Mystery, Awe, and Disgust

My mind, per usual, has been focused on macro and micro events in the world around me – a teachers’ strike, global warming, my own physical and mental health. And then I looked out in our back yard a few minutes ago and saw a very large bird which I mistook for a chicken at first. When said bird heard me wondering out loud what it was doing in my yard it took off before I could get my phone out to snap a picture.

When the bird took to flight it became very obvious it was no chicken. It was some kind of hawk. My birding skills are not developed to the point that I could tell you what kind of hawk, but it was big. Not 3 minutes later I noticed a tiny hummingbird darting back and forth drinking from our feeder designed for just that purpose.

In those few moments I was struck by the mystery and magnificence of creation. One of the tiniest birds and one of the largest, at least in our part of the world, right there almost simultaneously in the small part of God’s universe we are privileged to call home.

And then I decided to walk out into the yard to see what the hawk had been doing. From what I had observed I thought he or she had been feasting on some other unfortunate critter. I was hoping it was one of the mice, chipmunks, or moles that are a nuisance to us. But what I found in the grass were the very gross remains of some much larger animal or bird. There was not enough left to identify what had been alive a few minutes before without DNA analysis.

I’m not sure what to make of all that. It struck me as a rather profound example of the cycle of life and how fragile and temporary our being here really is. I feel like I witnessed something messy and yet sacred and beautiful. And yes I will prepare and consume the steak I am grilling tonight with a renewed appreciation for one of God’s critters who gave his life so I can partake of his body in that mysterious chain of life.

Things I Never Asked My Father

My father, Herb Harsh, died four years ago at the age of 96. Part of my grieving for him and for myself has been thinking of many questions I wish I had asked him before he lost touch with reality. There are several reasons we never talked about a lot of things.

My father was a child of the depression born in 1921. He grew up with an abusive alcoholic step-father in rural northwestern Ohio. In spite of that he excelled in school and was valedictorian of the 1939 class at Buckland, Ohio high school. We used to tease him that it didn’t take much to be at the top of a class of 19, but the more I’ve come to appreciate the obstacles he overcame I regret that I didn’t give him more credit for his academic and survival skills in those depression years. His high school classmates were lifelong friends for him, bringing him back to high school reunions for nearly 70 years until he could physically no longer make the trip back home from his retirement community near Cincinnati.

My sister Sue and I inherited Dad’s ability to achieve in school. She was valedictorian of a class of 200, and I was second in a class of 120; and both of us went on to get graduate degrees. I think Dad would have been the first in his family to go to college had it not been for WWII. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbor. One of the things I wish I asked him is what he did in years between high school and the service. My sister said she remembered he worked on the railroad at some point in his early life, and we think that may have been it.

I also wish I knew where he got his love for music. He played his tenor saxophone and sang in every musical group he could find until he was about 90. He had his own dance band in the 1950’s and bookended that with organizing “The Harsh Notes” quartet at his retirement community. In between he sang in the choir at every church he attended. When the aging process took those things away from him he lost most of his will to live. Because I was not gifted with any musical talent I never showed much interest in his love of music, and I regret that. I have always been a sports fan and listened to or watched every baseball, football and basketball game I could. My dad had zero interest in sports of any kind, and I wish I had explored that topic with him, just to understand him better.

I know my parents met at a dance, but I never cared enough to ask him for any details, and I’m sorry. All I do know is that my mother, a small town girl of maybe 19, followed her love to at least two air corps towns in Texas. Somewhere along the line they decided to marry before he was shipped overseas to fly B-17 bombers. I don’t know if they ever were formally engaged or where/when that might have happened. I do know they were married on June 5, 1943 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he was stationed for officer training. Sometime thereafter he shipped out to England. I wish I knew more about when that was and how he traveled there.

After he died we discovered that he had written about some of his war experience for the newsletter at the Otterbein Retirement community where he lived the final 38 years of his life. He apparently flew a few bombing runs over Germany near the end of the war, which he didn’t like doing, and again I wish I had asked him more about that. Like most survivors of war I don’t think he really wanted to talk about his war experience, but I wish I had shown more interest and wonder if it would have been good for him to talk about it.

The life-changing event in his service career happened after the war was over in Europe. He was co-pilot of a B-17 bringing 17 service members home after the war. For some strange reason I wish I understood they were flying across the Atlantic at night, leaving a refueling stop in the Azores Islands around midnight. Shortly after leaving there both of their engines failed, and they were forced to ditch (crash land) in the cold North Atlantic. Because it was foggy they came down too steep and too fast. My dad was knocked unconscious by the impact and remembers his pilot shaking him and urging him to get out before the plane sank.

The survivors of the crash impact spent the next 12 hours in the dark waters that they had been told might be shark infested. They were not able to retrieve any life rafts from the wreckage and had to rely entirely on their Mae West life jackets to keep them afloat. By the time they were finally rescued the next morning only four of the 17 men on the plane survived.

I cannot begin to imagine what those 12 hours were like. My dad didn’t write about any of that in his account. Watching his buddies die and fearing for his own life would surely have qualified him for a PTSD diagnosis if there had been such a thing in 1945. I will never know why I didn’t figure that out until very late in his life. It would have changed so much about our relationship and made me so much more patient and understanding about his approach to life, parenting, and his faith.

I wish I had asked him about how that horrific experience brought him from a churchless upbringing to a devout, dedicated Christian life for 70 years. I can only guess how his conversion experience happened, but what I know for sure is that my personal and professional life choices were totally affected by his come to Jesus moment or hours there in that water.

Why didn’t I explore all those important life events with my father? Let’s say I was a child of the ‘60’s and he came of age in the ‘30’s. Ironically it was his encouragement of me academically that created most of the divide between us. My life experience once I began college and seminary was totally foreign to the conservative, parochial life my father grew up in and chose to stay in after the war.

Pre-Viet Nam I was a typical patriotic American kid. I played war games with my friends, I wrote a piece in 4th grade that said I wanted to be a marine when I grew up. I was an Eagle Scout in 1960 at age 14, but all that began to change one day in my senior year of high school. A history teacher, Mrs. Miller, told our class one day that she thought Viet Nam was going to be the next trouble spot in the world. None of us had a clue where Viet Nam was, nor that Americans had been dying there already for 4 years. Suddenly my fantasies about attending one of the military academies came face to face on the nightly news with the realities of guerrilla warfare in the jungles of Southeast Asia,

That unjust and unnecessary war escalating was the backdrop to my entire college and seminary educational experience. My peers were dying in Vietnam and at Kent State University just 100 miles from my seminary campus. At the Methodist Theological School in Ohio we students didn’t have to protest. Our faculty and administration cancelled all classes to discuss how we could respond to the Kent State tragedy. That event led to my first political action. Some of us decided to go Washington DC and talk with our legislators about our concerns over the war and the unrest it was creating in our country. In one 24-hour whirlwind three of us drove all night to DC, talked with legislators the next day and turned around and drove straight home that night. The three of us probably made no difference in DC, but we bonded through that experience and are still good friends 52 years later.

Unfortunately my new liberal politics and theology were very troubling to my dad. I understand now that he needed the certainty of very concrete beliefs and values to manage his undiagnosed PTSD, and my divergence from those beliefs and values were a threat to his worldview. I wish I had been smart enough then to be patient and understanding about where he was coming from; but I guess I was not confident enough in my own burgeoning faith to reason with him. It was easier to rebel and withdraw from any controversial issues with him.

There is a running joke in my extended family about all of us who have received one or more of Dad’s infamous letters criticizing us for breaking one of his rules for living. My younger sister was always her Daddy’s girl and was his devoted caretaker in his last difficult years. She prided herself that she had never received one of his nasty letters, and she made it till he was getting very belligerent about his circumstances in his last two or three years. I’m hoping I don’t get that way, but I do know I learned or inherited my impatience and temper from him. He had every reason to be miserable those final months.

My mother died suddenly from brain cancer a few weeks after my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. My dad was lost without her, and remarried a year later a recently widowed woman who also lived in their retirement community. Both families were aghast and thought they were making a huge mistake. But they had 20 good years together before dementia did it’s dastardly deed on her. Dad often lost patience with her, and I’m sure I would have too. Eventually she had to move into memory care, and Dad, bereft of his music, his wife, and his dignity became a handful. It was in that state he finally wrote a nasty note to my sister criticizing her for not being available to him 24/7. My sister Nancy is a candidate for sainthood, but her letter made one family member happy — my son, Matt, now gets to boast that he is the only member of the family who never got a Harshpa letter.

One of the things we can laugh about now but was very stressful in Dad’s later years was how much he absolutely hated wearing diapers. For many months he was determined he was going to invent an apparatus that would make diapers unnecessary. His idea was somehow to create a device out of plastic tubing which at one point he was going to super glue to his penis! When we all presented a united front and refused to buy him any more supplies for his hair-brained idea he was livid. I made one trip, two hours each way, to visit him after that, and when I told him no, I was not going to the hardware for him to buy supplies he told me I could go to hell, and my 4-hour trip resulted in one very ugly 5-minute visit.

I don’t share that to criticize my Dad. As I am aging now I fully understand the frustration of giving up so many things I used to be able to do. I wish I had more fully understood that for my dad, and I’m sure most families go through some similar tough times. We were never forgiven for taking away his car keys either, and I get it now.

The good news is that for some years before the diaper conflicts Dad and I reached a somewhat peaceful and comfortable relationship. He mellowed some, or gave up trying to change me, and I came to understand that he had done the best job as a father he could. That grace is what most dads want most for Father’s Day. We all have regrets about things we have done or failed to do as fathers, but the bottom line is we’ve all done the best we could, and that’s all anyone can ask.

Rescue

Our church is doing a series of Advent devotions on words that reflect facets of the Advent and Christmas season. I wrote this one on the word “rescue.”

When I signed up for this word I was thinking about our granddaughter Olivia and the cat rescue organization she started last year. She named her rescue operation “Little Boo Rescue of Ohio” in honor of “Boo,” one of the first kittens she rescued who unfortunately was too sick to be saved.

The three cuties pictured here are Cherry, Mango and Honeydew. They along with their siblings, Apple and Bianca were near death when rescued, but thanks to a lot of TLC and excellent medical care all five are healthy again and looking for their forever homes. Olivia has always had a huge heart for our four-legged friends, and we are very proud of the work she and her colleagues are doing, all of which is over and above their full-time jobs.

Their rescue work often requires responding to calls from someone with a feral cat problem.  She and her friends respond by going out in the dark to capture cats so they can be neutered, vaccinated, and nursed back to health.  They are then either adopted or sent to foster homes.  It is a true labor of love.  

Such caring work reminds me of Jesus’ story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go searching for the one lost stray.  We are all that lost one at some time in our lives, and we run and hide from God all too often.  But God never gives up and will be there to cuddle us back to health whenever we admit we need to be rescued.

We’ve all heard the joke about how hard it is to herd cats, and if she could I’m sure Olivia would transform herself into a cat so the lost ones would trust her and be easier to rescue. And that’s exactly what God did for us in the human baby born in Bethlehem so long ago. The incarnation means that God is with us no matter how many times we need to be rescued.

The Kindness of Strangers

“Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” (John 5:2-7)

Our modern fast-paced living makes it easy for me to understand the apathy or selfishness of strangers that would jump in line and leave a sick man unhealed for 38 years. I have to admit I too often am so turned in on myself and my problems that I have done somethings like that. I apologize to anyone I’ve disrespected, even if I didn’t know I was doing it.

One way I try to change my negative thoughts and behaviors is to counter those painful memories by noticing the many acts of kindness that will never make the nightly news. One of my favorite personal memories of the kindness of strangers happened many years ago, 52 to be exact, when I was in New York City for the very first time. I was a young 23 year old who had lived a very sheltered small town life up to that point; so I was quite intimidated by the sights and sounds of the big city.

It was the end of a five-city tour I took with some fellow United Methodist seminarians. We had toured United Methodist boards and agencies as a group; so all of our transportation and hotel needs had been taken care of by the trip leaders. But now at the end of the trip we were all on our own to get to one of the New York airports for our flights home. So the two of us from Methesco (the Methodist Theological School in Ohio) set out from our hotel in Harlem for JFK airport. My traveling partner was an equally inexperienced traveler, and remember this was 1969, way before cell phones and gps that we rely totally upon these days to help us navigate strange places.

Carrying our luggage (in those days before roller bags), craning our necks to read street signs we undoubtedly looked as lost as we felt. We had grown up hearing and fearing how impersonal city folk were, but that day time after time strangers came up to us without being asked and offered to help us get on the right subway or bus. Without their help I doubt we would have made it to JFK in time for our flight.

And even as I write this I remember a very similar experience some 40 years later when my wife and I were in Tokyo trying to figure out which train to take toward downtown. We were about to board one going the wrong way when a kind Japanese gentleman noticed our indecision and not only told us how to get to the other side of the train platform and on the right train, he actually walked with us to make sure we did it right.

Such acts of kindness from strangers unfortunately was not the experience of the man in the text from John. Many years ago I heard the late Fred Craddock preach on this text. He explained the story this way: he said that the reason the man couldn’t get into the pool fast enough to be healed was because people with hang nails, skinned elbows and runny noses were quite mobile and always got into the pool first.

I was reminded of that story when we were flying home from a family Thanksgiving Friday night. Because of my bad back and balance issues due to neuropathy handling luggage when we travel has become a huge challenge for me, especially when other people are waiting behind us in the plane’s aisle during boarding and deplaning. So we have tried to mitigate that problem a bit on recent trips by staying in our seats while others exit the plane so we aren’t blocking the aisle and inconveniencing others. We did that Friday night when we arrived back home in Columbus, and most people were off the plane when a nice young man stopped to ask if he could get our bags out of the overhead bins for us.

For far too long I have been in the habit of declining such help because my pride made it hard to accept that I am officially old and really do need help. But this time I was simply grateful for this young man’s help. He was so much stronger and taller than I that he made handling our luggage look so easy, and it only took a few seconds for him to do what would have taken my wife and I so much longer. Yes, I hate not being more self-sufficient, but mostly I am just humbled by the kindness of strangers and vow to pay that forward more often when I can.

For the record, here’s how the story in John ends: “Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.“ (John 5:8-9)

No, I can’t heal people like Jesus did, and I will not be lifting 40 lb. suitcases anytime soon; but there are plenty of things we can all do for others if we aren’t rushing to beat them into the pool or the best parking place. It costs nothing to treat servers or store clerks or random strangers with kindness; so let’s do it. We will never know what a difference it might make in someone else’s life, but we will know the joy of human connection.

The Dangerous Pursuit of “Happiness”

The current heated debates in the U.S. about personal freedom vs. the greater good for society when it comes to masks and vaccines has had me pondering for some time about a key phrase in the Declaration of Independence. That document authored by Thomas Jefferson and edited by a committee of five states in these familiar words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I have said numerous times lately I have been blessed during the pandemic by being introduced to the work of Dr. Brene Brown by my spiritual director and a book club I have been in. I am currently re-reading Brown’s 2011 book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” where she shares among other things the results of her research into joy and gratitude and describes what she has learned about the difference between two words we normally equate as synonymous, happiness and joy.

I was particularly pleased that Brown quotes a United Methodist pastor, Anne Robertson, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, to explain the meaning of the Greek words for happiness and joy. Robertson says the Greek word for happiness
is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries,
or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health. Robertson compares this to the Greek word for joy which is chairo. Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the “culmination of being” and the “good mood of the soul.” Robertson writes, “Chairo is something, the ancient Greeks tell us, that is found only in God and comes with virtue and wisdom. It isn’t a beginner’s virtue; it comes as the culmination. They say its opposite is not sadness, but fear.” (“Joy or Happiness?” St. John’s United Methodist Church, http://www.stjohnsdover.org/99adv3.html)

That understanding of those two words presents challenges to Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness,” and our American obsession with doing so. I think it is no coincidence that Jefferson owned far more slaves (600) than any of the other 15 of our other U.S. Presidents who were slave owners. According to Statista.com only Washington and Jackson owned even 200 slaves. Given the Greek definition of happiness it’s pretty obvious to me that Jefferson was quite free of many normal “cares and worries” most of us experience. That in no way diminishes all of Jefferson’s amazing accomplishments, but it does help to explain how he had time to create all of the advanced technologies at Monticello along with his diplomatic and political accomplishments.

It also explains his favoring the philosophy of John Locke when he included “the pursuit of happiness“ as one of three unalienable rights. I would argue that our American settling for happiness instead of joy is at the heart of our current manipulation by consumerism, materialism, individualism and elevating personal freedom over community and compassion. And this all contributes to the attitude of those who refuse to be vaccinated against a deadly pandemic because it violates their personal liberty. If the value of joy that comes with compassion and caring for others were more central to our cultural values fewer people would be willing to risk harm to themselves and the most vulnerable in our nation and world for their own personal liberty and “happiness.”

Our mistaken notions of happiness as the absence of pain or suffering is fed by consumerism and the prosperity gospel, and these fail to satisfy because in those models there is never enough of anything in these individual, self-centered pursuits that will ultimately satisfy our deep human hunger for human or divine connection. Our failure to grasp the true meaning of the Gospel of Christ as one of compassion, which means suffering with others has led us down the wide path that leads to destruction; and we are dangerously close to the point of no return on that path.

As I am writing this I again found today’s (August 7, 2021) daily devotion from Father Richard Rohr to be right on point. He quotes Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu: “The way to free yourself from pain is to feel it, not to run away, as difficult as that may be. Pain and suffering make life beautiful. This might be hard to believe while you’re suffering, but the lessons you can learn from hardships are jewels to cherish. If you’re suffering, it means you have a heart. Suffering is evidence of your capacity to love, and only those who understand suffering can understand life and help others.”

Jesus teaches the same in word and example by urging his followers in all three synoptic Gospels to “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16, Mark 8, Luke 9), and by his own courage to practice what he preached. Brene Brown addresses the same phenomenon from a psychological-emotional perspective in “The Gifts of Imperfection:” “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

All of that wisdom from diverse perspectives is supported by our contemporary headlines. The Delta variant is running rampant threatening to overwhelm exhausted health care systems, a fragile economy, and kill thousands of more vulnerable people. What we are doing simply is not working, and unless we learn very soon to put aside our thirst for political power at all costs and our fear of each other we are headed for another bleak and dark winter of death and/or lonely isolation.

Dear God, give us ears to hear the truth that can set us free from fear and the pursuit of “happiness” that does not satisfy.

Prayer for a Damascus Road Moment for President Trump

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:1-6)

O mighty God of transformation, I pray today for the healing of our President from the Coronavirus and for all others suffering from this deadly virus with access to far less health care resources available to presidents and government leaders. And I pray this Walter Reed sojourn will be a dramatic healing of Donald Trump’s soul like what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. You, O healing spirit, who transformed the murderous, zealous Saul into the most ardent evangelist of the infant church, hear my prayer.

We know you have the power, Lord, to redeem the coldest heart and to forgive the most grievous purveyors of suffering, even on those closest to them. I do not have it in my heart to forgive Mr. Trump’s lies and onslaught on our democratic values. But I know you can. You have showed us in the risen Christ who turned Saul’s life around that unimaginable conversion is possible through a savior who turned the hierarchy of Roman society on it’s head by feeding, healing, touching and forgiving those who were left behind by those who had broken their covenant with you.

Now, O loving God, when this virus has brought Donald Trump as close to humility as he has ever been use this moment of his vulnerability as an opportunity to break through his facade of superiority. Embrace him with compassion that will melt his cold heart. Remove the scales from his eyes, unplug his ears so he can finally see and hear the plight of those who are suffering from his misguided view of the world. Move him with such gratitude for your healing love that he will use his worldly power to extend the privileges he enjoys to the marginalized — to all people of color, to immigrants in cages, to the working poor and those with inadequate food, education, and opportunity to have a decent quality of life.

I know I’m asking a lot, dear Lord, so much that my imagination is stretched to the limit. But I know the story of Saul/Paul whom you turned from vicious Christian killer to one who endured prison, shipwreck and unbelievable persecution to share the life-changing power of your grace because he had experienced it personally in such a drastic way that he would not let anything stop him from taking the Gospel to the very seat of worldly power in Rome.

I humbly implore your healing power to break into my unbelief and into the deluge of terrible news that has bombarded us for this longest year in my lifetime. We need a miracle, God, to heal the dangerous and increasingly violent differences in our culture. I fear we are nearing the point of no return as tensions mount leading up to this election. I have never before been afraid of my neighbors because of their political views. The spiritual healing of Donald Trump could lead to a healing of our nation’s pandemic of hate and violence. I pray with all my being for his healing and conversion and for the transformation of our nation to be worthy of our highest ideals of liberty and freedom for all of your children. In the name and for the sake of our Risen Christ, Amen and Amen.

Say Thanks While You Can

I just wrote a long overdue thank you letter to an old friend that I haven’t seen or talked to in over 40 years. I worked for this gentleman and his wife in their florist shop my first two years in college, and felt the need to say thank you to him for the powerful influence he had on my life. He’s a 90 something now, a widower living in a retirement community, and I share this in case there’s someone you need to say thanks to before it’s too late.

Here’s what I wrote:

“I’m writing this because I want to express my appreciation for the good times I enjoyed working for you and especially for the kind and compassionate way you treated me. I hope you don’t even remember all the times I messed up by wrecking your vehicles or by driving around the block so I didn’t have to parallel park the truck there by the back door of the shop. We worked ridiculously long hours around holidays, especially those Thanksgiving weekends getting ready for the Christmas open house. I trust you figured out how to simplify things in your more mature years!! But even if you didn’t I know you made the work fun. I’ve been so lucky to have really good places to work MOST of my life, but I have always appreciated what I learned from you about how to work with people under some pretty stressful times and still get along and laugh together.

I confess I have used you several times as a sermon illustration of how kindness and understanding are not only the Christian way to treat people; they are actually the best way to call forth the very best effort and loyalty from others. My case in point that I will never forget was the day sometime in the mid 60’s you got a bright new Pontiac convertible – I think it was yellow. This was after I had already wrecked your truck, your car and even your lawn tractor while mowing your lawn. We had a delivery that needed to be made and the truck was out on another run; so you handed me the keys to that brand new car that I don’t think your wife had driven yet and trusted me to take in to make a delivery. You could have knocked me over with a feather, and my old heart is still warmed at that memory.

You see at that point in my life no authority figure in my life had ever treated me with that kind of trust and respect, and I have treasured that memory and all the other life lessons I learned working with you for lo these 50 plus years. And I just wanted to say thanks.”

Deja Vu All Over Again

A few weeks ago I thought about writing about a time 50 years ago when the National Guard was sent into Kent, Ohio to put down protests against the Vietnam war. I didn’t get that piece written, but now those scenes of violent clashes in American streets are playing out all over again on our 24/7 newsfeeds. I was a young seminary student that spring of 1970 and part of our response as a seminary community to the tragic deaths of four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State was to send a delegation to Washington, D.C. to share our concerns with our elected representatives in Congress. I made a whirlwind trip to D.C. with two of my fellow students. We were too poor to stay overnight; so we drove 8 or 9 hours through the night, visited with Congress people during the day and then made the return trip that night. I don’t think we had any impact on our reps, but that bonding experience turned good friends into lifelong ones I still cherish today.

One memory I have from that day on Capitol Hill was the response of our Congressperson, Sam Devine, to our concerns. He said something like, “Well, we can’t just let people destroy property.” Protestors at Kent had burned an abandoned ROTC building in their anger over President Nixon’s escalation of the war into Cambodia. That was certainly an act of vandalism and was wrong, just as the property destruction last night in cities all over America is wrong. That destruction hit at the heart of my hometown in Columbus, Ohio last night 700 miles from where George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day.

Here’s one of many questions running through my mind today: how do you compare the value of an old ROTC building with the lives of four young people and the damage done to the 9 who were wounded on May 4, 1970? How do you weigh the worth of buildings and other property against the life of George Floyd? Or against the nearly 400 years of racial injustice in this country? That comment from Rep. Devine came to mind when I heard about the President’s tweet last night which said, “When the looting begins the shooting begins.” That’s a deja vu quote from civil rights protests in the 1960’s, FYI. I much prefer a quote from another President, JFK, who once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible, we make violent revolution inevitable.”

You don’t have to condone property destruction to understand the cries for justice that inflame an oppressed people when those pleas are unheeded for centuries. Racism is alive and well in this country and has been from day one even though sometimes it recedes into the background when those with white privilege power think we have responded to it. As a child I was convinced that the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments had solved our American race problem for good. I was naive and the teachers in my all white community were negligent when they failed to teach me about Jim Crowe, “separate but equal,” the KKK and lynching of blacks. It does no good to grant a people citizenship and the right to vote if they are systematically denied access to a good education, adequate employment opportunities and decent health care!

I cannot begin to understand how it feels to be a person of color in this country. I also can’t understand those who feel so threatened by the loss of white privilege that they can kneel on the neck of another human being until he dies. What I do understand all too well is my own frustration that 50 years removed from the Civil Rights struggles of my youth we are reliving this nightmare of riot gear clad police, National Guard curfews and cities on fire. It makes me question what good my life has been, what more could I and should I have done to work for a more just and peaceful society?

Like many Americans I celebrated prematurely when we elected Barack Obama President just 12 years ago. Little did we know that having an African American in the White House did not mean we had arrived but would simply allow the likes of Donald Trump and Fox News to fan the smoldering flames of hatred and racism to a fever pitch. To those too young to remember Kent State or the Democratic Convention of 1968 or the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, some of us have seen this movie before. Only in this remake we’re being forced to deal with our racism in the midst of a pandemic!

It seems too much to bear! But this I know, the scourges of injustice and racism upon which this nation was founded will never be solved by curfews or armaments. Peaceful demonstrations turn violent when the burdens of injustice become too great. Riots and protests are not the problem. They are the symptoms of an insidious illness that can only be cured with repentance, compassion and understanding. Empathy for the oppressed, not bullets and tear gas to protect property are the only hope for a just and lasting peace in our culturally and racially diverse nation.

