Hanging On

One of the benefits of house arrest 2020 is that my office is cleaner than it has been in years. I’ve found things I’ve been looking for since 2017! One of the things I rediscovered is this four-generation picture of me with three very strong women, and it got me thinking about what my parents, grandparents, and especially my great-grandparents witnessed in their lives compared to the pandemic we’re in right now.

The woman on the left in this picture is my maternal great-grandmother, Anna Mae Thomas Balthaser (1878-1961). Until I was elementary age I thought her name was “Ballplayer.” She was a tiny but mighty one, never weighed 100 pounds, but until I found this picture again at the same time I’ve been reading things about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 I hadn’t really thought about the scope of the challenges her generation faced in their lifetimes.

Yes, I’ve often thought about the fact that they went from horse and buggies to the space age and other kinds of “progress” they experienced. But as I have been learning about the so called “Spanish Flu,” which I’ve learned really started in Kansas and got exported to Europe by American Troops deployed to Europe in WW I, I have thought more about other major problems my ancestors faced and overcame.

Thanks to my sister Susan’s careful genealogical research we know that my great-great grandfather Henry Balthaser Jr. moved at age 5 to Ohio with his family from Pennsylvania, and the farmhouse depicted here is a painting of their home near Amanda. The painting was done on a saw by a friend of my father and proudly hangs in my office today.

Anna’s husband Chauncy Balthaser was a Spanish War vet, which had nothing to do with the Spanish Flu. And then life got difficult. They farmed until losing their farm when he put it up as collateral for his brother to buy a farm and then worked as a carpenter for the rest of his life. When I reflected on their life span from 1870-1961 I realized they lived through a total of two world wars, the Spanish Flu, and the Great Depression. That blows my mind!

I was fortunate enough to have known both of these great-grandparents on my mother’s side. He died when I was 7 and she when I was in high school. As a kid I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have, but I’m so glad I did know them personally because now when I think about the decades they lived through I can put faces on people I knew who lived through all of those world events and hardships. It helps put what we’re going through right now in perspective. We’ve been cooped up for a few weeks now, and my “sacrifices” don’t begin to hold a candle to what they experienced in even one of their crises. I also know that I am extremely fortunate to be in a much better place right now than the vast majority of people in the world during this pandemic.

My sister reminded me the other day of something that our great-grandmother used to say. I must admit I don’t remember this, but am glad my sister does because it speaks volumes of wisdom to me and my generation in 2020. She apparently used to say, “You can get used to hanging if you hang long enough.” And even though she’s been gone almost 60 years now, that metaphor, given all she had to hang on through, gives me hope to carry on. Thanks Grandma Ballplayer.

When Oceans Rise

Earlier this year my wife and I joined another couple on an amazing five-week trip to New Zealand and Australia. We even had a bonus stop of 4 days in Tahiti on the way over. So many wonderful experiences it’s hard to even remember them all. We visited the bustling cities of Auckland, Brisbane and Sydney, took a tour of the fantastic Sydney Opera House, spent part of Ash Wednesday in awe as dolphins swam around the sail boat we were on in the harbor of Akoroa, NZ, sailed through Fiordland National Park on our cruise ship, petted some kangaroos and wallabies, saw glow worms in the Blue Mountains of Australia, toured the largest sand island in the world (Fraser Island), and spent time on the beautiful beach called the Gold Coast.

After all that I was pretty weary and getting tired of living out of a suitcase. Our trip involved 10 flights, staying in 12 hotels and a cruise ship cabin, more time zone changes than I can remember (not to mention crossing the International Date Line coming and going). We traveled over 22000 miles, had glorious weather everywhere, and thanks to our friends Barbara and Dave who did almost all of the planning and all of the driving on the left side of the road we were never lost, never had a delayed flight nor any lost luggage!! That in itself is a miracle!

But the best and most memorable part of the trip was saved till the end. All the tiredness was replaced by awe and wonder as we spent three days and two nights on Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of The Great Barrier Reef. Yes we actually lived in this amazing eco resort on the reef! It’s an eco-resort because the owners are committed to stewardship of this natural wonder. They generate 80% of their electricity from solar power and will soon increase that figure to 100%. They desalinate sea water for their guests and staff. The island itself is tiny, just long enough for a bumpy air strip, and only 80 guests are on the island at any one time.

The picture here is a sunset on the west side of the island, one of two places where we could snorkel every day. The south end of the reef is in good shape still, unlike the north where rising ocean temperatures are threatening to kill it. So we rejoiced to see spectacular coral and more sea life than words can begin to do justice. We did not have an underwater camera, and on one level I regret that. But on another I am glad my encounters with huge sea turtles, hundreds of fish of every color in the rainbow and gorgeous, graceful and gigantic manta rays were unmediated by a camera lens. Those experiences are so vividly burned into my memory that I will never forget them.

The rich diversity of God’s creation, the peacefulness and majesty that appeared every time I moved from seeing nothing but water on the surface to simply putting my face in the water was transformative! God’s glory is right around us or below us in this case. All we have to do is pay attention. One day a huge sea turtle swam right under me so close I could have reached out and touched it. These big lumbering creatures on land move as gracefully as a ballerina in the primordial waters from which all life emerged

I have that sunset picture as wallpaper on my iPhone for several reasons: just for its beauty and as a reminder of the inspiring snorkeling we did there in that very water. But there’s another memory associated with that place that I have not really written or talked about much. We’ve been home over a month now, and we’ve told some family and friends about our last day snorkeling. It was memorable for a very different but equally moving reason.

We had snorkeled the day before out by the sailboat in that picture and had a marvelous time. It was the first time we saw manta rays, a real highlight of our time on the reef. The wing span of those rays is 8-10 feet, and even in a depth of 50 feet or more they dwarf everything else in the water. So of course on our final day there we wanted to relive that experience. We were in the same place that day, but what we didn’t realize while we were out in the water was that the current changed. It became so strong that we were unable to swim back into the one narrow opening in the coral where we could return to the beach.

Fortunately we were wearing life jackets so we were in no immediate danger of drowning, but no matter how hard we tried to swim toward shore we were gradually drifting further south, parallel to the coast but unable to get there. I am not usually one who prays for divine intervention in such situations, but I was just beginning to converse with Jesus about what in the world we were going to do when I saw a beautiful sight. One of the glass bottom boats from the resort had taken other snorkelers out nearby, and the captain saw we were in trouble and came over to rescue us.

He picked Diana up first and then came over toward me. When I swam over to the boat and grabbed onto its ladder nothing ever felt any better. The captain asked me if I was ok, and my reply was; “Now I am!” He probably had seen us and headed our way before I prayed, and I’m sure God had. They say God watches over animals and foolish people, right?

And now back to reality; another school shooting, number 35 of this school year. 49 years ago this week 4 students were killed at Kent Stated and this country came to a screeching halt. Now we barely notice. Our Secretary of State makes a fool of himself again by saying (to an Arctic conservation conference no less) that the arctic ice melt is “good for commerce” because it will open up new shipping lanes! I kid you not. Who does he think is going to engage in commerce with when our seaports are under water and climate refugees are overrunning the parts of the world that are left inhabitable? That kind of selfish short-sighted thinking will literally be the death of this planet, and it is of little comfort to me that I will die before the worst consequences of our stupidity are realized.

This week my grandchildren in Houston are reliving the nightmare of hurricane Harvey as their neighborhood streets and schools are once again flooded by torrential rains predicted to last the rest of the week! Does anyone in our so-called government care about these obvious impacts of climate change? No, they are all too busy trying to stay out of jail for their own lawless power grabbing behavior.

I realized this week why it has taken me so long to process our scary experience in the Great Barrier Reef waters. That experience ended well. We were rescued before our plight got really serious, but on a deeper (pun intended) level, who is going to rescue our nation and world from the morass of overwhelming problems we have created for ourselves? When nearly 50% of our population (according to latest polls 46%) supports our lying, power-grabbing president what hope is there for democracy? Many self-avowed Christians support Trump enthusiastically, even though he is on record as saying his favorite Bible verse is “An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a verse directly vetoed by Jesus in the Sermon on the. Mount. Yes, the Jesus who says “the greatest of all is servant of all.” Can you imagine Trump trying to wrap his mind around that one?

The Sunday after our trip to Australia our church’s praise team did a contemporary song called “Oceans” that touched my jet-lagged soul. In part those lyrics say:

“You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me”

It is so hard to have water-walking faith when the storms of life are raging all around us. I had a massage this morning, which is usually a very relaxing experience. It still felt good on my body, but my mind would not relax. The hate-filled rhetoric going on in DC and in my own United Methodist denomination, fears about the physical and emotional health of my kids and grandkids in Houston battled for attention in my mind with how to pay my bills and how to keep up with my yard work and getting my taxes done (we took an extension).

And yet in spite of it all the words of “Oceans” still float in the depths of my soul:

“Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.”

Longing to Belong: Flood Assurance, Isaiah 43:1-7, 11-13

As you may know our kids and grandkids in Houston were hit by Hurricane Harvey. At one point during the flooding our 11-year old grandson Lukas asked his mother if they had flood insurance. When she told him sadly that they didn’t he summed up the way millions of storm victims must be feeling today in typical pre-teen fashion. He said, “Well we should. We’re screwed!”

Today I am talking about something far better than flood insurance. There are no deductibles on this policy and the premiums are paid up forever. I’m not talking about in-surance, but the as-surance in our Scripture for today. Did you hear it? That Scripture from Isaiah was chosen several weeks ago to be part of our series on “Longing to Belong”–before Hurricane Harvey laid siege to Southeast Texas and Louisiana, before Irma was even born and began doing even worse to the Caribbean Islands and Florida. The words of the anonymous prophet known to biblical scholars as Deutero or Second Isaiah could not be more timely: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases that verse in “The Message,” “When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and hard place, it won’t be a dead end.”

Two weeks ago, seems like a year now, my pastoral prayer focused on the early devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. My concern was real but still came from a safe distance. At the time my step-son and his family who live in a suburb on the North East side of Houston were still dry. The speed at which that situation changed over the next 24 hours made Harvey’s flood waters very personal and real.

By Monday morning the street in their small neighborhood was flooded. By afternoon the water was lapping at their front and back doors. They moved some of their possessions upstairs and were still hopeful they could ride it out without too much damage. Within a few hours that hope was washed away by the filthy water rapidly covering their floors and flooding their garage.

We were kept abreast of their situation with texts and videos all during the day. And then there were two extremely long hours when we didn’t hear from them. We didn’t know if they were able to evacuate or not. At last we got a short video of them climbing into a truck that came down their street in waist high water in the late afternoon. By that time the situation was so urgent that they fled with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. The good news is they are safe. The fact that my step-son and his wife had separated earlier this summer became an ironic blessing because Matt is living in a rented house which thank God is on higher ground and out of Harvey’s reach. That house became their refuge.

Living this frightening disaster vicariously through our kids and knowing that thousands are in much worse shape has been exhausting emotionally for us. The sense of helplessness that there was nothing we could do to help them from 1000 miles away was somewhat alleviated by the outpouring of love and prayers from our church, friends and family. Social media was a blessing as we felt surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Two days after they fled the flood our kids were able to return to what had been their beautiful home. Six feet of flood water had destroyed the entire first floor of every home on their street. All of those yards are now full of ruined furniture, appliances, toys, carpets, curtains, pictures and family mementos – everything that makes a house a refuge from the storms of life. Most of Harvey’s victims, like our kids, do not have flood insurance and have lost most of their earthly possessions. So now they are all working in the stench and muck 12-hour days to begin the long process of recovery. Our 11 year-old grandson is having nightmares and his parents are living in one.

These are times that make or break one’s faith. Like all tragedies, storms like Harvey and Irma are also an opportunity for all Americans to prove that we are indeed our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. There have been many heart-warming incidents of heroic and radical generosity and hospitality. A friend of Diana’s said he felt called to go to Houston and help; so he organized some friends to go with him. They collected supplies and donations, were able to use a brand new pick-up truck donated by Lindsey Honda and pulling a U Haul trailer full of donations and supplies, drove straight through last Friday night and spent the weekend helping with the recovery effort. Our daughter-in-law tells us how much it means when strangers stop by and give them water to drink and food to eat as they are working on what they now call their Harvey House. This past Thursday a bit of normalcy was restored when the kids went back to school. They took a first day of school picture none of us will ever forget with the mountain of debris from their house as the background.

This nightmare for Harvey’s and Irma’s victims will continue for years. But Isaiah was writing to a devastated people who endured an even longer disaster. II Isaiah was writing to the Hebrew Exiles in Babylon. His powerful images of water and fire are very real to us as floods of biblical proportions pummel not only our country but India, Nepal and Bangladesh. But Isaiah’s images of water and fire are also metaphors for all of life’s crises that sometimes gang up on us and threaten to overwhelm us. The Hebrews were political prisoners in a foreign, hostile land for 60 years longing to belong again to their nation and their God.

