Happy Father’s Day to My Village

My relationship with my biological father wasn’t all Hallmark warm and fuzzy. Dad and I butted heads over lots of things, from rigid rules in my teen years to how to parent my kids, politics and theology. We made our peace before he died and I’m glad we did. But I just realized recently how unfair it is to expect any parent to provide all the physical, emotional and spiritual nurture and guidance a child needs. As the old proverb says, “It takes a village.”

That has me reflecting today on all the father figures who helped shape who I am: uncles, teachers, scout leaders, pastors, Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, friends, colleagues, bosses, professors and mentors of all kinds. I’ve even learned a bunch about being a better human being from my own kids and step-son. Watching them grow and become the wonderful parents and good human beings they are is the most rewarding part of my life.

The thank you letter I wrote earlier this week to a former boss was just one of so many letters like that I could write. I remember a young pastor from a Lutheran church in my home town. He probably didn’t even know who this young Methodist was, but he had a big influence on the path my life took without ever knowing it. I was a teenager struggling with my call to ministry. Up to that point in my life the only pastors I had known were older men that were hard for me to identify with. To be honest they were both very uncool. But one day I was in the park near our home and I stopped to watch a church softball game on one of the diamonds. And there playing third base like a regular guy was Lutheran Pastor Dave Ullery. I immediately had a huge ah hah moment – I could be a pastor and still be a regular human being. Pastor Ullery had unknowingly removed one of the obstacles to my accepting God’s call on my life, just by being himself.

That softball memory triggered another sports one about several of my uncles who played catch with me and let me practice with their little league teams when I was still too young to actually be on the team. My dad wasn’t into sports at all, and I missed being able to share that love of mine with him, but these other father figures were there to play a role that he couldn’t.

My father figures list could go on forever. Harold Taylor, my high school chemistry and physics teacher who invited me to his home in the evenings to help me prepare to take state scholastic tests, a campus minister who opened my eyes to new ways to think about religion and social justice, numerous professors in college, seminary and grad school who widened my whole perspective on the world and beyond.

Were any of these men perfect role models? Nope. Have I been a perfect father-figure for my kids and others in my churches and youth groups? Heavens no! I cringe to remember all the times I wasn’t there for my kids and youth group kids. I remember writing a story in a college English class about a Dad who was so active in his church and community service that he neglected his own family — not intentionally, but because of the other good things he was doing. He wasn’t hanging out the bar or the country club. He was doing “good” stuff. Did I heed my own advice when I became a father? Somewhat, but there was far too much time spent out in the evenings at church meetings, too many weekends on youth retreats or wrestling with difficult sermons.

How do parents balance family and career? If I had any easy answers I’d gladly share them for free, but I don’t. I just know that we dads (and moms) need to cut ourselves some slack and be grateful that we share parenthood with a whole village of others who can be there when we can’t, who can be there in ways that we can’t. And together that village weaves a tapestry that is a picture of our lives. So, love your fathers and celebrate the whole cloud of witnesses who helped raise you and are still supporting you today, even if it’s on zoom or from heaven. I’m giving my village a big virtual group hug, and I hope you will to.

As I reread this piece I had a sharp pain as God reminded me that there are millions of kids in our nation and world who don’t have a village to raise them, who have no father to provide for them and protect them. That both makes me more grateful for my own village and makes me pray for guidance about what I can do and we can do as a society to be better at creating villages where fewer children fall through the cracks.

P.s. I am not excluding all of the women in my village who were just as influential in my life, but this is Father’s Day. I’ll get to my mother-figures and sister-figures another day.

Russell C. Sawmiller, Jr. 1927-2020

Last week I lost a mentor and dear friend who had been an important person in my life for almost as long as I can remember. He was 93 so his death was not a shock, but it hit me harder than I expected. Soon after I learned Russ had died I sat down to write this letter to express what he meant to me.

April 17, 2020

Dear God,
I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.

I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.

Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”

Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”

I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.

I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.

In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.

You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.

We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”

Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!

By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.

I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway.
When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you.
I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.

I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.

I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.

I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.

I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.

So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”

Peace and love,
Steve

We are Butt Dust

“For God knows we are but dust and that our days are few and brief.” (Psalm 103:14) OK, those words are not much comfort in pandemic panic time, I know. But here’s the thing, it’s Lent, and words like those are traditionally used on Ash Wednesday to remind us of our mortality. God also knows, as do I as a member of the at-risk elderly crowd, that we don’t need any more reminders of our mortality right now.

So why quote those words today of all days? Glad you asked. It’s because of a story I read recently that made me chuckle, and I am a firm believer that we’ve got to have some humor in the midst of this darn crisis or we’ll all go off the deep end. It seems that a little girl was in church when she heard the pastor quote those words above, “we are but dust…” The girl immediately turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, what’s butt dust?”

The story doesn’t tell us how the mother responded, and I’d love to know. That’s one my kids or grandkids have not asked me. But it does remind me of another similar story I heard many years ago. Billy’s Sunday school class had a lesson on the creation story in Genesis one day, and that afternoon Billy tapped his dad on the shoulder while he was watching some sports on TV (remember those days?). When he got to a time out on TV Dad finally turned his attention to his son who said he had a question. Billy said, “Today in Sunday School we learned that God made Adam from dust.” “Yes,” the father said, “That’s right. But what’s your question, Billy?” “Well, our teacher also said our bodies return to dust after we die.” The father nodded getting a little nervous about where this conversation was headed. He was considering referring Billy to his mother for this theological question when Billy finished. “Well,” Billy said, “I just looked under my bed, and there’s someone either coming or going under there!”

Certainly COVID-19 is no laughing matter. I applaud the courageous job our Governor and public health officials are doing of taking what may seem like drastic measures to avert a catastrophe. None of us like having our lives put on pause with no promise of how long that hiatus from our “normal” lives may be. And the real effects of this crisis haven’t even hit yet. Once kids are home from school 24/7 and people living from paycheck to paycheck start facing hard choices on what they and their families have to do without things are going to get a lot harder very quickly. Tempers are going to get shorter; escapes from reality through entertainment or simple solitude are going to be among the first casualties. Social problems like homelessness, mental health resources, domestic abuse, and universal access to health care are going to be magnified every time the number of confirmed cases and deaths goes up.

The necessity of choosing to look for positives instead of being overwhelmed by the scary truth that we are all butt dust is the challenge facing each one of us. And it is a choice. We can choose to watch the depressing news all day or just get summaries of what we need to know a few times a day. It’s a choice to be irritated by the inconvenience of antsy children underfoot while we are trying to work from home or being grateful for a flexible schedule and more quality time with our families. I can whine and complain about how much I miss March Madness or I can choose to be thankful for time to catch up on things around the house and to get reacquainted with my wife.

Life is nothing but a series of choices. Life happens, and it isn’t always what we’ve planned or hoped it would be. It’s much too easy to feel like we are victims to what life throws at us. I go there all the time, and trust me it’s not a fun place for me or anyone around me. Life sucks right now for everyone, but much more for health care workers, janitors, grocery store clerks and stockers, and residents and staff of homes for the elderly. The best cure for having a pity party is to think about the fact that we are all butt dust – meaning we are all in this boat together. None of chose to be here, but being frustrated, angry or blaming someone else for the crisis is simply a waste of precious energy.

I started a gratitude practice several weeks ago before any of us knew Corona was something other than a beer. I think God knew I was going to need that practice to prepare me for this pandemic. As I’ve written here earlier, I’ve been surprised (and grateful) that the simple practice of being grateful for at least three things each day for 21 days would rewire my old brain and form a habit of being more grateful in general. Yes, I frequently slip up and revert to my old glass half empty personality, but not as much. Yes, these last few days I’ve had to be more intentional about actually looking for things to be grateful for.

For example, yesterday I was doing what used to be a simple task. We had some plumbing done this week, and I was struggling to put some shelves back together under my bathroom sink. Because I have a bad back and arthritis in my fingers getting under the sink and screwing the shelves together was, to say the least, not going well. After a couple of expletives my wife offered to help, which I of course ignored because my little male ego was threatened by admitting that I failed. But after several more futile attempts (and a few choice words) I finally gave up and asked for her help. It wasn’t easy, but I finally was grateful that she was able to do what I couldn’t instead of being angry that I couldn’t. Yes, it would have been much better for both of us if I could have been humble enough to ask for help much sooner; but that doesn’t mean I can’t even today be grateful that I’m not alone to deal with life’s challenges.

And none of us is alone in this crisis. We just have to get more creative, humble and grateful about how we find new ways to be in community while keeping a safe distance from each other. Let’s be grateful for the technology that helps us stay in fellowship with each other while remembering that some of the most vulnerable do not have that technology to use. More than ever we need to give thanks that we are indeed our sisters and brothers keepers. That’s a gift, not a burden; and every act of compassion we engage in will bless us even more than those we serve.

Life-long Learning: Gratitude 101

Three and a half weeks ago I saw a “self-help” suggestion on Facebook about gratitude. I don’t believe in “self-help” because I know I don’t change without help from other people and/or God. But because I’m going through yet another late-life metamorphosis and because a very wise physical therapist helped me understand brain function better last year I was open to a challenge. After all it sounded a lot easier than the ice bucket thing we did a few years ago. (I wrote about the brain physiology in a piece about a post hole digger last October, “21-day Attitude Adjustment,” but here’s the gist of what I learned from my PT: She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.)

The challenge this time was to express gratitude for at least three things every day for 21 days with the promise being that after that spiritual practice the habit of being more grateful would be established. Because it actually helped this old dog learn some new tricks I want to share my experience.

I recorded my gratitude in my journal, and yes some days I had to really work at finding things to be thankful for. The list some days included simple conveniences we take for granted, like a working furnace on a cold winter day and ran the gamut from catching a green light while driving to getting good results from a prostate biopsy. Here’s what I’ve noticed after 25 plus days of this experiment. I am more at peace and more grateful for life in general. It has become a habit for me to look for things to be thankful for in situations where I usually would have gone victim to my circumstances or failure to accomplish some simple task on the first try. For example, when the toilet got stopped up a few days ago instead of throwing up my hands in frustration because my other activities were interrupted I reminded myself to be grateful for indoor plumbing and went about the crappy job of clearing the clog.

Being more positive was also a major factor in my decision to take a sabbatical from all political discourse this week. I am in day 6 of that 7-day sabbatical and finding it refreshing for my soul. (I will definitely continue this sabbatical into Lent in some modified form.) I’m listening to music and books on tape instead of 24/7 political diatribes. I still care deeply about the fate of our country and our planet, but I’ve decided that being angry about things without creative action is not only useless but unhealthy for me and those around me. Instead I chose to sign up to do some volunteer work for a local candidate, a concrete action that supports my values and the democratic process.

As an aside, I need to give a shout out to my wife Diana and another good friend who have been trying to tell me for months that my negative feelings about our current political mess were unhealthy, and as my friend put it “interfering with my walk with God.” I didn’t want to or couldn’t hear those words then. They aren’t the theological language I would use, but they are true; and yes truth is liberating (John 8:32).

For me truth often makes me angry before it sets me free. I don’t take criticism well. I get defensive. But this time I have new ears, at least for now, to hear truth, and I am grateful. I give thanks for those who put up with my negativity and anger and believed in me when I didn’t.

No, this is not a “happily ever after” story. I still get angry at times when things don’t go my way. But I’ve learned in these three and half weeks to be more grateful for second, third and forty-third chances to learn from my mistakes and try again. I’m also grateful for the freedom to share my thoughts and feelings and for those who take time to read my ramblings. “Self-help” is a misnomer. Communal and divine support is what life is about. And I’m here to tell you we are never too old to learn and relearn that lesson.

Thanks be to God.

Thanksgiving Prayer

O Source of all blessings, we know every day should be one of giving thanks because without you we would be and have nothing. Forgive us our foolish pride and individualism. Without migrant workers who cultivate the crops we will feast on this Thanksgiving our tables would be bare. Without the minimum wage labor of those who process, package, ship our food and stock shelves in the grocery we would go hungry. Enjoying the abundant life we take for granted is a team effort, and most of us are barely on the roster.

As we have moved further from living off the land our awareness of how dependent on you we are has decreased. We are clueless about the sacrifices made by the animals gracing our tables. Forgive our shortsightedness about our place in the food chain and our wastefulness of sacred resources that cannot be replaced.

Help us balance our gratitude with humility and compassion for others. Let us multi-task so even as we give thanks for family and friends who gather, we can be mindful of those who are alone, homeless or forgotten. Help us expand our thankfulness to those who work on Thanksgiving—first responders, those in the military, health care providers and others who keep our lights on and houses warm, those who operate public transportation, and retail workers that often cannot afford the products eager shoppers gobble up.

And please Lord we pray for a sense of community around our tables. Let us celebrate our diversity rather than let it be a cause of tension or conflict. We break bread together coming from different generations, lifestyles and world views. As we share a rich variety of life experiences may we value and honor elders who bring the gift of wisdom not learned in school but in the joys and sorrows of existence. May we also cherish the exuberance and energy of youth, the idealism of young adults, and the pure joy and innocence of children. For practical reasons we often designate adult and kids tables, but may our holidays also include intentional intergenerational time to laugh, play and hang out together.

For the food, fun and even the sink full of dirty dishes and willing hands who wash them we give thanks and praise, O God. May the ties that bind us together grow stronger. May the memories shared and the new ones made warm our hearts. May our sense of wonder and gratitude for all the blessings we have be multiplied. And may the strength of family and friendships that we all need to see us through the hard times in life continue to grow stronger this and every day. Amen

Prayer for a 55th Class Reunion

Gracious God, two score and fifteen years ago to the surprise of our teachers and relief of our families the class of 1964 walked across the stage at Wapakoneta High School. Just five years later our fellow alum, Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon. Now some days we struggle to just walk across the room. The circle of life seems to spin faster each year like a spaceship re-entering the atmosphere as it returns from space.

But we are here together again tonight, and we give you thanks for the chance to renew friendships, to reminisce about old times, to complain about our ailments, to brag about our grandkids or to exercise a little poetic license and make up some stories.

We are a class that will never forget where we were seventh period that November day when we heard about President Kennedy’s assassination over the school PA system. But we also cherish memories about decorating for prom, band shows, musicals, FAA projects, cruising through town on Friday nights, or our senior picnic. For it all we give thanks, even the painful breakups and the embarrassing moments. We survived our mistakes and learned important life lessons from them; and we’re forever grateful we grew up before cell phones and social media could record and spread around our stupider activities.

We remember the thrill of getting a driver’s license, of picking up a class ring that we were anxious to share with our “steady.” We also know there were some immature cruel and unkind ways we treated some of our classmates. Forgive us those indiscretions and help us now in 2019 to find ways to promote civility and understanding in our badly bruised and divided country and world. Remind us that how we live our lives every day does matter, even and especially as the elders in our society.

Many of us are now the matriarchs or patriarchs in our families. Help us embrace that role, to celebrate the freedom that comes from retirement. We are no longer responsible to bosses and careers and that’s liberating. We have more time to do good in small and large ways, to commit random acts of kindness wherever we are. Hold us accountable, Lord, to be the best we can be each and every day you give us to keep walking on spaceship earth. We graduated a long time ago from high school, but we are still students of life and mentors to those who walk behind us.

Yes, Lord, we have walked many miles in the last 55 years, but we aren’t done yet. We don’t know how many more reunions we have yet to come, but we know we have this one. Help us make the most of this present moment—to rejoice and laugh together again over things we took too seriously back then, including ourselves.

We want to pause and remember our classmates who have “graduated” into the higher education realm of eternity. We pray your blessing on them and on those who are unable to be with us tonight for whatever reason. We give thanks for those who gave of their time to organize this reunion. We give thanks for the food we are about to share and ask your blessing on it and on the fellowship we share as we break bread together.

As our alma mater says, “Wapak High School we (still) adore thee and we’ll guard thy sanctity. Our gratitude we offer as we roam through many lands.”

Amen

Thanksgiving Prayer

O Creator of all that is, how can I begin to offer thanks when everything comes from you? To list what I am grateful for would exhaust all the time I have and still not scratch the surface. Maybe thanksgiving is not counting my blessings but a way of life that begins with the humility of admitting what I think is “mine” really isn’t.

Why is that so hard, Lord? In my head I know the truth but when fear of not having or being enough grips my heart then I start taking account of “my” possessions instead of simply enjoying what you have shared with me. When I see how easily my stuff, my security can be wiped out by wildfires or floods then the hoarder in me says, “You can’t relax. No matter how much you have it will never be enough!”

My head knows better, but my heart wants to live in the land of scarcity and hide away some extra food or cash for a rainy day. My money lies when it says “In God We Trust.” The truth is I monitor the stock market and buy insurance to protect the things I value most. My calendar and checkbook reflect my true priorities. I find it hard to afford a meager 10% for the source of my very being, but go into debt to “own” the status symbols the world values.

And besides Lord, it’s not easy to have a grateful heart in a world plagued by the ravages of climate-change-inspired storms. It’s not easy to give thanks while protecting myself from the threats of terrorists and racist vigilantes. People around me are dropping like flies from drug addictions and suicide. We are all so controlled by our electronic devices and enslaved to consumerism that there’s just not much time left over to give thanks.

Amid the festivities of the Thanksgiving holidays remind us Lord that it is only in you that we live and move and have our being. May our menus always include generous helpings of humility and gratitude that overflow in abundant sharing with those in need. And may there always be time no matter how hectic the day may be to be still and know who we are and whose we are. Amen

Pastoral Prayer, September 17


God of grace and righteousness, again this Lord’s Day we pause to remind ourselves of your presence – to thank you for the blessings of life and to ask your continued guidance and comfort when the road of life is bumpy and dark. We lift up those named and unnamed here today for a special portion of your love, and we ask for the wisdom and faith to approach each day of life with a healthy balance of faith and humility.

Help us not to be so enthralled by our own good fortune that we overlook the pain of our sisters and brothers near and far. And likewise when the cares of the world threaten to overshadow our hope, reassure us that we never walk alone. For as the scriptures tell us, even when we don’t know how to pray, your spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words. In the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – grant us a balanced perspective on life that anchors our lives firmly in you as the ground of our being; so that we may offer a safe harbor for the lost who are seeking the way and the truth and the life that we find in Christ Jesus. Remind us again O God of our mission and purpose for living.

As we pray for those without power in Florida remind us of your eternal power that never fails. As we pray for those left homeless by storms or by war and violence, we give you thanks for warm, safe homes, for all the physical comforts we too often take for granted. Give us grateful and generous hearts to receive your blessings, Lord, and also to share from our abundance and good fortune with those with less or without.

As we pray for people without clean water and food, remind us that as much as we need physical comforts, O God, there’s a deeper hunger in our souls that brings us out of our homes to your house each Sabbath. We need to feel the connection of belonging, the fellowship, the corporate worship that nourishes us more than individual devotion and prayer can do.

So we ask your blessing on our worship this day as we pray for ourselves and others, for our nation and world. Bless our acts of praise. Give us ears to hear your special word of comfort or challenge you have for each of us; so that when we return to our homes we do so stronger in our devotion and discipleship to serve you wherever you call us to be in the coming week.

For it is in Christ’s name we pray, for his sake we witness to our faith in words and actions. Send your holy spirit upon us as we celebrate our belonging to you by joining our hearts and voices in the Lord’s Prayer.

Patience and Perspective: Why Thanksgiving and Advent Matter More than Ever

“For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” Psalm 90:4

The joke says “Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes wisdom comes alone.” There’s some truth in that, but as one who is learning the hard way, I can attest that age does come with some perspective and experience. I am going to resist the temptation to do a general rant about the rush to Santa Claus that turns the time between Halloween and December 25 into a blur. But I do regret the de-emphasis of Thanksgiving and Advent. We need more than ever times of gratitude and patience in this anxious age of instant gratification that doesn’t satisfy. Gratitude and patience are what Thanksgiving and Advent are all about, or should be.

I heard from several disenchanted voters and analysts of all persuasions that the recent election was all about a desire for change because of voter frustration with the current political situation. While I understand that sentiment and agree that much of what goes on in government is corrupt and broken, I was struck by a phrase I heard several times from Millennials and Gen Xers who said “nothing has changed in 50 years.”

I can’t begin to address the solution to what’s ailing our democratic system, but since I’ve voted in the last 13 Presidential elections beginning in 1968 I do feel somewhat qualified to address what’s changed in the last 50 years. In the 90th Congress, elected in 1966, there were only 11 women in the House of Representatives and 1 in the Senate. In this year’s election those numbers are 83 in the House and 21 in the Senate. I have not found exact data on racial minorities for 90th Congress, but one source said there were fewer than 10 until 1969. By contrast the new Congress in 2017 will have the greatest racial diversity in the history of the republic – 102 members of color in the House and 10 in the Senate. Those numbers equal an 867% increase for women and 1120% for racial minorities in the last 50 years.

Does that mean we have achieved equality in D.C. or in our nation? Of course not; we all know we are a very long way from achieving the high ideals of “liberty and justice for all” that we all profess to believe in, but where we are today on the long journey to equality for all is a far cry from saying nothing’s changed in 50 years.
There are many examples of progress toward social justice if we take time to look for them, and gratitude requires an intentional commitment to focus our attention on what there is to be thankful for, especially in this 24/7 news cycle and social media world where we are bombarded with mostly bad news constantly and can overreact to something and make it viral before bothering to check it’s veracity. Isn’t it interesting that the word “viral” comes from a term that used to mean something contagious that makes us sick?

We can all do something about the virus of untrue and biased information besides just complaining. There have been times in the last 2 weeks that I have simply had to turn off the TV and all my devices (de-vices?) to keep from being overwhelmed and depressed about the “news” coming at me from all directions. A fast from consuming the viral spread of anger, hate and fear is good preventative health from time to time. Perhaps more importantly, we can all stop and verify information before we spread it around by reposting or retweeting. Social media makes it far too easy to just hit a button and spread a virus before we have time to evaluate the information and its source. In the heat of political conflict it is not always easy to remember that, but if we would all pause and reflect on what the consequences might be and how images and words might affect others who become our unintended audience when we hit that button we can all help in a small way to heal the growing divisions in our nation and world. If we aren’t part of the solution we are part of the problem, and if we aren’t helping create positive change in our nation we shouldn’t expect our elected leaders to do it for us.

