Good Friday Prayer

Gary Phillips, the pastor of Salem United Methodist Church where our family participates, has invited members of the congregation to offer daily prayers during April as part of the church website. I was asked to offer the prayer on this Good Friday. You may access the video of the prayer here: http://www.salemumcsc.com/

I offer the printed prayer as follows:

Loving and Eternal God, in the Crucified Jesus, you entered the depth and breadth of the world’s suffering and brokenness and into humanity’s sin and frailty. On the cross, you took on the principalities and powers of sin and death with courage, humility, and boundless love.

You responded to hatred, violence, and bigotry with compassion and forgiveness. You met the abuse of power by religious and political leaders with the power of love. Amid the anguish and pain, you reached out to a dying malefactor with the promise of paradise; you cared for your grieving mother; and you endured abuse and cruelty with magnanimity.

O Crucified Christ, remind us

  • that no suffering is so traumatic that it cannot be redeemed
  • that our deepest loneliness is known by you
  • that no sin is so horrible but that you can forgive
  • that our death has been swallowed up in your victory
  • that you are with us through the dark valley of grief and loss

We praise you, O God, that in Christ Jesus you have defeated the powers of sin and death and opened to us a new future

  • where love reigns supreme,
  • justice and truth prevail,
  • hope vanishes despair and,
  • life outlasts death.

Through the presence and power of your Holy Spirit, create in us the mind that was in Christ Jesus and enable us to follow him with devotion and faithfulness.

In his name we offer our prayer. Amen

 

Grieving in Isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic compounds and complicates the grief process. It’s as though the whole world is in mourning.

Many are dying alone in hospitals and healthcare facilities cutoff from families.  Funeral services and comforting embraces are limited.

There is a solitude inherit in grief itself. Others may empathetically bear some of sorrow’s weight; but the deepest pain is privately borne.

Yet, we need the comfort that comes from physically connecting with one another — warm embraces, a clasp of the hand, a smile on the lips, or tears in the eyes.

Friday will mark six months since Linda’s death. The intensity of the sadness has subsided and the waves of sorrow wash over me less often. Adjusting to life without her presence remains a daily challenge.

The “social distancing” and isolation are having an impact on my own grieving.  I grieve for and with those who are infected with the COVID-19 virus and their families. The sheer number of casualties is breathtaking.  But they are more than numbers; they are mothers, fathers, spouses, children, friends, colleagues, family.

I feel a certain kinship with them, a solidarity that is deepened by my own loss. There is a strange comfort in such solidarity, a sense of connection with others who grieve. I understand more fully the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

The isolation is forcing me to revisit and work through painful memories. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, my busyness had enabled me to avoid fully coming to grips with some guilt, regrets, and other negative components of grieving.

Now I can’t escape them. The long hours of solitude and silence bring buried thoughts and  emotions to the surface. I’m naming them as they arise, reflecting prayerfully, and sharing them in telephone conversations and messages with family and close friends.

Although I am alone most of the time, I’m not really isolated in my grieving. I remain connected in multiple bonds of love and friendship. And, I’ve committed to reaching out to others who are grieving. With the pandemic, “others” includes almost everyone.

A hymn we sing often at Bethany, the memory care facility where I serve as volunteer chaplain, is “Blest be the Tie That Binds.” We always include this verse:

We share each other’s woes,

our mutual burdens bear;

and often for each other flows,

the sympathizing tear.

Let us find ways of sharing our grief even in this time of isolation. In so doing, we may come to know “the peace that passes understanding.”

 

 

Sermon on Mount: My Lenten Discipline

This is the fourth year that daily engagement with the Sermon on the Mount has been part of my Lenten discipline.

Each morning I read and reflect on about half of one of the three chapters, which means that it takes six mornings for me to complete the Sermon. Once I complete the chapters, I repeat the sequence. Only this time I read the passages in a different translation or paraphrase.

I ask myself these two questions each morning: Where do I see this being lived by me and/or others? In what situations have I failed to live this way? Throughout the day, I look for examples of faithfulness to and betrayals of Jesus’s vision.

Intentionally holding up my life against Jesus’s life and teaching sensitizes, inspires, and challenges me toward what John Wesley called “holiness of heart and life” and “the entire love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

I am reminded of the quote from General Omar Bradley from the mid twentieth century:

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

The contrast today is even more stark! Values, behaviors, and practices opposite those clearly expressed in Jesus’s Sermon and his life have become normalized. The contrast is nowhere more publicly obvious that in today’s political discourse and behaviors by prominent people.

If the Sermon on the Mount contains the vision of life as Jesus lived and invites us to live, it is essential that Jesus’s disciples make the Sermon the basis of our decisions and actions.

The Sermon on the Mount, however, is more than a statement of ethical expectations. It is a revelation of the very nature and action of God. It reveals how God acts in the world.

