Lament

Lament

I posted the following on my Facebook page in September, 2016.  Someone reposted it today.  I feel like I could have written it today….

Lament.

“Listen to my words, Lord, consider my lament.” Psalm 5:1

For months, I’ve read many posts about issues ranging from gay marriage to the presidential election to the state of the United Methodist Church to whose lives matter (and, apparently, whose lives don’t). And, for the most part, I’ve remained silent.

Frankly, I’m a coward. If I take a stand, on almost any issue, I know it will outrage and offend some, and I will be attacked. While I’m sure I have “friends” who will support whatever position I might take, I also know I will lose the support of others – including men and women for whom I’ve been, or am currently, their pastor. I guess I haven’t been willing to take that risk.It’s just social media.

And, yet, ideas/opinions/perspectives/positions on social media seem to spread like wild fire – spinning quickly out of control. Standing for one thing seems to automatically imply being the enemy of something else.  When did we become so venomous?

So, while I am still a coward, and I still hesitate to lay all of my cards on the table, I will publicly admit my lament.

I lament for our fallen and broken world.

I lament for the families of young black men who have died unjustly. I lament their loss and their grief. I also lament for the many honorable law enforcement officers who feel unfairly vilified.

I lament for the deep and widening divisions in our country, as I see exemplified in this election. I lament the ugliness I hear from the mouths of people we are called to trust and respect. I lament the fear and uncertainty I feel for our future.

I lament the millions of refugees, who have lost everything and need new beginnings. I lament for immigrants – legal and illegal – who leave their homes and travel dangerous journeys, risking their lives, in order to find work to support their families.

I lament the terror we carry in our hearts as a result of night-club shootings and pressure cooker bombs.

I lament our fear and mistrust of one another.

I lament racism.

I lament the state of my church, which is so deeply divided.

I lament for those who have felt, and still feel, excluded and condemned by the Church because of their sexual orientation.

I lament for those who have been labeled bigots or narrow-minded because they are conservative, and who sincerely want to obey God’s Word.

I lament our inability to love and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I lament the myriad ways we vilify those we disagree with.

I lament for our inability to be civil, to speak respectfully to one another, to disagree without disparagement – that we seem incapable of bringing our issues to a common table and seek solutions rather than assign blame.

I lament my own cowardice – fearing to take stands and to pay the consequences.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

While many in the U.S. will observe today as Halloween – a night for Jack-o-lanterns, costumes, parties, and “trick or treating” – our neighbors to the South will be observing a much more ancient tradition called “Dia de Los Muertes” – the Day of the Dead.  The Day of the Dead, originating in Mexico and observed to varying degrees throughout Central America, is a special celebration for honoring loved ones who have died, in hopes their spirits will return for a visit.  Families build altars in their homes, as places of loving remembrance, and they visit cemeteries for family feasts, and to decorate family tombs and grave sites.  Day of the Dead celebrations often include parades, feasts, decorations, and colorful skeletal costumes.

Probably, the most familiar image, to most, from the Day of the Dead is the “Sugar Skull” – images of skulls or skeletons, decorated with elaborated dress and beautiful flowers.

I’ve heard some say the Day of the Dead is evil, or morbid, or, at least, weird.  But, I love it!  If you ask me, Halloween is weird!  Whether Halloween is an opportunity to adorn a different persona, or self-indulge in parties and candy, or, at worst, glorify evil, it’s all a bit strange to me.  But, I think the Day of the Dead is kind of beautiful.

The Day of the Dead embraces death as an inevitable part of the life experience.  The Day of the Dead keeps the love and memories of the deceased alive in ritual form.  The Day of the Dead celebrates life!  The Day of the Dead imagines the distance between the material and spiritual world as being rather thin.

And, frankly, though the Day of the Dead traditions arose from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, aspects of the traditions feel very Christian to me….

  • We believe Christ has conquered death, and opened the gates to eternity.
  • Hebrews 12:1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” which I understand to mean the souls and spirits of those who have died in the Lord.
  • We believe in honoring the “saints” who have gone before us, and on whose spiritual shoulders we stand, whose lives deserve to be remembered.
  • We believe life is a gift to be celebrated fully.

No, the Day of the Dead is not, technically, a Christian holiday.  But, it is a rich cultural tradition, celebrating life, death, and the life after death.

In ancient times, Christian monks would keep the skull of a deceased and decomposed brother on their prayer desk, as a reminder of their own mortality.  Can you imagine praying, with the hollow eye sockets of a deceased brother staring at you?  Tibetan Buddhists sometimes meditate with prayer beads in the shape of tiny skulls, sometimes carved from yak bone, for the same purpose.

Death is a reality we inevitably face.  There’s just no escaping it!  Though Christians believe we will live forever, none will do so without passing through death.  While death is an enemy, in that it is the end of our earthly existence, it is also a defeated enemy, in that it is not the final ending of our eternal existence.  Really, death is nothing more than a transition from life to more life.  In some ways, death is akin to birth, passing from one existence to the next.

Dare we also say death can be a friend?  After all, death, if we will embrace it, reminds us that each and every day is a gift and blessing.  Death is a reminder to live every day on earth to the fullest, and strive not to waste even one.  And, death is a promise that when the struggles of this life are over – and some of us struggle a lot – there’s a better life waiting for us on the other side.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes, mis amigos!

Stuff: Compulsion and Attachment

Stuff:  Compulsion and Attachment

I’ve been thinking about stuff lately.

My stuff.

Literal “stuff.”

I have a lot of stuff.

I have an office full of books and religious mementos, and even more at home.

I have a “growing” collection of bonsai trees, orchids and cacti.  I also have a collection of bonsai pots, most of which are really too small to use.  But, I think they’re neat and fun to look at.

I have collections of statues – monks, asian “mud men,” and carvings of saints from Guatemala.

We have more chairs in our home than we’ve ever entertained enough people at one time to use.  We, likewise, have enough cups and glasses to serve beverages to more people than could actually fit in our home, including if a few were double-fisted drinkers!

My garage is packed wall-to-wall with tools, Christmas decor, future projects, my Harley, and misc biker paraphernalia.

My closets are stuffed with more clothes than I need, including, thankfully, many items that are now too large for me to wear.  Given my history of weight fluctuation, I haven’t had the courage to give away the fat clothes yet.

Though I’ve greatly reduced the collection I had, I still have an assortment of musical instruments, ranging from bongos to guitars to an 8-string ukulele.

I do have a lot of stuff.

Why so much?  Well, I’ve been reflecting on that.

None of my “stuff” is of great monetary value.  But, a lot of if has great value too me.  In some cases, the value is knowledge, as in the books I own and read.  In some cases, the value is enjoyment and entertainment, as in the plants I tend and the instruments I play.  In some cases, the value is pragmatic, as in the different clothes I wear for different occasions and climates.  In some cases, the value is beauty, as in the items decorating my home and office.  In same cases, the value is sentimental, as in the items I’ve collected from varying life experiences.  In some cases, the value is utilitarian, as in the tools in my garage.

Somehow, I confess, I’m comforted by my things.  I enjoy being surrounded by them, looking at them, using them, and remembering where I got one thing or another.  Each thing, unless it is purely utilitarian, tells a story for me.  While some feel pleasure and freedom in simplicity, and some enjoy minimalist design, I like environments that tell a story through the objects on display.

Come into my office, and we could spend hours discussing where all of the different things have come from, what they mean, and why they matter to me.  The same thing could happen in my home, or on my back porch.

I also particularly enjoy the process of searching and finding different things.  It’s like a treasure hunt!  And, at times, I enjoy passing my finds along to others, so they can enjoy them.  (BTW – I have a few plants I’d be glad to share with anyone who is interested!)

But, I also recognize my accumulation of “stuff” might be a problem.  Though I never spend a lot of money on any one thing, the accumulated value of my things is likely greater than I’d like to admit, and those dollars probably could have been used in better ways.  Things take time to maintain – especially plants and Harleys – which is time I could use for other, better, activities.  And, someday, when I’m gone, someone will have to deal with getting rid of all of it (sorry kids!).

The area I likely need to work on most is the way “stuff” can be like a drug.  I’ll admit, there’s a “high” that comes from finding the “unexpected.”  Always on the search for another book, another piece of clothing, another plant, another bonsai pot can be rather compulsive, and perhaps an escapist method of looking for comfort and pleasure in things rather than God.  It can be a way of avoiding, or numbing, negative feelings, too.

Some call it, “Retail Therapy.”

While I love all of my varied and miscellaneous things, I’ve been reflecting on how attached I am to them.  I’ve sold a few things lately, and I’m working on selling some more.  Some things I hold on to because I’ll likely want or need it later.  There are other things, though, I think I could part with… if I had to.  I don’t necessarily want to.  But, if life demanded it, I could part with any number of things I like, but don’t necessarily need.

I think that’s the goal.  Regardless of how much stuff a person has – a lot or a little, minimalist or maximalist – the issue is compulsion and attachment.  Does the thing really have value, beyond the feeling that drove the acquisition?  And, how attached am I to the thing?

In pastoral counseling, I often ask people to hold out their hands, palms up, and to imagine whatever hope, dream, desire, need, demand they have, resting in their open hands.  The point of the exercise is that when we want something badly, we tend to grip it tightly.  But, even with hands open, we still hold the thing.  The difference is, when we stop gripping the thing, it can be removed from our hands, possibly to be replaced with something better.  Or maybe having open, empty, receptive hands is good too.

So, yes, I confess, I have a lot of stuff.  I’m working on the compulsive collecting, and appreciating what I already have.  And, I’m working on holding all things loosely.

How much stuff have you got?

“Stay focused! Disruptions are coming!”

“Stay focused!  Disruptions are coming!”

I recently returned to yoga.

Though I’m not a big fan of most forms of exercise, I do really love yoga!   Yoga provides a teacher-led, group-based, meditative practice, building strength from head to toe, burning fat, increasing flexibility and balance – all things I desperately need.  For an hour, or so, yoga consumes the full focus and effort of my whole being.  I generally leave a yoga class physically depleted, emotionally centered, and soulfully re-charged – not to mention, pretty sweaty!

My Monday instructor is a young, petite woman, named Ariel.  She has a gentle voice, clear instruction, a steady pace, logical movements, and she challenges me to push my limits.  I’ve had a number of yoga instructors, and she rates among the best.

This morning, Ariel had us begin, lying on our backs, relaxed, slowing our breathing, and finding our “center.”  All of a sudden, the classroom doors banged open, as chatty students from a different class returned exercise mats they’d borrowed.  Then, some students showed up late to our class.  Then, a maintenance guy came in, drilling something.

Chaos, rudely interrupting our feeble efforts to achieve inner peace.

In the midst of the noisy disruption, Ariel quietly arose, walked to the center of the room, and with a strong, clear voice said, something to the effect, “Stay centered.  Focus on your breathing.  Life is full of distractions and intrusions, just like these.  You have to learn how to stay relaxed and centered – in life and in yoga – even when there are interruptions.  Hold on to your peace.  Stay focused!”  Then she returned to her mat, and continued the class.

I have to say, I was very impressed with her composure, focus, and ability to turn a challenging situation into a teaching moment.  She saved our class, and provided a great life lesson.  “Life is full of disruptions.  You have to learn to stay focused.  Don’t lose your peace.” 

Honestly, if Ariel hadn’t taken control, I was on the verge of getting up and walking out.  I’d quickly lost my focus, and was becoming increasingly irritated.  Her strong, clear instruction calmed me, helping me regain my center, leading to a great – though challenging – workout.

The truth is, that kind of thing happens to me all of the time.  I begin everyday with prayer and meditation.  I start every day centered and spiritually grounded, or try to.  But, as they say, “stuff” happens.  Something on the news or social media irritates me.  Someone misses an appointment.  A driver offends me.  I feel stressed by my “to-do” list.  I spill coffee on my freshly-ironed shirt.  Unexpected crises disrupt my well-planned schedule.  The car won’t start, or I get a flat tire.  Whatever the issue is, the peace I worked so hard to establish, and wish to maintain, flies out the window, leaving me in a frenzied state of irritable distress.

I lose my peace, all of the time.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t take much.

I bet you do, too.

As Ariel took control of today’s class, I wondered if she could possibly follow me around, everyday, reminding me when the disruptions come, over and over: “Stay focused.  Stay centered.  Breath.  Don’t lose your peace!”?  But, I’m guessing that might seem a little strange.  And, she might actually have other commitments and obligations – like yoga classes to teach.

Maybe I need to learn how to stay centered and focused on my own.

How about you?

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are reminded – over and over and over – about all God did for them in the past, and as an encouragement to trust God in the present and future.  For instance, when time came for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, they feared the Anakites, who were already living there.  Deuteronomy 1:29-33 says,

Don’t be terrified! Don’t be afraid of them!  The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you just as he fought for you in Egypt while you watched, and as you saw him do in the desert. Throughout your entire journey, until you reached this very place, the Lord your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child.  But you had no faith in the Lord your God about this matter, even though he went ahead of you, scouting places where you should camp, in fire by night, so you could see the road you were taking, and in cloud during the daytime. (CEB)

In spite of considerable evidence of God’s past faithfulness, the Israelites lacked sufficient faith to face the challenges before them.  And, if I’m honest, I’m exactly the same.

In a general sense, I believe all of the blessings I’ve received in life are gifts from God.  Marriage and family.  Friendship.  Ministry.  Life experiences.  Health.  Security.  Education.

And, in many, more specific ways, I’m keenly aware of the countless ways God has been faithful – more than I can possibly name.  Without a moments hesitation, I can share story after story of God’s particular faithfulness to me.  A quick glance in the rearview mirror of my life reveals God faithfully, consistently, generously present and working, time and again.  In the words of the great hymn…

“Great is thy faithfulness.  Great is thy faithfulness.  Morning by morning, new mercies I see.  All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

Looking in the rearview mirror of my life, my faith is strong.  God HAS been faithful.  Even reflecting on past pains and struggles, I can see how God was working.

But, in any given moment – or looking ahead – fear, doubt, and uncertainty often take over.  Hebrews 11:1 says…

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

But, SEEING makes it SO much easier than hoping for what we don’t see!

So, I doubt.  I worry and fret.  I get scared.  The “what if?” scenarios consume my thoughts, far more than my prayers.  My prayers, themselves, lack the confidence of a man whom God has blessed as much and as often as me.  I possess too little faith, and far too much fear and trembling.

The answer, of course, is surrendering our fears, and to possess more faith.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just that easy!?!  In reality, the best most of us can do is NOT act on our fears and doubts; acting instead on the flimsy faith we wish was stronger.  Perhaps, one day, faith will come more automatically.   But, it until it does, “fake it until you make it!”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once confessed to a Moravian pastor, Peter Bohler, thoughts of quitting the ministry.  Wesley felt he lacked sufficient faith to preach, thinking, How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?”   Bohler’s advice to Wesley was,“By no means.  Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

The truth is, I preach more faith than I actually possess sometimes.  I don’t mean to imply I don’t believe what I teach and preach – I do!  I’m confessing I may lack sufficient faith and courage to act on what I say I believe.  And, frankly, the acting on faith is far more important than the preaching of it!

The good news is, I’m not the first, only, or last to struggle with a meager or wavering faith.  Neither are you.  The Bible is full of weak-faithed servants of God, doing the best they can.  The good news is, we too have faith-filled rearview mirrors to remind us of God’s history of faithfulness, in each of our lives, if we’ll only remember to look back and notice.

But, remember: you can only stare into the rearview mirror for so long.  While it’s helpful to look back from time to time, life consistently moves forward, into the unknown.  The past reveals God’s PAST faithfulness.  The present and future is where we discover God’s continued faithfulness.  NOW and THEN are where we act on faith, whether we have it sufficiently, or not.

So, move forward with faith, even if its scary.  Move forward with faith, even if you don’t have enough.  Act on faith, even when it’s weak.  Then, maybe, we’ll discover what faith really is – confidence in what we hope for, and confidence in God.  We have every reason to believe, and every reason to act, and plenty of evidence to believe God will be faithful.

He was then.  He will be now.

What do you see in your rearview mirror?

 

 

You will see me…

You will see me…

I’m spending this week, away from the office, reading and researching for upcoming sermons and series (hopefully for the entire coming year!).  Among the books I am reading is Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s, Made for Goodness: and Why This Makes All the Difference.  Each chapter ends with a brief, moving meditation.  Though there’s much I could share from Made for Goodness, and will in upcoming sermons, I feel particularly moved to share a portion of a meditation I just read….

When you stop running from the pain

And turn to face it,

When you step into the agony and let it be,

When you can turn to your own suffering and know it by name, 

Then you will see me.

You will see me in the heart of it with you.

It doesn’t matter if your body is wracked by pain

Or your mind is spiraling through the aches and anguish.

When you stop running you will see me.

Though I certainly don’t wish you suffering or pain, both are realities we all face and endure at some point in our lives.  If that day is today, if this is your season of suffering, may you find some comfort and direction in these words.  More – may you find God in your suffering.  May you see God in your suffering.

God is with you.  You’re not alone.

Recalibrating Your Soul

Recalibrating Your Soul

Among my favorite memories are early morning walks on the beach, alone, with my Panasonic RX4920 Stereo Boombox resting on my shoulder, playing my favorite reggae music.  Those were High School and college years, in the 1980s, on random Florida beaches, playing mixed tapes of my favorites songs by Bob Marley, UB40, and a lesser-known band, Steel Pulse.  Something about those early morning, walking alone, the sound of waves lapping the shore, and those reggae rhythms, recalibrated my heart and soul to their proper and preferred tempo.

It was good for my soul.

Riding my motorcycle is a similar experience.  When I find a long stretch of empty road – especially ones with some gentle wind and curve – cruising around 70 mph (give or take), my feet resting on my highway pegs, I relax, take a few deep breaths, and find my inner RPMs returning to their ideal operating speed.  I don’t have a stereo on my bike, and I don’t want one.  The mixed-tape I need has been permanently stored in my head.

I remember an opening scene of the Sons of Anarchy series: its night, and the Sons are riding a California highway, and, in the background, Jax says, “Something happens at around 92 miles an hour – thunder-headers drown out all sound, engine vibrations travels at a heart’s rate, field of vision funnels into the immediate and suddenly you’re not on the road, you’re in it. A part of it.  That’s why I love these long runs. All your problems, all the noise, gone. Nothing else to worry about except what’s right in front of you. Maybe that’s the lesson for me today, to hold on to these simple moments.” 

I rarely go 92 mph.  But, I get his point.

I’ve experienced the same in a rocking chair, on my porch, on a cool Spring morning.

For some, it’s running or yoga.  For others, it’s fishing or canoeing.  For others, it’s horseback riding.  For some, it’s swinging a hammer.  For many, it’s keeping a Sabbath day.

Whether or not you’ve found a time, place or activity that uniquely settles your heart and soul, I think we all need it.  I know we do.  It’s just so easy to get out of whack.  Just like a motorcycle engine operates at an ideal speed and RPMs, but may need an occasional recalibration, I think the same is true for the human soul.

The stressful demands of life and work; the competing demands on our focus and attention; the countless distractions and interruptions; the flood of meaningless data; the barrage of incessant noise; the push and pull of wants, desires, and needs; the pressure to perform and measure-up to some ridiculous standard; countless worries and sources of anxiety; the external and internal critical voices; all muddling your brain, driving your heart-rate, and clouding your soul.  We all need moments – regular moments, frequent moments – and practices, to let it all go, to find your centered-place, to breath deeply, and to return to your best God-intended rhythm.

My soul needs it – demands it.  I bet yours does too.