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.

Grief and Hope in Darkest Days

“In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find Job moving through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s well-known stages of grief and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, resignation, and acceptance. The first seven days of Job’s time on the “dung heap” of pain are spent in silence, the immediate response matching the first stage—denial. Then he reaches the anger stage, verses in the Bible in which Job shouts and curses at God. He says, in effect, “This so-called life I have is not really life, God, it’s death. So why should I be happy?”

That quote is from Father Richard Rohr’s daily devotion on August 2 of this year. I want to share the rest below because it speaks powerfully to the chaos of emotions I’ve be feeling for the last few weeks. Pressures of time, more physical health problems, depression about the resurgent Delta variant, and all the other “slings and arrows” of life have damned up my creative writing urges for weeks; so I apologize. In advance if this post gets too long. It has been worth it for me to ride it out, and I hope will be so for you as well.

After reading Fr. Rohr’s words that day I journaled the following dialogue of lament with God. “These words struck a chord with me about my anger and depression about my life and the mess our world is in. I have been stuck in unproductive anger for decades and its time to move along. Some connection there with shame the way Brene Brown discusses it. Help me Yahweh, the burden is literally breaking my back and I don’t know how to let it go. I feel trapped in a vicious cycle of pain, anger and shame that keeps me crippled and /or paralyzed with fear and doubt, layer upon layer piled higher and deeper over the years like a blind mole digging tunnels that go no where, afraid of the light that alone can overcome the darkness of gloom and despair. “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, you think it is I who have done the forsaking – but I have lots of good excuses – my parents, my church, my teachers all failed me and put me on the path of darkness and guilt trips that go nowhere but deeper into the muck and mire. I really want to turn around, I think, but I don’t know how. I am so deep in darkness I don’t know which way it is to the light.

“I am the way.! The path is narrow and full of challenges, but I will provide you strength you do not know you have. Trust and obey – choose and move. There’s no other way.”

It’s my move, and I will never be any closer to the truth than I am today.”

“Follow me.”

Fr. Rohr’s meditation continues: “W. H. Auden expressed his grief in much the same way in his poem “Funeral Blues,” which ends with these lines:

“The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.” [1]

Perhaps some of us have been there—so hurt and betrayed, so devastated by our losses that we echo Job’s cry about the day he was born, “May that day be darkness. May God on high have no thought for it, may no light shine on it. May murk and deep shadow claim it for their own” (Job 3:4–5). It’s beautiful, poetic imagery. He’s saying: “Uncreate the day. Make it not a day of light, but darkness. Let clouds hang over it, eclipse swoop down on it.” Where God in Genesis speaks “Let there be light,” Job insists “Let there be darkness.” The day of uncreation, of anti-creation. We probably have to have experienced true depression or betrayal to understand such a feeling.

There’s a part of each of us that feels and speaks that sadness. Not every day, thank goodness. But if we’re willing to feel and participate in the pain of the world, part of us will suffer that kind of despair. If we want to walk with Job, with Jesus, and in solidarity with much of the world, we must allow grace to lead us there as the events of life show themselves. I believe this is exactly what we mean by conformity to Christ.

We must go through the stages of feeling, not only the last death but all the earlier little (and not-so-little) deaths. If we bypass these emotional stages by easy answers, all they do is take a deeper form of disguise and come out in another way. Many people learn the hard way—by getting ulcers, by all kinds of internal diseases, depression, addictions, irritability, and misdirected anger—because they refuse to let their emotions run their course or to find some appropriate place to share them.

I am convinced that people who do not feel deeply finally do not know deeply either. It is only because Job is willing to feel his emotions that he is able to come to grips with the mystery in his head and heart and gut. He understands holistically and therefore his experience of grief becomes both whole and holy.”

[1] W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues,” Another Time (Faber and Faber: 1940), 91. 

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (Crossroad: 1996), 53–55.

And today (Aug. 6) Fr. Rohr provided these encouraging words of hope: “It is essential for us to welcome our grief, whatever form it takes. When we do, we open ourselves to our shared experiences in life. Grief is our common bond. Opening to our sorrow connects us with everyone, everywhere. There is no gesture of kindness that is wasted, no offering of compassion that is useless. We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

I would add it is a life-long journey, and with God’s help we can embrace all of life and death in all it’s many forms. Thanks be to God.

Swimming for My Life

This post is either a little late for memorial day or a little early for Father’s Day or maybe both. As part of my rehab from back surgery last fall I have been spending a lot of time in the YMCA pool. I am not a good swimmer, but I have greatly increased my stamina over the last two months. I am swimming because it is low impact and about the only kind of aerobic exercise I can do because of my back.

While swimming I’ve had an unexpected revelation of admiration for my father who died a little over three years ago at the age of 96. Dad was a bomber pilot in World War II. Because our relationship was always rather strained there are lots of questions now that I wish I had asked my dad, among those are questions about his military service. I don’t know if he would have wanted to talk about a very traumatic experience he had in the war or not, and now I will never know.

I know he only made a few actual bombing runs because he got to Europe near the end of the war. I wish I had asked him about those, but because I grew up in the Vietnam war era I have always been a little anti-militaristic. The one biggest event that happened to my dad which I wish I could talk to him about occurred when he was co-pilot on a B-17 that was bringing him and 16 others back to the states after the war.

My sisters and I discovered after Dad died that he had written an article about this event for the newsletter at the retirement community where he lived for the final 28 years of his life. He titled his article “The Big Splash” because the B-17 those men were on developed engine trouble shortly after leaving the Azores in the North Atlantic Ocean and had to “ditch,” which is pilot speak for crash landing in water.

They ditched at midnight in a heavy fog, which caused them to hit the water too fast, breaking the plane in two. My dad was unconscious for a bit but was revived by the pilot and able to escape the sinking plane. Unfortunately most of his crew mates were not so fortunate, and by the time they were rescued only 4 survived the crash and 12 hours in the cold water.

Dad wrote that he thought part of the reason their rescue was delayed might have been because the radio man, in the pressure of the moment, sent the wrong coordinates for their location when the May Day signal went out.

What we do know for sure is that my dad and his buddies spent 12 long hours in the dark in cold water where sharks were known to roam. I did not remember all that while swimming in the comfortable 84-degree water at the Y, but when I did my amazement at what that experience must have been like truly inspired me. I remember telling myself, “OK, Steve, if Dad could do this for 12 hours, you can certainly do it for 30 minutes.” And I have reminded myself of that frequently ever since when I get tired in the pool or inhale at the wrong time. It’s those times I ask Dad and my Abba Father to help me finish my swim.

I don’t know if my dad and those guys had life jackets on or were in life rafts. I doubt if they had time to deploy the latter, and I know from first-hand experience that having a life jacket on while out of control in a strong current is still quite unsettling. (See my post, “When Oceans Rise,” May 9, 2019 for that story).

These recollections have not only helped keep me swimming when I needed motivation, they have also helped me understand and appreciate who my dad was as a result of that experience. I know there was no treatment for PTSD in 1945, and I wish I had been more aware of that and given my dad the credit he deserved for coping as well as he did for his remaining 70 plus years of life. I was much too judgmental of his rigid and legalistic coping skills, and I hope he can forgive me for that.

My dad was not religious growing up, and I know this big splash story was a baptism of sorts (and a baptism of fire) for him which made him a Christian; and that meant being a part of the larger Christian family began for me immediately when I was born 15 months after Dad’s near-death ordeal.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing there was a lot of praying during that long night in 1945; prayers that no sharks would be attracted by the blood in the water; prayers for the men who died from exposure before the rescuers arrived, and lots of bargaining with God and promises to change if they could be spared.

My prayers while swimming in the pool under the watchful eye of a lifeguard are pretty trivial by comparison. Mostly my prayers take the form of remembering biblical stories about Jesus napping in the boat during a storm and then calming the sea (Mark 4:35-40), or Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s short-lived attempt to do the same (Matthew 14: 25-32).

So, when you need a faith booster, be it in actual water or in the metaphorical oceans we call life, draw strength from the biblical or personal stories that inspire you to just keep swimming. That kind of faith is described so well in these words from the praise song “When Oceans Rise” by Jake R. Sanderson:

“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
You are mine

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.”

All Saints, Birthdays, and Elections

I just completed my 74th trip around the sun and feel like I should have some wisdom to foist on my readers; but I’m coming up dry. I suspect it’s because of my stress level over the election and my recovery from back surgery 5 weeks ago. I’m doing well on the latter, but not so much on the former. The non-stop crisis du jour coming out of Washington, and the ominous record numbers of COVID cases is exhausting. I have tried to cut back on reading and listening to the news, but it’s like the proverbial train wreck that I can’t stop watching.
This much I know for sure — I cannot wait for the incessant requests for campaign contributions to end. Each one tells me that the sky is falling if I don’t give or give again. Enough already!!

This election reminds me a lot of the Nixon-McGovern election in 1972. Then too an embattled and corrupt incumbent was running for re-election against a liberal Democrat. Only that time around the Democrats overreacted to Nixon’s far right agenda and chose a candidate who was way too liberal for the country, and McGovern lost in an embarrassing landslide. Since that was only the second presidential election I could vote in my idealism was badly deflated not only because my candidate lost but because McGovern carried only one state and the District of Columbia. It was the worst whuppin’ any presidential candidate ever suffered, and I was devastated—lower than a snake’s belly. So to help pull me out of my funk a very wise friend/mentor gave me some advice I’ve never forgotten.

That friend, Russ, died early this year as one of 2020’s first of many low blows. And I miss him a lot, but when I remember his advice I feel like he’s still speaking to me from beyond. The particular piece of wisdom I’m remembering just now went something like this: “Elections are like city buses, if you miss one there will be another coming along soon.” In other words we can’t change the past but we can learn from it and move forward.

That advice didn’t sink in immediately. I remember writing a very dooms dayish letter to the editor shortly after that election bemoaning that since not even an election could get us out of the disastrous war in Vietnam all we could do now was to wait for the ultimate judgment of God. I’m glad I was wrong about that prediction. But as apocalyptic as my younger self thought that election was 48 years ago the 2020 version seems so much more critical to the future of our democracy. In part I feel that way because looking back on the 70’s we all know that the Watergate scandal took Nixon down when the election didn’t. And Nixon resigned because there was bipartisan agreement in Congress that he would be impeached if he didn’t. Such a spirit of valuing justice over party loyalty seems totally out of reach in the hyper partisan 2020 world, and that scares me.

I have now voted in 13 presidential elections, and I am much older than my friend Russ was in 1972 when he gave me that advice; but I don’t feel as wise as he was. Perhaps that is because all the foundations and norms we have lived by have been shaken by the 45th president. We are living in a far different reality than 1972 and that concerns me very much. Fortunately in my many trips around the sun I have learned a few things, none more important than this: God’s time is not our time, whether it’s daylight savings or not. We can change our clocks all we want, but the eternal truth is that all earthly kingdoms and super powers come and go, but God’s reign is forever. My tiny spin around the sun, no matter how long it lasts, is but a nano second in God’s time.

So whatever the outcome and whenever this ugly election ends that truth will won’t change. Our salvation history teaches us repeatedly that no matter what earthly calamities human disobedience to God’s will causes, there will always be a faithful remnant to carry on. God will raise up as always unexpected leaders from the most unlikely places here or elsewhere in the universe.

I have used words from Psalm 46 to comfort those who mourn at many funerals, but they also apply to national crises, of which Israel had plenty; and those words still speak to us today:

“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Prayer for a Broken Nation

O my God, are you as alarmed about the state of our nation as I am? I am in mourning today for civility, decency, and shattered dreams that our broken body politic can be healed. Yes, I know all things are possible with you. I know the stories of how you have delivered your people from Egyptian slavery, Babylonian exile, and German genocide, but our situation seems more desperate. We are not suffering at the hands of an external enemy but from a cancer within that is more insidious.

The high ideals espoused in our nation’s foundation documents lie trampled in the boot prints of greed, fear and falsehood. I’m grieving the death of discourse, reason and collaboration in a time when tribal loyalty has trumped even the desire to build bridges across the gaping chasms that divide us. This is one of those Romans 8 moments when we “don’t even know how to pray,” but you assure us that in such dark days the “Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26).

Come, Lord Jesus! Walk across the waters of despair that threaten to consume us. Feed us as you have always done in wilderness times, be it manna for lost Hebrews, bread to nourish Elijah as he fled from Jezebel’s wrath, fish and loaves for the 5000 hungry for Jesus’ words of truth, or breakfast on the beach for frightened disciples with a resurrected savior. We are so weak from our 24/7 diet of partisan vitriol that it’s hard to even turn off our many devices and throw ourselves on your mercy.

And so my prayer is for comfort for those who are mourning, renewed faith in a time of doubt, peace that passes understanding, and strength to carry on when things seem hopeless. Remind us, God of all creation and Ground of our Being, that nothing can separate us from your love, no fear or failure, no panic or pain, no worldly power, no virus or vandalism, no injustice or inhumanity to others, not even death itself. For we follow a risen savior who is our guiding star no matter how stormy our skies may be. He is the way, truth and life, and in times such as these help us dig deeper to find the bedrock of faith when our foundations are shaken.

I ask these things in the name of the one who was so grounded that he slept as the storm at sea was raging. Give me that courage and faith I pray. Amen

Plagues, Prayer and Peace

O Creator God, mysterious and magnificent, whose name was considered unpronounceable by our Hebrew ancestors, forgive us when our feeble attempts to describe you and name you turn you into pious platitudes. Unlike Moses we dare not put ourselves in your imminent presence. Your power is too much for us to confront directly, but when we hide ourselves from your majesty and keep you at arms length we rob ourselves of that peace that is beyond our comprehension.

It is a delicate balance between revering you and embracing you. Our fallible brains cannot grasp your simultaneous imminence and transcendence, and so we bounce back and forth like ping pong ball from one extreme to the other. And yet in these dark days of 2020 we desperately need both your motherly, tender love and your booming power to transform and heal our broken world.

We’re feeling like Pharaoh, God. Our plagues today are fires, hurricanes, flooding, racism, homophobia, earthquakes, pandemic, and the angry vitriol of deep, seemingly unbridgeable tribal cultural wars. At a time when we need each other and the milk of human compassion more than ever we don’t even know how to talk to one another. Nerves are so frayed that even something as simple as wearing a mask can become a trigger point for insults, shunning and worse.

Where are you in the midst of our human catastrophes, O God? You told Elijah that you were not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in a still small voice. We are deaf to that voice just now O great one. Weeping and wailing, screaming and cursing, hopeless self-pity and sheer exhaustion are ringing in our ears so loudly that we cannot hear you. When we need to feel the embrace of a good shepherd so much we feel like the lost sheep, afraid to even hope that you can or would come looking for us and leave the other 99. Our tiny minds can’t comprehend that you can seek us out and still be present with all the others who also need you. Your transcendent ability to be everywhere in the world and universe boggles are minds.

So for just a moment, a fraction of a second help us to be still just long enough to hear your voice whisper in our ears, “Fear not my children, for I have overcome the world. Come to me when you are weary and burdened. Trust me, and I will restore your soul even in this year of tumult and pain.”

Speak, O God, and give us ears to hear. Amen

A Prayer for Coming Home

Gracious and loving God, this prodigal child is coming home. I’ve been awaymuch too long. I can’t believe the welcome mat is still out after how poorly I’ve treated you. I’ve been lost in the wilderness, depressed, frightened and angry that life isn’t fair.

I’ve taken detours through doubt and lingered too long in places of sin. I lost my way in anger and self-pity, afraid to come home and not even sure I any longer knew the way.

The simple faith of childhood failed me in times of greatest need. I surrendered to to the demons of temptation that led me down the dead end paths of prosperity, power and fleeting pleasures of the flesh.

I knew better. I had been taught your Word from childhood, but rebellion against the bonds of legalism alienated me from my roots and my heritage. When once I felt closely held by your loving arms I grasped now only air when I reached out to you. My prayers for your help grew empty and hollow because I heard no answers, probably because I never stopped the pursuit of happiness long enough to listen for your reply. My vision was clouded by tears of frustration and fear; so I could not even see you in the beauty of creation. And I certainly couldn’t see you in the chaos and injustice in our world. I gave up trying to find you.

I drank deeply of the great American myth of individualism. I succeeded so well at school and work that i never learned the lessons that failure alone can teach. When things became to challenging rather than fail I simply quit. I gave up on relationships and career goals instead of doing the hard work of trying multiple ways to solve a problem. I played it safe rather than risk taking unpopular stands on social justice issues. I took the wide path that leads to destruction.

But now I’m coming home. I humbly throw myself on your mercy, trusting that you will catch me and hold me close, hold me until my fear gives way to peace. I’m coming home, not for a fatted calf, but hoping your Holy Spirit will ignite the fire of faith in me anew and send me out to invite other lost ones longing to come home but are too afraid and ashamed.

In the name of the one who overcame Satan’s temptation in his wilderness time. Amen

Pandemic Pentecost Prayer

O God of creation and re-creation, as we sang this morning “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us” even in our brokenness. Just as you spoke and created out of chaos in the beginning, speak to us now in our distress. We are weary and discouraged by so much we see around us. We don’t like the violence. It scares us, but help us understand the injustices that have created the protests. Some of us remember previous times of riots and civil unrest, and we are tired of so little progress toward the high ideals of our nation. But at the same time we can’t begin to imagine how weary our beloved sisters and brothers of color must be after centuries of oppression.

This morning we read the Pentecost Scripture about violent winds and tongues of flames that touched Jesus’ disciples. On our TV screens we have seen other kinds of violence and different kinds of flames that frighten us. Faith and discipleship are scary too, Lord. It’s easier to accept the status quo than oppose injustice when we are it’s beneficiaries. Renew our faith in your power to find us wherever we are and blow away our fear and break down communication barriers. Give us ears to hear the pain of all the George Floyds and the anguish of our black neighbors who do not feel safe in our society. Teach us to speak the universal language of love to oppressed and oppressors alike.

Forgive us in our comfortable havens of white privilege where we have failed to insist on liberty and justice for all of your children. We’ve been here before, Lord, but not in the middle of a pandemic! The timing of this unrest couldn’t be worse, but we know your time is not our time. We know the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for centuries before you liberated them. It’s so hard to trust in your inevitable justice when we live in broken dreams here and now.

Give us ears to hear and really listen, Lord. We don’t know how we can help address this crisis. Let us really listen to those who have different perspectives and are just as confused and weary as we are. Let us listen to those who have lost businesses and livelihoods because of looting and vandalism. Let us listen to the first responders who literally are putting their lives on the line for all of us. We lift up all of our government leaders who are struggling to balance the rights of the oppressed to voice their concerns with the protection of property. Those are difficult decisions that never will satisfy everyone. But don’t let us settle for the false peace of a return to where we’ve been, but only for a peace grounded in just reforms of any and all systemic injustice and inequality.

We lift up to you those who are unemployed and underemployed, those already living in poverty exacerbated by the COVID virus. Show us how we can help to move things ever so slightly toward your will for our nation and world. Help us lift our eyes beyond the overwhelming problems to concrete actions and solutions that matter. But that’s hard too just as daily life is. Without “normal” routines, every decision we have to make takes more energy in these pandemic times. Sometimes we just plain cannot find the words to express how our weary souls are feeling. Remind us again, O God, that when words fail us the Pentecost spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too great for words.”

Remind us, Lord of all, that your voice isn’t always in the earthquake, wind and fire, but sometimes can only be heard in the souls of those who are still, even in the midst of chaos, and know that you are God, the one in whom we can always trust. Amen

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.

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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.