Therefore, the Sermon is an invitation to live as God lives in the world. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas states it clearly:

The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is. Cheek-turning is not advocated as what works (it usually does not), but advocated because this is the way God is – God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. This is not a stratagem for getting what we want but the only manner of life available, now that, in Jesus, we have seen what God wants. We seek reconciliation with the neighbor, not because we feel so much better afterward, but because reconciliation is what God is doing in the world through Christ.

Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount won’t “work” in a world like this. That’s the point! If we live the Sermon on the Mount, the world won’t be like this!

 

Prayer in the Aftermath of the Nashville Tornado

Having experienced a tornado while living in Nashville and knowing something of the shock waves of grief, loss, uncertainty, and hard work resulting from such devastation, I offer the following prayer. I know that individuals and congregations in that great city will pull together and courageously reach out to one another with compassion and helpfulness.

O God, our help and hope in every time of distress, we bring before you our concern and grief over the devastating losses experienced by the people of Nashville from the powerful tornado. We know not even how to pray, for our groans are deeper than words can express.

Assure us that you know our thoughts, that you accept our inaudible petitions, our prayers of anguish and lament, and bewilderment in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. Remind us and the suffering people of Nashville that you do not desert us; but in times of desperate need, you are ever present to comfort and restore.

Console those who mourn, give shelter to those who are displaced, reunite those separated from loved ones, and give hope to those who seem to have lost hope. With your healing power, touch those who are injured, and grant confidence to those now uncertain about the future.  To all rescue workers and recovery volunteers, give wisdom, endurance, patience, and perseverance.

We pray  for pastors and congregations who embody your presence in ministries of compassion and mercy among the displaced people left homeless and defenseless by the ravaging winds. May they know the peace that passes understanding and be strengthened by supportive embraces and expressions of love from colleagues and friends.

O Crucified and Risen Lord, remind us that love triumphs through suffering and no turbulent wind can destroy the bond of love.  Because of your decisive victory over the powers of sin and death, life will prevail over death, hope over despair, love and justice will win over indifference and exploitation.

For you, O God, are “our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”

We pray through Jesus the Christ, who’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and joy, we celebrate and anticipate with hope. Amen

 

“From Dust to Dust”

Ash Wednesday

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

I’ve said those words countless times as I placed ashes and the sign of the cross on the forehead of worshipers. And, I’ve had them spoken to me at the beginning of Lent for decades.

But this year the words have a particular poignancy. Linda, with whom my life has been deeply intertwined in a profound bond of love for six decades, has too quickly returned “to dust” from which she came.

Within the last five years, death has claimed my wife, my mother, sister, brother, brother-in-law,  uncle, aunt, several friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

On this Ash Wednesday, “To dust you shall return”  sounds and feels more like a personal medical prognosis than a routine religious ritual.

The circle is drawing closer. Life is narrowing. Energy is lessening. Capacities are diminishing. Frailty lies on the horizon. Time is running out.

I know this seems grim and foreboding. But, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about confronting the reality that we all live with the dust from which we came and the dust to which we return.

Life is always Frail! Fragile! Fleeting!

Yet, there is a strange freedom in acknowledging our own frailty and mortality. The idols of control, self aggrandizement, and invincibility are stripped away.

What’s left amid the ashes of crumbling idols is Grace! Gift! God!

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” are words spoken in community as we are marked with the sign of Cross.

The One who breathes into the dust from which we came redeems the dust to which we return.

So, we are not alone on our journey from dust. . . to dust!

And, we journey toward a new heaven and new earth where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more . . .” (Revelation 21:4).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Criminal INJUSTICE System



In the late 1970s, Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton promised to pardon the son of a political ally who had been convicted of the murder of his ex-wife and her male companion. A firestorm of protest erupted, embroiling the Democratic governor in controversy that transcended political affiliation.

In an attempt to calm the political storm, Governor Blanton appointed a “Blue Ribbon Committee” to make a recommendation regarding his decision to pardon the convicted man.

I was asked to serve on the committee, which included a forensic psychiatrist, a Vanderbilt law professor, a couple of state senators, persons experienced with the pardon and parole system, a newspaper publisher, state representatives, and a couple of business people.

After thorough review of the case and hearing from relevant witnesses, the committee recommended against the pardon. We unanimously agreed that he did not meet the standard guidelines and that the proposed pardon was clearly a political payoff.

We felt that granting a unilateral pardon for obvious political payback subverted the criminal justice system and undermined confidence in its fairness.

Contrary to his promise to the committee, the governor pardoned the man along with more than fifty others during his last week in office.

Governor-Elect Lamar Alexander was sworn in three days prior to the official inauguration in order to prevent more such pardons.

Republican Alexander’s early swearing in was made possible by the U.S. attorney representing the Department of Justice, the lieutenant governor and state Speaker of the House, both Democrats.

After leaving office, Governor Blanton was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for selling liquor licenses, and he served twenty-two months in a federal penitentiary.

Memory of this episode from forty years ago resurfaced with the news of President Trump granting pardons and/or clemency to duly tried-and-convicted, high-profile, white-collar criminals.

As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The recent actions by President Trump clearly rhymes with the Blanton experience. Both reflect the gross inequities within the criminal justice system and the abuse of power for purely political purposes.

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The scales of justice are demonstrably weighted in favor of the economically and politically privileged. It’s more about how much money you have, the color of your skin, and who you know than what you do that determines your fate in the current system.

A glaring difference between the Blanton case and the current president’s actions is public response.

Forty years ago, Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee together demanded action from their political leaders on behalf of fundamental justice. Now, protest is largely muted and clearly partisan.

Has advocacy for simple fairness and equity become merely a politically partisan issue?

I wonder if Senator Lamar Alexander remembers that he was inaugurated governor three days early because leaders of the opposing political party put justice above party?

Are corruption and cronyism now acceptable, if it is done by OUR party?

Have we now normalized a criminal injustice system?

Is political party affiliation now the final arbiter of what is right?

Have we become a nation “where nobody is above the law,” EXCEPT the economically secure, politically connected, and racially privileged?

Is the Pledge of Allegiance a meaningless ritual for opening sports and civic events? What about “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL”?

The prophet Micah lived in a time when justice was weighted against the poor, and religious leaders were complicit with the prevailing injustice. Micah cautioned that such injustice has disastrous consequences and warned of impending national collapse.

But the prophet’s warning included God’s alternative:

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8)

And this word from the Psalmist merits our attention:

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.” (106:3 NIV)

May our actions rhyme with the words of the Prophet and the Psalmist, more than with our partisan politics.

Moving from Grief’s Tears to Love’s Smiles

It’s been three and half months since Linda’s death. The grieving continues!

C. S. Lewis in his classic A Grief Observed writes that grief is like a bomber flying overhead. At times you are only faintly aware that it is there. Then, without warning it drops a bomb, shattering your world once more. The sobbing and disorientation return.

Those waves of grief come unexpectedly, like a sudden bolt of thunder on a clear day! They are triggered by a site, or fragrance, or a rediscovered memento, a reminder of an experience from the past.

Painful images of Linda’s diseased-induced distress, anguish, confusion, disorientation, and fear open the floodgates of grief’s tears. They trouble me, sometimes torment me!

Experts remind us that the memories with the most painful emotion attached to them are the hardest to heal.

Those negative images accompanying our journey with dementia are difficult to dislodge from my memory.

But healing is happening!

Our daughter created a collage of photographs of happy times over our sixty years together.

Collage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The collection of joyful images sits in my sunroom where I spend much of the day. Other photos are attached to the refrigerator.  Two months ago, those photos brought tears, too. They reminded me of what had been but can be no more.

Yet, something important has been happening.

The painful images from the last few years are slowly being balanced by memories from six decades of love and laughter.

Our new community chaplain, Kathleen Miko, stopped by this week for a visit. Since she had not known Linda, I pointed to the collection of photographs and explained why they were there.

Kathleen observed, “I notice that you smile every time you look at those photos.”

I hadn’t realized that gradually grief’s tears are being replaced with smiles of gratitude for love shared.

I know that more bombs of sadness will fall, waves of grief will come crashing over me.

Yet, grief’s tears are slowly giving way to love’s smiles.

 

Hope for the Past

As dawn breaks on this first day of 2020 and a new decade, we rightly seek glimmers of hope for the future. I wonder, however, if it is past for which we need hope.

A friend sent me a poem this week by David Ray. It is a tribute to the famed poet Robert Frost:

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

Yes,  I need hope for the past!

  •  mistakes of the past are redeemed.
  •  guilt from the past is forgiven
  • grief of the past is comforted
  •  memories of the past are claimed without pain
  • broken relationships from the past are reconciled
  • prejudices of the past are purged
  • hatreds of the past are eradicated
  • lessons from the past are learned

Since the One who creates, redeems, and sustains is LOVE, there is hope for the past and future. Living that hope is the challenge of today!

 

Grieving at Christmas

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Grief dominates Christmas for me this year! Sparkling decorations, joyous music, holiday parties, and upbeat festivities just don’t fit where I am.

I was a teenager the last Christmas I celebrated without Linda. That was six decades ago!   Even though she was not cognitively aware of the last five Christmases, she was still present.

I could see her! Hear her voice! Hold her hand! Kiss her forehead! Comb her hair! Feed her! Brush her teeth! Sit silently beside her and listen to her breathe.

Now she’s gone! Memories remain, but they are accompanied by sadness for what is no more.

Part of me is missing, too.  Adjusting to who I am without her means reorienting my identity, redefining my vocation,  re-ordering everyday living.

But there is a mysterious goodness in grieving at Christmastime. It’s hard to explain.

The pensiveness I feel seems to be stripping away the superficiality of the season and confronting me anew with the profundity of the Christmas story:

The infinite God, the source of all life, who brings this magnificent and ever-expanding universe into being, entered human flesh with all its frailty, vulnerability, death, and grieving. Thereby,  God has claimed all matter, including human life and death, as bearers of divine presence and love.

The ultimate meaning of our existence is to be extensions of the incarnation, birthing and nurturing God’s presence and love amid our living, grieving, and dying.

Grief is love weeping, evidence of love shared. The longing for presence, yearning for recovered memories and lived expressions are signs that love still lives and grows. Gratitude that love remains amid death and loss gives perspective to the grieving.

But Linda is no longer present for me to tangibly share love. That still hurts deeply!

Christmas speaks to that hurt, too! It doesn’t take it away, but it offers a means of redeeming the absence and hurt: I can enter the loss, grief, and longing of others!

There is comfort in solidarity with those who suffer. Some are in our families. Others are neighbors. They need a gentle embrace, a whisper of comfort, perhaps a gesture of forgiveness, a word of encouragement.

There is also comfort in extending hospitality and advocating on behalf of the vulnerable and wounded who also bear God’s image, presence, and love.

Christmas is about God coming in a helpless baby, born of a young peasant, unmarried and pregnant teenager, made homeless by a cruel governmental decree.

The Christmas stories in the New Testament proclaim God’s radical hospitality and prophetic advocacy on behalf of the powerless, despised, and vulnerable people of the world.

Grief has energy, passion! I pray that the energy and passion of my grieving will be channeled into friendship with and acts of mercy and justice on behalf of those with whom Jesus so closely identified that we meet him in them.

That’s what God wants! And, I think that is how Linda would want me to grieve her absence!

Christmas, after all, is about God entering our grief, redeeming our sorrows, and inviting us to join Emmanuel in “the least of these.”

 

 

 

Christmas: A Different Politics

OIP7L7BFVIE“I’m tired of politics and politicians! Maybe Christmas will give us a break!” That’s a comment I overheard in the grocery store this week.

We could all use a reprieve from the rancorous partisan wrangling going on in Washington and on social media.

It seems that hate, cruelty, violence,  greed, dishonesty, deception, and disrespect have been normalized and now dominate political rhetoric and practice.

Can’t we just put politics aside–sit beside a warm fire, wrap gifts, sing “Jingle Bells,” and dream of a white Christmas?

Perhaps such an escape from the world of ideological warfare over taxes, immigration, poverty, homelessness, religious divisions, and abuse of power would help us all.

But there is a problem! Those same realities exist in the first Christmas as recounted by the Gospels. Emperor Augustus issued an executive order requiring that everyone  register to be taxed. Compliance required that everyone return to their birthplace.

A young pregnant unmarried peasant girl, Mary, and her fiancé, Joseph, had to travel to a remote hamlet. Unable to find housing, they lodged in a barn.

There in the darkness of the night, surrounded by farm animals, Mary gave birth to a son, without the aid of medical care. She wrapped him in a common cloth and placed him in a cattle trough.

Rumors circulated that this child of Mary and Joseph, Jesus, was the Messiah, God’s anointed, from the lineage of mighty King David.

Threatened by a potential rival, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all males under age two. To escape the violence in their home country, Mary and Joseph became immigrants in Egypt.

So, as recounted by Luke and Matthew, the first Christmas was a political event! God entered the messy, divisive, violent world of worldly politics.

Politics is about power, its definition and use. Christmas is about God’s politics, God’s definition and exercise of power.

Here are the  images of God’s power:

  • a baby born among the homeless,
  • an immigrant child escaping violence,
  • a carpenter/preacher speaking truth to prevailing religious and political power,
  • a compassionate healer of the sick who welcomes outcasts,
  • the crucified Jesus extending forgiveness to thieves and a violent mob,
  • the Risen Christ, still bearing the scars of crucifixion,
  • the Living Christ present in the longing for wholeness, justice, and peace.

The answer to our current politics of destruction and dysfunction is God’s Christmas politics of compassion and justice. We most properly celebrate  by

acts of mercy and justice toward the poor, vulnerable, and powerless

welcoming the outcasts and strangers

caring for the sick and frail

comforting the grieving and dying

 visiting the imprisoned and lonely

practicing forgiveness in a culture of vengeance

living and demanding honesty and integrity

trusting the power of love over coercion and domination

cultivating confidence in the ultimate triumphant of God’s love!

God’s Christmas politics WILL win!