Rescue

Our church is doing a series of Advent devotions on words that reflect facets of the Advent and Christmas season. I wrote this one on the word “rescue.”

When I signed up for this word I was thinking about our granddaughter Olivia and the cat rescue organization she started last year. She named her rescue operation “Little Boo Rescue of Ohio” in honor of “Boo,” one of the first kittens she rescued who unfortunately was too sick to be saved.

The three cuties pictured here are Cherry, Mango and Honeydew. They along with their siblings, Apple and Bianca were near death when rescued, but thanks to a lot of TLC and excellent medical care all five are healthy again and looking for their forever homes. Olivia has always had a huge heart for our four-legged friends, and we are very proud of the work she and her colleagues are doing, all of which is over and above their full-time jobs.

Their rescue work often requires responding to calls from someone with a feral cat problem.  She and her friends respond by going out in the dark to capture cats so they can be neutered, vaccinated, and nursed back to health.  They are then either adopted or sent to foster homes.  It is a true labor of love.  

Such caring work reminds me of Jesus’ story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go searching for the one lost stray.  We are all that lost one at some time in our lives, and we run and hide from God all too often.  But God never gives up and will be there to cuddle us back to health whenever we admit we need to be rescued.

We’ve all heard the joke about how hard it is to herd cats, and if she could I’m sure Olivia would transform herself into a cat so the lost ones would trust her and be easier to rescue. And that’s exactly what God did for us in the human baby born in Bethlehem so long ago. The incarnation means that God is with us no matter how many times we need to be rescued.

The Kindness of Strangers

“Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” (John 5:2-7)

Our modern fast-paced living makes it easy for me to understand the apathy or selfishness of strangers that would jump in line and leave a sick man unhealed for 38 years. I have to admit I too often am so turned in on myself and my problems that I have done somethings like that. I apologize to anyone I’ve disrespected, even if I didn’t know I was doing it.

One way I try to change my negative thoughts and behaviors is to counter those painful memories by noticing the many acts of kindness that will never make the nightly news. One of my favorite personal memories of the kindness of strangers happened many years ago, 52 to be exact, when I was in New York City for the very first time. I was a young 23 year old who had lived a very sheltered small town life up to that point; so I was quite intimidated by the sights and sounds of the big city.

It was the end of a five-city tour I took with some fellow United Methodist seminarians. We had toured United Methodist boards and agencies as a group; so all of our transportation and hotel needs had been taken care of by the trip leaders. But now at the end of the trip we were all on our own to get to one of the New York airports for our flights home. So the two of us from Methesco (the Methodist Theological School in Ohio) set out from our hotel in Harlem for JFK airport. My traveling partner was an equally inexperienced traveler, and remember this was 1969, way before cell phones and gps that we rely totally upon these days to help us navigate strange places.

Carrying our luggage (in those days before roller bags), craning our necks to read street signs we undoubtedly looked as lost as we felt. We had grown up hearing and fearing how impersonal city folk were, but that day time after time strangers came up to us without being asked and offered to help us get on the right subway or bus. Without their help I doubt we would have made it to JFK in time for our flight.

And even as I write this I remember a very similar experience some 40 years later when my wife and I were in Tokyo trying to figure out which train to take toward downtown. We were about to board one going the wrong way when a kind Japanese gentleman noticed our indecision and not only told us how to get to the other side of the train platform and on the right train, he actually walked with us to make sure we did it right.

Such acts of kindness from strangers unfortunately was not the experience of the man in the text from John. Many years ago I heard the late Fred Craddock preach on this text. He explained the story this way: he said that the reason the man couldn’t get into the pool fast enough to be healed was because people with hang nails, skinned elbows and runny noses were quite mobile and always got into the pool first.

I was reminded of that story when we were flying home from a family Thanksgiving Friday night. Because of my bad back and balance issues due to neuropathy handling luggage when we travel has become a huge challenge for me, especially when other people are waiting behind us in the plane’s aisle during boarding and deplaning. So we have tried to mitigate that problem a bit on recent trips by staying in our seats while others exit the plane so we aren’t blocking the aisle and inconveniencing others. We did that Friday night when we arrived back home in Columbus, and most people were off the plane when a nice young man stopped to ask if he could get our bags out of the overhead bins for us.

For far too long I have been in the habit of declining such help because my pride made it hard to accept that I am officially old and really do need help. But this time I was simply grateful for this young man’s help. He was so much stronger and taller than I that he made handling our luggage look so easy, and it only took a few seconds for him to do what would have taken my wife and I so much longer. Yes, I hate not being more self-sufficient, but mostly I am just humbled by the kindness of strangers and vow to pay that forward more often when I can.

For the record, here’s how the story in John ends: “Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.“ (John 5:8-9)

No, I can’t heal people like Jesus did, and I will not be lifting 40 lb. suitcases anytime soon; but there are plenty of things we can all do for others if we aren’t rushing to beat them into the pool or the best parking place. It costs nothing to treat servers or store clerks or random strangers with kindness; so let’s do it. We will never know what a difference it might make in someone else’s life, but we will know the joy of human connection.

Being Real

I do not know what the average life expectancy is for snow persons, but we have one in our front yard, thanks to my wife Diana, who has lasted longer than any I can remember in our fickle Ohio weather.

It’s not been an easy two weeks for our Frosty. The constant cold temps have kept him from melting, but the sub-freezing has turned him into solid ice. That makes him very sturdy, but it has also meant that when his nose and hands fell off they could not be reimplanted.

Frosty’s noseless, handless condition and his loss of some of his buttons reminded me of one of my favorite children’s stories, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” by Marjorie Williams Bianco. For me the best part of the story is a discussion between two toys in a boy’s nursery, the skin horse and the velveteen rabbit, about what it means to be “real.” Here’s their dialogue:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

One can learn a lot from stuffed toys and snow persons.

Simple Things that Heal

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13)

That verse is from the wonderful story of the healing of a Syrian military commander named Naaman.  You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but here’s the abridged version.  Naaman comes down with a dreaded case of leprosy, the grossest curse of biblical times.  But in Naaman’s household is a political prisoner captured in Israel.  The slave girl is Naaman’s wife’s servant.  This nameless girl overhears Naaman whining about his plight and tells him there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him of his leprosy.  Even though this referral comes from an anonymous and powerless slave girl, i.e. someone on the very bottom rung of the cultural ladder, Naaman assumes such healing can only come from an important and powerful ruler.  So he sends a letter to the King of Israel who freaks out assuming this is some kind of political trick to make him look bad.

And then the prophet Elisha hears about the King’s dilemma and says, “Send him to me.”  Naaman shows up at Elisha’s house and gets all upset because Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him.  He just sends a messenger out who tells Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River 7 times.  Naaman balks at this because he was expecting Elisha to come out and stage a spectacular miracle healing, and besides they have better rivers in Syria where he could have washed without making this long journey.  He is ready to go off in a huff, unhealed, but his servants (note how the least powerful characters in this drama are again the wise ones) deliver the line at the beginning of this post.  And reluctantly Naaman listens to reason, washes in the Jordan and is cured.  

Naaman’s story came to my mind in the midst of this pandemic because like Naaman all of us are being asked to do very simple things that require no special skills or knowledge.  We can all wear a mask and stay a distance from each other, and yet for different reasons masses of Americans refuse to do the only things we can do to combat this virus that has already killed over 225,000 Americans.  

Will we listen to those wise enough now who are saying to us, “Hey, if you had to do some super heroic deed to stop the spread of this deadly disease, wouldn’t you do it?  So how much more should we do the simple things.”

Naaman came to his senses and was humble enough that he listened to his servants and was healed,  Give us ears, O God, to hear and heed the simple things we can do to be restored to health.  

A Prayer for Coming Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.