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.

Mental Meaderings

Sometimes memory is a curse. I’m fast approaching some milestone memories, the kind that end in zero or five. My 55th high school reunion is next month and the 50th anniversary of my ordination is also. Such milestones give me pause to remember the highs and lows of my 70 plus years of life experience.

For example, for some reason I decided to add up how many U.S. Presidents there have been in office during my lifetime. From Truman to Trump adds up to 13 occupants of the White House since I was born. What shocked me about that number is that it means that I have been alive for almost one-third (13/45) of all U.S. Presidents ever. I wish I hadn’t done the math.

One of the most interesting courses I took in seminary back in the Nixon administration was a course called “Theology in the Modern Novel” taught by Professor Don Webb. In that class I began to learn the power of fiction to reveal a truth deeper than fact. That experience was the beginning of my life-long appreciation for the power of narrative to touch people at an emotional level that rational-logical discourse can never reach. I had not realized till I started writing this piece that my whole appreciation and dedication to narrative rhetoric began in that class and shaped my preaching and teaching ever since. Thanks, Don.

Remembering today the work of the author I studied in that class on narrative theology I found this quote that resonates with my own intellectual and theological journey and may explain how I was drawn to his writing. “Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity. There lay the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.” (As quoted in Nikos Kazantzakis (1968) by Helen Kazantzakis, p. 529)

As an aside let me throw in here an observation about the mystery of memory and how it leads to different and I hope deeper reflection than expected. By the way, that only happens if we take the time to explore our inner journey—and more importantly to learn from the insights we uncover there. It is a rare journey we don’t usually take time for in our hectic 5G world, and that may be an excuse, at least it is for me, because I may not like what I find if I go spelunking down memory lane. As Barbra Streisand sings in “The Way We Were:” Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget.”

This all started because I’ve been feeling my age more than usual this week as a head cold has been added to my “normal” aches and pains. The memory I thought was going to result in a light-hearted blog post about the joys of aging was the lyrics to a song in the musical “Zorba,” called “Grandpapa.” The setting for the song is one where the elderly Zorba is being ridiculed for his age by some younger men in a bar. The banter back and forth between Zorba and his tormentors goes like this:

“A young man with no money is better than an old man with no money. Goodbye, Grandpapa!

Grandpapa? Grandpapa? I’ll show you who’s Grandpapa! Zorba! Zorba! Listen! There are two Zorbas. The inner Zorba is as slender as a reed!

Look at that, look at that, poor old man is weak and fat!

He has thirty-two teeth!

Look at that, there’s no doubt, every tooth is falling out!

He wears a red carnation behind his ear!

Look at that, over there, golden beard but long white hair.

This is the outside Zorba!

Look at that, old and feeble Grandpapa”

Trust me, I know the many joys of being a grandfather; I just wish it could come at an earlier age when I could play ball and shoot hoops and get down on the floor to rough house or play like I used to. But all that aside, that “Grandpapa” song led me down a memory trail that resulted in this much longer rambling about the influence on my life of the creator of Zorba, Nikos Kazantzakis.
I don’t remember how I chose Kazantzakis to focus on for that seminary class, but I’ve always been glad I did. My life and thinking have been and continue to be enriched by that decision. Yes, Kazantzakis died in 1953; so many today would not consider his work “modern,” but remember this class was in 1971, just 18 years after Kazantzakis’ prolific writing stopped. I only scratched the surface of Kazantzakis’ work in that class, reading “Zorba the Greek,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Greek Passion,” and “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises.” The latter is described this way by Simon Friar, the English translator of many of Kazantzakis’ writings, “Saviors of God” occupies a central role in the work of the Greek author….where in a passionate and poetic style, yet in systematic fashion, he set down the philosophy embedded … in everything he has written.”

One of the thoughts that has stayed with me all these years from “Saviors of God” is this one about prayer: “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.”

I have often turned to that passage for inspiration when I am weary of the struggle for social justice, even though I don’t like the military metaphors. Too often human struggles to comprehend the mysteries of existence have led to violent conflict because in order to manage our discomfort with ambiguity religious and political get hardened into concrete symbol systems that must be defended at all costs. But the struggle Kazantzakis is talking about is not for one ideology or belief structure about God and the universe. Kazantzakis says in that same work: “We do not struggle for ourselves, nor for our race, not even for humanity. We do not struggle for Earth, nor for ideas. All these are the precious yet provisional stairs of our ascending God, and they crumble away as soon as he steps upon them in his ascent.

In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant — then the Universe might possibly be saved.

It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

One of the things that keeps attracting me to such abstract thoughts and images is how my finite little mind is stretched by Kazantzakis’ spiritual language. And like my muscles I often resist such stretching. Even as I write this I kick myself for starting down this path. I am feeling cornered by the impossible notion that I need to somehow wrap this post up with some neat summary of what this all means. But of course I can’t. Any God I could “explain” or capture in human language would be woefully inadequate.

So I will leave you here with one of Kazantzakis’ most mysterious quotes that has tugged at my soul for all these 50 years. This one is also from “Saviors of God.”

“Blessed be all those who hear and rush to free you, lord, and who say: “Only you and I exist.”

Blessed be all those who free you and become united with you, lord, and who say: “You and I are one.

And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret:
That even this one does not exist!”

I can’t explain why that image appeals to me, but I recently found another quote from “Saviors” where Kazantzakis at least hints at what it meant to him:

“Nothing exists! Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms — merging, begetting, disappearing — and I say: “This is what I want! I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.”

Most appropriately that passage was used for Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Parable of a Broken Flag Pole

We have a 20 foot flag pole at our house that has been flagless for the last 6 months or so.  The rope on the pole broke last fall and I have not fixed it, quite frankly because I couldn’t figure out how to get up to there to string a new rope through the little pulley at the top.  I have a ladder that might be tall enough, but leaning it on a round pole that is only an inch or two in diameter would be foolhardy.  I thought about calling our electric company to see if they could do it with a cherry picker truck, but I didn’t think they would do it.  And if they did I didn’t want to pay for whatever it might cost.

On Easter Sunday my brother-in-law who is very creative at fixing things and solving mechanical problems was at our house for lunch.  We were asking his advice about some home maintenance issues which didn’t include the flag pole.  But when we happened to walk by it I was reminded of that issue and asked Don, almost as an afterthought, if he had any ideas about how to get a rope to the top of the pole.  He took one look and asked me if I had a step ladder.  I said, “Yes, but it’s only 6 feet tall.”  He asked me to get it anyway, put it by the pole and climbed up where he proceeded to reach up and remove the top section of the pole and lower it to me so I could put a new rope on it; and then he replaced it.

I was both relieved to have a problem solved and embarrassed that such an obvious solution had never occurred to me.  After all I’m the guy who installed that pole several years ago and should have remembered it was in 3 parts that can obviously be easily separated for repairing a broken rope.  Don solved a problem in 6 minutes that had stymied me for 6 months.

My problem was that I had only been seeing the big problem without ever looking closely to see how that problem could be solved by breaking it down into smaller parts.  I wonder how many other of life’s big problems could be solved by such a wonderfully simple strategy?

 

Cross Roads

crossroadsThe final scene of the excellent movie “Castaway” shows the star, Tom Hanks, in a barren landscape at the intersection of two deserted country roads.  Hanks plays a FedEx pilot who is the sole survivor of a crash in the Pacific.  He manages to stay alive on an island with no companionship except a volleyball he names Wilson.  When he miraculously is rescued and returns to his former home after several years he discovers that it is sometimes true that you can never go home again.  His wife having buried a symbolic empty casket after giving up hope of his survival has remarried and moved on with her life, leaving Hanks more adrift on land than he was at sea.

Then years behind schedule Hanks delivers the lone package that survived the crash to a rural address where a beautiful artist lives.  Leaving her home he comes to the aforementioned crossroads, and the film ends leaving the question hanging as to which way he will turn.

That metaphor came to my mind as 2019 began 12 days ago, perhaps because our nation and world seem to be a crossroads where the future shape and even survival of our planet depends on choices we as world citizens must make about climate change, international relations, our use of technology for better or worse, etc.  Perhaps the cross-roads image is even more vivid for me because the church denomination I’ve given 50 years of service to is coming up fast on an intersection in Indianapolis in less than a month.  A church conference will be held in February that will determine if the United Methodist Church survives and if so in what form.

Personally my 73rd New Year’s means I have accumulated many memories of different turning points and roads not taken in my own life. Professionally 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a United Methodist pastor.  I made huge decisions to accept the responsibilities of ordination, and in those 50 years since I’ve made thousands of personal and professional decisions that brought me to where I am today.  Yes, there are many of those decisions for which I’d like to have do overs, but like the Hanks character I know I can’t go back and make a different choices as to which way to turn in my life.

But the past is prelude to my next chapter.  I can learn from the choices I made in the past to inform decisions I will make in the future.  The kinds of crossroads I will face in my 70’s and beyond are certainly different than those I encountered earlier in my life, but as long as I draw breath I will make decisions about how to live each day of my life and what goals or bucket list items I choose to pursue.  In retirement I actually face more decisions every day since my daily routine is not predetermined by job responsibilities.  There’s both freedom and anxiety in that situation.  It requires more energy to make so many decisions at a time in life when energy is at a premium.

Twice in this New Year I have seen something early in the morning on our bedroom floor that I have never noticed before.  I’m sure it must have been there before, but I am not a morning person and admit I am even less observant when I first roll out of bed than the rest of the day.  What I’ve noticed is that the light that slides out from under our bathroom door intersects with a white edge on our carpet to form a beautiful cross.  I’m still wondering why it is just now that I’ve recognized that symbol, but what it has helped me realize is that so many of the decisions that have determined my course in life revolve around the cross.

I was born into the church, baptized as an infant and taken regularly to church my entire childhood.  That decision for my early life in the shadow of the cross was made for me, as was one of the most significant turns in my life course when I was 11 years old.  Until that point in my life we had attended a small rural Congregational church in the community my father grew up in 5 miles from our home.  But when I was nearing my 11th birthday my parents made the decision to find a church in the town where we lived.  They wanted me and my sisters to go to church with the kids in our school and for me they wanted a good Boy Scout troop.  It so happened the Methodist church had the best Boy Scout troop in town, and as they say “the rest is history.”

Because of the sacrifice my parents made in giving up the congregation and friends they loved my life went down a totally different path than it would have otherwise.  My life for the next 7 years revolved around that church and that scout troop.  My values were shaped by the Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, and scout leaders who went down that road with me.  All of my friends and most of the girls I dated were part of that congregation, and when I answered the call to ministry I chose to attend a liberal United Methodist seminary that transformed my faith and purpose not only for ministry but for my life.  As a United Methodist I was active in the leadership of the Wesley Foundation student ministry in college, lived in an intentional covenant community/rooming house sponsored by that ministry; and it was also on one of my first visits to the Wesley Foundaiton that I met my first wife who is the mother of my children, grandmother to my grandkids, and still a dear friend and colleague in ministry.

All because of a choice made for me to attend First Methodist Church.  And now 62 years later that denomination, which became the United Methodist Church in 1968, is facing a momentous decision about the acceptance or rejection of LGBTQ persons as full and equal sisters and brothers.  Which road our General Conference will choose to follow next month will have far-reaching consequences for this large denomination of Christians and will create a crossroads that will require many people, including me, to make difficult personal decisions about our own relationship to the church.  My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will empower faithful and courageous choices inspired by the one who chose to take the road to Jerusalem and face the cross waiting for him there.

I/We can do worse at the cross roads of 2019 than pondering the meaning of these words written for the 1905 Methodist Hymnal by Frank M. North:

“Where cross the crowded ways of life,  Where sound the cries of race and clan

Above the noise of selfish strife, We hear your voice, O Son of Man.”

 

John McCain

My wife and I just spent a couple of hours watching the funeral of John McCain. We weren’t planning to watch the funeral; too many other things to do. We turned the TV on to watch a little U.S. Open tennis while we ate lunch but never changed channel from the funeral. What a wonderful tribute to great man and lesson for our nation to learn about cooperation, compromise and collaboration. It was one of the best funerals I’ve ever seen, including the marvelous recessional to Frank Sinatra singing “I Did It My Way.” If you missed it find it on You Tube and watch. It’s well worth it.

