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.”

Faith Expeditions: Help!, Exodus 17:8-13

We began this sermon series four weeks ago with Pastor Chris showing off how he could still wear his Boy Scout uniform. It would take a faith expedition and a 30 lb. diet for me to get into my old uniform, if it still existed; but the scout motto to “Be Prepared” still fits perfectly.

To go on any expedition requires preparation and that preparation should include a support team. Those who know my wife Diana know that she is the energizer bunny in our house. And she doesn’t worry about anything because she knows I’ve got that covered for both of us. Case in point: about 15 years ago Diana and I drove over to Xenia to watch two of her nephews and a niece go sky diving. The 3 of them went up and as Pastor Chris reminded us two weeks ago, what goes up must come down. And they did. We got to watch the two boys land safely right on target, and they were so excited about the experience. We didn’t see where our niece Sarah landed and were a bit concerned. But a few minutes later she and her partner came walking up the road and she too was all smiles.

But here’s where things got very interesting. One of the instructors said to those of us who had stayed on terra firma, “We still have time for one more trip if anyone wants to go.” I’m thinking no way Jose, but Diana’s sister-in-law who had some sky diving experience looked at Diana and said, “You wanna go?”

Diana was so inspired by the joy she saw on her nephews’ and niece’s faces that she jumped at the chance. They got prepared with instructions and strapped on their parachutes and off they went into the wild blue yonder.
And there she is soaring like an eagle. Notice 2 things about this picture, that guy who was Diana’s tandem partner, that’s not me. I was still safely on the ground. And you can’t tell from the picture but Diana’s buddy had his AARP card. He was a veteran of many jumps and he literally had her back; so she entrusted him with her life.

And here’s the “after” picture just so you know they landed safe and sound.

Moses at Rephidim was not jumping out of an airplane, but he too was in a life and death situation yet again on the long faith expedition known to us as the Exodus. Earlier in chapter 17, which is part of the “complaining” chapters in Exodus, the Israelites were ready to stone Moses for dragging them out into the God-forsaken wilderness. They again, like spoiled kids, want to go back to Egypt – this time because they have no water to drink. You may remember that this is where God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water pours out and quenches the peoples’ thirst.

And then immediately Moses is confronted with another crisis—“Amalek came and fought with Israel.” Amalek was a descendant of Esau, and his people represent the bitter hatred between that branch of Abraham’s family and the Israelites. This battle is a reminder to us that there were already people living in the land the Israelites were claiming as theirs. The Amalekites saw the Israelites as illegal aliens in their land. And as we know there is still conflict over whose land has been promised to whom by which God. But that’s another sermon.

Today I want to focus on Moses’ unusual battle plan. He takes the same staff that he used to part the Red Sea, and the one he just used to get water out of the rock at Massah and Meribah. That staff is the visible symbol of God’s power and presence with the Israelites, and Moses says he’ll go up a hill and hold that staff aloft while Joshua goes into battle with Amalek.

Sure enough it works! As long as Moses holds up the staff Joshua’s men are winning the battle—but then Moses has a problem – his arms grow weary. Moses is human after all and like all of us he gets tired, but whenever he has to put his arms down to rest the tide of battle turns and Amalek’s army prevails.

What to do? Moses’ people are dying before his eyes, but he just can’t hold up the staff any longer. It’s just too heavy! Now we might expect Moses to cry out, “Houston, we have a problem!” But notice he doesn’t even have to do that. Moses isn’t up on that hilltop alone. His brother Aaron and another man named Hur go up there with him. And when they see the trouble Moses is having he doesn’t have to ask for their help. They don’t even have to call a committee meeting to decide what to do. They simply act, and the solution is simple.

They put a rock under Moses so he can sit down, and then Aaron and Hur get on either side of Moses and support his arms—not just for little while, but till the sun goes down. And because of their support and teamwork Joshua’s army wins the battle. Faith expeditions require a network of support. Taking a leap of faith is like trusting the person who packed your parachute and the pilot and your tandem partner—others who have experience, as well as those on the ground who pray.

One of my most memorable experiences in scouting was on a canoe trip on the Whitewater Canal in Indiana. I’m not sure where the name came from because there wasn’t any white water, but there was one narrow lock on the canal where the water was moving much faster. It was just around a bend in the river so we came upon it unexpectedly. Suddenly we saw a cable across the canal with a sign that warned us to stop and portage, i.e. get out and carry our canoes on the bank and put back in on the other side of the fast water.
Some of us were able to do that but because of inadequate warning some of our scouts got sucked into the faster current and made the mistake of grabbing on to the cable strung across the canal. You can imagine what happened; they stopped and their canoes went on without them.

The water wasn’t that deep so they were able to climb out and go retrieve their paddles and canoe downstream. The rest of the trip was uneventful for our group. However, because we had a large troop the canoe livery had to divide us into two groups. So when my group finished they hauled us and our canoes back to the starting point so the second group could have their turn.

Now the lock where some of our group got to remember their baptism wasn’t far from the beginning of the trip. It was easily within walking distance; so instead of warning our fellow scouts about that tricky spot as good scouts should some of us decided it would be fun to run ahead and see if anyone else got dumped in. And of course when they did, including our scoutmaster, we jumped out from where we were hiding and started laughing. But it didn’t take long before we realized the situation wasn’t funny anymore. Our scoutmaster was trapped beneath the canoe and wasn’t coming up. The scout with him was young and inexperienced and didn’t know what to do.

I was with some other boys on top of the lock about 10 feet above the water. I wish I could tell you this is where I sprang into action and saved the day, but I’m ashamed to admit I was flat out paralyzed with fear. My only contribution was to yell like an idiot for somebody to do something.

Fortunately for us all two of the scouts up there with me saw what needed to be done and literally jumped into action. They didn’t stop to worry about how deep the water was or what danger there was to themselves, they simply jumped from 10 feet up and were able to pull our sputtering scoutmaster to safety. Like Aaron and Hur, they saw a problem and acted to save the day.
None of us can get through life’s challenges alone. There are no self-made people.

My sister found this old photo recently that reminded me of my own ancestors who survived the great depression, two world wars, alcoholic husbands and all the challenges of parenthood. This is a 4 generation picture – I’m the cute kid in my grandmother’s arms. We’ve all got those folks who literally gave us life and kept us alive thru infancy; we’ve all got teachers and mentors; we’ve all got people who suffered in silence as we learned to drive or who ran behind us those first few times we rode a bike without training wheels.

It’s probably my age but I had one of those ah hah moments recently when talking to my youngest uncle Gary. He’s only 4 years older than I so was just ahead of me in school. He told me there were only 40 kids in his high school class. I was shocked because my class had a whopping 120, a 300% increase in just 4 years! And then I realized again that I am one of the original baby boomers – born in 1946. And that triggered one of those trips down memory lane when I realized why I was lucky enough to have brand new school buildings to attend throughout my public school career. Those old guys, and they were all men, who we made fun of – the school superintendent and the school board had the foresight to see the wave of us boomers coming in time to build a new elementary school and eight years later a new high school just as my class arrived on the scene; and they had the ability to pass school levies to make those things happen.
Who helped pave the way for your life? Who are the Aarons and Hurs who came along side you and supported you? It’s good to remember and be grateful even if we can’t thank those people. Keeps us humble too.

Think about Moses earlier in the biblical story. From day one of his call to serve God Moses knew he needed help and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. Well, he sort of asked. At the burning bush where God tells Moses he’s been chosen to go tell Pharaoh “Let my people go” Moses doesn’t exactly jump at the chance. He does what many of us do – he tries to weasel out of this scary faith expedition by making excuses. He says, “Not me Lord, I’m not a good public speaker. I’m not the one to go and convince Pharaoh to do this!” And God says, “OK, here comes your brother Aaron. He has the gift of gab. I’ll get him to be your helper.”

None of us have everything we need to tackle all the challenges life throws at us. But there are helpers around if we seek and trust God to provide them. We’ve been using different kinds of outdoor adventures to think about faith expeditions this month, but some of the most challenging expeditions in life have nothing to do with tents or canoes or parachutes. The inner journeys where we encounter painful memories, doubts, and fears are the toughest expeditions we ever have to take; but we all need to embark on those inner journeys over and over again to continue to grow in our faith.

We have a ministry here at Northwest that is specifically designed to match helpers up with those who need someone to just come alongside them, to listen to them, to pray for them. For the record these Stephen Ministers are not named for me, but for Stephen, one of the first deacons chosen by the early church to minister to the needs of the growing faith community. Stephen Ministers don’t do windows or home chores; their mission is to provide spiritual support for those going through difficult times on a faith expedition. And in the process, as is often the case, these Stephen Ministers discover that when we journey with someone else we also go deeper and stronger in our own faith. It’s a two-way street.

All it takes is a simple willingness to go the extra mile to help someone in need, even when it’s inconvenient–to take time to listen, really listen with our full attention to kids, seniors, colleagues and friends who are on an inner faith expedition. They may not know that’s what it is and there’s no need to label it as such. When we are on one of those journeys we just know we need someone there with us. We need someone to put a rock under us and hold us steady while we face whatever demons or challenges that lurk in the inner depths of our souls.

One of my favorite stories about a biblical helper is in the book of Ruth. Do you remember that story? Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is on a journey back to her home in Bethlehem after suffering terrible personal loses. Naomi and her family had been refugees in Moab because of a famine in Judah, and while there Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died. Both of Naomi’s sons had married Moabite women before their deaths, one named Ruth. So Ruth is not an Israelite, she is from Moab, one of those neighboring countries with no use for Israelites, and she’s dealing with her own grief.

When Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law come to a fork in the road where a critical life decision must be made, Naomi encourages both of them to go home to their people where they will be accepted and can find husbands there to provide for them. The other daughter-in-law returns to Moab, but Ruth’s response to Naomi is the famous line, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Ruth saw Naomi needed a companion to walk with her through this tough time and she gave up the best path for herself to walk alongside Naomi.

And of course, the Scriptures tell us the rest of the story. In Bethlehem Ruth meets and falls in love with Boaz, and they become the great grandparents of King David. That’s important for Christians because when the Gospel of Matthew lists all those begats leading up to the birth of Jesus Ruth, the Moabitess is one of only five women listed in Jesus’ genealogy. She is the great, great, great …. Grandmother of Jesus 28 generations back.

When we see a need in others and respond to it, we never know what God has instore for us. So when you feel the need to journey into the deep spiritual mysteries – don’t be a worrier like me, say “Yes Lord,” and trust God to provide the support you need from people like Aaron or Hur or Ruth who will hold you steady till the sun goes down. Amen

Preached September 2, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH