L’chaim! To Life!

Yesterday morning I woke up in great anticipation. After being in a lot of pain in my back and hip for weeks I was scheduled to get an injection that might give me some relief. There were several inches of new snow on the ground, and most schools had cancelled classes for the day, but I figured that by afternoon when my appointment was the roads would be clear.

And then the phone rang. My doctor’s nurse was calling to tell me the doctor could not make it in, and my appointment would have to be rescheduled. Making matters worse the doctor only does these injections on Tuesdays; so I would have to wait an entire week.

To say I was very disappointed would be an understatement. My long-suffering wife would tell you that I am usually a glass half empty guy, and this unwelcome surprise did not help my general level of frustration with health concerns, COVID restrictions and all that entails.

But then a minor miracle happened, and I can’t explain it, which I guess is true of all miracles. I was looking at my sad sack face in the bathroom mirror, and suddenly out of nowhere I started singing some of the lyrics to “L’chaim” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” No one else was home fortunately, or my embarrassment over my poor singing voice would have probably stopped me from expressing an emotion of joy and optimism.

I haven’t seen or heard “Fiddler” for decades, and when I do think about that musical I usually think about the title song or “Tradition,” or “Do You Love Me?” But from somewhere hidden away in my memory came these words, and there I was singing as if no one was listening, “L’chaim, l’chaim, to life.”

I don’t know all the lyrics to that song so I ad libbed the words I remembered:

“May all your futures be pleasant ones, Not like our present ones; Drink, l’chaim, to life. To life, l’chaim, L’chaim, l’chaim, to life!”

“To us and our good fortune, Be happy, be healthy, long life! And if our good fortune never comes, Here’s to whatever comes; Drink, l’chaim, to life!”

I don’t know what to make of that except I know it lifted my spirits for the rest of that day. Thinking about the context of that musical set in the midst of oppression of the Jews by the Russian authorities put my minor problem of waiting a week for my injection in its proper perspective.

The characters in this wonderful musical are being forced to leave their beloved village of Anatevke for parts unknown. And the lovable protagonist of the drama, Tevye, is trying to cope with a shaking of the foundations of all his traditions as each of his daughters pushes the envelope further to claim her freedom.

And yet in the midst of all this disruption and change the men of Anatevke break into song to celebrate the arranged marriage of Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, to the much older town butcher, Lazar Wolfe.

Spoiler alert: the arranged marriage doesn’t happen because Tzeitel protests and Tevye ends the agreement and lets her marry the man she loves, Motel Kamzoil the poor village tailor. Tevye’s daughters 1, traditions 0.

But regardless of what happens eventually the men in that bar spontaneously singing L’chaim are celebrating much more than one marriage. In the midst of all the unrest and uncertainty imposed on them by the hated Russians these men are still celebrating life.

The people of Anitevke have no idea what tomorrow will bring. Their traditions are being challenged by the younger generation as younger generations always do. And yet they celebrate love and hope in the future by marrying and bringing new life into a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.

We live in such a time right now in our pandemiced and polarized nation, and yet we dare to sing with Tevye and his friends:

“Be happy, be healthy, long life. And if our good fortune never comes’ Here’s to whatever comes. Drink, l’chaim, to life!” Amen

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Pastoral Prayer for World Communion Sunday

O Holy One who invites ALL who are weary to come and find rest, we the weary have heard your invitation. Rarely have we needed rest and your unifying Holy Spirit more than we do on this World Communion Sunday. We are exhausted by bitter partisan politics that divide families and friends. Some of us feel better because Justice Kavanaugh has been confirmed while others weep in despair for women’s voices that have gone unheeded yet again. But all of us are tired of the lack of civility that threatens our very way of life. When we leave this service today please empower all of us to be ambassadors of kindness and agents of compassion to every stranger we meet at school, work or in our daily lives.

We are tired of natural disasters and pray for their victims in the Carolinas and Indonesia and in places we’ve not even heard about that are often forgotten as soon as the news cycle moves on to a new crisis du jour.

But today we rejoice as the barriers of race, gender, and age disappear as Christians around the world gather at one table. We are neither Republican nor Democrat, female nor male, black, brown, yellow, red or white. We are one race – the human race—one body sharing one common loaf.

We are here to worship not because we deserve to be here, but because we need to be here. We are here because we know that all of us fall short of your glory, O God. This week we have all failed to do Christ-like things. If we pretend to be worthy we know we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. And yet sinners that we are we come because we believe that your grace is for ALL, even for us, and that if we confess our sins you promise to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.

Our sins are wiped away, all grudges forgotten in the healing community we rejoice to be a small part of today. Around this table we speak different languages and have different customs; but through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we are ALL one today and for as long as we remember who we are and whose we are we carry that holy sense of community with us.

We come, we pray, we go out to serve, in the name of the one who invites ALL who are weary to find rest. Hear our prayers O God in the name of Jesus who taught us how to live, how to build community and how to pray.

Northwest UMC, October 7, 2018

Like a Woman

Bertha Hemmert was my surrogate grandma when I was growing up on Murray Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Not that I needed another grandma—I had two very loving ones already; but a little kid can never get too much of that special love that grandmas are so good at. And Mrs. Hemmert as I knew her then had one big advantage over my “real” grandmothers—she was just across the alley no more than 50 feet from our back door. She was probably younger than I am now, but to my 7 year-old self she seemed ancient. I don’t remember how she first befriended me. It was likely one of the many times I hit a stray baseball into her yard and had to go fetch it.

Two things I remember very well—I enjoyed hanging out at her house and “helping” her with chores like cleaning green beans from her garden. I’m sure I was often more trouble than help but I always felt welcome to drop in whenever I wanted. The other thing I remember – because my family has never let me forget it – is that one day while helping Mrs. Hemmert in the kitchen I announced to her that “I think I want to be a woman when I grow up.”
No, that was not some confusion over my sexual identity. As I reflect back on that memory and my childhood I have come to believe it meant I just felt loved being in her company and wanted to enjoy that feeling as much as I could. And it was not just Mrs. Hemmert who represented that unconditional love and acceptance for me. The most important people in my early life who gave me that kind of affirmation were all women—my grandmothers, my mom and my Aunt Ruth.

My reflection on those childhood relationships have been inspired by all of the events in our society in the past year that have raised awareness of female power and courage in spite of oppression and abuse–and by the guilt and remorse I feel that in spite of my life-long appreciation for women I have been part of the male dominated power structure that I could not be insulated from growing up in the 1950’s. Mrs. H. was typical of all of my female role models as I grew up. They were all stay-at-home mothers and homemakers, and they lived out that vocation proudly and well.

Proverbs 31 and has been used and misused to praise and eulogize many women like those. It says in part “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. (Proverbs 31:10-15 NRSV) Of course the women in my life were the “servant-girls” for their families rather than having any, but that proverb is attributed to King Lemuel’s mother giving her son advice; and he could relate to that particular reference.

The misuse part of that Proverb has been on the hard-working from before dawn to after dark woman who is subservient to her husband. But listen to what other parts of that proverb say about women of strength as entrepreneurs and teachers of wisdom: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Vss.16-19, 24-29)

That part of this proverb reminds us that to limit women, or anyone, to a particular role or station in life is not only foolish but absolutely wrong. To respect or pay women less for the same work men do is unjust. To treat women as sex-objects in blatant, abusive or even subtle or unintended ways is wrong and must stop.
I was proud of Mrs. Hemmert and wanted to be like her – because “the teaching of kindness was on her tongue” and she treated me as someone of value and worth. Women today are demanding the same kind of respect and dignity and unconditional love that the wonderful women in my life gave me. Did they raise a perfect son or grandson or nephew? Of course not. There we too many sexist forces in my life in the way I was taught what it meant to be a man; in the ways all of the heroes of American history were portrayed as powerful white men; in the male-dominated leadership of the churches I was nurtured in; in the movies and television shows I watched; in the literature I read; and the list goes on and on.

But this I know, the seeds of love and compassion were sown in my heart and soul by people like Mrs. Hemmert. I have often been embarrassed when my family tells that story about my wanting to be a woman; but today I am proud to proclaim that I am still striving to be like her; to offer everyone the kind of affirmation and hospitality she gave to me. I want to be like the women who have had the courage to speak their truth to power in the past few months. I want to be like the men that Oprah included in her great speech at last night’s Golden Globes when she said:
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”