Mr. Rogers’ has been quoted a lot lately about “looking for the helpers” in a bad situation. Please, in this week of overeating and overshopping and overfootballing, let’s all take time to look for the positive signs of change in our world and be thankful. To do that requires backing up to get a better perspective on the big picture instead of focusing entirely on our problems. Yes, health care costs and jobs and our own civil liberties are important, and we must keep working as fast and justly as possible to change those situations. But to do so requires patience and perseverance and an appreciation of how far we’ve already come. The big picture gives us a better perspective on progress while at the same time reminding us that there are millions of other people in the world who are homeless and refugees and orphans, addicted and incarcerated that we must not ever forget. From Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in Genesis 4 to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” to Jesus in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10), God’s answer is “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” (Matt. 25)

As we have seen this week in the Trump vs. Hamilton tweet storm, artists and artistic works have great power to give us a glimpse of the bigger picture. Good drama and fiction can transport us out of our own swamp of alligators for a time and move us emotionally in ways that pure “facts” or logical arguments never will. It is no coincidence that the musical “Hamilton” celebrating diversity has taken Broadway by storm in this season of division and bigotry. And it is likewise no coincidence that the movie “Loving” began showing in theaters 4 days before the 2016 election. I haven’t seen it yet, but “Loving” is based on a landmark Supreme Court case, yes 50 years ago, in 1967. It’s the story of Mildred and Richard Loving who were sentenced to prison for violating a Virginia law against interracial marriage. In a unanimous decision (imagine that?) the US Supreme Court ruled that “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Yes, a great deal has changed in the last 50 years, and much of it for the better. But here’s where patience and Advent come into play, and the turmoil and anxiety about what a Trump presidency may do to impede the cause of justice and equality only underscores this point. We’re not sure who actually coined the phrase “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” but it is certainly true. A major reason for the necessity of patience and vigilance in our democratic system is that what is seen as progress by some is always seen as a threat to others. The balance between individual liberty and universal justice is in constant tension, and that tension is usually part of the creative process. When the tension becomes bitter and partisan, when one or both sides want to be right more than they want justice for all, when the tension becomes more like a competitive tug-of-war instead of a cooperative teeter totter the tension can become destructive. We have had cycles of both productive and destructive tension throughout our history, and keeping the total picture in mind helps us to be patient with the process and not resort to oppressive or violent means to demand change to get our way.

The truth of the matter is that some people, not all, who voted for Trump and Pence under the banner of change do not want change at all. That minority of white voters really want to undo the changes we’ve made in the last 50 or 100 years that don’t benefit their privileged status. The reality is that in addition to seasons of gratitude and patience the USA desperately needs a season of reflection and repentance to remember all of our history. Only when we admit that this nation was built on a foundation of racism and genocide can we appreciate how far we’ve come and why we’ve got so far to go before “liberty and justice” for all is more than a pious platitude.

The struggle we are now in for the heart and soul of our democracy is so difficult because it is so old and so deeply ingrained in our history and DNA that we don’t recognize it. We learn at an early age about the early European immigrants coming to America in search of liberty and freedom, but most of our schools, families, churches and other civic organizations fail to teach white Americans the rest of our history. We don’t learn about the evils of slavery or we naively think it is a nasty little problem that was resolved by President Lincoln. We don’t learn about the founding fathers being slave holders. We don’t learn about the rape and pillage of Native American lands from people who were here for centuries before the first Europeans “discovered” America.

Why? Because our parents and their parent before them didn’t learn those lessons either because to learn the whole truth about who we really are is too painful. But ignorance is more painful in the long run. Without knowing our past we are condemned to repeat it generation after generation. Our lack of knowledge and the successful use of fearmongering racist tactics to win an election are an indictment of our education system, but even more they are an indictment of the church of Jesus Christ for being co-opted into a conspiracy of silence instead of proclaiming a John the Baptist Gospel of repentance for our sins. John and Jesus told it like it really is. Contrary to Jack Nicholson’s famous line in “A Few Good Men,” not only can we handle the truth only truth and the whole truth can set us free. As Frederick Buechner said so well in “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale,” “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.”

Ironically the bad news of the Gospel and of our current political state is something that we should be thankful for. I’m not one bit thankful for hatred and racism ever, but as one commentator pointed out nothing new happened on November 8. The anger and divisions have always been a part of our history, clear back at least to the Continental Congress. The silver lining in the Trump election is that the dark underbelly of hate and anger is out in the open where it can be dealt with.

The struggle for liberty and justice is never easy, but when we look at the big picture and understand why change is so hard and how long it has been going on, we can appreciate and be thankful for the progress we’ve made; and we can be confidently patient that from God’s perspective the outcome of the battle between justice and evil is not in doubt. The road to justice is not linear but full of curves and detours and switchbacks, but we have a roadmap from a God who is always on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden. Justice probably won’t happen in our time, but because we also live in God’s time where a thousand years are but as yesterday, we live in gratitude and hope even as we continue to wait and work for liberty and justice for all.

Prayer for a 70th Birthday

O God. All of my friends are turning 70 this year. And my turn is coming very soon. Just two years ago we celebrated 50 years since high school graduation with a big reunion, but this milestone has spread through us first wave of boomers like a thief in the night, picking us off one at a time on a steady march from January to October and the toll keeps climbing.

Our 50’s and 60’s came and went with “Over the Hill” jokes and some solemnity, but being 70 seems much more serious. Denying our aging gets harder every year, but 70 has the extra power of biblical authority. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10). OK, maybe the Psalmist was just having a bad day when those words were written, but they still are hard to shake for those of born in 1946 or sooner, no matter what the actuarial tables say about our increasing life expectancy.

For me there’s an added omen. My mother died of brain cancer when she was 70. It was only 3 months between her diagnosis and her death. She didn’t have much time to make a bucket list, but then Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson didn’t popularize that term until 14 years later. Even though that 2007 movie highlighted the most serious of topics in a comic fashion, it’s not such a laughing matter as my peers and I hit the big 7 0.

Yes, I know, we have birthdays every year, but those ending in zero always seem bigger. Reflecting on being 70 reminds me of the Christian practice of giving up something for Lent, a good spiritual discipline. But Lent only lasts 40 days, Lord. The things we give up at 70 are often forever. At 60 I could finish first in my age group in a 5K race. Yes, I know there weren’t many in that age group running, but now I read the morning paper on line because my aging body rebels at walking 500 feet to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper. I would love to play softball or football with my grandkids, to ski some moguls again, or to chase down those difficult tennis shots the way I used to. Lord, I’d even like to be able to mow my grass without pain or to stay up all night reading a great book. Alas, the mind and spirit are willing, but the flesh gets weaker every day!

What’s that Lord? Yes I know it is much too easy to get turned in on my aches and pains. Even when I vow not to do it my conversations with my peers seem to inevitably turn to recent medical tests and how much time we lose going to the doctor. We often lament, “I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Forgive my little pity parties, Lord. Remind me I have a choice about where I focus my attention. Lead me not into the temptation to bemoan what I’ve lost to the aging process and deliver me from the evil of criticizing the “younger” generation. When I find myself saying those things my parents said that I swore I wouldn’t ever say, gently nudge me to live in the now, free from regrets about the past I cannot change and liberated from the fear of what lies ahead.

Help me live in gratitude for the things I can do that would have been impossible a generation or two ago – travel opportunities, world-wide information available 24/7 anywhere I am (unless I forget my smart phone), medical advances that enhance and extend the quality of life for those of us who are privileged to have access to them, mind-boggling discoveries about the infinite mysteries and marvels of the universe we live in, and the freedom in a comfortable retirement to reflect on it all.

Lord, it breaks my heart to know how many of your children lack the basic necessities of life that I take for granted. Even as I give thanks for all I have, remind me that even in my advanced years that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Remind me that the word “retirement” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Discipleship is a lifetime commitment. If we stop growing in our faith at any age we cannot maintain the status quo but regress.

Let me not, O Lord, rage against the realities of age, but instead to faithfully embrace the present as the gift it is. Knowing that negativity and fear immobilize, let this birthday teach this old dog to treasure every day because they are finite. Adjust my trifocals to focus on the joys of life so I can make the most of what is instead of regretting what was or is no more. Blessed with 70 years of life experience, let my prayer be “For all that has been, thanks; and for all that is yet to come, Yes!”