Prayer for Wisdom and Courage

[As we sang “God of Grace and God of Glory” at an alum gathering at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio last week I was impressed with how prayerful those lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick are; and those lyrics inspired my pastoral prayer for today.]

God of Grace and Glory, please listen to your people praying.  Pour your power upon us as we pray for the healing of brokenness and suffering everywhere – in our own hearts and minds and in relationships interpersonal and international in scale.  You have planted the seeds of love in every human heart, but those seeds are threatened by draught, wild fire, earthquake and the ravages of unbelievable storms.

Please let our time of worship nourish the one true seed of your loving presence in us and in those we hold up in prayer.  We feel surrounded by the forces of evil and long to be free from fears that shake the foundations of our faith.  Send your Holy Spirit here to the church on the hill to free our hearts to praise you and serve you.  Giving you the glory, let us not hide the Good News of your Salvation under a bushel, but let this congregation on the banks of the Scioto be a beacon of hope to a broken and discouraged world.

Lord listen to your people praying.  Empower us to set an example as peacemakers to a world too long enslaved to war and violence as our only response to conflict and threat.  Let us be leaders in finding ways to beat our guns into plowshares and our nuclear weapons into technologies to feed the starving masses and to power our planet with clean renewable energy.  Instead of rattling our sabers let us put on the whole armor of God – righteousness, truth, peace, faith, and salvation to win the struggles within us and around us with selfishness, greed, injustice, and all that divides the very oneness of creation.

Strengthen us please, O God within each of us, to not lose hope when illness or despair sap our human energy.  Remind us again that we can flip a switch with a simple word of prayer to connect to the one true source of hope that never fails us.

Lord, listen to your people praying and grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.  We humbly ask these things in the name of the one who is the way and truth and life as we unite in one voice to pray the prayer he gave us……

 

 

Advertisements

Flood Assurance

Last Sunday, which seems like a month ago, my pastoral prayer for our church focused on the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. (Posted on August 27 as “Prayer for Times of Storm.”) 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 flooding 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 as many of their possessions upstairs as they could and were still hopeful they could ride it out without too much damage. Within a few hours that hope was washed away in the dirty water rapidly covering their floors and flooding their garage where one car that they could not get out was trapped.

When a rescue truck came down their street in late afternoon the situation was so urgent that they fled with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. We were kept abreast of their situation with texts and videos all during the day. The only thing worse would have been not to know what was happening. 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 he is living in a rented house which thank God is on higher ground and out of Harvey’s reach. That house has become their refuge.

Living through this frightening disaster vicariously through them 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 was somewhat alleviated by the outpouring of love and prayers from our church, friends and family. Social media was a blessing in feeling surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

The thousands or millions of people facing an unbelievable recovery is still overwhelming. Most, like our kids, do not have flood insurance and have lost most of their earthly possessions. The opportunities for all Americans to show what we’re made of and prove that we are indeed our sisters and brothers keepers are huge.
These are times that make or break one’s faith.

Here’s some of what I prayed on Sunday:
“When the storms of life are threatening to overwhelm us Lord, draw us to the life-saving power of your holy word. Whatever imagery works for us – be it a good shepherd, a mighty fortress, a rock of ages or that still small voice that we hear when we pause long enough to listen. Remind us again, gracious God, that you are our rock and redeemer, you are the one who speaks to the raging storms in nature, or in conflicted relationships, or within our own hearts and says, “peace be still.” Remind us again what ultimate trust and faith looks like in the form of our Lord sleeping in the boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee.

When the storms of life are raging, stand by us Lord. Empower us to face each day of life, each new challenge not because we know the future but because we know you hold the future now as you always have and always will.” Little did I know how very true those words were.

The need for faith and peace that passes understanding has been very personal for my wife and me in the last four days. In addition to our hearts breaking for our kids and others in Houston, we’ve had other pressing concerns 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 last week, 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 on Saturday, my 99 year-old mother-in-law was not her normal alert and perky self when Diana went to visit her. Her condition has not improved and today she was admitted to the hospital.

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, and his words are part of what sustains us and gives us blessed assurance for weeks like this one. Paul puts it this way, “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)

May it be so for you and me and everyone in need of faith for these difficult times.

Blinded by our expectations?

One of the most consistent  things about our interactions with Jesus is our failure to recognize who he is. We too often are caught unaware and when it’s too late we sing a sad refrain with Mahalia Jackson, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was!”  From his birth in a barn to his hanging out with sinners, to his  refusal to defend himself in the garden or before Pilate, Jesus refuses to show up how and where we expect him to. His entry into Jerusalem  is not in a stretch limo  befitting a king but in a beat up old Volkswagen beetle. The crowds who shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday change their tune to “Crucify him!” only five days later because he isn’t the conquering hero they were expecting.

Those expectations are understandable for people who were oppressed and dying for liberation.   We might guess  those strangers who lined the streets of Jerusalem had not spent time with Jesus. Their failure to recognize who he really is may be understandable.   But what about those disciples who are closest to him who had spent three years listening to his teaching and watching the way he healed the sick and comforted those who were excluded by society?   They too deny and betray and hide when their expectations are not met.  Have they never heard the words of Isaiah who tells us that the Messiah will not be a worldly ruler but a suffering servant?  (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  Or like us have they chosen only to hear and believe what they want?  We are expecting Rambo and we get Gandhi instead!

Even Mary Magdalene who stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross and was one of the first to go to the tomb doesn’t recognize Jesus on Easter morning!   This woman who was one of the most devoted and loyal disciples  mistakes Jesus for a gardener!  (John 20:11-18).  How could someone who owed so much  to Jesus fail to recognize him at this most triumphant moment?  Is it not because of her expectations?  She went to the tomb to minister to a corpse and instead is the very first to encounter the resurrected Christ!

How often do we fail to recognize Christ in our midst, in the least of God’s children around us? Whom do we expect to encounter  when we go to the tomb this Sunday? Will we recognize the risen Christ?  What we know from past experience is that he probably won’t appear the way we expect him to. So let’s go with eyes and hearts wide open  to see what our amazing God is up to this Easter!

A Lament for Unity

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” Psalms 20:7-8

I don’t have time to write much today but feel an urgency to respond to the disheartening news coming out of the UK this week. ISIS must be dancing in the streets. Their epidemic of fear has toppled the British Prime Minister and dealt a terrible blow to European unity. I find it very ironic and sad that it was the older population in Britain who voted in favor of leaving the EU. They should be the ones who remember how well Nationalism worked for Europe throughout history and most recently in the 20th Century.

European Nationalism engulfed the entire planet in two horrible world wars and left a trail of death and destruction throughout European history. Why would we want to try it again? Fear does terrible things to the human mind, and there is much to fear in this rapidly changing world we inhabit. But putting our trust in chariots and horses, i.e. strength and force and defensive isolation that turns its back on millions of refugees is not the answer. To resort to abandoning the most hopeful effort at unity and cooperation the world has seen in centuries because of current fear and hardship is short-sighted and tragic.

Those who put their faith in chariots and horses will collapse and fall, but those who put their pride in the peaceful, loving, cooperative ways of the Lord will rise and stand upright. It takes faith and a lot of it to believe that, but the alternative is to try and return to methods that have proven hundreds of times to fail. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe courage and faith into every trembling heart.

