I was home these past two weeks, first to care for my eldest son Noah, who tested positive for Covid, and also to monitor the learning of his three younger brothers, who had to be quarantined.
Then, two days in, I got sick, and the next night, my wife Jessie fell ill. So, we spent two weeks sniffling, coughing, medicating, resting, and praying.
My colleagues at Pond Road Middle buoyed our spirits by delivering fresh meals each day this last week, and their kindness and compassion for us has been overwhelmingly grand. Thanks, Pond Fam – you guys/gals are awesome, and I’m lucky to work beside you.
Being ill is scary, and for me, more so as the years go on and my body lets me down. Sometimes, I let my body down too.
There is, however, a sort of healthy humility that gets focused when your frailty is manifest.
I participated in martial arts during my mid to late twenties. It was great fun, hard work, and I am grateful to have spent such great times with excellent teachers, who are also wonderful human beings.
During that time, I earned a broken nose, broken toes, bruised ribs, and more than a few shiners and busted lips. My head was once put through a plaster wall by “Big” Steve Whitaker :)
During one promotion, I decided to show off by performing my breaks without spacers in between the wooden boards and injured my wrist terribly. It has never been the same.
Anyhow, I like the martial arts. Boxing, Wrestling, MMA.
So, the social media algorithms picked up on this, I guess, and occasionally suggest videos with fighting, and some of the videos show real fights.
Yesterday, I scrolled over a video which captured my attention, and then sucker-punched me with sorrow.
Two women viciously assaulted one another in a public space, and the children accompanying the one taking the brunt of the violence helplessly watched their guardian being pulverized. For what seemed an eternity, the people in the video, the bystanders, just watched.
The savagery of the violence was compelling, but what stabbed my heart was those poor children watching their mother or aunt or sibling being injured and humiliated.
I don’t know what led to the altercation, but for the sake of those kids, I desperately wanted someone to intervene, quickly, but it took too long. Every additional blow to the guardian was a blow to those kids.
There was so much pain in that video.
The woman who ‘won’ the fight fought with a brutal ferocity that suggested rage, but also fear. It was violence born of desperation, and it seemed she wanted to kill.
The humiliated one, the traumatized children, and even those paralyzed bystanders were all deeply wounded. The fella who finally intervened had a look of bewildered horror on his face.
We hurt each other, and often, we don’t even know why. The reasons are sometimes buried. We are all carrying pain, and sometimes, through action or passivity, we transmit that hurt to others, often those we love most dearly.
This week I read “The Wizard’s Tide; A Story” by Frederick Buechner. It is a simple and straightforward book about how devastatingly traumatic our actions can be.
Told from the perspective of a young lad whose parents are suffering through the financial struggles of The Depression, you feel every critical remark, untoward action or mean look that passes between them. They were shifting their hurt to one another, but that was not all.
The little boy doesn’t fully understand their tensions, but he is burdened by them. You feel his sadness as you read, and wish his parents, who dearly love him, were more cautious.
The book moved me to repentance. How much injury have I inflicted on my boys by careless angst toward my wife, myself, the world?
I read “A Sacred Journey” by Buechner in August, and much of the fictional tale in “The Wizard’s Tide” is based upon the great writer/pastor/poet’s real childhood suffering.
A wise and mature thinker, the older Mr. Buechner was still sorting through the tangible grief inflicted during his youth.
In the district where I teach, there was a big blowout during a Board of Education meeting this past week and emotional harm was inflicted.
This is happening all over right now, and sometimes those arguments turn violent. I wonder at the gloom and fury that has been unleashed by our shared sufferings these past many months.
We must ‘hold on to the good’ in each other, certainly, but also in ourselves.
We never end an argument.
The lady who “won” the fight on that horrid video I watched didn’t finish anything. Instead, she inflamed so much anger and sorrow that already existed in her own heart, and in those around her.
And now those little children have been wounded, perhaps in a new and abiding manner that will follow them throughout their years. They will be tempted to inflict their shock or unforgiveness or uncertainty on others.
I pray they’ll know healing, and mercy, and most of all, love.
Lord, have mercy!
