Sunday, January 26, 2014

Defining God

This Sunday was a simple day filled with everyday moments.  I left the warmth of my bed at 6:30am (and I wasn't even preaching!) to shovel 2 inches of snow from our driveway.  A bagel and orange juice breakfast followed by a hot shower prepared me for going to Sunday worship.  Cheryl, Kristen, and I were pleasantly surprised by having good friends, Pastors Hugh and Erma Rohrer, join us as their church was snowed out of services.  It was a communion Sunday and we had-for me-those awful, tasteless wafers and grape juice.  Surely Jesus meant for us to have two of the joys of life-good bread and wine!

Lunch was at the Southside Diner where they might not call out "Norm" when I enter but they do know my name!  A solid breakfast for me at 1:00 in the afternoon and some teasing with the wait staff.  Then home to shovel off what the city plows threw back onto my driveway.  With the promise/threat of bitter cold and more snow the next 3 days it was off to the library to pick up some reading material.  Man does not live by television alone.

Two pain pills and a recliner carried me away for a winter's nap.  A light supper and washing the dishes brings me to the first shadows of the night.  A simple day with everyday moments.  In the darkness a siren now echoes and a life faces a crisis-may it become song and not sorrow for those at the end of the ambulance run.  A God given day and I choose to end by sharing with you a poem by Jane Kenyon.  Her poetry speaks powerfully to me.  She defines God in her poem Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks. 

I am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years...
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper....
When the young girl who starves sits down to a table she will sit beside me....
I am food on the prisoner's plate...
I am water rushing to the wellhead, filling the pitcher until it spills....
I am the patient gardener of the dry and weedy garden....
I am the stone step, the latch, and the working hinge...
I am the heart connected by joy...the longest hair, white before the rest....
I am there in the basket of fruit presented to the widow...
I am the mush rose opening unattended, the fern on the boggy summit....
I am the one whose love overcomes you, already with you when you think to call my name...

And so a simple day ends with a simple definition of God that comforts me and reminds me of where to look for God's presence.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Shivering Santa

When I saw my breath early this morning I knew bell ringing was going to be very cold for this Santa's helper.  Fearlessly and somewhat foolishly I donned my thin Santa suit and pulled on my non-insulated rubber boots.  For two hours I would experience 9 degrees of separation from being the cool Claus and being the cold Claus.  My cheeks turned a bright red.  My toes froze and ceaseless dripping came from my nose.  My fingers, inside thin white gloves, struggled to hold on to the bell as they stiffened. 

I could have dressed for the weather and been much more comfortable.  I must admit, after about two minutes, that I wished I had come wrapped like we wrap up children before turning them out into the snow.  Holly and jolly are hard to do when icicles form on your beard and a chill wind blows the smile off your face.  What was I thinking?

But, oh the rewards of placing S. Claus outside Wal Mart this morning!  A woman came running up to me to ask if there was a fee to have a picture taken with me.  I said 'No.'  She ran back to her car and wrestled a young puppy ('afraid of people' she said) and promptly dropped him in my arms.  I offered my best smile as the tan and white pup squirmed in my arms.  And I thought 'Please don't let him pee on my suit.'

I heard a little boy's voice 'Santa!'.  I turned to see a boy of two or three running to wrap his arms around me.  I shivered inside when I saw the slimy, green thing hanging from his nose.  And I thought "Please don't wipe your nose on my leg."  A mother had her picture taken with me followed shortly by her teenage daughter coming back for a picture while planting a kiss on my frozen cheek.

Child after shy child came up to me with eyes filled with joy.  Men called out telling me they had been 'good' this year and could I bring the boat, the gun, fun in the sun this year.  Inside the store, much in need of a restroom break, Santa stopped to talk to each one who called to him while wondering if he was going to pee on his own knee. 

9 degrees of separation gave way to the amazing: a parent thanking me for bending to talk to her little boy...a family thanking me for being willing to have a picture taken (their only Santa picture of the season)...a child promising me they would go to sleep tonight...the warmth of one greeting after another in the parking lot and store.

Being a Santa is such fun.  Being a Santa willing to hug a snot-nosed child, wrestle a pup, listen to a child's wish, and always making time for one more visit thawed this Popsicle Santa time and time again.  I am so glad I dressed, not for the weather, but for the season of joy!  (PS-It only took me 2 hours and a hot shower to thaw my fingers enough to type!)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Dark Side of Christmas

This Saturday I will become 'Santa's Helper' once again.  I really enjoy the twinkle in a child's eyes when they see me wrapped in red with my white beard.  My heart thrills to hold babies who look at me in wide-eyed wonder with no idea of what has happened to them.  I delight in whispered secrets, hugs that hurt, and even a kiss or two.  Christmas is the most 'wonder full' time of the year.

It is also one of the darkest times of the year for some of us.  Prior to my retirement I came to appreciate and look forward to our 'Longest Night Service' on December 21.  While the number of folks attending the service was never great, each person's attendance was significant.  We were a gathering of people holding on in the midst of our our pain and sorrow while living in the dark side of Christmas.

Psalm 88 is a song of sorrow and lament.  The last verse is a painful one to read or hear: "You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark."  As Christmas comes with carols in the air, shoppers with a blank stare, gifts galore, parties and more there are those who carry heavy hearts.  It is tempting to try to 'jolly' them out of their sadness.  It is tempting to push them to parties that hurt to much when it seems all is wonderful but not really for them.  It is tempting to grab hold of the baby Jesus and tell another-"See, there is good news and great joy coming."

That is not what they need.  They know all that.  They feel more than that.  They do appreciate our presence.  Yet, perhaps the best gift we can give to those living in the dark side of Christmas is affirmation that it is okay to feel the way they feel.  Blue Christmas is more than a sentimental song from years ago-it is a reality for some people.  Professor Ellen Davis, commenting on Psalm 88, wrote these helpful words: "sometimes the only act of faith that is possible--for those who suffer and those who minister to them--it to name our desolation before God, and to implicate God in our suffering."

Reality is that life, at times, hurts so much we can barely rise up and function.  The Christmas season may be one of those times.  If you know of someone living in the dark side of Christmas this year, your gift to them is understanding, patience, acceptance of how they feel, granting them space, and sitting in faith with them.  For I believe God is with us this Christmas even in the dark side.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Do More Than Pray

I have to 'do more than pray' as our nation considers a military strike in Syria.  I admit that I do not have any clear idea what the right or best answer is to the question of whether we should or should not strike now.  I also want readers to know I was an activist against the Vietnam War and was opposed to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

So this is another time I have to do more than pray.  I have to ask myself hard questions: when more than 100,000 people have been killed by all sides in Syria what is the sense of us drawing a 'red line'?  While we are drawing this line what about any 'red line' for the ongoing violent conflicts in Africa that continue to take innocent lives? How much 'military aid' are we already providing to the rebels?  Since there seems to be many 'shades' of rebel (some like us, some do not) what happens if there is a regime change?  As a nation, what other options have we really considered? And the questions go on.

My United Methodist denomination has called for a 'day of prayer' for the people of Syria.  I'm good with that but I have to do more than pray.  I have to educate myself, question policy statements, challenge any pronouncement that seems to invoke 'we got it right this time', share my views with others, including my congressional leaders.  Finally, I wonder if there is wisdom in the American vision of exporting our form of democracy to Syria or  other Middle Eastern nations?  I have seen the clothing in stores that says 'one size fits all.'  That doesn't work for me and I am not convinced it works for the world.

However you feel and whatever side you find yourself on in this crucial decision all I asking is suggesting is 'do more than pray.'

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"An Idea That Divides"

There is a line in the book Norwegian Dawn that reached from the page to touch my heart.  And it stirred recognition of a temptation for me to believe in an idea that divides.  The line is simple: "All were safe because of what they were not."  In the novel it is the memory of not being a Jew as Jews were taken from one European city after another, millions to their death.

It is the idea that we can be safe because of what we are not that grabbed me.  Medicaid cutbacks threaten medical care for some of us in Indiana.  I am safe because I am not on Medicaid.  Thousands of children in our state depend on food programs during the summer and school year for enough food to eat.  I am safe because my children are grown and my grandchildren do not have to depend on a food program.

Treatment programs, treatment options, and positive care for those struggling with mental illness are constantly under pressure to be cut.  I am safe because I am not mentally ill-at least not so that it interferes with how I live.  I watched a young boy serve as translator for his mother as she arrived at a doctor's office.  I am safe because I speak English and it is easy to communicate. 

I was sharing my travel stories with a woman from Indianapolis. She does not travel much, if at all, outside the US because it is not safe for her and her partner.  Whether it is in Europe, the Middle East, and much of Africa being gay can be dangerous.  I travel more easily because I am not gay.  The struggle for immigration reform leaves many uneasy-will they be stopped by police...will their children born here be able to stay even if they have to leave...will people give them a chance.  I am safe because I am not living in that net.

As long as I believe in this idea I am divided from others and what happens to them.  Yet I am not safe!  I am not safe as long as one other person suffers at the hands of others.  I am not safe whenever and wherever discrimination is allowed to mess with people's lives.  I am not safe if voices of hatred keep calling us to be divided from others.

I believe all of us are children of God-FAMILY!  And when anyone in my family is not safe...I AM NOT SAFE!  Unity, standing with each other-even if I am not like them-is the call of God I hear every day.  I will not truly be safe until everyone is safe.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Time to Retire?

Her words apparently struck a hidden nerve inside me.  "I thought you were retired?"  Bishop Coyner 'appointed' me to retirement June 11, 2011.  I know I stepped out of the pulpit on June 12, 2011.  I know my pastoral paycheck stopped June 30, 2011.  It appears I retired. My schedule, church related and travel ministry related, suggest otherwise.  As another friend said, "You aren't retiring.  You are moving to a global ministry."

"Retire"= "to withdraw from one's position or occupation".  In terms of pay I am retired but...I still find myself doing pastoral roles and liking it.  I enjoy leading bible study groups and recently concluded a a 6 week study.  I enjoy doing children's messages one Sunday a month.  I enjoyed preaching the Sunday after Easter.  I enjoy counseling and have recently made myself available in several circumstances.  Does this seem to you that I have 'retired' from my occupation?

I am wrestling with this.  I am wondering if it is time for me to conclude those 'roles' of pastoral ministry.  I missed church this morning...I did not miss church  this morning!  I was wrapped beneath a comforter curled up on a couch listening to birds sing me awake in Evansville.  I heard a whispered voice asking about "Pa Pa".  It was wonderful to be free on a Sunday.

The 4 hour drive home this afternoon gave me time to reflect.  Maybe it is time to choose 'to be free' from all aspects of my vocation, my career, my pastoral ministry.  Maybe it is time to be Norm, wrapping up "Pastor" once and for all.  Just now I recalled I have agreed to be Pastor Norm for a wedding this summer-a wedding that has special meaning and joy for me. I am looking forward to being with the engaged couple this weekend to begin putting the plans together. Perhaps this wedding can be, could be, should be Pastor Norm's curtain call.

I am feeling a longing to lose myself in helping others as Norm.  I am attracted to the possibility of quietly helping in simple ways.  Yet a part of me whispers "you were called".  A part of me keeps pointing out the needs of others.  Springtime speaks of new life and new beginnings-I am wondering if this is the next 'springtime' in my life journey.   

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Summer's Day

For maybe the 1,000th time I ran up the hill to the Reno School playground.  The leather glove on my left hand slapped against my thigh.  My eyes were bright with hope as I jumped from Oak Street onto the worn path in the grass. The infield was a collection of rocks that turned every ground ball into a pinball game as spinning balls bounced crazily leaving bruises.  Base paths were marked only by flat, canvas bags that once were white cornerstones directing runners around the diamond.  The outfield had no fence and well hit balls could roll and roll.  Yet it was our field of dreams.

There they were-the older boys tossing a baseball and kicking at stones.  Two were chosen to pick players for the game that day.  Hand on top of hand gripped the wooden bat until one grasped the knob between finger and thumb.  The choosing began...Kenny, Jerry, Bogan, John.  Nervously I watched and listened for my name to be called.  I was one of the youngest standing there AND one of the shortest.  Many times I was left to sit in the prickly grass on the bank hoping someone had to leave and I could take their place.

One summer's day I heard my name called.  I was picked, chosen, wanted for a team!  What more could a guy want than to be out there playing with the big guys? Could life get any better?  My position was pitcher or, on our field, the target.  I wound up, imagining my fastball would soon smack in the catcher's glove.  I released the ball, heard the crack of ball meeting bat, felt a sharp pain near my temple, and fell to the ground. 

I lay collapsed on the ground, a roaring in my ears.  Where was I?  Who was I?  Blinking my eyes with the speed of hummingbird wings I saw blurs above me, someone calling my name from a far away place.  Then I snapped back to reality.  This wasn't what I had in mind when I ran up that hill!

Since that day I have run towards other fields of dreams.  Sometimes getting on those fields brought pain and experiences I had not intended.  I have had moments when I never saw it coming and found myself in a hurting place.  Sometimes life doesn't turn out the way we had it in mind.  If we are fortunate, we will have  others standing close by, checking to see if we are okay.  With the encouragement of our friends we snap back, see the reality, dust ourselves off and ask for the ball.