It is Well with My Body, Sermon on II Corinthians 12:7b-10

Those who know me might think the title of this sermon is a belated April fool’s joke. But it’s not. Our Lenten sermon series has been about spiritual wellness that comes not because of but in spite of the brokenness around us – broken systems, broken hearts, or broken bodies. And for some reason when we got to the theme of broken bodies everybody turned to look at me.

I am at the age where it seems the favorite pastime among my peers is to report on our aches and pains – even though we have all sworn we wouldn’t be like that when we got old. But if you are younger or fortunate to have fewer physical ailments than I do this sermon is still for you. When Paul says he asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh we think it must be some physical problem he had—arthritis, glaucoma, neuropathy? No wait that’s my medical chart. Seriously, biblical scholars have tried to figure out what Paul’s thorn was for 2000 years, and we still don’t know.

But it doesn’t matter because this text is not medical, it’s theological. It invites us to wrestle with the question of how we as Christians cope with the pains of life – physical, emotional, or relational, and we all have one or more of those. We even describe other frustrations as physical. We say “she/he’s a real pain in the neck” (or some other body part). A cartoonist depicts one such idea about Paul’s thorn like this.

One of my new year’s resolutions back in January was to be able to cope better with my chronic pain. Instead I learned again that it pays to be careful what one asks for. Less than a week into 2019 I was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, God! Now I’m sure I’ve asked God way more than three times to take away my aches and pains, but the answer I keep getting is the same one Paul got — which is “no.” Paul says God told him “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Today’s text also says, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” Other translations say “to keep me humble.” I don’t know how long it took but Paul came to understand that his problem served to keep him humble. I do know that when I stop focusing on my own problems and pay attention to people with more severe physical pain than I have that works for me too. I am in awe of those of you who come faithfully to church using a walker or a wheelchair, or wearing a knee brace, or in between chemo treatments–who keep a positive attitude in spite of the slings and arrows life has thrown at you.

What Paul learned from his thorn in the flesh is that we have to learn to deal with the hand we are dealt. It doesn’t have to be fair or even understandable – it just is what it is. God is not some supernatural magician who can pronounce a holy abracadabra and take away our pain. Our God is one who suffers with us and gives us the strength to carry on no matter what.

You’ve probably heard it said that we can’t control things that happen to us; all we can control is how we respond to the challenges of life. If that sounds like a cliché it’s because it is. But it’s also true. I had the privilege to witness that in action over the last few years as my father and mother-in-law both dealt with very similar end of life issues. Diana’s mother, Mary, was confined to a wheelchair and lived in assisted living for 9 years. She didn’t just have a thorn, she had a whole rosebush! She had plenty to be unhappy about, but she was always cheerful, content and pleasant in spite of all that. My dad was in similar physical condition in his final years, but his attitude was entirely different. He was angry and never satisfied with anything. He resented his circumstances and made life difficult for those caring for him and also for himself.

I don’t say that to be judgmental because I’m much more like my father than my mother-in-law. All too often I throw myself a pity party and catastrophize my problems even though I know better. I know that words matter especially how our self-talk shapes our attitude toward the challenges we face in life.

For example, I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing this sermon so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my thesaurus gave me were: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is we get to choose how we want to label what we’re feeling.

Another way of saying that is that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Pain is part of the human condition. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t, it comes with the territory. I find the Buddhist explanation for suffering very helpful. Buddhism says that we suffer because we are too attached to the things of this world which are all temporary, including these mortal bodies we are privileged to inhabit for a while.

My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about learning to let go — letting go of stuff I don’t need, letting go of things I can no longer do while humbly asking for help when I need it. Letting go frees up energy to celebrate the things I can do, and to give thanks for more wisdom gained through life experience.

If a picture is worth a thousand words (or has that number gone up with inflation?) then this one is definitely worth that much.

Letting go is important practice for the ultimate letting go that comes with mortality. But I would hasten to add that letting go doesn’t mean surrender. It doesn’t mean quitting all the things that give life meaning. It means finding ways to still do what we enjoy. Remember, nowhere in the Bible is there any talk of letting go of serving God and our neighbors. In fact one sure way to not be turned in on myself and my problems is to find ways to help others.

Humility means letting go of our need to control things. God’s answer to Paul is that our weakness allows God to be our strength. It boils down to God saying, “I’m God and you’re not – so trust me.” Those are great words to remember if you’re heading into surgery or awaiting a birth of a baby. Letting go of our need to control, of having things our way can also free us of anxiety, worry and fear which are all stressors that only make our physical pains hurt more. As the 12 step programs put it, “Let go and let God.”

I realized this week that humility is so central to our faith that it serves as bookends to the season of Lent. Every year we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. We put the mark of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, and the traditional words that are said are from Genesis 3:19: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We don’t say that to be morbid, but to remind us all of our place in creation. Yes, we will all die someday, and making our peace with mortality makes every day of life all that more precious.

And at the end of Lent we have the ultimate example of what humility looks like in Jesus. The night before he was crucified Jesus prays for his thorn to be taken from him. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Father, if it’s possible take this cup from me.” We’ve all prayed that prayer. I know I have many times. But what makes Jesus’ example so important are the words that a come next: “Not my will but yours be done.”

I don’t pretend to have that kind of faith. Paul says he’s achieved contentment with “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I’m not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them. But I do believe the secret to abundant life is what Paul describes elsewhere in Philippians 4:11 where he says he has learned to “be content with whatever I have” or as some translations put it “to be content in whatever state I’m in.”

A couple of years ago I chose Psalm 90 as the Scripture I read and meditated on during Lent. Mornings are the worst time for my discomfort; so I really identify with this part of that Psalm: “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).

Pity-party Steve gravitates to the first phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away.

But the Psalmist has a much deeper request that works for every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and because of our overreliance on quick, easy remedies we have an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is simply unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

And that is exactly what Paul means when he says God’s grace is sufficient – it’s all we need, no matter what kind of pain we are dealing with.
I want to leave you with a story from Robert Fulghum about how we deal with pain and suffering. Fulghum is best known for writing “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In one of his other books he tells about an experience in his early twenties when he worked for a country resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz; Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner.

Sigmund listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Fulghum says, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

When we are tempted to turn inconveniences into problems, God says, “Let go. I’ve got this.” And our best response is, “OK, not my will but yours be done.”

Preached on April 7, 2019, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio

Mary Elizabeth Cade Hoover, November 2, 1917-March 5, 2018

Some thoughts on transformation from this life to the next from a grateful son-in-law:

Nearly twenty years ago Mom Hoover accepted me and welcomed me into her family just as she did so many of us. She was an inspiration and joy to know and love and her generous, faithful life has left an indelible and wonderful mark on everyone who knew her. Her passing reminded me so much of two of my favorite descriptions of what human mortality means to a mature Christian like Mary.

When he was 80 years old someone asked John Quincy Adams how he was Adams leaned on his cane and said, “I’m fine, sir, fine! But this old tenement that John Quincy lives in is not so good. The underpinning is about to fall away. The thatch is all gone off the roof, and the windows are so dim John Quincy can hardly see out anymore. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if before the winter’s over he had to move out. But as for John Quincy Adams, he never was better.”

Mary Hoover has moved out and moved on, and she has never been better. Her perishable body has put on the imperishable.

One of my other favorite descriptions of a peaceful passing from this life to the next is this meditation from a class I taught several years ago on “Aging to Sageing.” The meditation compares our life to that of a leaf on a tree. It describes the budding and growth of the leaf in spring and summer and then changes and autumn colors, and then describes the approach of winter this way: “You know some day a wind will come to release you. But this thought does not frighten you, for though you are a leaf that is not all you are. You know you are also part of the tree. The tree gave birth to you—it sent you forth to absorb the sunlight and help it grow. You are not just a leaf, but part of a magnificent oak tree. Soon your work will be fulfilled. It will be time to make room for new leaves that will bud next spring. In letting go, you know you are not abandoned. When the time comes, you will float gently down to the ground. You will become part of the soil that feeds the tree. You will find yourself changed and you will take on a new form, but you will still be part of the tree of life.”

Mary’s leaf may have fallen, but her spirit and compassion and wisdom will live on forever, and because of that we are smiling through our tears. In her life and death Mary taught us what it means to live faithfully even in the very presence of death. Because like St. Paul we know:

“ When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:54-56)

Thanatopsis: A consideration of death (and life)

I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve quoted part of a poem called “Thanatopsis” at funerals. It was written by William Cullen Bryant in the early 19th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never taken the time before to look up the meaning of thanatopsis. According to Wikipedia it is derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (death) and ‘opsis’ (view, sight) and means “a consideration of death. Bryant was still a young adult when he wrote the poem, and the depth of his understanding of human mortality for one at any age is remarkable. The poem is much more than the title word can define; it is really a consideration of death and life because they are two sides of the same inseparable coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem came to mind today because my father, who is 96, is very ill and likely nearing his own demise. As I wrestle with my emotions and thoughts nothing quite expresses my feelings than these closing words of “Thanatopsis.” They are wise words that always remind me that the key to being at peace with one’s mortality is living every day with integrity and gratitude. Thank you Mr. Bryant for wisdom far beyond your years. His poem ends with these words:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

To Dust We Shall Return, An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That traditional reminder of our mortality that many Christians hear when ashes are imposed at the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection has always given me pause, which I guess is the whole idea. This year, my first Ash Wednesday as a septuagenarian makes those words more real than usual.

Mortality is one of those things we do not often speak of in polite company. Our youth-oriented culture is built on a shaky foundation of denial that Ash Wednesday threatens to expose. Maybe that’s why most churches are not overcrowded on that somber day. But mortality is a natural and essential part of our human condition. It can be argued it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be human. We don’t believe any other creatures are aware of their inevitable death, although I’m not sure that’s true.

Knowing our days are numbered is really a gift that makes it possible for us to value and prioritize the time we have in this life, and having the confidence that death is only a transition to another form of being frees us to embrace that gift.

So this Ash Wednesday this 70 something is going to enter a season of Lent reflecting on what God is calling me to do with the days remaining to me. I have no idea what that number is, but I know full well that it is a much smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. On that score I find the wisdom of Psalm 90 sobering and uplifting at the same time:

“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!” (Selected verses from NRSV)

There’s plenty there to ponder for the entire 40 days of Lent, and that’s only part of the Psalm. The psalmist’s words call us to give up our regrets over what is past and fears of what is to come, to affirm and accept our dusty existence so we can “count our days” and make each one count.

The psalmist reminds us that we are alive only because of the grace of God, and that when attendance is called each morning we need to be present in every sense of that word because we have big work to do. God’s work is entrusted to us, God’s servants. That’s a huge job description, but if not me, then who? If not today, when?
We can even dare to consider accepting God’s mission as ours because with our marching orders comes the promise of God’s glorious power and that power alone can “prosper the work of hands.” Anything we do that is not according to God’s plan is doomed to failure.

I confess I begin too many days throwing a pity party for myself for the things I am no longer able to do. Ash Wednesday is a great day to repent, to turn around and welcome whatever task God has for me now in this stage of my life. Bucket lists are popular ways we talk about the things we want to be sure we do before we die. They are a good first step toward acknowledging that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But my challenge to myself and to you as we strive to keep a Holy Lent in 2017 is to ask not what’s on my bucket list, but take time in prayer and meditation each day to ask, “What’s on God’s bucket list for me?”

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.