Sometimes those FB memories be killing you.
Two days ago, I got the notification of this post, from 2011-
“Noah's first day of school - excitement mixed with sad - thinking how sometimes time seems still but then you turn around and it seems to have vanished - here's to my little scholar!”
Yesterday was the first day of school, and I put my youngest son Seth on the bus for kindergarten. Noah started tenth grade last week. In a couple of weeks, we’ll go get his driver’s permit. My middles are in 5th and 6th, Christian having just moved up to the middle school. Luke is the big dawg of the elementary.
I’ve been up early in the dark, walking in the quiet cool of the mornings. Most days, when my feet tread the sidewalk near the bus stop, I am unmoved; it is just another few feet to walk and pray.
Today, when I neared that stretch, if felt like sacred ground.
Yesterday, mostly due to township construction on main roads during the first day of school (bureaucracies :|), the buses were late in the morning and afternoon, so I spent, all in all, about two and a half hours of my life pacing that small stretch.
In the morning, Christian, my 6th grader, went first. I took his picture from the car so he wouldn’t get embarrassed. Luke, my 5th grader, begrudgingly allowed his photo, and finally, my baby Seth went on his first big bus.
On the walk home after school, we saw his old 'tiny' bus, and he was able to chat with Scott and Donna, who had been the driver/aid team for our three youngest, investing mornings and afternoons with our kids for nearly a decade.
In the afternoon, it took longer, and I thought it might, so I brought a book. I read the first two chapters while I was waiting, a full 61 pages.
The book, “For the Time Being,” by Annie Dillard, took me to Ancient China, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Ancient Israel, and elsewhere. So far, the book is asking all the important questions about our short time here, and what it means, and also, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?
When I was in high school, I had a crush on a friend, and we went on a few dates, not many. Anyhow, in my recollection, I can remember bringing her home and walking her to the front door. I think I might have met her mother and father, but if so, it was only once or twice, and fleeting.
Yet, I have met them again here on social media, and particularly her father, who has been battling sorrows and sickness with courage, and faith. My friend posts glimpses of his time on earth, and hers, and their story is one of great, audacious hope. Belief in something bigger than all this, that is magnified by how we tread this world.
My MaMa, who I’ve mentioned before, turned 102 this past week. She is one of my heroes, and part of the reason is that she if she worries about anything, she rarely lets it trouble her very long. She takes things as they come, good or bad, with the same grace and contentment. Her senses are nearly gone. Her soul is present, and still filled with joy.
Football season is back, and boy am I glad. Boomer!
When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish exit their locker room, they touch a poster that says “Play Like a Champion Today.”
In my house, as you walk down the stairwell, we have a similar frame, which, like the golden-dome footballers, I touch on my way out into this world. It reads-
“This is the day the Lord has made; Rejoice, and be glad in it!”
I heard the grinding machine of the garbage truck at the corner at the end of our street.
Then, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I rushed out the door, peered down to our curb, my blood pressure gathering steam.
Ah, relief! My son had faithfully fulfilled his chore; our cans were full, and in their proper places.
As I took a morning stroll around the neighborhood, the garbage truck followed, its panic-inducing crunching and whining an alarm, rousing neighbors to their windows and doors. I saw two sets of neighbors overburdened by bags and cans of trash, hobbling at breakneck speed down driveways, like delinquent children trying to catch the bus.
Labor shortages and a change in our local waste management company have led to recent delays, where the refuse and recycling piled up for weeks. Oh, the stench!
Every year I teach the fall of the Roman Empire, and one of the familiar sightings in that decline is the steady breakdown and then collapse of government maintenance. Thankfully, at least for now, we’ve avoided the Apocalypse here in Burlington.
Sometimes, we forget to put out the trash.
We’ve just returned from our summer trek to Oklahoma.
This trip is always a blessing to me on multiple levels, because I get to see family and friends that I love and trust dearly, and this year all the more because my kin were whole, joyous, holding tightly to the good. Some, like me, were struggling, but we're also headed in the right direction. It was a hopeful sojourn.
