share all that because having this insight a few days ago helped me pace myself a bit and accept myself and others for who we are and how we function. That understanding helped me feel less resentful about the hyper-extroverted way we do Christmas. I hope it is helpful to others as well.

Early January is a time for all of us to slow down and breathe, but it’s a necessity for us introverts. Happy 2020!!

Vita Interruptus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Well with My Body, Sermon on II Corinthians 12:7b-10

Those who know me might think the title of this sermon is a belated April fool’s joke. But it’s not. Our Lenten sermon series has been about spiritual wellness that comes not because of but in spite of the brokenness around us – broken systems, broken hearts, or broken bodies. And for some reason when we got to the theme of broken bodies everybody turned to look at me.

I am at the age where it seems the favorite pastime among my peers is to report on our aches and pains – even though we have all sworn we wouldn’t be like that when we got old. But if you are younger or fortunate to have fewer physical ailments than I do this sermon is still for you. When Paul says he asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh we think it must be some physical problem he had—arthritis, glaucoma, neuropathy? No wait that’s my medical chart. Seriously, biblical scholars have tried to figure out what Paul’s thorn was for 2000 years, and we still don’t know.

But it doesn’t matter because this text is not medical, it’s theological. It invites us to wrestle with the question of how we as Christians cope with the pains of life – physical, emotional, or relational, and we all have one or more of those. We even describe other frustrations as physical. We say “she/he’s a real pain in the neck” (or some other body part). A cartoonist depicts one such idea about Paul’s thorn like this.

One of my new year’s resolutions back in January was to be able to cope better with my chronic pain. Instead I learned again that it pays to be careful what one asks for. Less than a week into 2019 I was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, God! Now I’m sure I’ve asked God way more than three times to take away my aches and pains, but the answer I keep getting is the same one Paul got — which is “no.” Paul says God told him “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Today’s text also says, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” Other translations say “to keep me humble.” I don’t know how long it took but Paul came to understand that his problem served to keep him humble. I do know that when I stop focusing on my own problems and pay attention to people with more severe physical pain than I have that works for me too. I am in awe of those of you who come faithfully to church using a walker or a wheelchair, or wearing a knee brace, or in between chemo treatments–who keep a positive attitude in spite of the slings and arrows life has thrown at you.

What Paul learned from his thorn in the flesh is that we have to learn to deal with the hand we are dealt. It doesn’t have to be fair or even understandable – it just is what it is. God is not some supernatural magician who can pronounce a holy abracadabra and take away our pain. Our God is one who suffers with us and gives us the strength to carry on no matter what.

You’ve probably heard it said that we can’t control things that happen to us; all we can control is how we respond to the challenges of life. If that sounds like a cliché it’s because it is. But it’s also true. I had the privilege to witness that in action over the last few years as my father and mother-in-law both dealt with very similar end of life issues. Diana’s mother, Mary, was confined to a wheelchair and lived in assisted living for 9 years. She didn’t just have a thorn, she had a whole rosebush! She had plenty to be unhappy about, but she was always cheerful, content and pleasant in spite of all that. My dad was in similar physical condition in his final years, but his attitude was entirely different. He was angry and never satisfied with anything. He resented his circumstances and made life difficult for those caring for him and also for himself.

I don’t say that to be judgmental because I’m much more like my father than my mother-in-law. All too often I throw myself a pity party and catastrophize my problems even though I know better. I know that words matter especially how our self-talk shapes our attitude toward the challenges we face in life.

For example, I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing this sermon so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my thesaurus gave me were: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is we get to choose how we want to label what we’re feeling.

Another way of saying that is that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Pain is part of the human condition. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t, it comes with the territory. I find the Buddhist explanation for suffering very helpful. Buddhism says that we suffer because we are too attached to the things of this world which are all temporary, including these mortal bodies we are privileged to inhabit for a while.

My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about learning to let go — letting go of stuff I don’t need, letting go of things I can no longer do while humbly asking for help when I need it. Letting go frees up energy to celebrate the things I can do, and to give thanks for more wisdom gained through life experience.

If a picture is worth a thousand words (or has that number gone up with inflation?) then this one is definitely worth that much.

Letting go is important practice for the ultimate letting go that comes with mortality. But I would hasten to add that letting go doesn’t mean surrender. It doesn’t mean quitting all the things that give life meaning. It means finding ways to still do what we enjoy. Remember, nowhere in the Bible is there any talk of letting go of serving God and our neighbors. In fact one sure way to not be turned in on myself and my problems is to find ways to help others.

Humility means letting go of our need to control things. God’s answer to Paul is that our weakness allows God to be our strength. It boils down to God saying, “I’m God and you’re not – so trust me.” Those are great words to remember if you’re heading into surgery or awaiting a birth of a baby. Letting go of our need to control, of having things our way can also free us of anxiety, worry and fear which are all stressors that only make our physical pains hurt more. As the 12 step programs put it, “Let go and let God.”

I realized this week that humility is so central to our faith that it serves as bookends to the season of Lent. Every year we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. We put the mark of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, and the traditional words that are said are from Genesis 3:19: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We don’t say that to be morbid, but to remind us all of our place in creation. Yes, we will all die someday, and making our peace with mortality makes every day of life all that more precious.

And at the end of Lent we have the ultimate example of what humility looks like in Jesus. The night before he was crucified Jesus prays for his thorn to be taken from him. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Father, if it’s possible take this cup from me.” We’ve all prayed that prayer. I know I have many times. But what makes Jesus’ example so important are the words that a come next: “Not my will but yours be done.”

I don’t pretend to have that kind of faith. Paul says he’s achieved contentment with “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I’m not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them. But I do believe the secret to abundant life is what Paul describes elsewhere in Philippians 4:11 where he says he has learned to “be content with whatever I have” or as some translations put it “to be content in whatever state I’m in.”

A couple of years ago I chose Psalm 90 as the Scripture I read and meditated on during Lent. Mornings are the worst time for my discomfort; so I really identify with this part of that Psalm: “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).

Pity-party Steve gravitates to the first phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away.

But the Psalmist has a much deeper request that works for every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and because of our overreliance on quick, easy remedies we have an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is simply unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

And that is exactly what Paul means when he says God’s grace is sufficient – it’s all we need, no matter what kind of pain we are dealing with.
I want to leave you with a story from Robert Fulghum about how we deal with pain and suffering. Fulghum is best known for writing “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In one of his other books he tells about an experience in his early twenties when he worked for a country resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz; Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner.

Sigmund listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Fulghum says, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

When we are tempted to turn inconveniences into problems, God says, “Let go. I’ve got this.” And our best response is, “OK, not my will but yours be done.”

Preached on April 7, 2019, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio