Holy Roller Coaster Whiplash

Diana and I went with some family members recently to an amusement park-first time in years, and I had no intention of riding anything wilder than a Ferris Wheel. But you know how peer pressure is even at my advanced age. So I rode a couple of the “milder” coasters, and I use that term loosely. I opted out of things that went upside down but discovered that the old wooden coasters bang you around even more than some of the newer ones. One called the Blue Streak finished me off, and I was glad to find my head still attached to my body when it was done slamming me first one way and then the other.

That’s how I feel about consuming news in any form these days. We all know the stock market has had more dips and plunges in the last two weeks than most coasters, but trying to keep up with the shifting sands and contradictions coming from the White House has been equally disorienting.

In just two weeks we’ve had 3 mass shootings, on-again off-again Chinese tariffs, strange talk about buying Greenland and a cancelled state visit to Denmark. More EPA regulations have been shredded; background checks have been on the table again and off once more. The Emma Lazarus poem on Lady Liberty has been rewritten, as have rules now allowing the indefinite incarceration of migrant children, and the aforementioned stock market highs and lows.

With that entire dizzying blur of reality coming at me I need to pray. Yes, I know “thoughts and prayers” have become a pious platitude that sometimes excuses inaction, but like that seat belt holding me into the roller coaster I need a solid grounding in something bigger and stronger than my puny self before I can even begin to know how to put thoughts and prayers into action. So, let us pray:

O God, I feel you calling me to a higher place where things will make more sense than the crazy world I’m living in. I love that feeling of being embraced in your presence. I feel you near me in summer nights when even the crickets are chirping your glory. I sleep securely in the faith that you never rest from watching over your children. A new day dawns in all its splendor, but then we crest that first big hill and the bottom drops out. The news is about bullet proof backpacks for innocent children and others who are frightened, alone, bereft of parents and life necessities because they come from the wrong side of an imaginary line we humans have drawn to divide some of your children from others.

The roller coaster of life careens around corners where we look for active shooters, past free-falling retirement accounts, endangered species, and climate refugees. We grasp at anything to hang on to as we fly up another hill only to plunge again into the abyss of loneliness and insecurity. We dare to open our eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of sisters and brothers hungering for food and others fighting the demons of addiction. We want to reach out to them, but we’re too afraid for our own safety to let go and extend a hand.

Values like compassion and kindness that we have relied on forever seem to be no more. Everyone is too busy hanging on for dear life to pay attention to fellow passengers on the coaster. We are connected and share a common fate, and yet we feel isolated and alone, helpless and at the mercy of those who build and operate the ride. We are only passengers, out of control.

Some people seem to like the chaos, the adrenaline rush, but it is too much, too fast for me. My mind can’t make sense of the 24/7 news cycle that bombards me with yet more natural and unnatural disasters. When will it stop? I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Lord! Are you on the coaster with us? Does it look less frightening from your perspective, wherever you are?

And then this part of the ride is over. We jerk to a stop and emerge on wobbly legs back into the broken world we call home; and soon we are searching for another escape from whatever new catastrophe awaits if we dare turn on the news again.

I need a sabbatical, a place of respite from the daily drama of Breaking News. But the world is too much like the amusement park, all noise and lights. I can’t see the Milky Way because light pollution robs me of the awesomeness of the universe. Traffic noise, cell phone notifications, construction crews bulldozing yet more trees and paving over more of Mother Earth. Make it stop, Lord! I can’t hear your still small voice above the din, and I have never needed to hear it more.

Oh, let me find that inner stillness, that holiness of true communion with you that transcends my fear, that smooths out the highs and lows of life, and calms my troubled soul so I can let go of my security blankets and extend an open hand to my sisters and brothers.

I am still, and you are God; and that’s all I need to know. Amen

Moon Shot Memories

Fifty years ago this week, like most people who could I was glued to my little black and white TV watching coverage of Apollo 11’s journey to the moon. By a quirk of fate I happened to be living that summer of ’69 on Kelly Drive in my hometown. I was working that summer after my first year of seminary as the associate pastor of the church I grew up in. Kelly Dr. has been renamed since then, not because I lived there, but because the house the church rented for us that summer was next door to Steve and Viola Armstrong, parents of the first man on the moon. So Neil’s “one step” was especially memorable for me, living on what is now Armstrong Drive.

While I’m enjoying reliving that exciting time this week I am also feeling cowardly for not being more prophetic in my ministry all these years. Neil risked his life flying fighter jets in Korea, as a test pilot for experimental rocket planes, regaining control when his Gemini 8 was tumbling through space in a near fatal spiral, and of course commanding Apollo 11. And what have I ever risked for fear of conflict with others who see things differently, who in the 1960’s and still today shout “America, Love it or Leave It” at any who dare to offer honest criticism of our country?

The moon shot helped unite a badly broken country briefly for 8 days in July of ’69, but that was also a year after the MLK and RFK assassinations and the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam. The country was plagued by civil rights and anti-war protests, the prelude to students being killed at Kent State and Jackson State the following year. And 50 years later it is so discouraging to see us reverting back to hate and division at this stage of my life.

And so I ask myself what difference have I made? The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice but it gets twisted like a pretzel on the way. Neil took one giant leap for (hu)mankind but came home to a broken world that is more fractured and battered now than ever. But the real question is not what I’ve done in the last 50 years for justice and mercy, but what do I do now, today and in the future? How do I deal with my thorns in the flesh and the drain of time and energy they demand of me when there is so much I want to write, say, and shout from the rooftops?

Hamlet’s question “To Be or Not to Be?” or Descartes’ assessment of human life, “I Think therefore I Am” don’t go far enough. Thinking doesn’t change anything, and just “being” as in existence means no more than the life of a hamster in wheel going nowhere. The question is what will I be, what will I become or do with however much time I have left? What am I willing to risk? I gave money yesterday to support our church’s brown bag lunch ministry and that was painless and easy – but I haven’t taken time to go pack one lunch or deliver one brown bag because I’m too busy stringing and unstringing my instrument instead of playing a tune; mowing my lawn, cooking my meals, shopping for stuff or stretching my old achy muscles.

Is that the report I want to give to God about what I’ve done to win the battle in my sector? No pain no gain doesn’t just apply to exercise – it also means that without risk and moving out of my comfort zone I don’t grow and don’t influence anyone else. God’s question to Elijah on Mt. Horeb is the same question she has for me and everyone – “What are you doing here?” “Don’t whine and tell me Jezebel is out to get you and you are the only one left. Go enlist Elisha and other allies. You’re not done till I say so.”

THE CLOCK IS TICKING

Nothing confronts us humans more with the deep mystery of life than our own awareness of our mortality. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” By contrast one of my favorite and most challenging Scripture texts is this one in Luke 2 when Jesus is 8 days old:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

I confess I am more like Woody than Simeon, and life and death are full of countless examples of those opposing approaches to the grave. Dylan Thomas famously said,
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Contrast that with Elijah passing his mantel on to Elisha and ascending into the clouds. In my own family we witnessed the stark difference between my mother-in-law who was content and peaceful as her last days approached and my father who fought against the inevitable as long as he could.

I’m not sure what to make of this, but I think the clue to contentment is found in Simeon’s surrender when he says, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation…” Simeon had accomplished his life’s purpose. He was looking forward to Israel’s consolation and believed God’s promise that he would not taste death until that purpose had been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of how we spend the dash between our date of birth and date of death? That’s a question all of us must wrestle with ourselves. We can ask God’s guidance and seek the counsel of wise mentors, but ultimately the choice is ours. What shall we live for? Are we human beings or human doings? Do we spend our lives in pursuit of things that do not satisfy our souls? Are we so caught up if making a living that we fail to make a significant life?

Since this is Super Bowl weekend let me share this analogy. Even casual football fans know that football time is not real clock time. The final minutes and seconds of a game can fly by or they can drag on forever depending on which team is ahead and who has the ball. If my team is behind they will do everything they can to stop the clock after every play – run out of bounds, spike the ball, call a time out, fake an injury, challenge a call, etc. Many a football widow knows how long it can be from the 2 minute warning till the final gun.

But if the team with the ball is ahead the exact opposite strategy is employed. They will run the ball so the clock keeps ticking after the play. They will stay inbounds; they will run the play clock almost down to zero on each play to use up as many seconds as possible before snapping the ball.

What’s the difference in these two scenarios? Team A is desperate to score again because they have not achieved their purpose which is to win the game. Team B is content to let the end come ASAP because they are ahead – they have fulfilled their purpose and accomplished their mission.

What does the scoreboard of your life say? Are you ahead or behind? Are you accomplishing your purpose or still striving to get to the goal line? I’ll be going to two funerals this week- one of the deceased was in her 80’s, the other just 50. Both dedicated their lives to helping others in personal and professional ways. Both were people of vision and compassion. One slipped gradually toward death over several months, but the other died suddenly leaving many of us again to wonder why.

I simply do not know. Maybe someday I will see clearly what is now only a dim reflection in a foggy mirror. But this much I do know, both Judy and Joe have left a hole in the human fabric; and it is part of my purpose and yours to pick up their mantle. The world will little note nor long remember who wins Super Bowl LIII, but if we want to win the game of life and be content to depart in peace whenever our time comes, we must all trust in God’s promise and make our game plan congruent with God’s will.

Put in Our Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting the Christ Candle

In the darkest of days we gather once more on this special night to celebrate the holiest of births. We come searching for God in a world that has lost its way. But lest we despair at the state of our world the familiar Christmas stories remind us that things were not all calm and bright that night in Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in a barn because Roman oppression forced his parents to make that painful journey. But there into that terrible situation came an incredible gift, not delivered by FedEx, but by a frightened peasant girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, announced by a heavenly host, and sent by almighty God who still loves our troubled world.

Tonight that gift comes again silently and calmly to those who have ears to hear the angels and eyes to see the star. It comes to those who take time to pause from the hectic activities of the season, [pause] to be still and at rest in the presence of a baby who sleeps in heavenly peace.

During the Advent season we have lit candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Tonight our waiting is over; our expectations are filled to overflowing as we again dare to light the Christ Candle, the light of the world.

Unison Prayer
O God of Grace and Glory, tonight our hearts are calm and bright, not because of our cares and concerns, but in spite of the things that keep us awake at night. As your Holy Spirit came upon Mary so long ago please send it again to us this very night. Conceive in us a new birth of joy and hope. Fill us to overflowing with your peace and love. Light in us again the eternal flame of your holy presence that we will go forth bravely into the darkness to do the work of Christmas, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to share with all our neighbors the light of the world that no darkness will ever overcome. Amen

Incomprehensible Incarnation

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

History Lessons

I’ve been pondering the current re-emergence of racism in America while reading a history of the contentious and violent 1968 presidential election. This takeover of the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has its roots in the Southern Strategy of Nixon and the blatant racism of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Donald Trump is simply the latest horrible outbreak of the evil virus that has been in this country from its very beginning.

There has been attention drawn to the 14th Amendment recently by Trump’s unconstitutional assertion that he can abolish birthright citizenship with a stroke of his pen. The scary thing is that if he retains control of all three branches of government next year he probably can and will. That’s what dictators do.

But here’s the history lesson we need to remember. The 14th Amendment, along with 13 and 15, that abolished slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African American men (women had to wait another 60 years to vote along with their white sisters), all three of those amendments were adopted during Reconstruction. That means the southern states never did and never have adopted those basic human values because their economy and heritage was founded on enslaving and abusing other human beings.

On my most depressed days I wonder if Lincoln was wrong to try and preserve this deeply divided union. Maybe we would have been better off as two separate but unequal nations?

But then the Holy Spirit taps me on the shoulder yet again and whispers in my ear, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

And my hero Nikos Kazantzakis shouts in the other ear, ““My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

Where does that faith and courage to fight the good fight come from? The clue is this other quote from Kazantzakis that is his epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”