O Lord, How Long?

I helped conduct a funeral for a woman the other day who had written an interesting inscription in her Bible. She wrote, “Please have someone read Isaiah 40:31 at my funeral.” That verse reads, “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That’s normally one of my favorite Scriptures, but what I noticed about it this time through the lens of my own personal grief for my father and mother-in-law (both died in the last 5 weeks) was that Isaiah doesn’t address an important question raised by that assurance.

That unanswered question is like a commercial that seems to run non-stop on our local TV stations and annoys me greatly. The ad is for a company that does home insulation and keeps saying that they can make your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer for “only $99 a month.” I keep asking the television what seems like an obvious omission of facts, “for how many months?” but so far I’ve gotten no reply. In a similar vein I find myself wanting to ask Isaiah to be more specific about these comforting words, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” That’s great but how long do we have to wait to renew our strength?

I know grief takes time and it’s different for everyone going through it. I have not felt typical sadness usually associated with grief, but what I have noticed is a lack of energy and motivation. That’s not out of the ordinary for me in recent months because of chronic pain, but this sluggish feeling has been even more persistent than usual.

A few weeks before my saintly mother-in-law died she told my wife that she “was ready for her angels’ wings.” I don’t yet have her faith or patience. But they do say misery loves company; so I guess I should feel better knowing I’m one of many who have asked God just how long we have to wait to get our eagles’ wings? Many of God’s children have chafed under the burden of waiting. When I did a search for “how long O Lord” in the Bible I got dozens of hits, most of which sound a lot like these two examples:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalms 13:1-2)

We sang the marvelous hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” in church recently and the line that says, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer” was one of those that seemed like it was directed right for me. I know our time is not God’s time, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) But I am still impatient and want to know how long I have to wait for this aching in my soul to ease.

The other thing I discovered when I searched for “how long” in my Bible was that even Jesus utters those words of impatience himself, only his frustration is usually with humans not with God. In Mark 9 he comes upon a father with a mute son who tells him that Jesus’ disciples have tried to heal his son but have failed.
Jesus responds first to the disciples , “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Then he turns to the father and says, “Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought the son to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father’s classic response is also my honest plea to God when I get impatient: 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Yes Lord, forgive my childish whining about how long. I do believe, but please help my unbelief.

Reflections on Grief and Ennui

“I feel like I’m swimming in molasses.” That’s how my journal entry for today began, and it’s how I’ve been feeling for the last week or two. Everything takes more time and effort – running errands, figuring out what to do with my day—it all feels like I’m moving in slow motion.

If I ran a search for the word “ennui” in all my computer files I don’t think it would be found. Ennui is not a common word in my vocabulary, but from somewhere unknown to me it surfaced in my journaling this morning. Right after “swimming in molasses” my fingers typed “this must be what ennui feels like.” That of course sent me to the dictionary where “boredom” is listed as a synonym. That didn’t feel quite right. I’m not bored but the other suggestions did: “languor, world-weariness, dissatisfaction.” World-weariness especially struck a chord. I’m so depressed and angry about the state of the world and especially our nation that I want to scream.

The last 16 days have been strange and not wonderful. My father died on February 12 and two days later on Ash Wednesday the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School occurred. My personal grief and my mourning for those young lives snuffed out have been so intertwined and yet so different that I’m not sure how to sort them out let alone process them.

My dad was 96 and at the end of a long life. His quality of life has been in free fall over the last year; so my predominant feeling for him and for me and my sisters is one of relief. Those kids in Florida and their teachers were nowhere near the end of their lives. There is no relief at their deaths, only pain and anger.

Like life death is complicated. My dad and I were never very close. He coped with his own demons by being very rigid in his faith and morality and was often judgmental and intolerant of others with a different perspective, including me. As I grew in my own faith and worldview I rejected his way and too often him as well. I am grateful that we both lived long enough to accept each other for who we are and heal some of those differences. I’ve also come to appreciate that my dad’s high expectations for me to achieve excellence in what I did with my life was a huge motivation. I didn’t like those pressures to please him as a youth or young adult, but in hind sight I have come to realize he did the best he could as a father, husband, provider and Christian. That’s all any of us can do.

I have not cried for my dad. I never cry easily. I don’t know if the tears will come when we bury his ashes 11 days for now. I wish the other grief for my violence-addicted nation wasn’t all mixed up with my personal feelings. A friend passed on a thought to me after my dad died that has been bouncing around in my head and gut. I can’t find the source of the quote but the gist of it is that we never really grow up until we are orphans. I think I understand part of that. As the now oldest member of my family I have a sense of needing to be a role model. I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of patriarch my dad was, and I worry that I’ve gone to the other extreme to avoid the rigid, doctrinaire way he showed his love.

The running joke in our family is that almost all of us at one time or another received letters from my dad expressing his displeasure at something we had done or were doing. Those letters were not the most effective way to motivate us to change and usually created the exact opposite kind of rebellious response and sometimes painful alienation and broken relationships. From my earliest days as a father my wife and I chose a much more affirming and tolerant approach to parenthood—and we got letters from Dad advising us that we were sparing the rod and spoiling our kids. Sorry Dad, I still think we were right.

But how do I now as the elder of the clan be a responsible parent/citizen in a nation that I believe is going to hell in a hand basket? I have not written letters or emails to my Congressional representative or to one of my senators since the Parkland shooting because I know they are both intractable in their support of gun rights. They are in the pocket of the NRA and unmoved by the fact that the vast majority of people in this country want AR-15’s banned and background checks enforced. How they can sleep with the blood of innocent kids on their hands is completely incomprehensible to me.

So I’m angry, and I know anger is one of the stages of grief. But my question is how to break out of the ennui so I can function? Or do I need to live with it longer? I saw a sign on the news today as the Stoneman Douglas students and teachers returned to the scene of the crime. The sign said “Welcome Back Eagles.” The eagle is apparently their school mascot, but my mind immediately went to the Isaiah 40 reference that says “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Vss. 29-31)

We all have to swim in molasses sometimes. We all get weary. The exiles these words were written to had to wait decades in captivity before they were liberated. Waiting sucks, especially when our big problems of violence and racism and poverty seem to getting worse. Elderhood raises questions about the meaning of life. Have I made a difference? Is the world a better place for my having trod my jagged life journey? Those questions are more real for me this year because it will be 50 years this spring since I graduated from college. 1968 was not a normal year by any stretch of the imagination. My college graduation was just a few days after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and two months after that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a time of political and social turmoil much like today and I wonder what it all means? Have we/my generation, have I made any difference or left any improvements in life for the generations to come? In the molasses my own demon torments me with the cynicism of Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (Act 5, Scene 5)

I realized this week that the advice of Isaiah to “wait for the Lord” does not mean giving up or doing nothing. Faithful waiting is active waiting. My generation has not achieved the idealistic dream of John Lennon that the “world will live as one.” (“Imagine”) But we have seen that idealism and energy burning brightly in articulate, determined students from Parkland and from schools all over the nation. It’s time to pass the torch of leadership to a new generation. It’s time to admit our generation has blown it. Instead of faithfully waiting for God’s way we have drunk the poison of materialism and with it the fear and isolation of protecting our stuff. Our role now is not to be the “sage on the stage” but “a guide on the side” standing with and supporting the idealism and enthusiasm of youth.

I don’t know if or when I will soar like an eagle out of the molasses, but I know I have in the past and I will again. I don’t buy Macbeth’s negativity. Just writing this reflection is healing for me. But I still need the patience to embrace my grief and learn from it, and in those moments or days when God renews my strength I will, to paraphrase Gandhi, be the change God wants to see in my little corner of the world.
What does that look like for me in this new season of elderhood? When I figure that out I’ll let you know. Part of the value of ennui is learning the lessons of waiting, of listening to what my heart is trying to say to my over-intellectualized brain–and keep treading molasses till I find solid ground again.

5-Hour or Eagle Energy?, Mark 1:29-39; Isaiah 40:21-31

Someone once compared ministry to being in a tank of piranhas where nobody wants much of you, but everyone just wants a little piece of your time.  That is also a great metaphor for life.  Who are the piranhas in your life – kids, parents, boss, teachers, students, the IRS, Facebook friends, customers, clients, telemarketers, the church, charitable organizations, starving children in Somalia, spouse—all of the above?  Jesus had the piranha problem often.  Mark tells us in the very first chapter of his Gospel that Jesus is going around doing his thing – casting out demons, healing the sick, teaching and preaching, and one morning he needs a break from the demands of his life so much that he goes off before daybreak by himself to pray (Mark 1:35).  But his serenity break doesn’t last long.  The disciples track him down and try to lay a guilt trip on him.  “Everyone is searching for you,” they say.  Ever feel that way?

Sometimes we flee from the piranha tank to get away from it all at some popular vacation destination, only to realize when we get there that a million other tourists had the same idea.  Modern technology doesn’t help.  Being connected to the world 24/7 isn’t how our creator intended for us to be wired.  We grow faint and weary from information overload, from legitimate demands on our time, and from too many needs we want to meet and too little energy, time and money to go around.

Jesus “went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  That sentence speaks volumes to me about coping with modern day life stressors.  First, finding a deserted place is darn near impossible today.  Even at home we have televisions in every room and the omnipresent cell phone, iPod, iPad, or the communication device du jour constantly within easy reach.  If you don’t think you’re addicted, ask yourself how you feel when there’s no Wi-Fi close by or no bars on your phone.  Or, have you ever realized you’ve left home without your phone and feel naked without it?  Secondly, if Jesus needed time alone now and then, why would we ever delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t?

I love the interplay among the lectionary texts for February 5th even though I’m not sure how to resolve the tension between them.  In I Corinthians (9:16-23) Paul tells us he has made himself “a slave to all” and has “become all things to all people.”  If that doesn’t sound like a sure fire formula for burn out, what does?  By contrast when the disciples find Jesus and interrupt his prayer time with a plea for him to meet the needs of the teeming masses, Jesus answers, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk. 1:38).  Jesus isn’t distracted from his primary mission and purpose by the demands or desires of others.  A more dramatic example of that focus occurs in Luke 9:60 where Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (See also Matt. 8:22).  Jesus clearly knows what his priorities are and how to say “no,” even to legitimate, heart-rending needs around him.  Remember that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but he is also fully-human like us and understands our limitations.

Competing commitments muddy human decision-making waters all the time.  If every choice of how to spend our time, money and energy was a no brainer between a good and bad option, no problem, we could all do it.  But it’s rarely that easy.  I wrote a short story for an English class way back in my undergraduate days at Ohio State.  The story was about a father who chose to spend little time with his family, but it wasn’t the common workaholic, materialistic-driven absentee dad version of that tale.  My variation on the theme was that this father was so busy donating his time to good causes at his church and in his community that he was hardly ever home when his children were awake and had little energy left over for any quality time with his spouse.  My English prof didn’t like the premise of the story.  He thought it would be more effective if the option between good and bad life choices was more clearly drawn.  40 years later, I still think choosing between two worthy causes is more common and much harder to do than opting for something that is obviously the more noble of two forks in the road.

Now the “so what” question.  What does this all mean for 21st century Christians caught on the treadmill of life that just keeps going faster and faster?  Where’s the emergency red button that stops the world so we can get off?   And if you think this is a new problem for our over-stimulated generation, Google “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.”  That’s the title of a musical and movie made in the early 1960’s about exactly what the title says and what Mark wrote about over 2000 years ago.

Interestingly enough, the problem is even older than that.  The Hebrew text (Isaiah 40) for this Sunday, written some 500 years before Jesus’ time, addresses the same problem.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted (Isa. 40:30).  So, let’s not feel special or put upon.  This is a human problem that transcends time, age, generations and cultures.  God knew from the beginning we were going to have problems with knowing when to take a day off and sets a clear example for us to follow by resting on the 7th day of creation (Gen. 2:2).  Honoring ourselves with Sabbath rest is so important it ranks in God’s Top Ten list, right up there with not killing, stealing, committing adultery, etc.

So why is this so hard?  We all know we need rest and re-creation time.  The problem is actually living it.  For far too much of human history we have wasted valuable time and energy arguing among ourselves about which day is the true Sabbath and what constitutes resting, instead of just doing it.  Please note that how we recharge our physical and spiritual batteries is different for different people.  I am an introvert, and I need quiet solitude to be refreshed and renewed.  Extroverts, on the other hand, find a loud party or a rock concert very energizing.  Whatever is restful and renewing for you – find time to do it on a regular basis.  You’re worth it.  God says so and Jesus shows us.

I love the way Isaiah puts it.  After that verse about even young people getting exhausted, Isaiah says, “but those who wait for the lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like Eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:31).  The secret is waiting for the Lord.  Waiting is not easy for our instant gratification culture.  We will spend good money we don’t have to upgrade from 3G to 4G, whatever that means, to save a few nanoseconds of download time.  We don’t wait well.  Waiting means surrendering control and none of us want to go there.  But I would suggest that we don’t really have a choice.  We can either surrender control to Microsoft or the Messiah, to piranhas or peace.  Instant gratification lasts an instant or two.  Eternal life endures forever.

Finally, like most of life, this is not really an either/or choice, but both/and.  The final verse of the text from Mark for this week tells us Jesus didn’t choose A or B.  “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues AND casting out demons” (1:39).  How could he do both?  First, he knew that proclaiming the Gospel by word and deed is one way of combating the evil demons that threaten humankind.  Secondly, Jesus knew how to say “no” to the demands of the world, take time to wait upon the Lord, and renew his strength so he could soar with the eagles.  May it be so for you and me as well.