What moved me most personally was the way Senator McCain lived with his pain and injuries all those years- serving his country when he had every right to be bitter and angry about his fate in life. I hope whenever I am tempted to surrender to my minor aches and pains the image of a smiling John McCain struggling to wave to crowds when he couldn’t raise his arms above his head will remind me that a little pain and suffering is no excuse to give up, no justification for surrender or self-pity, but the very source of courage, strength and faith to live each day with renewed determination to make a difference.

I didn’t agree with John McCain on many political issues; I didn’t vote for him for President; but I am so glad he and his family planned such a wonderful funeral service to help all of us appreciate what a great man he was. “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace Senator McCain.

Pastoral Prayer in Response to Parkland Shootings

O great comforter, we are a nation in mourning.  On Valentine’s Day when we celebrate the gift of love we were devastated by yet another senseless violent act at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Words are simply inadequate to express the pain and grief we feel and we can only imagine how much all of those directly impacted are suffering.

It was also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance.  With the funerals for two police officers in our own community and the tragedy in Florida our Lenten theme of being in the wilderness seems all too real just now.  This is one of those times when we are so grateful for the Scripture’s assurance that you “help us in our weakness so when we don’t know how to pray the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

We humbly ask O God that you will grant healing mercies to those physically and emotionally wounded by these tragedies.  And we pray also that our time in the wilderness will help us draw closer to you that we might be agents of healing and comfort to any we meet who are hurting.  And please O Holy One show our leaders and all of us how to live according to your will that our broken nation might come together in peace and cooperation that benefits all.

We pray for those named in our own prayer concerns this day with the assurance that you know our needs even before we ask.  Our needs are many but today we especially pray that those who mourn will be comforted as we name those who died on Wednesday in Parkland:

Carmen Schentrup, Meadow Pollack, Peter Wang, Nicholas Dworet, Christopher Hixon, Aaron Feis, Luke Hoyer, Alaina Petty, Jaime Guttenberg, Martin Duque, Alyssa Alhadeff, Helena Ramsey, Scott Beigel, Joaquin Oliver, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, and Alexander Schachter.

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayers in the name of Christ who taught us to pray…..

Prayer for Wisdom and Courage

[As we sang “God of Grace and God of Glory” at an alum gathering at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio last week I was impressed with how prayerful those lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick are; and those lyrics inspired my pastoral prayer for today.]

God of Grace and Glory, please listen to your people praying.  Pour your power upon us as we pray for the healing of brokenness and suffering everywhere – in our own hearts and minds and in relationships interpersonal and international in scale.  You have planted the seeds of love in every human heart, but those seeds are threatened by draught, wild fire, earthquake and the ravages of unbelievable storms.

Please let our time of worship nourish the one true seed of your loving presence in us and in those we hold up in prayer.  We feel surrounded by the forces of evil and long to be free from fears that shake the foundations of our faith.  Send your Holy Spirit here to the church on the hill to free our hearts to praise you and serve you.  Giving you the glory, let us not hide the Good News of your Salvation under a bushel, but let this congregation on the banks of the Scioto be a beacon of hope to a broken and discouraged world.

Lord listen to your people praying.  Empower us to set an example as peacemakers to a world too long enslaved to war and violence as our only response to conflict and threat.  Let us be leaders in finding ways to beat our guns into plowshares and our nuclear weapons into technologies to feed the starving masses and to power our planet with clean renewable energy.  Instead of rattling our sabers let us put on the whole armor of God – righteousness, truth, peace, faith, and salvation to win the struggles within us and around us with selfishness, greed, injustice, and all that divides the very oneness of creation.

Strengthen us please, O God within each of us, to not lose hope when illness or despair sap our human energy.  Remind us again that we can flip a switch with a simple word of prayer to connect to the one true source of hope that never fails us.

Lord, listen to your people praying and grant us wisdom and courage for the living of these days.  We humbly ask these things in the name of the one who is the way and truth and life as we unite in one voice to pray the prayer he gave us……