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

We are Butt Dust

“For God knows we are but dust and that our days are few and brief.” (Psalm 103:14) OK, those words are not much comfort in pandemic panic time, I know. But here’s the thing, it’s Lent, and words like those are traditionally used on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our mortality. God also knows, as do I as a member of the at-risk elderly crowd, that we don’t need any more reminders of our mortality right now.

So why quote those words today of all days? Glad you asked. It’s because of a story I read recently that made me chuckle, and I am a firm believer that we’ve got to have some humor in the midst of this darn crisis or we’ll all go off the deep end. It seems that a little girl was in church when she heard the pastor quote those words above, “we are but dust…” The girl immediately turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, what’s butt dust?”

The story doesn’t tell us how the mother responded, and I’d love to know. That’s one my kids or grandkids have not asked me. But it does remind me of another similar story I heard many years ago. Billy’s Sunday school class had a lesson on the creation story in Genesis one day, and that afternoon Billy tapped his dad on the shoulder while he was watching some sports on TV (remember those days?). When he got to a time out on TV Dad finally turned his attention to his son who said he had a question. Billy said, “Today in Sunday School we learned that God made Adam from dust.” “Yes,” the father said, “That’s right. But what’s your question, Billy?” “Well, our teacher also said our bodies return to dust after we die.” The father nodded getting a little nervous about where this conversation was headed. He was considering referring Billy to his mother for this theological question when Billy finished. “Well,” Billy said, “I just looked under my bed, and there’s someone either coming or going under there!”

Certainly COVID-19 is no laughing matter. I applaud the courageous job our Governor and public health officials are doing of taking what may seem like drastic measures to avert a catastrophe. None of us like having our lives put on pause with no promise of how long that hiatus from our “normal” lives may be. And the real effects of this crisis haven’t even hit yet. Once kids are home from school 24/7 and people living from paycheck to paycheck start facing hard choices on what they and their families have to do without things are going to get a lot harder very quickly. Tempers are going to get shorter; escapes from reality through entertainment or simple solitude are going to be among the first casualties. Social problems like homelessness, mental health resources, domestic abuse, and universal access to health care are going to be magnified every time the number of confirmed cases and deaths goes up.

The necessity of choosing to look for positives instead of being overwhelmed by the scary truth that we are all butt dust is the challenge facing each one of us. And it is a choice. We can choose to watch the depressing news all day or just get summaries of what we need to know a few times a day. It’s a choice to be irritated by the inconvenience of antsy children underfoot while we are trying to work from home or being grateful for a flexible schedule and more quality time with our families. I can whine and complain about how much I miss March Madness or I can choose to be thankful for time to catch up on things around the house and to get reacquainted with my wife.

Life is nothing but a series of choices. Life happens, and it isn’t always what we’ve planned or hoped it would be. It’s much too easy to feel like we are victims to what life throws at us. I go there all the time, and trust me it’s not a fun place for me or anyone around me. Life sucks right now for everyone, but much more for health care workers, janitors, grocery store clerks and stockers, and residents and staff of homes for the elderly. The best cure for having a pity party is to think about the fact that we are all butt dust – meaning we are all in this boat together. None of chose to be here, but being frustrated, angry or blaming someone else for the crisis is simply a waste of precious energy.

I started a gratitude practice several weeks ago before any of us knew Corona was something other than a beer. I think God knew I was going to need that practice to prepare me for this pandemic. As I’ve written here earlier, I’ve been surprised (and grateful) that the simple practice of being grateful for at least three things each day for 21 days would rewire my old brain and form a habit of being more grateful in general. Yes, I frequently slip up and revert to my old glass half empty personality, but not as much. Yes, these last few days I’ve had to be more intentional about actually looking for things to be grateful for.

For example, yesterday I was doing what used to be a simple task. We had some plumbing done this week, and I was struggling to put some shelves back together under my bathroom sink. Because I have a bad back and arthritis in my fingers getting under the sink and screwing the shelves together was, to say the least, not going well. After a couple of expletives my wife offered to help, which I of course ignored because my little male ego was threatened by admitting that I failed. But after several more futile attempts (and a few choice words) I finally gave up and asked for her help. It wasn’t easy, but I finally was grateful that she was able to do what I couldn’t instead of being angry that I couldn’t. Yes, it would have been much better for both of us if I could have been humble enough to ask for help much sooner; but that doesn’t mean I can’t even today be grateful that I’m not alone to deal with life’s challenges.

And none of us is alone in this crisis. We just have to get more creative, humble and grateful about how we find new ways to be in community while keeping a safe distance from each other. Let’s be grateful for the technology that helps us stay in fellowship with each other while remembering that some of the most vulnerable do not have that technology to use. More than ever we need to give thanks that we are indeed our sisters and brothers keepers. That’s a gift, not a burden; and every act of compassion we engage in will bless us even more than those we serve.

Faith for a Pandemic

Like many of you I have had a hard time tearing myself away from all the bad news about the corona virus. Maybe it’s just gallows humor or the old “laugh to keep from crying” strategy, but I have been trying to combat all the fear and trembling with humor. For example when the local news came on at lunch time today with “Breaking News” about another day of the Dow plunging like a lead balloon I found myself singing an old song from the 1960’s. Yes, I’m in the “at risk geezer group” for Covid-19, and that also means I remember song lyrics from my youth better than what I did yesterday.

The song for today begins with one of those profound lines: “Down dooby doo down down
Comma, comma, down dooby doo down down.” And reflecting on my disappearing retirement portfolio I changed the next lines to say,

“Going Broke ain’t hard to do.
Don’t take my funds away from me,
Don’t leave me broke in misery.
Don’t say that this is the end!
Instead of going broke
I wish that we were getting rich again.”

My apologies to Neil Sedaka and a lot of other artists who recorded “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” and assurance that I was home alone and didn’t inflict my lousy singing voice onto any other living creatures. Although if Alexa was listening she may have been traumatized.
On a more serious note the Scripture that is running through my head today is one from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Times of crisis force us to examine what really matters in life, what is really of lasting value. As all kinds of sporting events, performances, concerts and other gatherings are being cancelled we can use the time we normally would have spent there to reflect, pray and ponder where our treasures really are. Unlike most other parts of the world many of us Americans don’t really know what it’s like to “walk in the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23:4) Words of Scripture in times like these can become more than pious platitudes and be words of hope and assurance when fear threatens to shake the foundations of our faith.

So one suggestion for these troubled times is to be grateful for the gift of time to meditate on the real treasures of life. Give thanks for extra time with family, for time to check on your elderly neighbor. Formal worship services are being cancelled in some places as a valid precautionary measure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t worship wherever we are in whatever way nourishes our souls. Take time every time you feel the tentacles of fear taking hold to just breathe deeply and “Be still and know” you are embraced by the ground of all being that is bigger, stronger and more enduring than this or any crisis we will ever face.

Numbers

Numbers – corona virus up, stock market way down, my weight up and even my clocks confused about what time it is. The only good number is on the thermometer, and I’ll certainly take that; but I need more to shore up the shaky foundations of my faith.
And so I turn to Psalm 46 where there are no numbers because faith cannot be measured or quantified. God’s power and presence is eternal and infinite. We can’t see it or prove it. The source of our being is above and beyond any human metrics. We just have to take a leap of faith and trust, not because of things we can count or measure – but in spite of them.

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Two Ash Wednesdays

“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.” (Psalms 19: 2-4a)

On Ash Wednesday 2019 I was 10,000 miles from home on a sail boat in the harbor of Akaroa, New Zealand. There were literally no words, no imposition of ashes, none of the customary rituals that have marked the previous fifty beginnings of Lent in my life.

Diana and I were on a cruise down the east coast of New Zealand, and one of our excursions from our ship took us on one of the most peaceful and sacred moments of my life We sailed out into the harbor surrounded by gentle hills and a few caves along the shoreline. The captain of our boat let us drift as the gentle waves kept time against the sides of the small boat and explained that he was going to play some meditation music because it usually attracts a school of dolphins. Like a choir processing to an introit the dolphins appeared on cue and for several awe filled minutes our boat of twenty total strangers sat in holy silence.
[after multiple failed attempts to put a video of the dolphins here I gave up. Please trust me, they were awesome]

After enjoying the dolphins for a time we sailed close to shore where one of the natural caves indented the hillside, and the captain put on some organ music. I don’t remember the tune, but it reverberated off the walls and ceiling of the natural cave like the Hallelujah Chorus in a Gothic cathedral.

Fast forward a year and we were on another let’s-escape-winter vacation. This time we were “only” 1300 miles from home on Isla Mujeres, a beautiful tropical island near Cancun, Mexico. It was time there, as in many Roman Catholic locales, for the carnival celebration known best for the grandmother of all carnivals, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated all over the world by Christians as a time to party hearty before the solemn season of Lent begins with the Ash Wednesday reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”

We were told by the natives in Mexico that the serious celebrations of Carnival don’t really begin until 10 or 11 pm and often go on till dawn. Needless to say that’s way past my bedtime. But the party there began on Friday and was going strong when we last witnessed some of it several hours before Ash Wednesday officially began.

What we saw during the daytime hours of the Carnival were people of all ages in elaborate costumes dancing in the streets.

We watched a few dance groups in one small town and then saw them load into pickup trucks, golf carts and on motor scooters to travel a few miles to the next town where we saw them perform again as we were trying to make our way through crowded narrow streets that were often closed for 30 minutes or more for the performers to do their thing before moving on to a new location.

These were two very different experiences a year a part on either side of the world to mark the beginning of Lent. One was peaceful and serene in holy communion with the created order. The other was a loud and jubilant celebration of culture and tradition. And both were avenues to the mystery of God. We couldn’t speak to the dolphins in New Zealand, but their majestic presence touched my heart beyond the power of any human speech. And in Mexico I could not understand the Spanish lyrics to the songs of Carnival. But the beauty of the dancing and the costumes—yes, even the outlandish and erotic ones—speak to the human need to dance and sing with joy to the universal mystery of God’s inspiration in all cultures and races.

Both experiences helped prepare this pilgrim to begin the holy season of Lent once more.

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.

Sabbatical

I just finished “Sabbath as Resistance,” an excellent book by Walter Brueggemann. It was written a few years ago but is as timely as today’s headlines in our consumer driven, workaholic world. Brueggemann closes the book with reflections on Psalm 73, and I want to quote what he has to say about verse 23 of that Psalm: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Brueggemann’s commentary on that verse goes like this: “This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. ‘No-Sabbath’ existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one’s hand. Only late does the psalmist come to know otherwise. Only late may we come to know, but likely not without Sabbath rest, rooted in God’s own restfulness and extended to our neighbors who also must rest. We, with our hurts, fears and exhaustion, are left restless until then.” (Emphasis added)

Hurt, fearful and exhausted – describes me to a tee as the bitter conflicts over church and national politics have me so tied up in knots I feel like a pressure cooker about to blow a gasket. Yes, I badly need a sabbatical. Not because I don’t care about the fate of the world, but because I care too much. Therefore at the suggestion of my dear wife who has to live with my depression and anger I am hereby vowing to do the following for at least a week and perhaps longer. This may be my jump starting Lent 17 days early–because when we find ourselves in the wilderness can’t always be neatly scheduled on the calendar.
For the next 7 days:

1) I will not begin my day by reading or listening to the morning news. (Doing so has been my morning ritual for all of my adult life. My dad was a newspaper man. I delivered a morning newspaper as a kid. Newspapers have been a part of my life forever; so this will not be easy.)

2) Instead I will begin my day with spiritual and physical exercise of some kind, after my first cup of coffee of course.

3) I will temporarily snooze my most ardent Facebook friends on either side of the great American political divide, refrain from posting or writing any political words, memes or blogs; and stop listening to political news and talk radio in my car.

I thank you in advance for your prayers as I begin this sabbatical. Pray that I can let go of trying to control my life so God can, and feel free to help hold me accountable in any way you like—even if I act like I don’t want you to.

In the name of the one who always has me by the hand, even when I squirm and try to pull away like an indignant two-year-old, Amen.