I also benefit from the driving. Usually four days of solid road trip (2 there-2 back), averaging about 10-11 hours each. This year we visited my Aunt Pat in Ruston, LA, which added a worthwhile fifth day.
Many people wonder that we can do this trip year after year. All those dragging days, humming over the interstate, meandering from state to state (18 this year!). It is harder on my back and knees and hips than it used to be. Yet, I am grateful for those days too.
I have time to evaluate my life, in relative silence, on an annual basis. Sadly, every year, I recognize there are things that need readjustment, and some things have to go.
We get busy, and the clutter piles up in the corners of our heart.
Anger, resentment, despair.
Pride, sloth, gluttony, lust.
About a week before our trip, I was blessed by two providential lifelines.
I’d been drifting, badgered by despair, seen daily, around the world and in the darkness of my own heart. I was afraid for my faith, and the feeling was not unlike that panic of hearing the garbage truck, a desperate feeling I’d miss my chance to be made whole.
So, I took out my prayer rope, and began to insistently meditate on Christ. It was a sort of flailing act of war against my doubts, an anchor against the tide carrying me away. It was a willful act of faith and hope, and it carried me through the storm.
Second, a friend counseled me to carefully and purposefully build patterns around the things I valued, and weed out those that choke, and to do so with the urgency of the farmer, who will starve if he does not tend.
Yesterday, I weeded my front beds, which had become a small jungle while we were in OK, and it brought me back to the days when I worked for my Pops. I went in with gusto, soil up to my elbows, and earned a thick layer of dirt under my nails.
It was good, satisfying to see the piles of debris I’d removed. Thing is, those nasty little stranglers will be back, just like my doubts.
It’s in our nature to sink, to regularly allow hurt and ego to strangle out the good things we love, rob us of gratitude and joy.
I’m removing the clutter from my heart, again, and it is work.
I pray blessings on you, that you would begin or continue the work of trimming and pruning all that hinders your wholeness.
Seth, my youngest, sat in my lap.
We were watching a Clone Wars (or as he says ‘Clum Werz’) spinoff called “Bad Batch”, about a squad of Clones who each have unique and amplified identities and skills. They are outcasts now, and on the run.
I asked him which was better – “Bad Batch” or “PJ Masks”, another of his favs.
He looked at me, perplexed, and eventually said-
“They’re both better.”
Ha! His childlike delight in what he finds good does not have a category for ‘better than’. Alas, I’ve been one of the first to teach him the notion of comparison, which can be problematic, if not sometimes proper.
This bit about comparisons is precarious for the soul looking for enlightenment, or peace, or salvation. The Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem is my favorite ordered prayer, and part of my daily rule. Part of that prayer begs –
“Grant that I may see my own transgressions, and judge not my brother.”
This is pride week at my middle school, part of the larger societal pride month.
I walked into the building a few days ago and there were flags adorning lockers and hallways and doors.
We will be showing videos about being “allies” during our home room periods, and I think we should always love our neighbors, whoever they are.
I have a lot of personal opinions on these matters, and I wonder if those viewpoints could get me cancelled by champions and opponents of the LGBTQIA+ movement.
Proverbs tells us that “even a fool is thought wise” if he keeps his mouth shut, and so I have.
Nevertheless, I have thought deeply around this topic for many years, for a variety of reasons that are mostly personal.
I believe that Christ’s command to love compels us to treat those we disagree with honorably and with grace.
Rather than spout about my beliefs here, which would likely prove tiresome and troublesome, I’ve decided to post two of my fictional stories addressing the topic.
I’ve found fiction writing very cathartic in this way. Writers must show, not tell, and this reduces the ‘telling’ greatly, which is where a truckload of our problems with one another come in.
“Oil and Wine” (type 33 into the page box at the top) is a modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is an apology to the traditionalist crowd, and the hero (Samaritan) is a gay man.
“Uncle Myron” is an apology to the pride crowd, and the hero is someone who affirms his gay nephew/adopted son as a human being but stops short of affirming his homosexuality.
I hope you will take the time to read these stories. More than that, I hope you will see the image of Christ in your neighbor, and you will love, regardless of how uncomfortable or unsafe that might make you feel.
Jesus wasn't naïve.
