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.

Sabbatical

I just finished “Sabbath as Resistance,” an excellent book by Walter Brueggemann. It was written a few years ago but is as timely as today’s headlines in our consumer driven, workaholic world. Brueggemann closes the book with reflections on Psalm 73, and I want to quote what he has to say about verse 23 of that Psalm: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Brueggemann’s commentary on that verse goes like this: “This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. ‘No-Sabbath’ existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one’s hand. Only late does the psalmist come to know otherwise. Only late may we come to know, but likely not without Sabbath rest, rooted in God’s own restfulness and extended to our neighbors who also must rest. We, with our hurts, fears and exhaustion, are left restless until then.” (Emphasis added)

Hurt, fearful and exhausted – describes me to a tee as the bitter conflicts over church and national politics have me so tied up in knots I feel like a pressure cooker about to blow a gasket. Yes, I badly need a sabbatical. Not because I don’t care about the fate of the world, but because I care too much. Therefore at the suggestion of my dear wife who has to live with my depression and anger I am hereby vowing to do the following for at least a week and perhaps longer. This may be my jump starting Lent 17 days early–because when we find ourselves in the wilderness can’t always be neatly scheduled on the calendar.
For the next 7 days:

1) I will not begin my day by reading or listening to the morning news. (Doing so has been my morning ritual for all of my adult life. My dad was a newspaper man. I delivered a morning newspaper as a kid. Newspapers have been a part of my life forever; so this will not be easy.)

2) Instead I will begin my day with spiritual and physical exercise of some kind, after my first cup of coffee of course.

3) I will temporarily snooze my most ardent Facebook friends on either side of the great American political divide, refrain from posting or writing any political words, memes or blogs; and stop listening to political news and talk radio in my car.

I thank you in advance for your prayers as I begin this sabbatical. Pray that I can let go of trying to control my life so God can, and feel free to help hold me accountable in any way you like—even if I act like I don’t want you to.

In the name of the one who always has me by the hand, even when I squirm and try to pull away like an indignant two-year-old, Amen.

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

Kairos Reminder

In my post/sermon on October 13 (“Who gets the last word?”) I talked about the difference between Chronos time and Kairos time. Wouldn’t you know I got another powerful reminder of what those two Greek terms mean just last week.

My wife and I took a vacation trip to the Smoky Mountains hoping to see some wonderful fall colors. Chronos time/the calendar said mid-October was the right time of year for such colors. But as you can see from the picture above kairos time said “Not so fast. We will dazzle you with colors when the time is right and not before.”

That experience reminded me of a professor who once illustrated the difference between Chronos and Kairos by talking about having a white Christmas. He said, “it’s very easy to have a white Christmas every year. You just wait till it snows, and then you have Christmas.”

So next year if we have learned our lesson we will ignore the chronological calendar and wait till the fullness of time when the color is already painting the mountains and then go bask in its glory!

Pastoral Prayer, July 21, 2019

O God of grace and glory, we rejoice to be together again in this beautiful place enjoying the day you have made and this respite from the heat wave. We pray for the cooling relief of your mercy even as we pray for the safety and well-being of those who have no comfortable place to escape the heat.

In this season when crops struggle to grow we pray for the farmers and laborers who plant, prune and process the produce we often take for granted on the grocery shelves. We know that just as things that grow need nurture and care so too do the fruits of the spirit. If we are not fed by a practice of prayer and study of your word the weeds of fear and doubt can choke out our sense of your Holy Spirit. We pray that this whole time of worship will fertilize and water the hunger and thirst we have for you in our hearts and in our lives.

Inspire us and challenge us with the depth of heavenly mystery. Like those brave men and women who have dared to escape earth’s gravity on space flights may we too learn to see life from a holy perspective where there are no boundaries that divide your children, where we marvel at the vastness of the universe and are humbled by knowing how small we are in the total scheme of things and how fragile our planet is. May that inspire us all to do our part to be good stewards of all you have created.

50 years ago the world was transfixed by a young man from Ohio who took a giant leap for humankind on the lunar surface. This day, here and now O God, empower each of us to take our own small leap of faith to trust you to take us safely to all the places you would have us go. Remind us that just as those astronauts depended on thousands of people on earth to monitor, encourage and support them, so we too depend on a whole village of support, a community of faith, a host of saints who have gone before us and still surround us.

Like space travelers our lives depend on good communication – with each other and with you. Remind and inspire us daily and hourly to share our lives with each other and you. To take time to give thanks for the holy mystery of life itself and for all those who are on this journey we call life together.

Through it all may our north star be the ancient prophet of Galilee who taught us how to live, love and pray.

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

It is Well with My Body, Sermon on II Corinthians 12:7b-10

Those who know me might think the title of this sermon is a belated April fool’s joke. But it’s not. Our Lenten sermon series has been about spiritual wellness that comes not because of but in spite of the brokenness around us – broken systems, broken hearts, or broken bodies. And for some reason when we got to the theme of broken bodies everybody turned to look at me.

I am at the age where it seems the favorite pastime among my peers is to report on our aches and pains – even though we have all sworn we wouldn’t be like that when we got old. But if you are younger or fortunate to have fewer physical ailments than I do this sermon is still for you. When Paul says he asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh we think it must be some physical problem he had—arthritis, glaucoma, neuropathy? No wait that’s my medical chart. Seriously, biblical scholars have tried to figure out what Paul’s thorn was for 2000 years, and we still don’t know.

