Dueling Psalms, 130 vs. 19


No, that 130-19 is not a lopsided NBA finals basketball score! It’s the score of my attitude adjustment a few days ago when I awoke in one of those woe-is-me moods and thought of the lament known as De Profundis in Psalm 130. That’s Latin for “O crap I have to face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” My arthritis was nagging at me, my chronic back trouble was moving up the pain scale, and the news was full of more terrorist attacks and hate crimes. Reading the newspaper over my morning coffee used to be one of my favorite times of the day. I still do it out of a sense of duty to be an informed citizen, but it has become an increasingly depressing task.

Psalm 130 begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” As tensions between our nation and others mount, as our president foolishly believes his own nationalistic rhetoric that we can shrug off our responsibility for climate change and go it alone, as fears of terror attacks increase, and partisan politics paralyze any attempt to address critical domestic and international issues responsibly, I often wonder if God or anyone is listening to the voice of my supplications.
Later that same morning I went out to work in our lawn and gardens still down in the depths. We are blessed to live on a beautiful property decorated with my wife’s gardening handiwork, a pond, trees and flowers. But the beauty requires hard work, especially this time of year when the grass and the weeds are being very fruitful and multiplying. It’s the work that prompts me at times to say that “yard work” is made up of two four-letter words. But the birds were in good humor that morning and serenaded me as I went forth to mow the lawn. And then I looked up at the blue sky dotted with huge languishing cotton ball clouds pictured above, a sight not seen nearly often enough in central Ohio, and my heart shifted gears from Psalm 130 to 19:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4).

In basketball 19 doesn’t beat 130, but in the game of faithful living it does. God’s presence is all around us no matter how far down in the depths we are feeling. We just have to look for it with all our senses. No, the skies are not always breathtakingly beautiful, but the loving God of all creation is always surrounding us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Even the author of De Profundis knew that while in the depths, and Psalm 130 ends with this statement of faith and hope:

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.”

Spiritual Cardiology


After I wrote my meditation on “A Wise Heart” earlier this week it very quickly became apparent that Psalm 90:12 isn’t finished with me. That verse says, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” and the focus of my earlier post was on having a compassionate and caring heart. It occurred to me shortly after I posted that piece that the heart is also the seat of courage. While head knowledge is incomplete without heart knowledge, neither is adequate without courage.

The hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” points that out when it says, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,” and the turbulent early weeks of 2017 certainly seem like the kinds of days the great preacher Harry Fosdick had in mind when he penned those words. In fact Fosdick wrote that hymn in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning and the Nazis were coming to power. I am praying the parallel ends there, but given the political instability and unrest here and around the world present days certainly qualify as those that require wise and brave hearts.

So if we really want wisdom and courage for facing trying hours and days, be they personal or corporate, maybe what we need for Lent is a heart transplant. A few years ago a good friend of mine was scheduled for open heart surgery. I had not been able to visit him in the hospital because I had a cold at the time and my germs were persona non grata. The night before the surgery my friend called me and we talked a few minutes. I don’t remember the content of the conversation, but he told me after the surgery that I was one of many calls he made that night. He understandably had trouble sleeping knowing surgeons were going to cut his chest open the next morning. He was nervous and felt a need to reach out and talk to people who were important in his life not knowing if it might be his last chance to do so.

It seems to me that the act of asking God to give me a new heart is also pretty risky business. My peers remind me often of the wisdom of Mae West who once said, “Aging is not for sissies.” Neither is following Jesus. We are in denial; at least I often am, when I tell myself that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” he was just speaking metaphorically. Living faithfully as Jesus followers in a world gone crazy over materialism, militarism, fear-inspired violence, and self-centered hedonism is not for the faint of heart. To offer the prayer of Psalm 51 asking “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” is a radical prayer and should not be uttered by rote or taken lightly. It’s asking for a spiritual heart transplant.

I always enjoy March Madness of the basketball variety, but this year it is an especially welcome diversion from the madness going on in the world. As I was browsing at our public library this week I came upon a timely and enjoyable audio book about three legendary basketball coaches who all coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1980’s. The book is appropriately entitled “The Legends” by John Feinstein and is about Dean Smith (UNC), Jimmy Valvano (NC State), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). One story early in the book struck me as an excellent example of a brave heart. Dean Smith was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops, but long before he was a legend with a basketball arena named after him, when he was a young, unknown assistant coach at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s he put his job and career on the line off the court. He and his pastor took an African American divinity student with them into a segregated restaurant where his basketball team ate frequently and quietly broke down one small racial barrier. When John Feinstein heard about that incident when he was writing his book decades later he asked Coach Smith why he had never heard that story. Feinstein said, “You must have been very proud of doing that.” But Coach Smith said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

Brave and humble hearts don’t need to boast about acting justly, they just do it. Actions speak louder than words about the kind of heart one has. One of my favorite more recent hymns describes how a spiritual heart transplant works. I can’t sing “Here I Am” by Dan Schutte without feeling my heart and faith grow stronger. In one verse Schutte has God say, “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” The courage to live boldly and take the narrow unpopular road that leads to salvation and justice comes from hearts filled with so much love that there is no room for fear and doubt.

The journey from fear to faith is often like the one Dorothy and her friends take in “The Wizard of Oz.” Those four pilgrims on the yellow brick road are looking for a heart, for courage, for a brain and a way to go home. Isn’t that a great metaphor for the human condition? Aren’t’ those the things we all long for to live a full and satisfying life?

Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion think they are on an external journey to the promised land of Oz to find themselves. What they discover is that the faith journey is first an internal journey. The Wizard can’t give them what they are seeking, but the pilgrimage they take to the Emerald City provides them a much more transformative trip inward where they all discover that they already have courage, heart, and wisdom; and Dorothy’s red shoes are her ticket back to Kansas.

So the good news is that we don’t need to undergo an actual heart transplant to find our brave voices. Our factory equipment hearts provided by God are full of wisdom, love and courage. But like our physical hearts our spiritual cardio-vascular system can also get clogged up by fear and weakened by lack of use. But no matter how weak or spiritually dead we think we are, no matter how long or how often we have failed to walk the walk of courageous and compassionate faith, Lent is another opportunity to take the inward journey to rediscover the depths of wisdom and courage God provides for the living of this day and every day.

To pray to God for a wise and brave heart is a first step on the journey, like when we realize we need to see a health care provider and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. And even if we feel spiritually dead with a heart of stone, God is always ready and willing to do CPR or jolt us back to life with a defibrillator. God has an impressive record of bringing people back from both spiritual and physical death.

God nurtured Elijah back to health and courage on Mt. Horeb; gave Jesus the strength he needed to carry on in the Garden of Gethsemane; and turned that bunch of cowering fishermen hiding in the upper room into a band of leaders who turned the world upside down. God gave Ruth the courage to stay with Naomi; helped the Samaritan woman at the well bare her soul to Jesus, and blessed Mary Magdalene with a whole new demon-free life. Brave hearts pray “Not my will but thy will be done. Brave hearts beat to the rhythm of Isaiah’s response to God’s call in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) or Mary’s brave response to God’s most incredible request to bear his son. The brave peasant girl said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).

And in Lent 2017 God still asks, “Whom shall I send?” and brave hearts sing (and mean it) the chorus to “Here I am Lord:”

“Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Do we mean it? Do I mean it? Our actions and lives will show the world what kind of hearts we have.

Distracted Living: Practical Mindfulness Lesson

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One of the few things I remember from high school Latin class is the phrase “experientia docet.” It means “experience is the best teacher,” but I find that not always to be true. I am more often described by a much more recent proverb attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.”

I had a misfortunate experience yesterday that was also in retrospect incredibly good fortune, and I hope the lessons it was trying to teach me for the umpteenth time, at least, will take this time. Briefly the experience was a car mishap that could have been a much bigger tragedy. I was driving down my driveway yesterday morning on the way to my mechanics to have a problem with my steering checked out when the parts of the front axle I don’t understand gave way and the right front wheel keeled over like a wounded duck. I had been alerted by a warning light on my dash as I was driving home the evening before that indicated a problem with the steering. Since I was planning a 200 mile road trip the next day I immediately called my mechanic, and he said he would check it out the next morning before I left town. Needless to say that trip was postponed.

When the car arrived via flatbed tow truck at his shop he called to inform me that some critical part (sorry I am terrible at mechanics) had somehow become cracked and when it gave way it took several other expensive pieces of the 4-wheel drive mechanism with it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this could have happened while I was driving down the freeway instead of safely in my own driveway, and you can imagine the potential consequences.
The mystery was that my mechanic had no explanation for why this had happened. He said he checks the wheels and axle every time he changes my oil and had not seen any problem a few weeks ago. He said he had never seen anything quite like it. That made me very nervous to trust the car down the road (pun intended). But then in the middle of that night I remembered an incident that suddenly made sense of the whole sequence of events.

Before I share that big revelation I want to set the stage for why it is more important to me than just explaining what happened to my car. For years I have been attracted to the practice of mindfulness meditation. I have made several unsuccessful attempts to establish a meditation practice and to become more mindful and fully present in whatever situation or relationship I’m in. As I get older I find it increasingly more important and more difficult and more necessary to really pay attention to what I’m doing in order to remember things. I do enjoy getting more steps on my Fitbit when I go to the other end of the house and can’t remember why I’m there, but that’s the only benefit I can think of for being more forgetful.

This past winter I took a course that combined my need for mindfulness and my interest in being a peacemaker in a most serendipitous way. The on-line course offered by The Shift Network was entitled “Peace Ambassador Training” and included a strong emphasis throughout the 12-week course on mindfulness as a key to inner peace and therefore a prerequisite to working for outer peace in relationships and communities, local and global.

I am grateful that course gave me the motivation I needed to begin and maintain a daily practice of meditation and increased attention to mindfulness and presence in all that I do. And by that circuitous route I’m back to my discovery of the reason for my broken axle. I remembered in the middle of the night after it happened that about two weeks earlier I had suffered a lapse of mindfulness while driving. We hear a lot about distracted driving these days and cell phones take a well-deserved amount of blame. But there are many other ways to be distracted while behind the wheel. Again on this occasion I was fortunate to be going at a very slow rate of speed on a deserted street when I reached over on the passenger seat to pick something up as I was making a turn from one street onto another. I swung too wide to the right and while not going very fast hit a new and rather high curb hard enough to rattle me physically and emotionally.

I got out of the car to make sure the tire was not damaged, was relieved that it seemed ok, drove home and promptly forgot about it. Until I realized that was undoubtedly when the whatchamacallit under my car was cracked and began to weaken until it gave way two weeks later in my driveway.

The repair bill for my car along with the realization that my lack of mindfulness could well have had fatal consequences for me or others on the highway will ensure that this particular lesson will stay with me. And I share it in hopes that my “experientia” can be a teacher for others about the value of living mindfully and alert and present all the time. Mindfulness in all we do is critical for staying alive, fully alive and not just going through the motions on auto pilot.

Peace and Contentment No Matter What

Being content in whatever state I am in, and that’s not a geography question by the way, has been getting more challenging for me for the last 6 years. I have been a glass-half-full kind of guy for most of my life, but the natural aging process seemed to kick into high gear for me in the fall of 2009, just before my 63rd birthday. Since then I’ve had two major surgeries and a laundry list of old people medical issues that aren’t life-threatening and not worth itemizing. But they are a pain, literally and figuratively.

I know the uselessness of going into victim mode, and I cringe when I catch myself and my peers devoting the lion’s share of our conversations to medical reports. But self-pity is an occupational hazard for later life, and I do fall into the thrall of its siren song far too frequently.

All of that provided a helpful existential and personal backdrop for a Bible Study I just led for my church. We studied an excellent book by Adam Hamilton entitled The Call: The Life and Message of The Apostle Paul. My theological bias has led me to focus most of my attention on Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels for most of my career; so this study of Paul was an excellent refresher course for me that helped me take a serious look at Paul’s life and what shaped his theological perspective.

I have quoted Paul in sermons, at weddings and funerals, and frequently used his dramatic conversion as an example of the unlimited power of God to transform and redeem any life. But not since seminary 40 plus years ago have I done a systematic study of the context and circumstances that inspired Paul’s writing and teaching and his absolutely unstoppable devotion to his call to share the Christian Gospel with the world at any and all personal cost and sacrifice.

I have been as guilty as most preachers of cherry picking and proof texting verses of Scripture out of context, and two of those verses I refer to often from Paul have taken on a deeper level of meaning for me as a result of studying Paul’s life again. One is the aforementioned verse about being content in whatever state I am in (Phil. 4:11), and the other is from Romans 8 where Paul assures us that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Those verses are powerful statements of faith even taken out of context, but when we realize that Paul wrote Philippians, a letter of joy and rejoicing, from one of the several prison cells where he spent 4-5 years of the last decade of his life they take on a deeper meaning. Earlier in Philippians 4 Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Those are strong words from a man who describes the trials of his life this way in II Corinthians: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (11:24-28)

Paul was a man of passion and perseverance. Someone has defined “passion” as something one is willing to suffer for. Paul was willing and determined to share the Gospel, and he experienced great hardship and pain for his efforts. But did he suffer? If he learned to be content with whatever he had and therefore found the peace that passes all understanding, I would argue he did not suffer. There is a popular self-help statement that says, “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional” which is often attributed to Buddha. It is consistent with the Buddhist philosophy but no one knows for sure where it originated. Regardless of the source, that advice applies to Paul and to anyone who achieves the attitude of acceptance toward circumstances, tragedies, pain, and other problems that one cannot control.

Paul is able to rise above the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” when Hamlet cannot because of his faith and absolute trust in the goodness and mercy of eternal God. Given the hardship he endured and triumphed over to almost single-handedly spread the Gospel of Christ across the Roman Empire, the words of Romans 8 echo like a climactic crescendo to the symphony of his life.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

Paul has been there, done that. He’s not a bystander to the forces of opposition. He doesn’t just believe in the love of God, he’s felt it and been sustained by it in the most difficult and hopeless situations imaginable. If he’s content and at peace, who am I to be discouraged or undone by the minor difficulties and challenges life puts in my way?

Tears

My friend and colleague Mebane McMahon preached a great All Saints Day sermon on Sunday that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t cry easily or often, and as I discretely dabbed at my eyes sitting in the pew I got to wondering why that is. There’s certainly plenty to cry about in our crazy wonderful world – a plethora of awfulness and a boatload of awesomeness that should cause tears of joy or pain to spring forth as regularly as old faithful.

I’ve been using artificial tears to treat dry eyes for some time now, and I’m thinking that’s pretty silly when I could use the real deal for free. I’m not sure how to turn that faucet on, but I plan to pay more attention to the natural emotions of joy and sadness and ditch the macho motto that says real men don’t cry. To paraphrase a Lesley Gore song from my youth, “It’s my life and I’ll cry if I want to.”

Remember the shortest verse in the Bible says, “Jesus wept,” because he knew we are part of a loving God who is so close to us in times of great joy and sorrow that God tastes the salt of our tears.

Welcome Fall with Fall Prevention

No, we can’t change the calendar, but on the first day of autumn (Wednesday, September 23) you can help raise fall prevention awareness. The Ohio Department of Aging is encouraging people to walk at least a mile tomorrow (or anytime in September) and post a selfie. Information about how to find groups walking and other details can be found at http://aging.ohio.gov/steadyu/.

There was also a good article about this in today’s Columbus Dispatch in the Metro Section, “Fall draws attention to risks of falling.” This paragraph got my attention: “An older Ohioan falls every two minutes, resulting in an injury every 5 minutes, 6 ER visits and one hospitalization an hour and 3 deaths every day.” What to do? First, don’t let fear of falling limit your activity. That actually leads to decreased mobility and increased likelihood of falling. 15-30 minutes of physical activity per day is the best to improve strength and balance and reduce the risk of falling.

Check with your local YMCA and other Silver Sneaker programs for balance and fitness classes. And check out the Steady U website listed above for more suggestions on how to prevent falls this fall.

I know this is a bit different topic than I usually write about, but I have a couple of personal interests in this. I am dealing with balance issues caused by peripheral neuropathy for one, and I have another birthday on the horizon which makes issues of aging more relevant every year. Also my wife, Diana, is a fitness coach and is encouraging her clients to walk tomorrow also. Just for fun, go to her Active Healthy Lifestyles page on Facebook and post a picture letting us know that you walked to help raise awareness. It’ll do us all good.