May the Fourth

There were lots of Star Wars jokes this week about “May the fourth be with us,” but in a time that seems like a galaxy far far away the fourth of May has a more somber meaning. Forty-eight years ago four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by National Guardsmen sent there to control anti-war protests.
I was a student in 1970 at a liberal seminary 120 miles from Kent. Most of us at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio were opposed to the Viet Nam War; so we felt the pain of that tragedy from a particular point of view. Like many campuses our school was shut down after the shootings. The difference at Methesco, as we called it then, was that classes weren’t cancelled because of student protests. The Administration and faculty did it and called us all together to pray and discuss what we might do to respond to this tragedy and the animosity and anger dividing our nation.

It was a time not much different than our own where America was divided over a war that had dragged on far longer and cost more lives than was acceptable. Two presidents had promised to end the war and failed, and two prominent peace advocates had been assassinated just two years before. The move that set that fatal May day into action was President Nixon’s decision to secretly expand the war by invading Cambodia. Campuses all over the country erupted in violent protests and civic and college leaders at all levels struggled with how to restore order. Tragically people died at Kent State and 10 days later at Jackson State in Mississippi where two were killed and 12 wounded. The latter never received enough publicity. Some say it was racism because those students were black, but whatever the reason the loss of life added to the whole tragedy of that decade.

I want to emphasize that no one I knew blamed the guardsmen for the Kent State deaths. Those young men were about the same age as the protesters, which means they were my age; and I know I would have been scared to death in their shoes. If there’s blame to be had it belongs to President Nixon and Governor Rhoades and the Ohio state leaders who put the guard in that untenable position. But the blame game was of no use, and I’m grateful to my mentors at Methesco who helped us learn that lesson but instead helped us brainstorm more constructive responses.
It’s hard to find silver linings to some clouds, but if there were any benefits from the blood shed on those two campuses one would certainly be that those deaths forced the nation to a deeper examination of why we were in Southeast Asia. I believe May 4, 1970 was a turning point in the court of public opinion that brought our involvement in that war to an end sooner than it would have happened otherwise.

On a personal level that week had a profound impact on me and my ministry. The way our seminary community came together and how we responded put practical flesh and bones on the lessons we had learned academically about the imperative of the church to be engaged in social justice ministry. It was thing to study commandment to “do justice” (Micah 6:8); pleas for “justice (to) roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24); visions of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks…and not learning war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4); or Jesus saying peacemakers are blessed (Matthew 5:9) and warning that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) but quite another to apply those idealistic teachings to the nitty gritty of life and death issues.

After a good deal of discussion our seminary community decided on a two-prong approach to that May 4th. Knowing that there was deep division both within the church and the political community about the war we decided to try and address both. The decision was made that a delegation from Methesco would contact a nearby seminary with a much more conservative approach to theological and social issues to see if a dialogue between the two schools could help us both understand the other’s point of view. I was not part of that group so I don’t remember any particulars of what came from that discussion.

The other approach was for a group of us to travel to Washington DC and see if we could meet with Congressional representatives to express our concern and desire for peaceful resolutions of differences both within our nation and in the international community. We were young and poor then and full of energy; so three of us decided to save time and money we would drive straight through that night to DC, meet with whomever we could during the next day and then turn around and drive home the next night. I can’t even imagine doing that today, but it turned out to be one of the best bonding moments of my seminary career. The two guys I shared that 24-hour adventure with are still two of my best friends 48 years later.

We did meet with some representatives but came away feeling those men were much more concerned about protecting campus property and establishing law and order than they were about the human costs of the war or the issues the protesters were trying to raise. That too was a good lesson in patience and practical theology. Change and solutions to complex social issues do not happen overnight. Prophetic social justice ministry requires persistence. The issues change in each generation, but the need for people of faith to engage in relevant, messy, controversial issues never changes. There is always a need for the church to speak truth to power because the haves very rarely are willing to share their power with the have nots.

The three of us who were punchy and sleep-deprived when we completed our 24-hour marathon those many years ago are still active in retirement trying to discern God’s word for our day and trying as best we can to address social justice issues. May the force of truth and justice always be with us.

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Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

Where’s the Peace?

In this frightening week that is the anniversary of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when we seem to be closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis I feel a need to pray without ceasing for peace and also to share some thoughts. As I was wondering what to say I reread the introduction to my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out.” What follows are excerpts from that introduction that seem unfortunately as relevant as they were when I wrote them 6 years ago.

“The Judeo-Christian scriptures have been promising a Messiah who brings peace to the world for 3600 years. Even for the US Post Office three and a-half centuries is pretty slow delivery service. In the New Testament (John 14-16), Jesus’ farewell discourse, describing a kind of peace the world cannot give, promises no less than four times that whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, God will provide. So where’s the peace? What’s the hold up? Maybe the problem is not on the shipping end, but on the receiving end? When we don’t get the peace we request is it because we don’t really mean what we ask for? Or is something getting in the way of our receiving what we say we want?
Luke 1:79 says that the long-awaited Messiah will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Notice it says “into” the way of peace. It doesn’t say the Messiah will hold our hand and make sure we stay on the path. The Messiah gets us to the entrance ramp and trusts us to stay on course from there. We’re given a good map and expected to be able to follow it.

But really, shouldn’t God have known better? We humans don’t have the best track record when it comes to following directions. Would it have taken the Hebrews 40 years to travel the 200 or 300 miles from Egypt to Palestine if they were good at following directions? Even while Moses was up on the mountain getting the directions, the people he’s supposed to be leading are down in the valley building a golden calf to worship and fomenting a rebellion against Moses and God. Do they really want to get to the Promised Land? Or are they more concerned with their own comfort and being in control of where they’re going and how to get there? Peace seekers have to stay the course in good times and bad. When we start looking for short cuts instead of following the path that leads to peace how often do we end up far from our goal?

Luke 1:68-79 lays out very succinctly what the map to peace looks like. It mentions mercy twice, service, holiness, righteousness, knowledge, forgiveness, and light. There’s nothing in this passage about cruise missiles or Weapons of Mass Destruction–nothing about peace through domination or threats of Mutually Assured Destruction. What are we missing here? If we look around in the Judeo-Christian scriptures a little further we can find that Luke’s omission of peace through strength isn’t an oversight. Isaiah and Micah both specifically talk about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and not learning war anymore. If that’s not clear enough, Psalm 20 says that those who put their pride in horses and chariots will collapse and fall. Jesus restores the ear of the Roman servant that Peter has lopped off in the Garden of Gethsemane and spells it out very clearly – “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52)

And Jesus’ followers heed that advice so well they have given us the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust and assorted examples of genocide on nearly every continent. Based on results over several thousand years of history, it seems we don’t really want peace all that much.

So what’s the secret? It’s not rocket science. Sages of every tradition teach us the same values: mercy, forgiveness, righteousness, service. The Hebrew prophet Micah sums it up very succinctly when he asks and answers the basic question of all peace seekers and peace makers.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

The Messiah’s mission is to show us in stories and actions what that means. Jesus says it and does it over and over again – treating the least and lost as worthy of God’s love and healing. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) Jesus directly challenges the old ways that have failed repeatedly to bring peace. He says “you have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Meek? Maybe we don’t want peace that badly if we have to be wimps to get it.

Who are the role models and heroes and heroines we look up to most in our society? Why does the taller candidate win almost every presidential election in US History? We still put our trust in swords and horses and chariots and new impersonal technological ways to deliver “fire and fury” even though it’s obvious in generation after generation how ineffective and misdirected that route to “peace” is.

More subtly – in the Judeo-Christian tradition, look at how God’s peacemaking Messiah gets delivered to us – born in a barn – a helpless little baby. “A little child shall lead them.” Get it? We keep looking for Rambo and God sends us Gandhi. We don’t get what we say we want because it doesn’t come packaged the way we think it should look. If we want real peace, the gifts we need to cherish and open first are those wrapped in justice, mercy, humility, forgiveness, and love.

Personally, I am learning after decades of frustration trying to create peace and persuade or coerce others to live peaceful lives that what Gandhi said is so true, “there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
I have spent most of my adult life trying to do peace, only to realize that peace is not a matter of doing, but one of being. One cannot think or reason his or her way to peace but can only accept the natural state of peace by trusting the basic goodness of Being itself and living in harmony and trust with the universe. It may sound trite, but peace can only be built one relationship at a time, from the heart, with non-judgmental, unconditional love for oneself and every other being.

Justice, mercy, kindness, love, humility–all of those marvelous words tell us about keys to inner and outer peace. But just hearing about peace isn’t enough. Stories show us what peace looks and feels like, and, by contrast, what peace isn’t. My son teases me that he learned a lot of valuable lessons about sports and life from me – by seeing my mistakes and learning how NOT to do things. Learning by negative example is a wonderful teacher. We often learn more from our mistakes and those of others than we do from things that go well. When success comes too easily we have no reason to reflect on why things worked.

A mentor of mine taught me a great lesson several years ago. He said that there are only three simple questions we need to ask about why something happened. Whether we think an outcome is good or bad, playing the blame game does not help us learn and move forward. The three questions are:
“What worked?” “What didn’t work?” “What next?”

Those three simple questions help me find peace in difficult situations. They help me ground and center. They remind me I can never create positive change if I am stuck in being a victim to a past I cannot change. Those three questions help me to be more objective in analyzing and evaluating of situations and choices.

We know the things that make for peace. Pray that we relearn them quickly and avoid the endless and futile pursuit of peace through force and violence. They don’t work. It’s time to ask “What Next?”

A Wise Heart


While meditating on Psalm 90 again today my ears were tickled by verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Other translations say “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” What does it mean to have a wise heart? Conditioned as our western minds are by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy that locates the seat of knowledge in the head, the notion of a wise heart seems anatomically incorrect.

Perhaps even attempting to discuss such a concept from a rational-logical mindset is the height of foolishness, but so be it. The traditional Psalm (51) read on Ash Wednesday also speaks of the heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And later it says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That Psalm is often understood as King David’s plea for God’s mercy after his sins of adultery and murder are exposed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). While that connection helps us appreciate the depth of David’s need for repentance and forgiveness, the danger is that if we interpret that Psalm in too narrow a historical context we can deflect its relevance to our own hearts.

We have 20/20 when it comes to seeing the speck in David’s eye. If anyone needed to have a contrite heart it is he—a wealthy, powerful ruler who abuses his position to take whatever he wants without regard to the rights of others. But lent is a time to look in the mirror and see the logs in our own eyes. Where have I fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbors as myself? Where have I failed to treat the least of my sisters and brothers as I would treat Christ himself? (Matthew 25).

The biblical record is crystal clear about humility as a key virtue of a faithful person. Micah plainly says that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (6:8). Second Isaiah describes the Messiah as a suffering servant, and Jesus teaches by word and action that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). How many of us ever aspired to be someone’s servant when we grow up? Lent’s a great time to wrestle with those hard questions.

The wise heart is a humble heart, but what about that reference to a broken heart in Psalm 51? Anyone, and everyone has, known the pathos of a broken heart—a rejection or abandonment by the person one’s world revolves around. The death of beloved pet or a lifelong dream shattered. We all know of stories or have personal experience of a spouse literally dying of a broken heart when a life-long partner dies. I still remember the poignant opening lines of the 1970’s movie “Love Story”: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” Why would a loving God wish that kind of pain on us?

We don’t have to blame suffering on God to appreciate its depth or its universality. Loss and suffering are built into the human condition because this life is fragile and temporary. Psalm 90:10 reminds us of that just before the line about a wise heart. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” And I don’t quote those to be a Debbie Downer, they are just honest words about life and death that wise hearts learn to accept and embrace.

A wise heart that has known sorrow and is willing to face it head on instead of dodging in denial and distraction is a heart that is compassionate. It is a heart that leaves the comfort of complacency and works for justice for those who are oppressed. It is a heart that loves the unlovable with a simple gesture that needs no words.
They say wisdom comes with age but I don’t believe that age is prerequisite for having a wise heart. The wise hearts of children who have not yet learned the stereotypes or prejudices of their elders are the kind of wise and humble hearts God gives us all, and sometimes little children are the best at teaching us how to be.

Two stories come to mind. A mother saw her young son sitting on the front porch with an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed. Bobby was there for 30 minutes or so, and when he came back home his mother asked him what he and Mr. Brown had talked about. Bobby said, “Oh, we didn’t talk. I just sat there and helped him cry.”

The other is more philosophical and illustrates the beauty of deep knowledge that weds both heart and head. A pilgrim asked a wise old guru, “When is the moment when I can tell the darkness from the dawn? Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? “ “No,” said the wise one. “Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?” The guru shook his head and after a silence said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and say ‘You are my sister; you are my brother’ that is the dawn. Until then there is only darkness.”

O God of grace and wisdom, help us to count these holy days of Lent that we may gain humble, wise and compassionate hearts. Forgive any pride, judgment, and arrogance you find within me, and may I open myself completely to you so you can “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen

Preaching to the Choir

What’s wrong with preaching to the choir? Someone commented recently that she thought most political ads at this point in the campaign are just “preaching to the choir.” Whoever the intended targets are most political ads are a terrible waste of money that could be used to actually do some good, and I just want them to stop! I plan to vote early this week and how I wish that would somehow trigger a magic switch somewhere in cyber space that would exempt me from hearing or seeing any more hateful negative ads.

But my friend’s comment got me wondering about “preaching to the choir.” We all know it means unnecessarily trying to persuade people of something when they are already convinced. Anyone can sell a product or an idea to those who have already decided to buy, I get that. But consider “preaching to the choir” more literally. With all due respect to musicians who faithfully give of their time and talent in church or elsewhere, I would argue that choir members need to hear the Gospel just as much as anyone else, preachers included. In fact I’ve known both choir members and preachers who need to hear God’s Word more than other folks.

That understanding of what preaching to the choir or those already converted reminds me of something Dr. Everett Tilson, one of my seminary mentors often told us many years ago. He said, “You can’t understand the Scriptures until you are willing to stand under them.” Both the judgment and grace of God are for all of us, saints and sinners alike and we need to hear it early and often, especially in campaign season. As St. Paul put it, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And “all” means all, no exceptions, no deferments. Christ died for all of us fallible human beings, and we are in great danger if we ever forget that. When we are tempted to judge others as more sinful or less worthy of God’s love, we are treading on very thin ice.

Humility is a very basic requirement of faith. As any regular reader of mine knows, Micah 6:8 is my default summary of what is required of a faithful follower of God, and the final item in that verse is “to walk humbly with your God.” (See my 10/4/15 post “Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning” for a discussion of that text in more depth.) The same advice from a negative perspective is given in the familiar adage that “pride goes before a fall.” But if you check out the biblical source of that proverb, the consequences of pride are much worse than a just a fall. What Proverbs 16:18 says in full is “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is such a serious problem that it comes in at number 4 on the Roman Catholic list of seven deadly sins.

Wouldn’t you think with all those dire warnings there would be less ego and more humility around? But just the opposite seems to be the case in our selfie-crazed society. Dare I say especially in campaign season there is a plethora of hubris in the air? One of the big problems with pride is that it often gets expressed not by building ourselves up but by putting others down so we look better by comparison. If truth be told most of our visits to eye doctors would include a reminder that part of the trouble with our vision is that we can’t see the logs in our own eyes because we are too busy criticizing others for the tiny specks in theirs. (Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:42).

I could go on showing off my biblical prowess by proof texting many other references to pride, but that doesn’t seem wise at this point. An image of stones and a glass house comes to mind! And yes, in this age of digital transparency where all of our actions can be captured on cell phone video and all of our tweets are fair game for public exposure, we all live in glass houses, including the choir. The prescribed antidote for pride is a regular reminder for all of us that the peace of mind and heart we crave never comes from the fame and recognition worldly values tempt us to pursue. It comes only to the humble who know that “the greatest of all is servant of all.” (Mark 10:44).

By the way, that bit about the glass houses isn’t biblical, but it’s close to Jesus’ daring those of us who are without sin to cast the first stone. (John 8:7).

Humbly yours, as one who can’t sing a lick, but I know I belong in that chorus who need to stand under the Scripture.

Life as Improv

drama masks
As a retired pastor I have often joked that I cannot find the concept of retirement anywhere in the Bible, but not being employed by a church during busy and important seasons like Holy Week reminds me of both the benefits and challenges of being “retired.” It is certainly nice to be more relaxed and not put in an extra-long work week with preparation for 3 or 4 worship services on top of dealing with routine responsibilities and any pastoral emergencies. It’s great to have more time for personal and family activities that pastors sacrifice even more than usual during the busiest times of the church year.

On the flip side retirement often lends itself to a feeling of being less relevant and important, maybe like being the maid of honor or mother of the bride, though I confess I’ve never been in either of those roles. And speaking of roles, I was reminded today of Shakespeare’s line from “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…” Some days retirement for me feels like I am still on stage but I no longer have a script. Some days I have trouble remembering which act or scene I’m in or even what play. I miss cues and interactions with other actresses and actors who are no longer in the cast.

When I was a child I had a blind trust in my parents and others in authority to direct my life and give me wise counsel. I made my way through much of my education playing the part quite well of one who learned my lines and fed them back to teachers on exams. With age comes an increasing realization that life is more improv than memorizing lines or taking direction. Many of my mentors have made their final exit from this stage of life, and the need to write my own script and take responsibility for the meaning and purpose of my life without a boss or other authority figure directing my play is both intimidating and liberating.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking of God as the great director or playwright of our lives. It sounds comforting to think God has predetermined our fate and knows the outcome of our lives. But then we realize the terrible cost we pay for that escape from freedom and responsibility. If we surrender our free will to a notion of such a controlling God or any false gods we become more like puppets than actors and lose the very essence of our humanity.

Life as improv means cutting the puppeteer’s strings that bind and control us, being open to new challenges as adventures to be embraced instead of wasting our time looking for a script to tell us what we should be doing at any given stage of life. We humans don’t come with an owner’s manual. Lots of people try to usurp the role of producing and directing our lives for us, but ultimately the stage lights go up again every day and we get to improvise.

Unfortunately religion is often used as a tool to stifle creativity and freedom. Yes, we need guidance and direction from a higher power, but we do not need a micro-manager for a God. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures can be viewed as a guide book or a rule book, but in reality they are really a collection of scripts from the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith journey. We can learn from the lives of the heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (and also from the villains who show us what not to do). But their lives and contexts are not the same as ours. We have to write our own scripts that account for the unique circumstances of the scenes we are called to perform in the 21st century. That does not mean we start from scratch. The basic guidelines for living a faithful life of integrity don’t change. Very few of us can memorize a long script or recite multiple chapters and verses from the Bible. But the essence of God’s direction for our lives is neatly summarized in key verses. Among the favorites that I fall back on when I can’t remember my part or all my lines are these:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12

“Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

Those words do not dictate stage directions for what I should do in a particular situation, but they describe the quality of the character we are all called upon to play no matter what our role is. The roles change from time to time as Shakespeare tells us, but how we are to play our parts is very clear. God as director says, “Love me and love your neighbor.” The details and nuances of how we do that is where we get to improvise.

Thanks for a Spiritual Giant, Bill Croy

Today I was privileged to attend a magnificent celebration of the life of Rev. Bill Croy, a colleague and friend. We all knew Bill was dying, but that didn’t stop him from living to the end. He planned his own service, and I again vowed to do the same, as soon as I come to grips with my own mortality or at least quiet my fear long enough to think about it. Bill helped me get a good start. He chose some of my favorite Scriptures – Micah 6 and Matthew 25 – about justice and mercy and humility and service. He also picked some of my favorite hymns, including a jazz version of “Amazing Grace,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well with My Soul,” and ended the service with “Hymn of Promise.”

We were challenged today to give ourselves away and use all the gifts God has given us, as Bill did all his life, even as ALS slowly took away most of the tools he had used before to share his love for all of God’s children. These last few years Bill refused to give in to ALS and just found new ways, mostly Facebook and the internet, to keep inspiring and supporting others. He humbled me and shamed me when I was tempted to throw a pity party for some minor problems in my life which were laughable compared to what he and his family were dealing with.

One of Bill’s colleagues, Rev. Laurie Clark, described Bill well as a Spiritual Giant who lived a life of integrity that had authority because he embodied the Gospel. (She said it much better than that.) I came away inspired from Bill’s service but also humbled, wondering and maybe a bit jealous, if people would say anything half so great about me when I die. I am reminded of reading somewhere that when I come to that great transition time in my existence, God won’t ask me why I wasn’t Bill Croy, or Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther King, or Gandhi. God will only ask if I was the best Steve Harsh I could be.

The answer to that question for me today would have to be a resounding “NO.” But I am grateful for days like today when I am reminded of that and for the tomorrows I still have to change my life so I change that answer.

Rev. Clark closed her remarks today about Bill with the observation that when a spiritual giant no longer walks among us, he or she passes on the torch to those left behind. Bill, I may have to carry a small torch or a candle compared to yours, but if we all live a life that gives away all of whatever gifts God has given us, together we can brighten the darkest corners of our world.

Well done, good and faithful servant.