Post Script: I went out to mow my grass after writing the above. I do some of my best thinking on the lawn tractor. Today I had one mowing meditation I want to add. It may be because I am neither young nor fearless, although it was a favorite of mine even when I was young and fearful, but a line from a great old hymn came to mind as I reflected more on the rise of nationalism in both Europe and here in the U.S. It was written in 1931 as nationalism was raising its ugly head in Germany. I’ve never served a church where it is a popular hymn because it is too challenging and uncomfortable, but I think it’s time we listen. The whole hymn is profound, but what echoed in my mind today is the third verse:

“O help us stand unswerving
against war’s bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ’s holy sway;
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.” “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” by S. Ralph Harlow

Communion

Note:  I wrote this story 22 years ago.  It breaks my heart that it is still as relevant today as it was in 1990.  The continued struggle of the Christian Church in general and my own United Methodist Church in particular to accept all of God’s children compels me to share it here now.  This story is fiction but painfully true.  It is part of the collection of stories and plays in my book Building Peace from the Inside Out: Stories for Peace Seekers and Peacemakers.”  

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Micah 6:8

“The truth is lived, not taught.”  Herman Hesse

 

“The body of Christ, broken for you.”  I could hear the bishop repeating the words to each person as we got closer to the altar.  Larry was right in front of me, but just before he got to the bishop, he turned and hurried out the sacristy door, nearly knocking one of the communion stewards over on his way out.  Before I could decide if I should follow him, the bishop stuck a piece of bread in my hand and motioned for me to keep moving.

I found Larry back in the musty little room we were sharing for the week at our United Methodist annual conference.  He was sitting on his bed in the dark.  “You O.K.?” I asked, and when I flipped on the light I thought it looked like he had been crying.

“Yeah, I’m O.K.  I just had to get out of there.  You want to go get some ice cream?”

“You can’t get off the hook that easy, Larry.  We’ve been friends for what, fifteen years, now, and the only time I’ve seen you this upset was when Carolyn left you.  What’s wrong?”

Larry stared at the floor for a long time before he spoke.  “I thought maybe I could get through this without dumping it on you, Jim, but I guess I can’t.  I lost my … a really good friend last week; his name is Steve.  We met at the health club about four years ago and really hit it off – played racquetball twice a week, had dinner together all the time.  He was the best thing that’s ever happened to me…. Oh, what the hell – we were lovers.  Steve told me last week that he wanted out – he’s found someone else; said he’s sick and tired of me hiding behind my preacher’s robe.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”  But I could tell he wasn’t.  I swallowed hard and felt my stomach tighten.  I was trying desperately to stay calm, to hide my panic.

Larry shook his head as he continued, “I’m sorry… I know I should have told you a long time ago, but I’ve just never known how to do it.  I’ve started a dozen times, but it never seemed like the right time.  I guess I just kept hoping that somehow you knew.”

“Well, I sure as hell didn’t” I said, surprised at my own anger.  Larry buried his face in his hands. His shoulders started to shake, and I realized he was sobbing again.  My instinct was to comfort him like I would a frightened child, put my arms around him; but I couldn’t move.  I was paralyzed; too many questions were racing around in my own mind.  How in the world could I have been this close to Larry this long and not have known?  How many dozens of signals had I missed?  Who else knows and if they do, how many of them think I’m gay too?

Larry didn’t look up, but he finally broke the silence.  “I guess I knew you’d be uncomfortable; maybe that’s why I could never bring myself to tell you.”

“No, no, Larry, I’m not uncomfortable,” I lied, trying to buy some time to regain my equilibrium.  “I’m just thinking about what I can do, you know, to help.”

“Bull Shit!  You’re afraid to deal with it just like everybody else!  God, how I hoped it would be different with you.”

Larry’s words stung like a slap in the face, and the muggy summer night suddenly felt even more oppressive.  I wasn’t sure if it was the heat to blame for the sweat I wiped on my sleeve or if it was my growing discomfort.

“The communion service really got to me tonight,” he continued.  “I just couldn’t pretend any longer that I’m included in a fellowship that condemns me and my lifestyle.  It’s so damn hard, always living a lie, hiding, pretending.  Do you have any idea what it’s like to have to constantly deny who you are, even to your friends, because you know the truth could cost you everything  you’ve got, everything you’ve ever wanted, everything you feel called to do and to be?”

He paused, like he expected something from me, but I didn’t have it to give.  “And now I tell you my deepest secret,” he said, “and you can’t handle it.  I thought I’d feel better, be relieved, once you knew, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Damn it, Larry, that’s not fair.  If you’re such a good friend, how could you go all these years without telling me?  We’ve roomed together here for years, and I’m always staying at your house?  How the hell do you think that looks?  How many people in the conference know about this anyway?”

“Practically nobody, you fool, because there isn’t anybody I can trust – can’t you understand that?  I guess not!  All you can think about is your own precious reputation, you bastard!  I didn’t plan to tell you tonight.  It just hurt so much I couldn’t cover it up this time.”

“I’m sorry, Larry, I really am, but damn it, give me some time to get used to this, will you.  I guess I’m more uptight about this than I realized.”

“Oh, come on, Jim, be honest.  We’ve been debating homosexual ordination up here for what, at least eight or ten years, and I’ve never once seen you on the floor arguing for gay rights!”

“You know how people gossip about anybody who stands up for gays.  They think you’re one of them!”

“Oh, so you’re just a fair-weather liberal?  Do you realize what that chicken shit position does to people like me, especially when it comes from a friend?”

“I haven’t thought about it, Larry.  I thought things were getting better.”  I knew that was stupid as soon as I said it.

“Better?  For whom?  Not me!  That damn policy on gay ordination means that if the wrong people ever find out about me, I’m finished.  Not only is my career over, but they throw me out of my parsonage too!  No job, no home, nothing!  And the activists like Steve wonder why I don’t run around with a big “G” on my chest, proclaiming to the entire world that I’m gay?”

He picked up a Bible from the desk as he paced the room.  “I’ve heard you and a bunch of other so-called friends preach a great line about God’s amazing grace from here, Jim,” he said, holding the book under my nose; “but from where I sit, the only amazing thing about grace in the church is how amazingly scarce it really is.”

He flung the Bible into the wall behind my bed with such force that the faded picture of Jesus hanging there crashed to the floor, scattering shards of glass all over the room.

The intensity of his anger scared me.  “I’m going for a walk – need some fresh air,” I said, and left Larry picking up the broken pieces of glass.

The clock in the tower by the pier said it was almost1 a.m.as I walked by.  Our conference every year was in the little resort town ofLakesideonLake Erie, one of those places where, except for an all-night donut shop, everything closes by11 p.m., and for once I was glad.  I needed some time alone to think, and walking along the rocky shore was always a great place for that.  There was something reassuring about the rhythm of the waves splashing over the rocks and against the retaining wall.  Even the pungent odor of an occasional dead perch shipwrecked on the shore added to the atmosphere.

I was tired and confused.  I had always prided myself on being liberal about most things, but this was the first time I’d really been put to the test on the gay issue, and I had failed miserably.  After walking awhile, I sat down on a park bench in the gazebo near the shuffleboard court and tried to figure out why – to remember things that might help me understand the whole situation.

I remembered walking along the lake another night when Larry told me he and Carolyn were getting divorced.  I’d never really understood what happened to their marriage, but that, at least, was beginning to make sense now.

Larry and I both enrolled at Union seminary in the fall of 1968.  The day I moved in, he spotted myOhioStatesweatshirt and was so glad to see someone from his home state that he invited me for dinner.  He and Carolyn were newly-weds, living down the hall from me in one of those efficiency closets the seminary called apartments.  Larry was a great cook – did most of the cooking, even before the divorce, and I discovered that first evening that, among other things, we shared a great love for sweet and sour pork.  Those were wonderful years – we were two young, idealistic theologues, railing against the Vietnam War from behind the safety of our IV-D clergy draft deferments, preparing for parish ministry, sure we could save the church and the world, or at least the United Methodists.  I don’t remember much church history or systematic theology from seminary classes, and even less Hebrew, but I do remember Larry and me talking about burning eschatological issues well into the night, washing our profound musings down with cheap wine that tasted so much better because it would soon be forbidden by our ordination vows.  I’d always felt bad that Carolyn seemed left out of those bull sessions.  She wasn’t privy to all the inside jokes from class, and she’d almost always go to bed early.  She was a nurse and had to leave for work at6 a.m., but I worried about their marriage, even then.  It seemed that the closer Larry and I became, the less he and Carolyn had in common.  Now I finally understood how little they actually did have in common.  I wondered if he knew, even then.