But it doesn’t matter because this text is not medical, it’s theological. It invites us to wrestle with the question of how we as Christians cope with the pains of life – physical, emotional, or relational, and we all have one or more of those. We even describe other frustrations as physical. We say “she/he’s a real pain in the neck” (or some other body part). A cartoonist depicts one such idea about Paul’s thorn like this.

One of my new year’s resolutions back in January was to be able to cope better with my chronic pain. Instead I learned again that it pays to be careful what one asks for. Less than a week into 2019 I was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, God! Now I’m sure I’ve asked God way more than three times to take away my aches and pains, but the answer I keep getting is the same one Paul got — which is “no.” Paul says God told him “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Today’s text also says, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” Other translations say “to keep me humble.” I don’t know how long it took but Paul came to understand that his problem served to keep him humble. I do know that when I stop focusing on my own problems and pay attention to people with more severe physical pain than I have that works for me too. I am in awe of those of you who come faithfully to church using a walker or a wheelchair, or wearing a knee brace, or in between chemo treatments–who keep a positive attitude in spite of the slings and arrows life has thrown at you.

What Paul learned from his thorn in the flesh is that we have to learn to deal with the hand we are dealt. It doesn’t have to be fair or even understandable – it just is what it is. God is not some supernatural magician who can pronounce a holy abracadabra and take away our pain. Our God is one who suffers with us and gives us the strength to carry on no matter what.

You’ve probably heard it said that we can’t control things that happen to us; all we can control is how we respond to the challenges of life. If that sounds like a cliché it’s because it is. But it’s also true. I had the privilege to witness that in action over the last few years as my father and mother-in-law both dealt with very similar end of life issues. Diana’s mother, Mary, was confined to a wheelchair and lived in assisted living for 9 years. She didn’t just have a thorn, she had a whole rosebush! She had plenty to be unhappy about, but she was always cheerful, content and pleasant in spite of all that. My dad was in similar physical condition in his final years, but his attitude was entirely different. He was angry and never satisfied with anything. He resented his circumstances and made life difficult for those caring for him and also for himself.

I don’t say that to be judgmental because I’m much more like my father than my mother-in-law. All too often I throw myself a pity party and catastrophize my problems even though I know better. I know that words matter especially how our self-talk shapes our attitude toward the challenges we face in life.

For example, I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing this sermon so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my thesaurus gave me were: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is we get to choose how we want to label what we’re feeling.

Another way of saying that is that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Pain is part of the human condition. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t, it comes with the territory. I find the Buddhist explanation for suffering very helpful. Buddhism says that we suffer because we are too attached to the things of this world which are all temporary, including these mortal bodies we are privileged to inhabit for a while.

My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about learning to let go — letting go of stuff I don’t need, letting go of things I can no longer do while humbly asking for help when I need it. Letting go frees up energy to celebrate the things I can do, and to give thanks for more wisdom gained through life experience.

If a picture is worth a thousand words (or has that number gone up with inflation?) then this one is definitely worth that much.

Letting go is important practice for the ultimate letting go that comes with mortality. But I would hasten to add that letting go doesn’t mean surrender. It doesn’t mean quitting all the things that give life meaning. It means finding ways to still do what we enjoy. Remember, nowhere in the Bible is there any talk of letting go of serving God and our neighbors. In fact one sure way to not be turned in on myself and my problems is to find ways to help others.

Humility means letting go of our need to control things. God’s answer to Paul is that our weakness allows God to be our strength. It boils down to God saying, “I’m God and you’re not – so trust me.” Those are great words to remember if you’re heading into surgery or awaiting a birth of a baby. Letting go of our need to control, of having things our way can also free us of anxiety, worry and fear which are all stressors that only make our physical pains hurt more. As the 12 step programs put it, “Let go and let God.”

I realized this week that humility is so central to our faith that it serves as bookends to the season of Lent. Every year we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. We put the mark of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, and the traditional words that are said are from Genesis 3:19: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We don’t say that to be morbid, but to remind us all of our place in creation. Yes, we will all die someday, and making our peace with mortality makes every day of life all that more precious.

And at the end of Lent we have the ultimate example of what humility looks like in Jesus. The night before he was crucified Jesus prays for his thorn to be taken from him. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Father, if it’s possible take this cup from me.” We’ve all prayed that prayer. I know I have many times. But what makes Jesus’ example so important are the words that a come next: “Not my will but yours be done.”

I don’t pretend to have that kind of faith. Paul says he’s achieved contentment with “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I’m not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them. But I do believe the secret to abundant life is what Paul describes elsewhere in Philippians 4:11 where he says he has learned to “be content with whatever I have” or as some translations put it “to be content in whatever state I’m in.”

A couple of years ago I chose Psalm 90 as the Scripture I read and meditated on during Lent. Mornings are the worst time for my discomfort; so I really identify with this part of that Psalm: “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).

Pity-party Steve gravitates to the first phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away.

But the Psalmist has a much deeper request that works for every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and because of our overreliance on quick, easy remedies we have an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is simply unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

And that is exactly what Paul means when he says God’s grace is sufficient – it’s all we need, no matter what kind of pain we are dealing with.
I want to leave you with a story from Robert Fulghum about how we deal with pain and suffering. Fulghum is best known for writing “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In one of his other books he tells about an experience in his early twenties when he worked for a country resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz; Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner.

Sigmund listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Fulghum says, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

When we are tempted to turn inconveniences into problems, God says, “Let go. I’ve got this.” And our best response is, “OK, not my will but yours be done.”

Preached on April 7, 2019, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio