Pastoral Prayer, March 22, 2020

We lift up all who are ill in body, mind or spirit here in our country and around the world.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for all who are experiencing food or economic insecurity.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We lift up health care workers and caregivers who are risking their own well-being to care for others.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for all government, church, and public health officials at every level that you will guide them in making wise and difficult decisions.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We ask that you hold teachers and parents and children and the elderly, any who are most vulnerable, in your loving arms.

Lord, hear our prayer.

We lift up the homeless and those working to house and feed them, the grocery store employees, the truck drivers, farmers and everyone in the food chain we all depend on.

Lord, hear our prayer.

And we lift up others now that we have not specifically named who are in need of your love.

Lord, hear our prayer.

O merciful creator God, who can take a formless void of darkness and speak light into existence, we give you thanks for light that enables us to see – to see hope and faith where others see only fear and despair. As people who follow Jesus Christ we live and worship not as cockeyed optimists who live in denial, but as those who dedicate our lives to be reflectors of the Light of the World into the darkest corners of our common lives. And we are going through one of the dark, dark seasons, O God.

We are like astronauts on the back side of the moon, isolated and out of communication with each other. But like those space pioneers we also know that there will be a morning after the darkness. Give us eyes of faith, Lord, to see the flower in the bulb as crocus are croaking and daffodils are poking their heads up out of the cold earth. Give us eyes to see the promise of spring even on chilly March days.

We need spiritual cataract surgery, O great physician. Peel the clouds of doubt from our eyes and install new lenses that see all the beauty and glory of creation. Remove the fear from our eyes so we can see as never before how much we need each other. Give us new lenses of creativity inspired by the necessity of this crisis, new lenses of compassion and gratitude, and new lenses of courage for the living of these days.

Through eyes of faith, O God of history, give us new appreciation for parents and grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Forgive us when we forget that we are not the first generation to suffer and sacrifice for the greater good of your creation. When we look in the mirror help us see beyond our own image, beyond our own needs and fears. Shine your light so we can see the big picture. Shine the light so we can see your Holy Spirit carrying us now as you stood with Daniel in the lion’s den, with little David facing Goliath, with Ruth as she cared for Naomi, and with Mary and Martha as they mourned for Lazarus.

You are the light in the darkness, O God, who gives us faith to carry on. We praise you that even this crisis can be a lens that focuses our vision on our common purpose. Be the light again that led the Hebrews by night through the wilderness, the light that struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus so he could finally see your purpose and salvation for his life. Like Saul we have sometimes been blind to your presence, but in this moment we see clearly because we know you hold the future. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Light of the World. Amen

Northwest UMC, On-line worship, March 22, 2020

Waiting and Renewing

Back in the 1980’s when I was going through one of several mid-life crises I found great stress relief in running. My routine often included running 3 or 4 miles a day, and I participated in road races several times a year. In those days 5 mile races were the most common, and I had run several of those in or just under an 8 minute per mile pace. That was usually around the 50th percentile for my age group, and I was pleased with that given my below average height. Guys with long legs took many fewer steps per mile than I did, at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

But I remember very well the first 5K race I ran. It was a small, local race in my neighborhood; so I knew the race course well. It was “only” 3.1 miles after all, and with fewer participants I for some reason figured I could do better than my middle of the pack finishes in longer races. So I took off with the faster runners at a much faster pace than usual. The good new—I ran the first mile in 6 minutes, 30 seconds, the fastest mile I had ever run in my life. The bad news—I had burned up way too much energy and had to walk part of the next mile which was, of course, up hill. It was a classic tortoise and hare situation.

In the end my average time per mile for that 5K was about the same 8 minute pace I always ran. So what’s that ancient history got to do with anything? Well, this pandemic is not a sprint. We’re in this for the long haul like it or not. And that reality is setting in as it did for me when I realized I had shot my wad in the first mile of that 5K. We need to pace ourselves and practice good self-care during this enforced sabbatical from our normal lives.

For too many of us “normal” life is a rat race, and while this new reality is awkward and weird it can provide an opportunity to hit the pause button and reflect on other aspects of life that we too often run past or away from. It’s not easy, and I’m having a hard time not feeling trapped by this situation. We’re over a week into this marathon and the reality that we’ve got many miles to go is hitting some of us like marathon runners hitting “the wall.”

Isaiah 40 says, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength.” But it doesn’t say how long we have to wait. Most of us are busy active people. Even my retired friends all comment about how busy they are and don’t know how they had time to work. We stay busy having lunch with friends, running errands, going to doctor appointments, socializing and enjoying recreational or volunteer activities. All of that has come to screeching halt, and we’re finding doing nothing is exhausting.

So we are learning how to wait, and it’s a choice how we wait. Are we just waiting for this pandemic to be over or are we waiting in a way that renews our strength? For me it’s all too easy to get frustrated with this waiting game. I’m in that older generation. I know I don’t have that many “good” years left in my life and I feel cheated that I’m being robbed of things I want to do. March Madness and the Masters golf tournament are my favorite time of the year. Gone. Lent and Easter as I’ve always known them, Caput! Trips we want to take, on hold. Spending time with my grandkids, Nada!

So what to do with those frustrations? I had a long talk with God this morning and got some of them off my chest. Don’t be afraid to let God have it when you get to the end of your rope. Much better than taking it out on your spouse or kids. God can handle it and understands. After all our Bible has an entire book devoted to complaints about terrible circumstances. It’s called “Lamentations.”

It’s ok to complain, but don’t stay there. Then we move on to figure out how to wait creatively. It’s true that necessity is the mother of invention. We’re learning how to live in a different reality in so many ways. We’re staying connected on line and practicing physical distancing. Teachers and parents are re-inventing how to do education. Churches are figuring out ways to be the church in new and marvelous ways.

We need time to rest and pace ourselves for the long haul, but waiting does not mean hibernating till this blows over. We are called as people of faith to keep caring for the most vulnerable among us; to stay in contact with those who are most isolated and with each other for moral support. Waiting means time to reflect on what we’ve lost in this situation, but also to be grateful for what we’ve gained and what we’re learning.

The “normal” rat race we were living a month ago wasn’t all perfect. What a tragedy it would be if we when this is all over we just go back to living the way we were. Take time to observe what’s better about our new normal. Journal and make notes about how you want to be on the other side of COVID-19. I know that’s not easy when you’re just trying to figure out how to survive this crisis. But remember, we have more time now – time we would have spent commuting to work, time we would have spent this weekend watching hours and hours of basketball and watching our brackets get busted.

How will you use this gift of waiting time? Use it wisely to take care of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, and remember “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength.” With God’s help we will get through this and come out better and stronger. Amen

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.”

Put in Our Place

One of my goals for the New Year was to cope better with my chronic aches and pains. Now the phrase “be careful what you ask for” has new meaning for me. I injured my right shoulder a few months ago and was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, 50-50 chance that physical therapy would help me avoid surgery. I think those odds have gone down. I have reinjured it twice in last couple of weeks lifting things the wrong way. This is not the way I wanted to practice dealing better with pain.

My theologizing about pain seems to come around on a two year cycle. (cf. my post on 3/25/17 “Rejoicing When God says No,” and 5/19/15 “Encouraged and Inspired.”) As in both of those instances I keep coming back to St. Paul’s verses (II Corinthians 12:7-10) where he describes his repeated requests for God to remove an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t know if this is an actual physical ailment, a metaphor for another kind of suffering, or both. Here’s what those verses say in the NRSV:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

If this was just about physical weakness I should be getting stronger by the minute, but of course it isn’t. The repetition of “not being too elated” indicates that’s important. The “slings and arrows” of life can serve to keep us humble, and when dealing with God’s power that’s the only realistic stance to take.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses in “The Message” helps reinforce that point:
“So I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’”

I don’t like the word choice of “handicap” by Peterson. In no way do I want to tell anyone with a disability or handicap that it is a gift from God. But we all have challenges to cope with be they physical, emotional, or relational, and accepting those humbly as just the way things are is much better than either being resentful or conceited.

God is not a super being that we can call upon to intervene and pull out our thorns. That’s like complaining that roses come with thorns instead of rejoicing that thorns come with roses. For reasons that are above our pay grade to understand the human condition comes with pain. I am inclined to agree with Buddhism’s diagnosis of that pain as being caused by our “attachment” to things that are temporary. My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about letting go – letting go of things I can no longer do and humbly finding and celebrating things I can do, I hope with more wisdom gained through experience. Letting go is important practice for that inevitable letting go that comes with mortality.

And ultimately the feeling of being at home in the universe, my favorite definition of “Faith,” comes from letting go of our need to control or understand everything. As mere beings our humility/weakness makes room for the true majesty and mystery of Being itself, which we call God.

I don’t claim to have achieved Paul’s contentment with “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I am not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them!! But I do recognize that state of “being content with whatever I have” which Paul describes in Philippians 4:11 as the goal of faith.

Paul describes that feeling in different words that are very familiar: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But I also like the way Peterson paraphrases that verse because it emphasizes the Creator/creature nature of our relationship with God which is the reason humility is our ultimate reality.

Peterson says, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” That puts things in their proper perspective.

Incomprehensible Incarnation

Amid the cacophony of the mad world, in the darkest days of the year, in times of personal stress or sorrow, when we most need the peace that passes all human understanding, that’s exactly where God chooses to break into our world. Praying that you will feel that holy presence wherever you need it most this Christmas.

FOR ONE DEAR SAINT

It was most fitting that just two days after All Saints Day I had the honor of conducting a memorial service for my dear Aunt Ruth. My mom’s older sister, Ruth lived 97 wonderful years, and she lived them with zest and courage to the end. This was what I said about her at the service:

As the oldest of Aunt Ruth’s nephews and nieces I always thought I had an extra special place in her heart. I dared to believe that because I had seniority my memories of her unconditional love and zest for life were unique. Boy was I wrong. After we got the news of her death there was such an outpouring of love for her that I was surprised at how wide and deep her influence. When I thought about it I realized of course that it shouldn’t have surprised me. Her love of life for 97 wonderful years was so contagious that it affected everyone who came into contact with her – not just in her generation or mine, but in great nephews and nieces, grand and great grandchildren. I wasn’t special to Ruth, everyone was!

Let me share a few things from her fan club, aka her nephews and nieces: “Remember a lady who every reason to feel sorry for herself, but never let her handicap and painful suffering slow her down a bit. (Ruth had polio as an infant and walked with a pronounced limp all her life.) She was sassy, feisty, and tough as nails! But also one of the most caring, compassionate, and inspirational people I will ever know.”

Another said, “A lot of good memories of spending time with her and Uncle Fran in Lima. She taught me to sew and love of gardening.”
And another: “One summer we made curtains and a Roman shade for my room at Bowling Green. Because of Aunt Ruth I have made my own curtains nearly everywhere I have lived. She also knew a whole lot about growing flowers and taught me lots of her tricks.”

My own fondest memories of Ruth go way back to the farm near St. Johns. I’d stay out there in the summer before I had any competition from all you younger cousins. Dave (Ruth’s son) and I would play in the woods that was a little way down the road literally till the cows came home – because it was our job to bring the cows in for the night. In reminiscing about Aunt Ruth this week I had an ah hah moment. I used to get horribly homesick as a kid anytime and anywhere I went. It didn’t matter where – at Grandma and Grandpa Sawmillers, Boy Scout camp. It was awful. But what I realized the other day is that I never got homesick at Aunt Ruth’s – and that’s because I always felt at home there.

Her hospitality is legendary. And that never changed. My son and I visited Aunt Ruth in 2010 when she was “only” 89 years young. We didn’t want to impose on her so we offered to take her out for dinner the one night we were there and surprisingly she agreed – but she was having none of that the next morning. When we got up there was enough bacon and eggs on the stove to feed a multitude. That was the visit when she also told us about the rattle snake she had killed recently in her garden.

I’m not sure where Ruth’s name came from. There don’t seem to be any other women named Ruth in the family genealogy, and that’s cool because she was indeed one of a kind. But I am struck by the similarities in Ruth’s life with those of Ruth in the Old Testament. That biblical Ruth is famous for what she said when her widowed mother-in-law Naomi suggested Ruth should go back home to her own people instead of going to support Naomi back in Bethlehem.

That Ruth was stubborn too, and loyal and compassionate. She said, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me if even death parts me from you!”
Wherever Aunt Ruth needed to go for those she loved she went – to Lima, to Georgia—I’m surprised she didn’t move to Iran when Dave and Sue were there! She was there for Fran for all those years even when he didn’t know she was there. That’s love and devotion that we and the world need to learn from her.

She was an inspiration to us all. When I throw myself a pity party because of my aches and pains and all the things my body won’t let me do anymore, all I have to do is remember this feisty little woman who never let any of her challenges stop her from being the greatest daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, great grandmother any of us have ever known.

She got that love in return from her kids and grandkids – especially from Sue and Dave who cared for her in the last few years and preserved for Ruth and her faithful dog Heidi the independence and freedom that living in her own house provided – way beyond when that was easy or convenient for her caregivers.
I think Ruth’s great niece Laura said best what Ruth meant to all of us. She wrote this tribute right after we learned of Ruth’s passing.

“I don’t even know how to explain how much she has meant to me my entire life. This woman, this amazing woman, was a rock for me. I could talk to her about anything; she was only a phone call away. She loved me the way a person is supposed to love another, without judgement, without criticism, and with her whole heart. I loved her with every ounce of my being, and there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for her.

This resilient woman, who overcame so much in her life, lived so much longer than anyone expected, was so much more to me than a Great Aunt-she was another grandmother to me. She was truly someone who didn’t let anything get her down; she found a way to see the bright side of things no matter what. She was an inspiration to me, of how to live your life, she was always kind to others, never knew a stranger, always offered a helping hand, even if it meant just sharing her vast knowledge. I was unbelievably fortunate to have been able to spend time with her throughout my life, to listen to the little lessons she taught me about life, cooking, gardening, and being a great person. I know that now, she is up in Heaven, with Uncle Fran, tending to the gardens, feeding the birds, and is able to do all the things that age had taken away from her.”

Laura’s words resonate for me in so many ways. Aunt Ruth was like a second mom to me and to so many others. Today we celebrate Ruth’s long and wonderful life, and we thank God for all she was and always will mean to us. We thank God for giving us Ruth, such a wonderful gift to teach us about life, and we give thanks that she is now beyond the pain and suffering of this life in the eternal arms of your loving God.

PRAYER: Loving God, as Ruth welcomed all of us into her home and her heart, we pray now that you will receive Ruth into the arms of your mercy. Raise this dear saint up with all your people. Receive us also, and raise us into a new life. Help us so to love and serve you in this world that we may enter into your joy in the world to come. Amen.

When I was driving home after the graveside service I realized I didn’t say what I should have at the cemetery. I’ve done over 150 funerals in my ministry, but I’m still learning. Maybe it’s more personal because I buried my own father and mother-in-law earlier this year, or maybe it’s because Ruth was such an important part of my life. Or maybe it was because Ruth’s two young great grandsons were at the cemetery and I wasn’t sure I said the right words for them to hear.

I said the tried and true words we usually say at a time and place like that; that the body returns to the ground but we commend Ruth’s spirit to God. I said, “Today we have to let go of Ruth’s hand, but we know God has hold of her hand and God will never let go.” Those are good words, but they border on pious platitudes. What I wish I had said is this, “We’ve celebrated a great and wonderful life today but this part is still very hard. I remember a bitter cold January day many years ago when we buried Ruth’s grandmother. I was a teenager then, but I still remember my grandmother Sawmiller standing there by the grave crying. It was the only time I ever remember seeing her cry. And she said, “I don’t want to leave her here.”

It’s taken me almost 60 years to figure out what I should have said then and what I should have said last Saturday at Aunt Ruth’s grave. “She’s not in that box. She’s not in that grave. She’s right here in the heart of everyone she loved and who loved her back. Her spirit is alive and well in every memory we share, and those memories and her feisty spirit will never die as long as we keep them alive.”