Holy Roller Coaster Whiplash

Diana and I went with some family members recently to an amusement park-first time in years, and I had no intention of riding anything wilder than a Ferris Wheel. But you know how peer pressure is even at my advanced age. So I rode a couple of the “milder” coasters, and I use that term loosely. I opted out of things that went upside down but discovered that the old wooden coasters bang you around even more than some of the newer ones. One called the Blue Streak finished me off, and I was glad to find my head still attached to my body when it was done slamming me first one way and then the other.

That’s how I feel about consuming news in any form these days. We all know the stock market has had more dips and plunges in the last two weeks than most coasters, but trying to keep up with the shifting sands and contradictions coming from the White House has been equally disorienting.

In just two weeks we’ve had 3 mass shootings, on-again off-again Chinese tariffs, strange talk about buying Greenland and a cancelled state visit to Denmark. More EPA regulations have been shredded; background checks have been on the table again and off once more. The Emma Lazarus poem on Lady Liberty has been rewritten, as have rules now allowing the indefinite incarceration of migrant children, and the aforementioned stock market highs and lows.

With that entire dizzying blur of reality coming at me I need to pray. Yes, I know “thoughts and prayers” have become a pious platitude that sometimes excuses inaction, but like that seat belt holding me into the roller coaster I need a solid grounding in something bigger and stronger than my puny self before I can even begin to know how to put thoughts and prayers into action. So, let us pray:

O God, I feel you calling me to a higher place where things will make more sense than the crazy world I’m living in. I love that feeling of being embraced in your presence. I feel you near me in summer nights when even the crickets are chirping your glory. I sleep securely in the faith that you never rest from watching over your children. A new day dawns in all its splendor, but then we crest that first big hill and the bottom drops out. The news is about bullet proof backpacks for innocent children and others who are frightened, alone, bereft of parents and life necessities because they come from the wrong side of an imaginary line we humans have drawn to divide some of your children from others.

The roller coaster of life careens around corners where we look for active shooters, past free-falling retirement accounts, endangered species, and climate refugees. We grasp at anything to hang on to as we fly up another hill only to plunge again into the abyss of loneliness and insecurity. We dare to open our eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of sisters and brothers hungering for food and others fighting the demons of addiction. We want to reach out to them, but we’re too afraid for our own safety to let go and extend a hand.

Values like compassion and kindness that we have relied on forever seem to be no more. Everyone is too busy hanging on for dear life to pay attention to fellow passengers on the coaster. We are connected and share a common fate, and yet we feel isolated and alone, helpless and at the mercy of those who build and operate the ride. We are only passengers, out of control.

Some people seem to like the chaos, the adrenaline rush, but it is too much, too fast for me. My mind can’t make sense of the 24/7 news cycle that bombards me with yet more natural and unnatural disasters. When will it stop? I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Lord! Are you on the coaster with us? Does it look less frightening from your perspective, wherever you are?

And then this part of the ride is over. We jerk to a stop and emerge on wobbly legs back into the broken world we call home; and soon we are searching for another escape from whatever new catastrophe awaits if we dare turn on the news again.

I need a sabbatical, a place of respite from the daily drama of Breaking News. But the world is too much like the amusement park, all noise and lights. I can’t see the Milky Way because light pollution robs me of the awesomeness of the universe. Traffic noise, cell phone notifications, construction crews bulldozing yet more trees and paving over more of Mother Earth. Make it stop, Lord! I can’t hear your still small voice above the din, and I have never needed to hear it more.

Oh, let me find that inner stillness, that holiness of true communion with you that transcends my fear, that smooths out the highs and lows of life, and calms my troubled soul so I can let go of my security blankets and extend an open hand to my sisters and brothers.

I am still, and you are God; and that’s all I need to know. Amen

As Tempus Fugits

I started writing this piece on May 29, and the fact that it took me a week to get back to it is exactly what it’s about. Each month when the calendar says we are near the end of another month my sense of urgency/panic about where time goes and how fast the circle of life is spinning comes around again like Haley’s Comet, only much more frequently. Aging certainly changes one’s perspective on time. I remember clearly being impatient with the plodding of the clock when I couldn’t wait to be 16 and able to drive. The summer I was 15 I was only a few months away from that magical age of freedom and responsibility that comes with a driver’s license.

That summer of 1962 was worse because I was one of the youngest in my class at school. My birthday is in October, but way back then one could start kindergarten at age 4 if your 5th birthday came by the end of the calendar year. That age difference didn’t matter for me at age 4 or even 14, but when all my classmates and friends were driving months before I could the age discrepancy seemed like an unbridgeable chasm.

I also had my first serious romance that summer. That was exciting. But the fact that Marcia lived 5 miles out in the country not so much. I was in great physical shape that summer because I rode my one-speed Schwinn out to see her about once a week; but that was the extent of the advantage of my long-distance romance. While my friends were dating and cruising through town on a Friday night I was dependent on my dad to drive me and Marcia to and from the local movie theater.

I do remember one of my very best one-liners from that summer. One night after I had walked her to the door I returned to the car and on the way home my father asked if I had kissed her. When I proudly said “yes” he, perhaps reliving his youth vicariously through me, asked “where.” And without missing a beat I replied, “On the front porch.” I don’t think he ever pried into my love life again!

I took two years of Latin in high school, and one of the few things I remember from that dead language is “Tempus Fugit” which means “time flies.” I know the earth has been rotating at the same speed for millions of years, and each day contains the same 24 hours give or take a few milliseconds. In more poetic form that means “525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year in a life?” according to the lyrics of “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.”

But no matter what kind of arbitrary numbers we create to mark the passing of time we all know that sometimes tempus does fugit at supersonic speeds and other times it flat out crawls. When a four year-old is waiting out the last few days before Christmas it is not the same time for the child or parents as it is for two lovers away from all other responsibilities luxuriating in the mystery of real intimacy, even though by clock time they are the same.

I used to love amusement park rides that spin at high g-force speeds. There was one called the “Tilt-a-Whirl” and another where the floor dropped away when the ride got up enough speed that centrifugal force plastered the riders to the wall. I don’t remember the name but it was essentially a human centrifuge. I don’t do thrill rides anymore, partly because real life is scary enough, but also because I am feeling like my life is spinning too fast already for me to keep up with it.

Just for fun I took the number above from “Rent” and multiplied it by my age. I didn’t add in extra minutes for leap years, but the number is plenty big enough already. I have lived or at least existed in this life for something over 1,314,000 minutes! I’m sorry I did that calculation. (Note: a friend just checked my math and corrected this number. It’s really 38,106,000!). No wonder my body feels like its warranty has long since expired! But that important question from “Rent” seems more important each day. How do you measure a year in a life or 40 years or 72.5? We humans seem to have a propensity for wanting numerical values on such things.

In Academia there’s a constant tension between quantitative and qualitative research. That distinction shows up currently in the overemphasis on test scores in primary and secondary education and in the priority given to STEM schools (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Those skills are obviously important in our postmodern world where employment and most of life depends on technology. Case in point: the friend who corrected my math above is an engineer. But if the STEM curriculum is overemphasized at the expense of education in the humanities where critical life skills are learned about social sciences, human history, interpersonal skills, the arts, and cross-cultural competencies just to name a few, we do so at our own peril.

Human beings are more than human doings. We are more than complex human computers that can be upgraded solely through a mechanistic and quantitative approach to the relationships between minds, bodies, individuals, societies and eco-systems. We are spiritual beings made for each other, to be in community, and there are no mathematical formulas for how to do that.

The answer “Rent” gives to how to measure a life may be simplistic but is nevertheless true on a fully human and spiritual level. The “Seasons of Love” song concludes as the title suggests by asking “how about love?” and concludes with the refrain “Remember the love, give love, spray love, measure your life in love.”

At 38,000,000 plus minutes and counting I am still trying to more fully and abundantly learn how to “give love, spray love. Measure your life in love.” Sounds a lot like Jesus doesn’t it? The only quantitative thing about Jesus’ teaching is that he summed up the whole Judeo-Christian philosophy in three short phrases: “Love God, love your neighbor and love yourself.”

Peace Prayer

Dear God, grant me the peace that exceeds my puny ability to be calm in the storm. Remind me to inhale your grace and exhale a little breeze of compassion and understanding into this broken world – even when I’d rather throw a temper tantrum. Shake me gently to reboot my reason so things are put back into proper perspective. Clear the fog from my eyes so I can see the way you want me to go. Be my spiritual GPS and clean the prejudices from my ears so I can hear you whisper “all is well.” Pour the balm of Gilead on my dis-ease. Take my hand and help me walk in faith on the tempestuous waters of my weary world. When I am ready to push the panic button, tap me on the shoulder and remind me to look in the back of the boat where the true captain of my soul is sleeping in heavenly peace. Amen

THE CLOCK IS TICKING

Nothing confronts us humans more with the deep mystery of life than our own awareness of our mortality. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” By contrast one of my favorite and most challenging Scripture texts is this one in Luke 2 when Jesus is 8 days old:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

I confess I am more like Woody than Simeon, and life and death are full of countless examples of those opposing approaches to the grave. Dylan Thomas famously said,
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Contrast that with Elijah passing his mantel on to Elisha and ascending into the clouds. In my own family we witnessed the stark difference between my mother-in-law who was content and peaceful as her last days approached and my father who fought against the inevitable as long as he could.

I’m not sure what to make of this, but I think the clue to contentment is found in Simeon’s surrender when he says, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation…” Simeon had accomplished his life’s purpose. He was looking forward to Israel’s consolation and believed God’s promise that he would not taste death until that purpose had been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of how we spend the dash between our date of birth and date of death? That’s a question all of us must wrestle with ourselves. We can ask God’s guidance and seek the counsel of wise mentors, but ultimately the choice is ours. What shall we live for? Are we human beings or human doings? Do we spend our lives in pursuit of things that do not satisfy our souls? Are we so caught up if making a living that we fail to make a significant life?

Since this is Super Bowl weekend let me share this analogy. Even casual football fans know that football time is not real clock time. The final minutes and seconds of a game can fly by or they can drag on forever depending on which team is ahead and who has the ball. If my team is behind they will do everything they can to stop the clock after every play – run out of bounds, spike the ball, call a time out, fake an injury, challenge a call, etc. Many a football widow knows how long it can be from the 2 minute warning till the final gun.

But if the team with the ball is ahead the exact opposite strategy is employed. They will run the ball so the clock keeps ticking after the play. They will stay inbounds; they will run the play clock almost down to zero on each play to use up as many seconds as possible before snapping the ball.

What’s the difference in these two scenarios? Team A is desperate to score again because they have not achieved their purpose which is to win the game. Team B is content to let the end come ASAP because they are ahead – they have fulfilled their purpose and accomplished their mission.

What does the scoreboard of your life say? Are you ahead or behind? Are you accomplishing your purpose or still striving to get to the goal line? I’ll be going to two funerals this week- one of the deceased was in her 80’s, the other just 50. Both dedicated their lives to helping others in personal and professional ways. Both were people of vision and compassion. One slipped gradually toward death over several months, but the other died suddenly leaving many of us again to wonder why.

I simply do not know. Maybe someday I will see clearly what is now only a dim reflection in a foggy mirror. But this much I do know, both Judy and Joe have left a hole in the human fabric; and it is part of my purpose and yours to pick up their mantle. The world will little note nor long remember who wins Super Bowl LIII, but if we want to win the game of life and be content to depart in peace whenever our time comes, we must all trust in God’s promise and make our game plan congruent with God’s will.

ADVENT PEACE

Advent is a season of waiting – not waiting for Christmas, but for Christ to come again. We wait and hope for a Savior to come into a world hungering for peace. We wait for God to set us free from the cares of the world that keep us awake at night. We long for a life that is calm and bright.

But sometimes we look for peace in all the wrong places, or we give up looking at all. We feel trapped in jobs that frustrate us, in classes that seem useless, in negative habits that do not serve us well. We confuse peace with comfort and security.

God’s peaceful kingdom is not anything the world can give us. It is a gift to those who know where to seek it, who follow the right star and listen to the angels instead of King Herod. God’s presence does not spare us from life’s problems, but is a peace of mind available everywhere in any of life’s circumstances if we make room for Christ.

And so today we light the second candle of Advent, the candle of peace, to remind ourselves to prepare while we wait for the Prince of Peace.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION
O Holy one who comes to set the captives free, we confess that for too long we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned by guilt, shame, fear, anger or hopelessness. We have put our trust in things that thieves can steal and rust can consume, and we are always disappointed. Our souls long for peace, but we have been led astray by false prophets of prosperity. We pity ourselves because of adversity and expect peace to just be provided for us. Speak to us again in the stories and songs of Advent. Come Emmanuel, be with us here and now and help us trust you enough that we can give up our foolish pursuits and find true peace that only comes when we are at home in your kingdom. Amen

PEACE-FULL

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi.

There are several versions of this parable, but here’s one I like because of its brevity: “Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

That story reminds me of a very helpful mantra for meditation I learned when I took an excellent on-line course called “Peace Ambassador Training” sponsored by the Shift Network. The simple three-part meditation is this: “Let me be peaceful; let me be kind; let me accept others as they are.” At first the part of that which gave me the most trouble was the third – accepting others as they are. To apply that to people I just flat out know are wrong is a total struggle for me. (This was especially true since I took the course in early 2016, just as the nasty Presidential election campaigns were turning up their volume.) Come to think of it the 2018 primary campaign is pretty ugly too!

I finally realized two things: that to accept others does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do, and that to accept others without judgment requires that I first need to work on accepting myself. So I modified the third phrase to read “let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s better semantics, but even harder to do.
That led me to examine the first phrase. As Julie Andrews put it in “The Sound of Music,” “Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start.” “Let me be peaceful” seems to be very self-explanatory. It means to act in a peaceful manner, right? But then the meditation goes on to say “let me be kind,” and that seems a bit redundant to me. If I’m acting peacefully wouldn’t I automatically be kind or vice versa? That confused me for several months until I had an insight earlier this year that reminded me of the Zen parable above. To be peaceful means to be full of peace, and if I’m full of anything else, be it judgment, anger, anxiety, fear, lust or any of the other seven deadly sins there’s no room for peace. (See my February 2016 post “Giving up ALGAE for Lent” for a fuller discussion of this.)

The other thing I realized recently is that the key word in “let me be peaceful” is that little word ”be.” To be full of peace is a matter of “being” before it can be translated into “doing.” The doing is really part two of the mantra, “let me be kind.” Even though the verb is the same in both parts I believe kindness is more about actions and peacefulness is more about one’s state of being. That’s why Gandhi said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

It is only when we are full of peace in the very depths of our being that we can act kindly toward others and accept them regardless of their words or behavior. I also believe this is what Jesus was getting at in the farewell discourse to his disciples when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27-29) How can Jesus expect his dear friends and closest confidants to not be troubled and afraid when he’s telling them he’s about to be brutally and very publicly executed? They are so afraid they all go into hiding, unable to bear the sight of their Lord and Savior suffering and dying on the cross.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures are full of examples of both positive and negative examples of those who are full of peace and those who aren’t. Peter can walk on water when he’s full of peace, but when he realizes what he’s doing and let’s fear fill his heart he sinks like a rock. (Matthew 14:28-30) On the other hand, three brave men are able to defy the power of King Nebuchadnezzar when he orders them to bow down to his gods. “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3)

The same is true of post-canonical Christian Church history. Mother Theresa couldn’t have lived and worked in the wretched slums of Calcutta without being full of God’s peace. Joan of Arc could not have faithfully obeyed God even to burning at the stake if she was full of fear. One of the charges of heresy brought against Joan is one all Christians should desire for their epitaph: “It was said, “‘She does not submit herself to the judgment of the Church Militant, or to that of living men, but to God alone.”

That kind of peace does not come from human will alone. It comes only when we are humble enough to empty ourselves of pride and arrogance and allow God to fill us with peace. To that end I’ve found it very useful to employ a shortened version of this mantra whenever I remember to pause in a tough situation and ask God to fill me with peace.

These chaotic times we are living through today again cry out for women and men who are so full of God’s peace that we are able not only to act kindly but faithfully and courageously to defend truth and justice against any and all powers that threaten to fill us with fear. Pardon my irreverence, but I fully expect one of the first questions God will ask me on my judgment day is, “Steve, what are you full of?”

Monday morning, Holy Week

I just did the math and estimated that I have gotten out of bed approximately 3700 times on a Monday morning. Wish I hadn’t done that – the math that is, although if I hadn’t needed to go to the bathroom I might have pulled up the covers and stayed put. One of the hard things about retirement is the lack of a “normal” routine. The hardest days are often those that are also the best part of retirement—the ones where there’s nothing I “have” to do. Nothing on the calendar at all so the day is completely unstructured, a blank canvas staring back at me wondering what will be on it by the end of the day? Needless to say that’s an especially unusual kind of Monday for a retired pastor who remembers Holy Week as one of the busiest of the year.

I imagine Jesus didn’t want to get up and head back into Jerusalem that last Monday either. He had spent the night with friends in Bethany because of Mary and Martha’s hospitality, but also because it was safer there than in Jerusalem where powerful people wanted him dead. There the city sanitation workers were cleaning up the palm branches and leftover cloaks from the parade route Jesus had followed the day before. The crowds may have been hung over with joy and anticipation from the triumphal entry on Sunday, but Jesus knew what was coming or at least had a pretty good idea.

Imagine the internal debate! “My work here isn’t finished. The disciples aren’t nearly ready to take over! There’s so much more I need to do here. I won’t be able to heal anyone or teach anyone if I’m in jail or dead!”
Doing the right thing when the easy thing is so tempting; when all your friends are telling you to play it safe. To do requires the courage to be—to be true to oneself and to the one who gives us life. To do the peaceful thing in the face of fearful, hateful power requires first being at peace; being full of peace that is deeper than fear and stronger than doubt. That’s the energy that got Jesus out of bed that Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and on that Friday that seemed the worst of all Fridays ever.

His soul was full of an eternal peace that calms the storm at sea and the even bigger storms in our hearts that threaten to drive us into hiding when we most need to grab Monday morning by the neck and say “Bring it On!”