Sunday, March 26, 2017

Broken Hearts and Wounded Spirits

There is a lot of sadness and heartbreak in our personal lives and in our world.  A friend dies of cancer; a marriage breaks up; another friend becomes victim to Lou Gehrig’s disease; a mother struggles with her teenage son hooked on drugs; a husband and father of three can’t overcome his addiction to alcohol; a father or mother dies.  These are the personal, close-to-home tragedies of life not just in the lives of our friends, but in our own lives, that wound us deeply and bring us sadness and pain.  Most of us live with a broken heart.

I know I am not alone in what I experience.  All of us have our own sadness, all of us know the broken heart, and if you haven’t experienced it yet, you will!  There are two types of people in this world:  those who have experienced pain, hurt, sadness and loss, and those who will experience these things.  We just cannot escape these happenings that jolt us out of our familiar life patterns and force us into becoming members of the fellowship of the wounded.  Loss, sadness, grief, disappointment, personal mistakes and failures, all of these are universal experiences.

How does our faith fit in?  The Christian faith teaches that we have one another for support in difficult times (we are called to love one another) and that there is One who can bring light out of darkness and enable us to live with a broken heart  and wounded spirit.  This One is the God the Apostle Paul called, “The God of comfort.”  God does not protect us from the wounds of life, but in such times our faith says that God is with us in it (whatever it is).  Faith in God does not make life easy, rather it makes us great enough for life.  Faith does not give us an escape from life’s suffering and heartbreaks, but rather the strength for meeting it and living with it when it comes.  

The Passion of Christ makes plain two facts:  first, in this world even the innocent are not exempt from suffering, and secondly, there is a God of comfort who can help us rise above our sadness, our grief, and our wounds.  Broken hearts and wounded spirits are not so much healed as they are resurrected into a new understanding of life.
Monterey, California

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Sermon Excerpt: 2006

The following was written  on  October 5,  2006, three days after the school shooting at an Amish School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, very close to our neighborhood. 

“I find it increasingly difficult to identify with the Christian faith as it is being expressed in our American culture today.  I am embarrassed by what many so-called Christian leaders say, think, and do.  I cringe at their moral absolutism, their self-righteousness and their judgments.  I think we are living in a time that is very confused about Christianity.  We live in a time when the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and the nature of God have been distorted to the point where the gospel has little chance of squeaking through.  Granted, I thought things were distorted forty years ago—but now that distortion has become so great that it is nearly intolerable for me.”

I am called a fool when I say that torture in any form, exercised upon any human being by any person, society, or government, is contradictory to the teachings of Jesus.  I am seen as unpatriotic when I say that vengeance, whether it is by war or by the building of legal and concrete walls to keep unwanted people out, is a violation of the Christian faith.  To refuse to talk to those whom we judge to be wrong, or who differ from us, whether persons or nations, and thereby isolate them and make them feel inferior is contrary to the teachings of Christianity.  The Amish elder, who, after the tragedy at the schoolhouse, said, ‘We must forgive, forget, and move on’ baffled the media and the nation with that notion.  The majority of Americans, including so-called Christian spokespersons, had already judged, bashed, and consigned the shooter to Hell.  And while we were glued to the tragedy in Lancaster County, we totally ignored the reality that the same thing (the loss of little, innocent human lives) happens in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, and other places around the world every day and we don’t seem to notice that or to care.”

These words were written and spoken over a decade ago.  

I don't know where I found this--but it speaks...

Friday, March 24, 2017

It’s a Package Deal

“A man may, indeed, be able to figure out what is good, or bad, for him or for his family,”  writes William Stringfellow. “But that which is good for him, is bad for some one else, and, in principle, for everyone else in the world.”  Why? Because we are motivated in every sphere of life by our own self-interest, and as nations, by our national interest.  The religion many of us know is a religion that promises a personal reward—that is, something that is in our self-interest.  The prayers that we utter in our crises moments are prayers (most often) motivated by our own self-interest.  We have even gone so far as to make “salvation” a wholly personal thing:  “Christ died for me!”  

This is totally contrary to what we see in the ministry of Christ.  His was a ministry of “great extravagance—of a reckless, scandalous expenditure of His life for the sake of the world’s life.”  There is no self-interest!  Christ gives away His life.  “The world finds new life in His life and in His gift of His life to the world.”  The ministry of Christians in the world is the same as the ministry of Christ:  to be servants in the world and for the world—servants of the world in the name of God.

Jesus never comes to us alone.  He can’t!  He tells us so.  “I have other sheep…”  Jesus has a family!  And when Jesus comes to us, he always brings his family with him.  When Jesus comes to us personally, he immediately says, “Now, let me introduce you to my family.”

We might say, and we often do say, “No, Jesus, I just want you.  What I’ve heard about you sounds good but what I’ve heard about your family is not so good.  I really just want to be with you and forget the rest of those people (for God so loved the world—everybody) who are with you.”

And Jesus will say, “Sorry, we all come together.  It is a package deal.  There is no way I can come to you alone.”

What's good for me may not be good for everybody!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

“For God So Loved the World…”

The Christian faith, by its very nature, can never be an individual thing!  The very idea contradicts the essence of both the Old and New Testaments.  “For God so loved the world” (not just me or you).   God still answers the question of the Old Testament, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with a resounding “Yes,” and the question of the New Testament, “Who is my neighbor?” with “Everyone!”  It may be possible to practice some religions alone, but this is not possible for one who claims to be a Christian.  “For God so loved the world,” not just my puny soul.  The world God loves includes every person, believer and unbeliever, committed and uncommitted, church member and non-church member.

The characteristic number of the Christian faith is plural rather than singular.  The Lord’s Prayer begins, not my Father, but our Father.  In this same prayer there appears the pronoun us four times.  “Give us this day,” “Forgive us our trespasses,” lead us not into temptation,” Deliver us from evil.”  This emphasis on the plural is often forgotten or ignored.  Whenever or wherever this plural emphasis is forgotten or ignored, then the assertion that one is a “Christian” is a false claim.

God loves the world and calls us to do the same:  “Love one another.”  There can be no unilateral, private, insulated, or eccentric Christian life. William Stringfellow put it this way, “There is, in the biblical witness, no way to act humanly (the biblical ethic) in isolation from the whole of humanity, no possibility for a person to act humanly without becoming implicated with all other human beings.”

Whenever, however, wherever walls are erected between peoples of different cultures, races, parties, religions, classes, and nations, those walls are actually suppressing the biblical message.  The message of the Bible is “essentially political,” having to do with the fulfillment of humanity in society—all of us, not just some of us.  The current emphasis on "America First" is a suppression of the Christian gospel.
A New Dawn in Westover, MA--2016

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

“You Haven’t Changed a Bit”

The snow is receding.  The sun is shining.  The sky is blue. The temperature is rising.  The grass is growing and showing hints of green.  Spring has sprung.  Soon there will be “picking up winter debris, weed-pulling, edging, mowing, and trimming chores” to be done.  Meanwhile, here I sit in my comfortable study, pondering what was, what is, and what is yet to come.  This “ruminating,” as a friend calls it, is one of the great privileges (or burdens) of being liberated (retired).

There is a tendency to “look back” in these early morning hours, to sort through the “filing cabinets of memories.”  To know my own history and to examine it with care is just as important as knowing “history” in the political, social and economic spheres.  “The unexamined life,” as Socrates wrote centuries ago, “is not worth living.”  

“Life is tedious,” (synonyms: boring, dull, monotonous, repetitive, unrelieved and unvaried) someone once told me and indeed it would be, if all one did was to look back and live in memories.  Life moves on and there is no standing still.  The past is important only when it is used as an instructive guide for the present moment, both in our personal life and our national life.  

“You haven’t changed or aged a bit,” we often say to those we haven’t seen in a while. In some ways this statement is true—for there is something “enduring” in our personalities.  It was there the moment we were born and all our growth, experiences, and development, in education or social standing, do not change it.  (Attending a high school reunion after 50 years will convince you).  Yes, I’ve changed and I’ve grown, but the basic “me” is still there.  While my thinking has changed, the foundation for what I think now can be found “back there” in the person I have been.  When people tell you that you haven’t aged a bit—they are telling a fib (and they know it) but when they say ,“You haven’t changed a bit” there is a sliver of truth!  

Nope!  Haven't changed a bit!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Budding Herpetologist

Yesterday I mentioned how I once, as a young boy, searched out “signs of new life” in the early days of spring by turning over rocks to find garter snakes, salamanders, and other such things.  It was for me the “Thrills of a Naturalist’s Quest,” (Raymond L. Ditmar book, 1934) that prompted this love of wildlife.  From early childhood I was fascinated, according to my mother’s reports, in living things of all kinds.  She often told me how at a very young age I would sit with awe and watch the ants move about on the doorstep of our home.  This fascination grew in those early years and every summer there were frogs, toads, turtles, squirrels, chipmunks, baby woodchucks and rabbits and other such varmints brought home for observation.  Neighbors and friends would often bring some of these specimens to me.  Once my father even brought home a baby black snake for me to observe. I will always be grateful to my parents for allowing the naturalist in me to live.

As the years went by, influenced by Raymond L. Ditmars' book and others, my interest became focused on reptiles, namely snakes.  For several summers I erected a “snake pit” in the backyard and filled it with various types of snakes—water snakes, garter snakes, black snakes, ribbon snakes, rat snakes, hognose snakes, etc.  Some of the snakes looked rather threatening, particularly the large water snakes, leading one neighbor to suggest that I was collecting poisonous water moccasins.  (Water moccasins did not make their home in our area).  At some point, someone called the chief of police about my collection.  He came to check things out.  I will always remember my Dad telling him that I “knew my snakes” and there were no poisonous snakes among those in my collection.  “Thanks, Dad, for backing me up way back then!”

Later, I worked a couple of summers in the Nature Department at a Boy Scout Camp.  My  assignment was to catch snakes for exhibit and to educate scouts on the various types, etc.  This was “right down my alley” and probably the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had.  At the camp I captured my first poisonous snakes—Copperheads—along with many non-poisonous types.  It was at the camp that I met Tim Brown, a herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.  Tim helped me develop the proper habitat for “hatching” several black snake eggs and invited me to the famous Reptile House of the New York Zoological Park.  He was an encourager!  

Then suddenly, just as with Jackie Paper and Puff, the Magic Dragon,  the “Thrills of the Naturalist’s Quest” ceased to dominate, though strains of it still linger to this day.   There was another work to do.

Thrills of a Naturalist's Quest in Costa Rica, 2016

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Fever

Spring has come, as it has always come, with the occurrence of the astronomical “Vernal equinox,” when the sun’s most direct rays cross over from the southern hemisphere into the northern hemisphere.  It happened at 6:29 a.m. (eastern standard time) this morning.  

Spring to me used to mean doing things.  I remember those springs of long ago, when as a boy I could not wait for the school day to end so that I could get on to more important things.  I was eager to slush through the left-over snow of winter to the brook behind our house and turn over rocks to see what new life might appear underneath.  Usually a garter snake could be found or a salamander beneath those stones. They were “early birds,”  braving the still brisk wintry air, to come out of winter hibernation.  I remember being eager to see if the brook had been stocked with trout for the fishing season that began in late March.  I would go to the “spring house,” sit on the old log there, and check out the watercress which I would later collect and share with family and neighbors.  I always looked for frog eggs, too, a sure sign that spring had arrived. I hiked along the stream searching for signs of new life and it seemed to be happening everywhere, in the yellowish-green leaves of the willow trees and the little tufts of green grass poking up through the slush and snow.   It was a springtime ritual of those days long ago to look for new signs of life.

I can still feel the joy I knew then in those springtime adventures.  I can still hear the peepers that announced “spring” in the evenings, and still see the sun that proclaimed it each morning—just as it did this morning.  Spring to me used to be doing these things, but I doubt that I’ll be turning over any rocks today, or checking to see if the streams have been stocked with trout.  I’ll not be out looking for watercress, garter snakes or salamanders.  Now, in this stage of life, spring has become not a “doing,” but more like the fulfillment of a divine promise, a kind of just “being” cognizant of the fact that hidden beneath the snow, the rocks, and everything else in life (problems, disappointments, disease and illness, yes, and even old age) there lies hope and resurrection possibilities.  As Mark Twain so aptly puts it, “It’s spring fever…when you’ve got it, you want, oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so.”

Fair Haven (Home) on the First Day of Spring 2017