Time Heals All Wounds…?

They say that time heals all wounds. I call bullshit. Some wounds will never ache any less when you die than they did that day you received them. Time cannot and does not heal all wounds.

What time can do – does do –  is make it easier to be distracted; make it easier to ignore the pain; fill your life with more joys than losses to concentrate on.  Theoretically. Hopefully, if you are lucky. Until that anniversary rolls around; until that one night when it’s late and you’re tired and hungry and just so damn raw; until the losses outweigh the joys for just a minute and you let your guard down…and then the pain is right there, rolling back to the surface.

The loss of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or child are all the types of losses that never completely heal.

Or, at least, that has been my experience.

No, not just my experience. I find this with people I minister to all the time. I remember this incredibly sweet woman from my first church – call her Mary. Mary was in her 90s and her husband, Fred, had died thirty five years ago. She had lived an entire second life as a single, independent and quite successful woman whose life was filled with joys and family. She always seemed so happy. Until you asked her about Fred. And then those deep, milky eyes would well up and the tears would come. All these years and thousands of miles later, that grief waited in the depths to swallow her whole. She was not unique.

What time did for Mary was give her an anchor for her soul and a line with which to find her way home. The grief would swallow her but the years of experiences and joys and memories would show her the steps back up from the depths and pull her back into the light and life.

It’s been five years since my dad passed. Five years since I’ve had anyone to answer my car questions; five years without anyone to truly appreciate when I vanquish an enemy the way my dad appreciated that; five years of my kids growing up to be starlight – a light that my dad didn’t get to see…and about which I’ll never get to brag. It’s been five years since I could ask my dad about being a man and a father…questions I never really got around to, in fact. I should be better, now. The pain shouldn’t still be there in the shadows, lurching and ready to pounce. Late, hungry nights shouldn’t still be a dangerous territory for my soul five years later. At least, I tell myself that.

Except I call bullshit on that, too. We heal when we heal. Except when we don’t. We all do it on our own schedule, at our own pace and sometimes the better part of healing is recognizing that some things can’t be healed. I tell this to my flock all the time. The wounded places become part of the tapestry of our life: the dark that provides contrast to the gold and silver and light. If we are lucky. Time knots a thicker and thicker line with each passing year with which I can draw myself back up from the depths. So it’s ok that sometimes I do find myself in those depths. Truthfully, if the options are the occasional darkness or forgetting how special my Dad was to me, I’ll take the darkness every time.

 

Five years, Dad. I can barely believe it and it breaks my heart at how fast those five years flew by. I still remember your voice but sometimes I have to concentrate to remember how you talked and how you smiled and tonight that also breaks my heart. I love you and I miss you beyond words. You were so so special and I hope you are resting and at peace now. You deserved it, even though we left behind have this person sized whole left in our hearts. Someday I hope I won’t feel the need to mark this date…

…this is not the year though.

Life – And Faith – Happens on the Road

I don’t want to bore anyone with a whole sermon but this is how I began my sermon on the Road to Emmaus story from Luke. It’s deeply personal but accessible and I thought I would share. I know a lot of people who have shared this experience and thought it might resonate.  -GB

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Interstate 71 runs from Cincinnati in the southwest of Ohio all the way to Cleveland in the far northeast. It’s a stretch of road I know well because it was the stretch of highway that I took back and forth to college for 4 years…and then for 2 more years while waiting for Amelia to graduate. I-71 is a deep scar cutting a straight line through farms and small towns for 90 miles before hitting Columbus, the capital and a raucous college town, and then for another 120 miles of nowhere more before hitting the exurbs for Cleveland. It’s a lot of nothing and I did a lot of deep thinking on that road over the years.

On this particular trip, though, deep thinking was the last thing I wanted to do. This was April 22, 2012 and I was driving and my dad was in the back seat, draped in a blanket, teeth chattering despite the heater broiling the rest of us in the car. My brother and mom were in the car along with my son, Isaac. We were on the road from Cleveland, heading back to my childhood home in Cincinnati, with hearts that were heavy laden and grief stricken. We had come to Cleveland to visit the world famous Cleveland clinic seeking a miracle for my dad’s cancer and we returned home the next day with little comfort. This was the first time and place and doctor to tell my dad that this was it…there was no fighting this: that we all must die and his time was rapidly approaching. The plan was to treat his symptoms and buy him a little time.

I left Cleveland a changed person – we all did. My dad got sick on the ride home and developed sepsis. He died on May 10th but that’s not the point of the story today. The point is that I-71 that day served as a both a literal place and a metaphorical space. The journey up and down that stretch, a road I had been on so many times before, was one of tears and laughter and deep questions and hard answers and, ultimately, death – but it was also a journey towards understanding and the beginning of a process of finding peace with what is.

Roads can be truly holy and sacred spaces.

My life has been criss-crossed by significant travel like that. I have been blessed to be able to travel far and wide – but that isn’t the point, either. Some of my most significant road trips have been close to home for the most mundane purposes. There is just something holy about the kinetic potential of being on the road…where anything can happen and you can meet anyone at any time.

The author of Luke knew this about roads and about travel – that’s why Luke’s narratives take us on the road frequently. In Luke’s Gospel, life takes place on the road.

Wednesday Lenten Devotion – (DAY LATE AND DOLLAR SHORT EDITION)

A mid-week devotion based on Luke 19: 9-19

As I was reading our text today, I found myself drawn to consider not the parable itself…that seems fairly straight forward. I found myself considering the reaction of the audience to the parable.

If you think of Luke in geographical terms, each day Jesus gets closer and closer to Jerusalem. Each day brings him closer and closer to the climax of the story and the final show down with the authorities. Tensions are running high for Jesus and his followers and getting worse with every passing day. He has constantly stuck his thumb in their eye, calling out their collaboration with the Romans and their disregard for the welfare of the poorest of their people. His conflict with the temple authorities has so angered the religious leaders that they have openly contemplated killing him on several occasions. In our text today they once again consider it only to conclude that they are too afraid of the wrath of the people that love and follow Jesus. And so, they are stuck. They see very few options. Their being trapped makes them afraid. Being afraid amplifies the feelings of being trapped. The fear and the lack of good options makes them dangerous, like an animal backed into a corner.

Ultimately, it is this fear that will lead them to crucify Jesus.

As an aside – it is ironic that the very thing they feared most – the reign of Jesus – they helped bring about by participating in his suffering and murder and, ultimately his resurrection. But that’s usually what happens when we act out of fear. The religious leaders of Christ’s day acted out of fear and gave life to the very thing they feared.

I think Christ was speaking to this very reality and to the temple authorities in his parable. The tenants that seized the vineyard would have been poor subsistence farmers, working the land at the whim of the rich, absentee land owner. A perfect metaphor for what had happened to the agricultural fortunes and economic life of Israel. Afraid of having so little control and security in their lives, the tenants acted out of fear to seize the vineyard. How did that work for them? SO Christ warned the religious leaders, to no avail.

How often do we do this very thing in our own lives? I see it all the time: insecurity in relationships leads to insecurity which leads to controlling behavior which ends up killing the relationship. I see fear of rejection lead people to isolate themselves and prevent any kind of connection with anyone. I see people afraid of injury or illness allow their bodies to remain motionless until they grow weak and sickly, inviting their own worst fears. And I see this kind of reaction in my own life. Often I have let fear rule my actions or my inaction – in my relationships, my career and in my parenting. Rarely has it led to anything good. There have been times when I reacted out of fear instead of compassion or love and the outcome has been grim.

On the other hand, when I have faced my fears, and ran straight at them, acting out of love despite my fear, I have always come out the other side better than I went in. Even if my actions resulted in failure, I learned from them. Win or lose, when I respond with courage and choose the path of love and compassion, I – at the very least – have the knowledge and satisfaction that I conquered a fear: which makes me more prepared to act the next time.

Fear is undoubtedly uncomfortable. Modern culture does its best to eliminate the sources of fear in our day to day life as things become increasingly comfortable and safe. Yet, fear is not harmful. In fact, fear can be a very healthy thing. Its an affirmation that you are alive, taking risks and growing. If we could commit today to stop acting on our fear, just imagine what the church could accomplish in this world today?

This is the lesson of the scribes and chief priests plotting Christ’s demise. Stop acting out of fear. Stop reacting to the what-ifs. Run towards our fear, not away from it. Truly living requires us to constantly choose the path of greatest courage, the path of greatest compassion.

As we approach Jerusalem with the Christ in these next 10 days, that is more true than ever. As we look around at our world, where fear governs unchecked, that is more necessary than ever. This is our common calling.

Wednesday Lenten Devotion

A reflection on Luke 14:1-6, prepared for Wednesday night service at First Presbyterian Church of Chicago Heights.

I have been a pastor long enough to know that no one knows what a pastor actually does for a living. People have a hard time believing we work a full day much less a 40, 50 (60!) hour week. People tend to think of the pastor working only on Sunday mornings or maybe the night they have a board meeting.

But we do work those hours. We do fill our days: For better or worse, we often over-fill them.

I have phone calls and emails that trickle in all day, usually asking me to problem-solve some area of our life together. I have committee meetings, Session Meetings, Presbytery meetings. I have Wednesday night worship and Sunday morning worship. I make hospital and home visits (I schedule hospital and home visits, which is the much harder task) and I write many cards and letters to our members. I have two book groups to stay on top of and I’m already planning the next. I’m also working a season ahead on sermon series and worship plans. My sermons take time to blossom and my blog posts don’t write themselves. Plus, this church would like to grow and evolve and become something more. I can’t quite cram that work into a random Thursday morning from 9-10.

The fact is, I hustle all day. I often spend most of the day feeling the tension of being behind schedule. I try to plan my entire day the night before so I can just move from task to task and seamlessly; this helps me feel in control and on schedule. So, when I get that first unplanned phone call in the morning…from that person that I know really needs to talk…I KNOW that that phone call is about to become an hour long wrecking ball, wreaking havoc to my carefully planned day. What do I do? Do I ask my secretary to take a message and plan them in later? Do I push on with my schedule until I can find a crack in which to try to wedge this person’s needs? Or do I take the call and damn the plans, anyway?

Before you judge….much like the Sabbath itself, my plans ensure that I am a benefit and shepherd to the maximum number of people every day. My schedule ensures that I keep on track and get the work the church has set before me, done. My schedule ensures that I actually get to those hospital visits and home visits; that I actually tackle the hard things and the strategic, long term work. If I always deal with what is immediately in front of me, that strategic work never gets done. So what do I do?

What do you do? Change some of the names and locations and my day probably isn’t all that different than yours. So how do you choose?

It is a myth that our hardest choices are between right and wrong or good and evil. Most of us rarely have to make those choices and when we do, the answer is generally pretty obvious and compelling. The hardest, most difficult choices we have to make (and we have to make them all the time) are the choices between two good things or between two bad things.

In our text today from Luke, this is exactly the sort of choice that Jesus is asked to make. As he eats and enjoys the sabbath day, he is asked to choose between keeping the sabbath day holy and pure -or- helping a person in dire need. The sabbath is both a gift and commandment given by God: It serves the whole people, it knits them together, it benefits all and honoring it is a way of worshiping God. The sabbath is important. But so is the man standing in front of Jesus in obvious need. And Jesus chooses the man.

When the choice in front of Jesus is between two good things, he consistently chooses the most compassionate option. Stuck between an ideal and a person, he chooses the person. Stuck between commandments, he chooses the path of love. On his way to Jerusalem and the work of all ages, he stops to deal with the immediate work of compassion. He chooses the person standing in front of him.

I try to remember this at all times but especially during Lent when my schedule gets truly manic. Choose compassion. Take the call. Sit down and have that cup of coffee and listen. The schedule will still be there when I’m done.

Wednesday Lenten Devotion

A reflection on Luke 12:1-21, prepared for Wednesday night service at First Presbyterian Church of Chicago Heights.

We will all die someday. Will we all truly live?

As I read the scripture for this Wednesday’s worship, I heard that ages old question roll through my head. The running theme in Christ’s words, as he navigates the tragedy of the poor men crushed by a falling tower, inheritance squabbles between brothers and the parable of the rich man and the barn, seems to be a reminder of our own mortality. Remember, you shall die. From dust we came, to dust we will return. We will die not because we are bad people and deserve it…but because it is in our nature to die. We are programmed in our DNA to die. Our days were allotted and counted before we were even in the womb and no amount of riches, prestige or power can change that fundamental truth.

We all die, just as the men of Jesus’ various teachings died. But did they ever truly live? Have we?

I guess that depends on how you define truly living. Jesus probably disagrees with many of us on what constitutes truly living. We live in a culture that collects things. Money, for sure. Also, status, experiences, people. We collect things that make us feel valuable and worthy, whether its that once in a lifetime journey to the Norwegian Fjords or that time we got arrested during a protest or its the sports car we always dreamed of and the house(s) that we make over in our image.

Things weren’t so very different in Jesus’ day, though the scale of wealth and opportunity was vastly smaller. If you could, you made sure you had enough to eat for the whole day. Then you made sure you had a roof over your head. If you had some money, you made sure you owned the roof over your head and maybe a farm to boot. If you had more money, you made sure the clothes matched the status and you worried about laying up enough food for the season. If you were really, really rich, you put away reserves for the long term and even considered a time when you might not work. You might even consider travel and collecting experiences and art and people. If you were a farmer like the one in Christ’s parable, you would invest in a bigger barn and revel in your good fortune and security. As the man says, “You have enough laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!” And why not, he worked for it?

Except that by Christ’s standards, this going through the motions of upper mobility is not the same thing as living. It’s a life, but it’s not living. Life is about more than food, more than clothing, more than security. All of those things, in the long run, are hollow and empty – as indeed, we will all die and leave our treasures to rot. Collecting things – even security – changes nothing, transforms no one and serves no greater good.

It seems to me that, what constitutes real living to Jesus has to do with how we relate to those around us. Its the way we treat each other. Remember that this story comes on the heals of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is concerned with how we are neighbors to one another and how we lift each other up and how we serve the kingdom together. So living, for the rich farmer with the barn situation would have included risk taking – trading some of his security and excess in return for feeding his neighbors and transforming their lives. Living for the men fighting over inheritance would have included giving away the assets over which they were fighting and making sure that each of the brothers had what they needed, rather than what they wanted. Truly living, even for the poorest of us, included being a neighbor to those in need. Truly living isn’t about what we collect or possess – its about what we give.

We will all die. Will we truly live? What would that even look for us this Lenten season?

Sneak Peek at Newest Chimes Article

Once a month I write an article for our church newsletter. Here is a sneak preview of my article for March:

Dear friends,

I don’t know about you but in my household, we’re still finding the errant and miscellaneous Christmas decoration here and there in need of putting away. And yet, somehow, here we are at the beginning of Lent already. Time truly flies.

As a preacher preparing for Lent, I find myself thinking a lot about courage: The courage it must have taken to give up everything and follow Jesus, the courage it must have taken to revolt against the Empire and the courage it must have taken for Christ to face his own death. This reflection on courage makes me think our own celebration of a year of Whole Hearted Faith – courage is a vital component to this pursuit.

Courage comes in many stripes. In modern society we often venerate the kind of heroics it takes to jump into a river to save a drowning person but heroics aren’t the be-all-end-all of courage. Modern society often over looks the courage displayed not simply in a single moment or act but in anticipating a significant, daunting, or even frightening challenge and not turning away from it but rather meeting it head on. This kind of courage takes cultivation and practice. This kind of courage is also the courage most relevant to our own attempts to live a Whole Hearted faith. This kind of courage emerges from a lifetime of taking responsibility for one’s self and accepting the challenges that life presents as well as facing one’s fears. At the heart of this type of courage is the ability and willingness of a person to be vulnerable. It cannot be overstated how critical a role vulnerability plays in developing this kind of courage. To anticipate challenge and suffering and not look away is, by definition, to make oneself vulnerable for the sake of others.

As a culture, we don’t often equate vulnerability with courage and strength. With care, love, and concern, perhaps, but not often with courage and strength. At our worst, we see vulnerability as a sign of weakness. At our best, we recognize the need to be vulnerable to those we care about most deeply. But we don’t often see vulnerability as essential to living a courageous life. And yet…the vulnerability is the root of courage for a Christian.

In the third week of Lent this year we will encounter an account of Jesus where he chooses the image of a hen gathering her brood of chicks to her for protection and safety to illustrate his love and concern for God’s people. Beyond the provocative feminine imagery that invites re-imagining some of our views of God it’s also an image of unparalleled vulnerability. I discovered this to my own surprise when Isaac was born. To be a parent is to be held hostage to fate and captive to destiny. There is simply no way you can protect your children from all the threats this life presents (nor should you!), and that not only leaves parents profoundly vulnerable but promises a level of suffering that you simply would not endure if you had not bound yourself so fully to your child. Now that’s vulnerability! That’s courage!

Brene Brown reminds us that courage comes from the Latin cor – “heart” – and defines courage as living from the heart, the willingness to embrace our vulnerability in order to be our authentic selves. Christian courage, then, might be the kind of whole-hearted living that comes from believing that as God’s children we are enough and that those around us are also God’s beloved children and therefore deserve our love, empathy, and respect.

Perhaps the task before us this Lenten season is name where we feel most vulnerable – whether in a relationship, a job, amid pressure from peers – and to remind ourselves that God is with us in these places of vulnerability. Through God’s grace we may discover in them a way to discover more fully who we have been called to be and connect more deeply with those around us. And this is living a Whole Hearted Faith.

God Bless,

Gregory

 

Sometimes we just suck.

I’ve been struggling with this post for some time now. I have a seed of an idea but so far I haven’t been able to articulate things right. The basic premise is this: Sometimes I just suck.

Sometimes I just suck at my job, at my life, at my marriage, at being a parent…at everything. Some days and even weeks I don’t make the important phone calls I know I need to make. Some days I don’t make the deadlines I need to make. Some days I can’t find the words that my spouse needs to hear or I can’t overcome my ego in the ways in which my children need me. There are plenty of excuses I could offer. We’ve all had things get crazy-busy at work at the same time the kids came home from school sick and the dog threw up on the carpet and the car needed emissions testing but the tire was flat…and on and on and on…so we didn’t make the phone call we were supposed to. It happens. Even valid excises are just excuses, though. The fact is, I failed. Sometimes the bad days turn into bad weeks and suddenly I’m afraid to make the call because my notes now tell me its been 12 days since I said I’d make the call. Not going to lie – it happens.

I think this is an almost universal, human condition. We all try our best and we are all so busy. We are all so distracted. Life just keeps crashing down around us like an avalanche. We all suck a fair amount of the time. For years, I’ve let it beat me down and allowed the guilt serve to further alienate me from the people I wronged. My guilt hurt so I flipped it on its head and got defensive, instead. The guilt and my poor handling of that guilt contributed to a depression that made it that much harder to rise strong and do better the next day. I wonder how many others out there have had that experience, as well?

My church is currently celebrating a year of Whole Hearted Faith, based on the work of Brene Brown on whole hearted living. I wish I could say that her work in the book, The Gifts of Imperfection, completely transformed my life. (In my experience, nothing works that easy!) Rather, Brown’s work set me on a path of transformation that I’m still walking today. In that work, she talks about worthiness a great deal and she reminds the reader that, even on days when we fail miserably at being a human, we are enough. Miss that deadline? We are enough in the eyes of God. Lost our temper with our kids? We are still enough to be worthy of love, respect, kindness and belonging. Got fired, had an affair, failed in a huge way? We are still enough. We have an intrinsic worth that cannot be diminished by any amount of failure or flaws. There are days when I am a failure as a pastor but yet Greg, the person, is still ok, still worthy, still a beloved child of God. In philosophical circles they talk about the intrinsic value of something. The intrinsic value is said to be the value that that thing has “in itself,” or “for its own sake,” or “as such,” or “in its own right.” In Christianity, we just call it grace and thank God that it exists!

For all of those I’ve failed in the last few weeks…for all of those who didn’t didn’t get that phone call or whose deadline I missed or whose need I failed to notice…I apologize. I’m sorry. I’ll try harder. I’ll work smarter. I’ll try to reset. What I won’t do any longer is to beat myself up about those failures. I believe in grace and I believe that I am enough and I hope you do, too.