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the injustice and inequality in our nation in vivid terms as people of color lacking adequate health care and decent paying jobs have died at alarmingly high rates from COVID-19. American capitalism in the last 40 years has become a tool for perpetuating injustice. The American dream has become a nightmare for most of our citizens. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are sadly just the most recent and well-publicized incidents of injustice for our sisters and brothers of color that have again ignited the smoldering anger of an oppressed people.

Will we listen to their pain and cries for justice this time or will we once more suppress them by superior fire power making the next version of this movie even more violent than this one? The answer is up to you and me.

COVID COASTER

I know I’ve written about roller coasters as a metaphor for life before (see my post from August 21, 2019), but the emotional dips and twists and turns seem to be more extreme on the ride we call COVID-19. First let me say again that I am now much more a Lazy River kind of guy than a thrill-seeking coaster junkie. Yes, I used to ride coasters, but when I became an adult I gave up childish things, well at least things with names like “Steel Vengeance,” “Wicked Twister,” or “Corkscrew.” Real life is scary enough for me, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

I actually gave up roller coasters and the like many years ago. My junior high youth group back in the ’80’s used to do a mini mission work camp in Southern Ohio Appalachia, and at the end of the trip we would reward the kids with a day at King’s Island, an amusement park near Cincinnati. After several days of scraping, painting or ramp building with rambunctious middle schoolers the last thing we adults wanted was being tossed about on a coaster. So while the kids rode the rides we adults would find a show to watch or simply sit and people watch.

But the highs and lows on the 2020 COVID Coaster are bigger than anything we’ve experienced. It’s a rogue ride on steroids. Sometimes we can’t even see the bottom as we free-fall. And this ride seems to just keep going without an end in sight. The best thing about real roller coasters is that the ride doesn’t last very long. Not so with the emotional ups and downs of this Twilight Zone existence today.

I am thinking about this because I’ve been a very low emotional state for the last few days.
Here’s how I described my depressed mood to a trusted friend and colleague on Messenger the other day when he asked me what I thought the future holds for sporting events he and I both love. I replied, “I’ve been a funk last couple of days so my projections about any future events would be pretty negative right now. Seems like the recommendations on what to do change daily. Sounds like sporting events may come back without fans at first. I’ve been out grocery shopping and am not encouraged by the number of people I see without masks. If people won’t play by the rules I don’t see how any large gatherings of people are likely to happen anytime soon, and I’m afraid it’s going to come down to my deciding what I think is safe vs things I’d like to do. That’s a tough call, but I think I will err on the side of caution. Have to admit I’m feeling cheated out of things I like to do and knowing I have a finite number of years left to enjoy those things depresses me. As for reading I’ve been doing a lot of escapist stuff and very little of any real redeeming value. Sorry to be a downer. Maybe tomorrow I’ll see things in a more hopeful light.”

I think there are several reasons for that gloomy outlook, including lousy Ohio weather, pandemic fatigue, and the cherry on top of that sundae is the grief work I’m doing for a dear friend and mentor who died a couple of weeks ago. Grief is hard work, and it sneaks up on you unexpectedly in something that triggers a memory that seems to come out of left field. I had a dream last night about something I don’t remember now, but for just a second another friend who died suddenly in January was sitting there on my couch. Grief, as my friend reminded me doesn’t proceed in any predictable linear fashion. The stages of anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance don’t march along like little soldiers but are more like a roller coaster.

And grief takes time. Some of mine now is unfinished grief for my father. My friend Russ who died last week was in his 90’s like my father when he died two years ago. The two of them were nothing alike, but the passing of yet another member of that generation is one step closer to that big drop for me.

How do we grieve in the middle of a pandemic? The normal rituals of funerals and memorial services are on hold. Many people tragically can’t even visit their dying loved ones. Just as we have to adjust and be creative with how we celebrate other rites of passage just now, we need outlets to express our grief and loss of people near and dear to us. We need to also grieve over what this pandemic has taken from us. Those feelings are real, and denial is a stage in the process, not a destination.

But here’s the thing, we also need to know that when the coaster ride drops us over one hill or flips us head over heels in suspended animation, there’s another rise to the top of the next hill with a breath-taking view, and finally there’s a blessed end where the ride stops and we can plant our feet on solid ground once more.