In a strange way, it was a relief to know.  Ever since Larry told me they were getting divorced, I’d felt guilty, like I helped cause the problem way back in the early days of their marriage.  Now I knew that they had a much bigger problem than me.

All kinds of transformed memories were flooding my mind, like a clergy retreat atCampWesleyright after their divorce.  I was so impressed with the way Larry shared his pain with the whole group that I hugged him – told him I loved him, and I meant it, as a friend, but now all I could think about was how that sounded to everyone else.

I remembered visiting Larry shortly after the divorce in a little backwoods cabin nearIndianLake.  In those days the church still forced ministers who got divorced to take a year off, and Larry was living in this little God-forsaken place owned by a friend of his – no running water, the only heat was from a wood-burning stove.  But it was fine in the summer, and I spent a couple of days there with him, fishing and relaxing.  We even cut a cord of firewood one day.  That was the time – of course, I remembered now – Larry tried to give me a massage that night because I was so sore from wrestling that chain saw around all day – and I was so uptight that every time he touched me, I giggled like a twelve year-old, until he finally just gave up.

It was becoming clearer to me now.  Sure, that was also the time that I was so nervous about where I was going to sleep.  That cabin only had one bedroom, and I remember now that I was never so glad to see a hide-a-bed in the living room in my life.

Damn, maybe Larry was right.  Maybe I did know, and I just refused to deal with it.

More memories washed over me like the waves on the lake shore, only these felt more like the angry waves of a powerful storm, like the ones I’d seen come in off the lake and drop a fifty-foot oak like it was a toothpick.  They were memories of the tasteless jokes I told Larry about gays and the stupid cracks about AIDS.  And then there was Robby Johnson, the kid in our Boy Scout troop that we tormented mercilessly because someone told us he was “queer.”  We used to pants him or take his clothes while he was in the shower and then laugh our heads off while he ran back to his tent naked.

And that time on one camp out, I was probably twelve or thirteen, when we played strip poker in our tent, me and Johnny Crane and Danny Brown.  I lost of course.  I always was a lousy card player.  After I ran out of clothes, every time I lost a hand they made me run around the outside of the tent naked while they lifted up the sides of the tent and shined their flashlights on me.  After we got tired of that, Johnny suggested we “jerk each other off” before we went to bed.  I was really nervous, but I did it anyway.  I don’t know why.  I do know for a long time after that, for several years, I was sure I must be queer, but I was too embarrassed to ever tell anyone.

A shiver from a cool breeze off the lake brought me back to the present, and I was surprised to see Larry standing in front of me.  “I was worried,” he said.  “I was afraid you felt like you had to stay out all night.  I’ll find someplace else to stay tomorrow.”

“No, no, that’s not necessary.  I was just sitting here thinking and lost track of the time.”

“I thought you might be hungry,” he said, holding up a white donut bag.

Over coffee and donuts in the gazebo, I said, “I’m really sorry about what happened.  I thought I was pretty open about this issue, at least in theory, but it’s really different when it affects you personally.”

“You’re telling me?” he said, smiling.

I smiled too, glad for a break in the tension.  “That is funny, isn’t it?  But seriously, this has helped me realize that I’ve got a lot of things to sort out. I’m sorry I took it out on you.”  I told him what I’d been thinking about, everything – Robby and Johnny and Danny, even the hide-a-bed – things I’ve never told anyone before.  “Those are normal kinds of feelings, aren’t they?” I finally asked, trying hard not to sound too desperate for some assurance.

He chuckled, “Yes, very normal for you, and for ninety per cent of the population.  But not for me!”

He paused to dunk his donut and take a bite.  “Listen, Jim, I’m sorry about tonight, too.  I took a lot of anger out on you that didn’t belong to you.  A bunch of really heavy stuff has been piling up on me for months, and you just happened to be there when it finally blew.  Do you remember my friend Craig?  I think you met him one time when you were inCleveland.  He went out to dinner with us.”

“The one who was the minister at Trinity?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Didn’t I hear that he died recently?”

“Yeah, in February.”  He took a sip of coffee and looked very pensive.  “Craig was gay too and had a very hard time dealing with it.  He was like me – tried like hell to be “normal” and fit in, had a wife and kids.  He did his best to play the game, but it just didn’t work; and when the General Conference decreed again last year that gays are unappointable and unordainable, he just lost it.  He finally came out to his congregation one Sunday morning, if you can believe it, and then went home and gassed himself in the parsonage garage.”

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t know how he died.”

“It was the same week that Gary, another friend of mine, died of AIDS, a terrible, slow death.  I preached both of their funerals, Jim, in the same week and didn’t dare let anybody know how much I really cared.”

We drank our coffee in silence, surrounded by the darkness and the enormity of Larry’s pain.  “Ash Wednesday was just two days after those funerals,” he continued, “and I was still really pissed at God and the church.  We had communion that night, and I felt like a stranger in my own church.  I went through the motions and said all the right words, but I kept thinking that Craig and Gary would not have been welcome there if people knew them, and I knew damn well that most of my “sisters and brothers in Christ” would choke on their bread if they knew who was serving it to them.  It was like I was in a daze, serving the elements to dozens of nameless, faceless people parading by the altar.

“And then I came home to an empty house, no one to talk to but the dog.  Steve was out of town, or so he said, but I realize now that he was probably already seeing someone else.  Another friend, George, called, inviting me to a belated Mardi Gras Party.  I was so lonely I would have gone anywhere with anybody.  Well, it was wild party, let me tell you, and they weren’t serving grape juice like we did at church.  So, I got a little bombed, and I had sex with three or four guys before the night was over.”

“You what!”

“Now, don’t pull parent on me, Jim.  I don’t need you to tell me how stupid I was.  I’ve never done anything like that in my life, even before AIDS!  The point is that I am that desperate, and it scares the hell out of me.  I don’t even know who those guys were, and I sure hope they didn’t know me; but the weird thing was how that awful, anonymous sex felt the same to me as serving communion to all those people who don’t know the real me either.”

Tears were flowing again, but this time Larry wasn’t crying alone.  We embraced and held each other for a long time, until Larry finally broke the silence, “Want some more coffee?  I can go get refills.”

“Sounds good to me.”

As I watched Larry walk toward the donut shop, I realized the sun was already beginning to brighten the eastern sky.  I watched the gulls skimming the lake for breakfast, and then I saw something I hadn’t noticed in the darkness.  On the retaining wall in front of the gazebo, someone had spray-painted “DEATH TO ALL FAGS!”  Without hesitation, I scrambled down over the rocks, picked up a sharp one and tried almost frantically to scrape the ugly letters off the wall, rubbing so hard I scraped my knuckles and left a trail of blood across the “A” in “DEATH.”  But it was hopeless; the paint would not come off.  I leaned my head against the wall in frustration and exhaustion.

Just then Larry’s voice started me, “You’d better be careful.”  I turned quickly to see him standing there with the coffees in his hands, watching me.

With a little grin on his face, he said, “If some people see you doing that, they might think you’re one of us.”

“I know,” I said, “and frankly, my friend, I don’t give a damn.”