He knew how the Jews – his own - were being dispossessed and oppressed, systematically.
The Romans created an entire industry to bring in exotic animals for the simple “pleasure” of watching them be murdered. Whole species of God’s precious creatures were brought to extinction, and Jesus knew.
People – God’s precious children – were being trafficked for cruel purposes: labor, sex, murder. The government was in on this – they vigorously protected the rights of slave-owners.
In Rome, a father could beat, mutilate or murder his own wife and children, his slaves or animals, without fear of retribution. Patriarchy in its most perverted forms was perpetrated in Rome.
A common evil that occurred at the time of Christ was child exposure. Babies were being abandoned in woods and on hilltops. These wretched killings were not forbidden in Rome until the late 4th century, and at the time of Christ, were accepted.
Orgies of lust and blood and hate and exploitation abounded all around him, and yet, we don’t see Jesus take the kind of forceful actions we might expect.
We have almost no record of Jesus fighting the contemporary “social justice” issues of his day. We do see him in personal encounters with tax collectors (systematic oppressors), prostitutes, Samaritans, lepers and the mentally ill.
Christians cannot ignore the seeming disconnect between the kingdom of God - with it’s message of love for the poor and outcast - and the relative silence of the gospels around abortion, murder, slavery, rape and systematic oppression, during the time of the ministry of Jesus.
I’ve been coaching middle school boys basketball for a little under two decades, and it is one of my greatest joys.
Our season was cancelled this year due to covid and it was a real drag. So, while I’ve been at tournaments with my son Noah these past two weekends, it took everything in me to refrain from being “that parent” and running out to the coach between games with “tactical recommendations”. I sat on my hands and bit my lip in the stands.
One of the things you learn sitting in the stands is how powerful referees are – they determine the outcome of almost every single game 😉
I remind my players all the time – the referees blow several calls each game, sure, but - how many layups did we miss? How many free throws? Did we – all of us - box out on every shot? How many turnovers did we have? How many times did we let the other team get ahead on the fast break because we were mentally or physically loafing?
I scout other teams to put my kids in the best position to win. Last year, in our final game, I put in a unique defense to limit a particularly strong opposing player.
Almost always, however, the most important thing I think I can do as coach is make sure my kids are achieving OUR goals. In almost every single case, if we do this, we will win.
And when we lose, it is most frequently about how we failed to meet those objectives.
We can't get distracted fighting the right battle in the wrong ways.
What is the supreme objective – the strategic focus - of Christ and his church? The scriptures teach us that one thing CONQUERS all – LOVE.
Jesus defeated death by death. He was a "social justice warrior" in truth because justice can never be about victory over others. It can only be about reconciliation.
The civil rights movement was a success, if not completely. What were their weapons of aggression? They were two: Suffering and love.
Misguided revolutionaries talk about victory at any cost and tend to leave more destruction and lingering resentment in their wake.
True revolutionaries – Gandhi, MLK, Socrates, Jesus – count the cost, and indeed, it is high. Nevertheless, they pay in love, aggressive love, for it is the only way forward, the only way to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven.
When we keep chanting slogans, keep toeing party lines, keep requiring purity tests – we make things worse, not better.
If you are a believer, and even if you are not – do you really think Jesus wasn’t brokenhearted about the wretchedness - the degradation of his creation - that surrounded him on every side?
Many of his followers saw these evils and wanted him to go to war. They were not alone.
“… the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.’”
The Devil’s strategy is conquest. I see a lot of political warriors on both sides who want to defeat the "others."
It’s a losing strategy, and we have to lay it down, though it might cost us our lives.
On Great and Holy Friday, it seemed like Oklahoma weather came to Jersey.
During the service, we carry the light of faith outside into the world, but when I walked in an usher nodded at the stack of unlit candles, and shrugged-
“Don’t know if you want those or not. It’s pretty windy.”
Great and Holy Saturday, and the wind had died down a little.
This was also the moment of the Resurrection of Our Lord, so we braved the weather, carried our candles, even though they kept blowing out.
Amidst the chanting crowd of worshippers, huddling outside the tomb, someone always kept the light of faith alive, and kept passing it along to others, even though this risked their losing the flame for themselves.
No candle remained lit the entire service, but between us, the flame always burned.
These two happenings, on consecutive evenings, were stark in their contrast, and in their meaning.
On Holy Friday, I did not take the candles, and something about that felt quite jarring, and reminded me of my doubt.
Often, when I anticipate disappointment, I avoid my faith. I don’t understand the ways of God, and I don’t wish to be troubled by the thought that I might have been abandoned.
I own my failures, so I cannot blame my God. And the candle of hope remains buried, deep within my soul.
Our vigil on Holy Saturday begins at 11:30 PM, and old and weary as I’ve become, a little sloth crept in. I confess that I considered just going for liturgy the following morning.
Then Christian, my second-born, came to me, said he’d laid out his church clothes, just in case we went to church. There was pleading in his eyes.
Well, we made it to church that night, but again, I did not initially take the candles.
My heart yearned for the candle, though, and my boys wanted them, too.
So, as we walked out into the breeze, the church bell tolling in the night as we walked three times around the church, our fingers clung to the wax of candles that did not remain ablaze.
We had them, though, and they could be re-lit.
During those services we represent the Myrrh-bearing women who were faithful throughout - while Jesus suffered his passion, and after he’d died. Their dreams of salvation were also dead, yet they still loved Christ with all their being, despite their broken hearts.
We must follow their holy example; we must hold fast to hope.
It was midnight-thirty, and as we walked the thrice-round path outside the church, the bells were ringing, loud and continuous, for at least ten minutes.
My boys giggled quietly, pointing at lights coming on here and there from windows among the rowhouses that frame the edge of the church property.
Internally, I was musing about whether our parish sent out a notice to the neighbors. I can imagine some people were annoyed by our celebration.
I also thought about those who heard the bells, and remembered the faith of their youth, or a time when they still held the candle of hope. I prayed they were buoyed by our shouted and sung declarations and confirmations of victory:
CHRIST IS RISEN!
TRULY, HE IS RISEN!
A little over a year ago, we all went into lockdown. Soon after, I started writing these little essays about “holding on to the good.”
My first post was entitled “What Use Is There In Living?”
I haven’t posted something new in over a month. I confess – I’ve been depressed. There has been a lot of loss around me. Many good people have departed us.
We lost a friend about two weeks ago who was a steady and good part of our lives during all my years in New Jersey. I met Tom before my oldest son Noah was even born. Devoted to his daughter and his friends and his church, Tom was dutiful, funny, interesting, and kind. I’m particularly thankful that in recent years, he looked after and instructed my three oldest sons as they served in the altar.
I have many friends who have begun to lose their dear ones.
This sadness and loss brought me back to my original question – what is the use, when our lives pass so briefly, when our noblest efforts seem vain?
My wonderful wife Jessica splendidly reminded me that service offered in love is never lost, that every good deed done mystically impacts other human beings in ways we won’t understand, on down through the ages from generation to generation.
“They/we just don’t get the credit.”
The veneration of icons in Orthodox Christianity was a stumbling block to me in early days. Later, I learned that veneration - praise of any other - is ultimately appreciation shown to the Author of all that is good. In our goodness, we are icons of Christ.
Sometimes we want the credit, I guess, and that is a stumbling block, too.
I’ve always been challenged by the passage on heroes of the faith in Hebrews chapter 11-
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”
I used to think that an ideal not expected of the many.
Yet here we are, dying a little more every day, and so much remains undone.
When we are tired and suffering it is hard, and few probably understood the constant feeling of defeat more than Saint Paul, who was beaten, arrested, harried to and fro his whole life. Yet, he wrote to the Galatians – “do not become weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not give up.”
To those without faith, the life of Saint Paul is a cautionary tale. Eventually he was beheaded during the persecutions of Nero, one of the most anti-Christian of Roman emperors. Certainly contemporary observers might have considered his efforts a true failure.
Consider Dr. King, who was killed for his dream, which remains so, tragically, seemingly just beyond our reach.
It’s that “in due season” that can give us trouble. We want to see with our own eyes. We don’t want to wait. We want change right now.
A year in and it feels like this pandemic is rounding the corner. However, trauma has been unleashed on so many levels that the end will not likely come for many years. Many if not most have been wounded in ways that will endure for the rest of our lives.
As a middle school history teacher and parent of students in preschool, elementary school and high school, I see all sorts of aspects of the trauma, emotional and academic and social. Thank God I have been working and getting paid. Others know financial trauma. Some have lost those nearest to their hearts. Lord, have mercy.
Two of the books I read this year addressed the Holocaust. My timing might have been poor.
In both (In Paradise, a fiction by Peter Matthiessen and Night, a memoir by Elie Wiesel), there is the real quandary, not only of death and loss, but of dark horrors. In both, faith died. Yet only in its dying could it become real, and eternal.
Maybe reading those books was wise, for it reminded me of all the good I still have, and also to be wary of petty and foolish divisions that become the fuel for dehumanization and hate. It also taught me that we must persist in hope, even when it has been seemingly annihilated.
I know you’re tired. So am I. I see a lot of hurt and harming on social media these days.
But we must not become weary in doing good.
We won’t get the credit, but it might change the world.
This week is “Say Something” week in my school, and it is all about connections.
So, yesterday we watched a silly, animated video about a guy who is so lonely and self-absorbed that he walks by and ignores several chances to connect with other human beings by offering his aid.
Then, providentially, an elderly woman grabs his arm at a stop light and compels him to walk her across the street. Miracle of miracles - this single instance alters his entire existence and henceforth he is engaged with others, helping them and helping himself connect, and thus healing his sad little soul while bettering the world all around him.
They had to pack a lot in the two minute video, so they left out all the realistic parts about his fits and starts, relapses into selfishness and shame, his stumbles and bumbles along the difficult path of agape.
The admonition is truth, though. We need to look outward to see those human beings around us – old and young, strong and weak, happy or miserable, lovely or difficult.
We need to recognize others, and help them to feel known, and loved.
This is hard.
This morning as I drove to work, praying the Lord’s prayer, I noticed an important sequence for the first time.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” is immediately followed by “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
I always thought the “temptations” were things like lying and debauchery, you know, the really bad stuff. I’m sure that’s part of it. But the sequence jumped out at me today (what a slow learner I can be).
We must really see those around us, and we must love and heal or we won ‘t survive.
Yet, often, we can’t get past the flaws and failings of our neighbors, and so our looking out turns to judgment and disdain, perhaps leading to slander and gossip, but certainly nurturing pride.
The proximity of forgiving trespasses and asking to be directed away from temptation is important, I think. What a dilemma we face. If we do not love our neighbor, we have no place in the Kingdom of God. Yet, this requires us to see them, in all their frailty, and stifle our judgments, and only love, as we are loved by God.
This conjures the painful musings of St. Paul, which are often our own – “…I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing.”
In an attempt at practicing being present this week, I turned off the television and went into the playroom and sat down beside my son Seth, who is 5. He was playing with a variety of action figures and stuffed animals and Legos. I just sat quietly and listened as he gave a different voice to each of his characters. He was also pretty handy with the sound effects.
If you have not observed your child like this in a while, I recommend, highly. It is as soothing as listening to a bubbling creek or watching wind jostle tree boughs in a forest. More, because he is my son.
Sadly, my silent presence was strange to Seth, so he asked me what I was doing.
I am watching you play, son.
Yes, but why?
Because you are special.
No, I am not special.
You are truly, son.
No, I am not.
Well, let me say it differently -you are wonderful.
Yes, I am wonderful. Just not special.
Ah, the wisdom of childlike faith. It is God’s desire that none should perish, and Christ died “for all.”
Each of us, despite our fallen natures, our loneliness, or crooked brokenness and scars, have been lovingly made in the image of God. We are wonderfully and fearfully made.
And so are our neighbors.
Even if they have made former President Donald Trump into an idol.
Even when they have decided their true gender identity doesn’t match their gender at birth.
Even if they protested recklessly and violently in Portland.
Even if they protested recklessly and violently in D.C.
Even when they draw false equivalencies, or promote damaging untruths.
Remember the demonized man from Gadara, who lived in caves, cut himself with stones and had to be chained because he generally terrorized the area. Remember the outcast lepers and tax collectors, or the self-righteous teachers of the law?
Remember the woman caught in adultery and the Samaritan woman at the well?
How can we forget the man whose position of power represented oppression for the Jews – the Roman centurion? Or that other Roman centurion who crucified our Lord? What of the thieves on the cross to His left and His right, one repentant and the other hardened?
What of Mary Magdalene, the one-time demonized harlot who wept beneath his nailed-scarred bloody feet?
What about those valiant men who abandoned him as he died: Nathaniel the skeptic, Thomas the doubter, Peter the denier, or Judas the betrayer?
All wonderfully and fearfully made.
Just like you and me.
My father was a music pastor.
I am biased, certainly, but my guess is that anyone who encountered my Pops in this role would affirm that he was one of the most effective worship pastors they’ve known.
He did a masterful job planning each service. It was a gift, and this offering was even more effective because none of it was about him. He did lead, but almost universally shied away from soloing. He invited others to do so, and cultivated their gifts by offering them opportunities and praise along the way.
I was spoiled by his craft. He always chose the proper mixture between songs of repentance and rejoicing. He recognized the need for this balance between awe and humility on the one hand, and gratitude and praise on the other, and strove to make this path available for parishioners every service.
In my journey I have visited and participated in almost every type of denomination. I am a wanderer by nature, and I enjoy learning new things and meeting interesting people, gleaning from them crumbs of wisdom that I would have never known otherwise.
Along the way, I encountered several churches that are heavy on the praise and proclamation and short on the repentance, and this struck me as wrong, irreverent even.
My personality is melancholy, so some of this is personal preference. I remember leading a few services at a small Baptist church in Shawnee, OK when I was in college. Eventually, the pastor told me my services would no longer be needed, because I was heavy on songs of repentance. I thought repentance is the first step to joy, and it is, but he told me his people needed more uplifting music. (If only I could go talk to my younger self 😊)
My journey eventually brought me to the Orthodox Church, where we sing “Lord, have mercy!” more than any other phrase. This is our motto, and it is my favorite prayer, because it is truly all-encompassing. The fuller version of this – the Jesus Prayer – is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Everything is there – theology, praise, love, repentance, hope.
We also have several multi-week periods devoted to prayer and fasting, repentance, with constant prayer services devoted to the wretched state of our souls and a meditation on our deep need for salvation. It suits my personality, all this focus on repentance, but like with my father’s planning, there is balance, too.
Among the things I’ve learned is the Prayer of the Hours that I’ve made a part of my daily rule. During the middle section of the intercession there is this-
… guide our lives according to your commandments: make holy our souls, cleanse our bodies, correct our thoughts, purify our intentions and deliver us from every sorrow, evil and pain…
So, I say this prayer almost daily, and for years now, the sort of cynical part of me agrees with all the parts about cleansing and correcting, but “deliver us from every sorrow, evil and pain?” That sounds like those churches I went to that catechized their members to believe everything would always work out, to the destruction of faith in many, I suppose.
Some part of my psyche has subconsciously rejected this prayer for years. It appeared unseemly to make such an audacious request.
Life is hard, destructive, desolate, and sad. Almost daily, if one pays any attention. It seems a fool’s errand to ask God to “deliver us from every sorrow, evil and pain.”
Yet, today, after several weeks of my wife treating me with a great deal of kindness that I have not earned, cheering me toward wholeness, (Notice here that her love in action, not her theology or lecturing, moved me) I recognized the wisdom here.
We need songs of repentance, truly. We also need songs of deliverance.
Perhaps, due to our frailty, we have greater need of the latter. Perhaps.
God loves us as we are, yet longs to draw us closer to holiness that we might live fuller lives.
Consider the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. She lived in a manner that was sinful, and harmful to her own soul. Yet, Jesus first sat with her and talked, heard her sorrow and looked into her sad eyes, when everyone else treated her with ridicule and ostracism. Jesus knew she needed love first, then truth.
This is how we must love our neighbor.
I have a few students who have done diddly-squat during this crazy time of online-hybrid-virtual-pandemic learning. They’ve just checked out. And in our teacher meetings, some bemoan these lazy little children and their irresponsible parents.
And yet, they are people, these little ones, who need to be loved, despite their pitiful effort. So, when I see one of these children pass by, I try to reach out with a smile and ask something I think they can answer, to make them feel accepted. I try to give them a moment of peace, when I’m not checking in on their meager effort, but instead just seeing them, the person they are in their sadness.
The point is, I sort of understand this, how to love my neighbor with mercy. (I’ve still got a long way to go.)
However, I often refuse to accept that I SHOULD ASK God for joy, and deliverance from “every sorrow, evil and pain.”
Maybe you’re like me, and your focus is always repentance. This morning I was reminded that it is alright to ask God for good, too. A perfect Father who gives good gifts, He is waiting for you and me to share the deepest longings of our souls.
Part of faith is the humility to recognize our need for great mercy. The other part is hoping against reason that Our Heavenly Father will draw us near, and hold us, and wipe our tears, and fill our souls with rejoicing. So, join me as I ask God to “deliver us from every sorrow, evil and pain.”
This week two events converged in my life.
First, I am a public-school teacher. There are a great many things public schools stand for that I endorse, heartily. However, there are other areas and political ideologies that agitate me because they violate my sense of right and true and helpful to children. This week was the first time I’ve been put in a situation where that agitation became raw, up close in a way that was inescapable.
What am I to do?
The second was a text from a friend, sending along some political information about a Biden appointee, followed by the declaration that now it is time for me to “stand up like a man.”
What am I to do?
Among teachers there are a load of things about which we can justly complain, especially right now, and one of the phrases that gets tossed around a lot is the question – “is this the hill you wanna die on?” The answer is usually ‘no’.
This begs important questions. First, which ‘hills’ are worthy of our sacrifice?
Also, is there a right or wrong (a worse, better, best) way to stand up for what you believe?
I once had a pastor who said that unless you have wept over the sins of your neighbor, unless you have a broken heart for how their sin is destroying them, you needn’t bother speaking to them about their issue. While I think nuance should applied even when you are broken hearted, I also believe there is wisdom here-
Unless you act in love, do not act.
Jesus did, in fact, die on a hill. His sacrifice was for the salvation of the whole world, and I think we can all agree it was a worthy death. Indeed, we rejoice in his Passion!
I also think that whatever aggressive methods illustrated in the story of Jesus – there are very few really (speaking stark truth to legalists and turning over the tables of the moneychangers) – are sanctified by the fact that he was first of all, and only, LOVE.
If we go around dying on hills, and have not first died with Christ on Golgotha, if we have not died to our own selfish and vain imaginations and if we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves, perhaps we die in vain, or worse, harming others.
What of those who stoned Stephen for teaching against their ‘righteous’ principles? What of the fools who tried to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, only to be beaten and rebuffed by the demons who said “Jesus we know, but who are you?” What about that time Peter refused to sit with the gentiles because they did not keep the whole law?
In each of these cases, and there are many more (in the bible – the history of the Christian Church has endless examples – Crusades, Inquisition, etc.), the culprit was acting according to their principles. They were standing up “like a man.” And, they were wrong, not necessarily because of their principles, but because they didn’t have love.
There are many issues facing Christians today in a world where ideology changes every time the wind blows. We are afraid, perhaps rightly, that our norms and traditions will soon die.
Let us not forget that the Roman Empire into which Christ was born was one of the most wretched and immoral times in all of history. Most of the wretchedness was either ignored or endorsed by the political powers. For some reason the gospel writers chose to mention almost zero times Jesus addressed these concerns. Indeed, if anything, he was shown rubbing shoulders with prostitutes and tax collectors and other villains.
He was love.
I assert that if you do not die first on the hill of Christ - Calvary - you risk great and perhaps damaging error dying on any other hills, because you act out of vanity and fear, not love.
This is an uncomfortable place, I know.
"Examine all things; hold on to the good."
-Saint Paul the Apostle