The need for stronger faith to handle difficult times has been very personal for Diana and me in the last two weeks. I share our experience, not because we are especially unfortunate or cursed, but because all of us have to deal with these kinds of crises from time to time. In addition to our hearts breaking for our kids and other victims of Harvey and Irma, we’ve had other pressing family concerns recently that have left me at times feeling like a ping pong ball being bounced from one crisis to the next. My 95 year-old father is in failing health and had to be moved from assisted living to skilled nursing, and that transition which has robbed him of the last shred of independence has been very difficult for him, my sister, and for the nurses and staff at his retirement community. And then last week, Diana’s wonderful 99 year-old mother was hospitalized with confusion caused by a serious urinary tract infection.

She’s doing better now, but all that happening at once felt overwhelming. I have not felt so battered by life since Holy Week of 1993. On Palm Sunday of that year my mother had emergency brain surgery for the cancer that been diagnosed only 3 days earlier. On Wednesday of that week my mother-in-law from my first marriage died and was buried on Good Friday. It was both the hardest and best Holy Week of my ministry as we experienced our own passion and felt the power of resurrection in the lives of two wonderful women.

They say (whoever “they” are) that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I believe that, but I like the way St. Paul says it a little better. In Romans 5 Paul says, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Is that a “no pain, no gain” kind of theology? Does it mean we should seek out suffering to make us stronger? No, and we don’t need to because there’s always plenty of suffering around that we can help with. There’s so much suffering in the world right now even our 24/7 cable news junkies can’t keep up with it. Wild fires are raging all over the western part of the US killing livestock and destroying homes; floods many times worse than the ones in Houston have killed over 1200 and affected 41 million people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. And I shudder to think how much suffering Irma will inflict before she’s done.

Closer to home 4 families in our neighborhood on Donney Lane are homeless because of a fire last Saturday. These are refugee families from Iraq who have no family or community support, nowhere else to go, no one to trust in a country that once prided itself on Lady Liberty inviting “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Those words from Emma Lazarus use flood imagery too as they go on to say, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Those huddled masses are now afraid to answer their doors or to give personal information to agencies trying to help them for fear it will lead to deportation.

When the first sunshine in many days broke thru the clouds in Houston after Harvey pounded them with 50 inches of rain our daughter-in-law sent us a video of the sun’s rays. She was like a little kid at Christmas, just to see the sun again. In a similar way I’m so proud to say that our brown bag ministry with the families affected by the recent fire has established a level of trust that is a ray of hope in a painful and tragic situation. There’s an old saying that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s also true that a PB and J sandwich, or a few hundred of them, can unlock the doors of fear and mistrust. A simple gesture to feed some hungry kids has built relationships so strong we’ve been able to offer help and love to these families who lost their homes.

Through the persistent efforts of a bunch of wonderful brown bag servants and the heart-warming generosity of all who have made donations to help NW church has been able to live out Isaiah’s message of hope with these neighbors. To Lamar, Laith and Mohammad and their families we have said– “When you’re in over your head, Northwest church will be there with you.” “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” because we all belong to God.

How could God say that to the Hebrew exiles in a hopeless situation in a foreign land filled with pagan gods? How can God give that kind of flood and fire assurance to any of us when we feel like we’re going down for the third time? When we want to shout like the Psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

This is very important — the assurance is not because of who we are or that we’re better than others. God’s assurance is not because we’ve done anything to deserve it. It’s simply because of who we belong to. All of us long for human helpers in any crisis. We want to know we are not alone, that we are a part of a community, a family that will rescue us like the Cajun Navy in their bass boats, or like the NW church van delivering food and diapers and blankets or whatever is needed on Donney Lane. But gifts of material things as important as they are do not make us belong. One stark lesson of Irma and Harvey is that all of our material possessions can be wiped out in a heartbeat by a natural disaster, a stock market crash, a fire, a health crisis or a plane flying into a world center tower. But the ties that bind us to one another and most importantly to God can never be destroyed by flood or fire.

Why? Because Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine!” Do you hear that church? God knows us by name! God says, “You are Mine.” Our deepest longing to belong is assured. We belong to God – always have, always will. Come hell or high water, come grief or mourning, or fear and nightmare—the one unchanging certainty through it all is that God is with us, We BELONG! Thanks be to God.

Benediction: When the storms of life are raging, God stands by us. God empowers us to face each day of life, each new challenge because we have the assurance that the future belongs to God and so do we. Go share that good news with others longing to belong.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, September 10,2017]