One resource I’ve used to keep me grounded are prayers from a book our lead pastor gave all of us on the church staff this past Christmas. Little did she know how much they would be needed. It’s an old book published in 1981 entitled “Guerillas of Grace,” by Ted Loder. I’ve been just opening the book at random as part of my morning devotions and continue to be amazed at how timeless and relevant these words from 30 years ago are. For example this morning I opened the book to a prayer called “Sometimes It Just Seems To Be Too Much.” The whole first half of the prayer is a litany of how there’s too much violence, fear, demands, problems, broken dreams, broken lives, dying, cruelty, darkness and indifference.

And then Loder says, “Too much, Lord, too much, too bloody, bruising, brain-washing much; Or is it too little, too little compassion, too little courage, of daring, persistence, sacrifice; too little of music, laughter and celebration?

O God, make of me some nourishment for these starved times, some food for my brothers and sisters who are hungry for gladness and hope, that being bread for them, I may also be fed and be full.” (p. 72)

That hit me right between the eyes and convicted me again of being too turned in on myself. It reminded me that when Jesus saw the multitude of 5000, plus women and children who were hungry he didn’t ask his disciples to give more than they had. He just asked for all they had, and it was enough. (Mark 6:30-44)

Loder’s phrase “too little compassion” struck a special cord with me. In recent days and weeks I’ve struggled with being angry at protestors who disagree with the governor’s cautious approach to the virus. I’ve been angry at so many people who aren’t wearing masks when I go to the grocery. Those folks are endangering me and those I love by refusing to do things that have proved to work by keeping the infection and death rate here in Ohio among the lowest in the nation.

But then I remembered something from the Holy Week narrative that has always struck me as perhaps the most remarkable thing the Gospels report about Jesus. Hanging there on that cross in unbearable pain Jesus still had compassion on the very people who nailed him up there, and he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Matthew 27:46)

All of us riding the COVID Coaster are dealing with different circumstances. But we all have one thing in common even though we may express it differently. We are all afraid. Some of us wear masks because we’re afraid of getting the virus or inadvertently giving it someone else, and some of us don’t wear masks because we’re afraid of losing personal freedom, of being told what to do, or fear of admitting the threat is real. Some of us stay home because of fear while others are motivated by a fear of economic disaster to protest or ignore recommendations. It’s easy to judge and much harder to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and offer compassion.

Anger is a poison that not only harms others but also the one who is angry. Yes, anger is a natural human emotion. Even Jesus expressed his anger in another cry from the cross when he screamed, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Luke 23:34) How many of us have felt that way recently? It’s OK. Notice Jesus didn’t forgive his executioners himself. He was in too much agony to do that because he was fully human. But he knew God could forgive them. He trusted God even when he felt as low as humanly possible.

Have you ever noticed how young the people operating the roller coasters are? They don’t have a lot of life experience. They are probably doing that just for a summer job. We don’t know how long they’ve been on the job or how well trained they are, or if they are upset and distracted about just breaking up with someone. And yet we trust them with our lives!

We don’t know how long the COVID Coaster ride is going to last, but we can trust the one who is ultimately in charge of that ride to bring us to a safe finish.

.

Fiddling Through the Storm

One of my favorite musicals has always been “Fiddler on the Roof.” Its theme of love conquering oppression never seems out of date and is all too relevant today. Some of its insights are so good I am tempted to call it the Gospel according to Tevye. I was in a discussion the other day about praying for President Trump, and all of us present agreed we should and he certainly needs it. His erratic and delusional Messianic references to himself since then only confirm that conclusion.

One of the first things that came to my mind about praying for the President is a line from Fiddler where Tevye says this prayer: “God bless and keep the czar—far away from us.” On a more serious note I think one of the best parts of Fiddler is the opening where the title and its metaphor for life are explained.

“Away above my head I see the strangest sight
A fiddler on the roof who’s up there day and night
He fiddles when it rains, he fiddles when it snows
I’ve never seen him rest, yet on and on he goes

{Refrain}
What does it mean, this fiddler on the roof?
Who fiddles every night and fiddles every noon
Why should he pick so curious a place
To play his little fiddler’s tune

An unexpected breeze could blow him to the ground
Yet after every storm, I see he’s still around
Whatever each day brings, this odd outlandish man
He plays his simple tune as sweetly as he can

{Refrain}

A fiddler on the roof, a most unlikely sight
It might not mean a thing, but then again it might!”

And then Tevye says, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”

Our traditions of love, compassion, hospitality and justice are under attack, but they are the solid rock and anchor we can cling to in each and every storm; and if we do we will still be around after the perils of this present age are no more.

“A Fiddler on the roof, a most unusual sight…. It may not mean a thing, but then again it might.”

*music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick