“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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Thanksgiving While Grieving”

Thanksgiving is different this year.  It’s the first Thanksgiving in sixty years that Linda and I haven’t been together. Her absence is keenly felt. Grief remains raw.

Admittedly, gratitude isn’t the prevailing emotion. Lament prevails over praise. Tears surface more readily than laughter.  Sorrow’s night time still awaits morning’s joy.

Then, I read the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).

My first response is “Paul, you’ve got to be kidding! This sounds like a pious positive-thinking platitude propagated by a prosperity preacher.”

I realize, however, that the admonition comes from one who knew far more hardship, suffering,  grief, and struggle than anything I have experienced. He chronicles some of his challenges:

. . . countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received. . .forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from bandits, danger from my own people, . . ., danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

So I can’t easily dismiss his admonition that I “rejoice always” and  “give thanks in all circumstances.”  He knows some things I need to remember and practice amid my sadness and struggles.

For one thing, the present circumstance is not the whole story. Loss and grief can feel all-consuming, the tragic end of the story.

But the Apostle Paul knew that our stories are emeshed is a much larger narrative. We are all part a Love Story that encompasses all creation. The Eternal Power that brings creation into existence is ever working to renew, reconcile, heal,  and bring to completion all things.

Therefore, we can rejoice and give thanks that within the worst of circumstances, God is present, working to comfort, heal, reconcile, renew, and bring wholeness. In this Love Story, the most painful and debilitating experiences are woven into the fabric of a new future we call Resurrection!

As participants in this eternal Love Story, we are never alone. We are connected to one another and to all of God’s creation. Paul states it boldly, “Nothing in all creation, in life or in death, is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:19).

On this first Thanksgiving Day without the physical presence of Linda, I rejoice and give thanks for

  •  love shared for six decades and which continues to bind us together
  •  family and friends who lend their loving support
  •  joyful memories of tender and carefree times
  •  suffering relieved and wholeness gained
  •  hope that “joy will come in the morning”
  •  love that endures
  •  lament amid loss, comfort amid sorrow
  •  being part of God’s ongoing Love Story!

Thank you, Paul, for helping me rejoice and give thanks on this first Thanksgiving Day without Linda’s physical presence.

Hands crossed in prayer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Penetrating Word for United Methodists”

Tom Lee grew up in a congregation I was privileged to serve for ten years. My daughters were in youth choir and UMYF with him. His mother was one of my wife Linda’s friends. His father, mother, and sister contributed immeasurably to the life and mission of that congregation.

Tom puts the current talk of schism within The United Methodist Church in historic, political, and cultural context.  Everyone concerned about the future of the denomination will benefit from reading his prophetic, insightful analysis.

https://bittersoutherner.com/from-the-southern-perspective/two-signposts-opposite-directions-tom-lee

 

 

“Glimpses”

A week has passed since Linda’s death and I have begun the process of adjusting to the new norm without her physical presence. Though the house is vacant and quiet, the reality of the love we shared for sixty years remains.

One of the most comforting and profound experiences of the last week has been a poem written by our daughter, Sheri, which she shared at both of Linda’s memorial services. I learned that she wrote the poem over the ten years of Linda’s disease and that she would write a new stanza every time her mom entered a new phase of dementia.

Each stanza represents a stage in the long journey and chronicles the progression of the losses experienced, including the present reality of her absence and our anticipation of resting in the loving arms of God in whose presence Linda now lives.

I share the poem with Sheri’s permission.

                     Glimpses

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of a future reality that will come to be.
A lost word, a confused look,
An expression I mistook.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of the mom who still knows and loves me.
Embarrassed by her lapse and my forgotten name,
I brush it aside because I love her all the same.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of the mom she used to be.
A smile, a giggle, a twinkling of the eye
Remind me of a taken-for-granted time now gone by.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of my mom slipping away from me.
I try and try to connect once again
To little avail, though; this is how it’s been.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of where my mom will one day be.
In the arms of the God who loves her so much,
In the arms of the God she did always trust.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of my mom happy, as she is meant to be
Cradled in love and joy and peace
After all these years, she is finally free.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of a world without my mom physically
Close in my heart she will always be
Until that very day God cradles me.

(Written by Sheri Carder Hood)

Hope’s “Beautiful Daughters”

I’m angry! Apparently, I’m not alone. Everywhere I turn I see and hear the anger.

There’s a lot that should make us angry:

  • Rampant corruption in the highest offices in our government
  • Immigrant children separated from their families and housed in cages
  • Paralyzing, self-serving political partisanship
  • Insulting disparities between rich and poor in ready access to life’s necessities
  • Sexual discrimination, exploitation, harassment, and violence
  • Gun violence and communities awash in instruments of death
  • Racial, religious, and ethnic hatred and bigotry
  • Environmental destruction and climate intensification
  • Weakened and divided faith communities
  • And . . . .

I’m scared by the level and pervasiveness of the anger. But there is another perspective. Maybe the anger is a source of hope.

St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) wrote: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage; Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Daughter Anger is everywhere. She’s not very beautiful when merely wringing her hands, clinching her fist, punching in the face, calling people demeaning names, or perpetuating violence.

Daughter Anger’s beauty shines when controlled by compassion, speaks the truth, works for justice, and extends hands of reconciliation.

But it takes daughter Courage for daughter Anger to be compassionate, just, and hospitable in these times.

When sisters  Anger and Courage join hands to build communities of compassion, justice, and peace, Mother Hope shows up. . .

  • in a sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist challenging the United Nations
  • in a small congregation protecting an immigrant family from deportation
  • in a whistle-blower who risks job and scorn to expose a dangerous threat
  • in a politician who puts country above party and works for the common good
  • in a church that risks decline but declares that ALL means ALL, including LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers
  • in a young United Methodist pastor not yet ordained instituting a gun buy-back program in a small South Carolina town
  • in a black first-grader holding the hand of a white special ed student being taunted by classmates
  • and supremely in a carpenter-turned-preacher challenging the principalities and powers of evil with death-defying acts of compassion, integrity, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Hands Huddling-Perry Grone on Unsplash

God grant that our anger will give us courage to join hands and  participate fully in Christ’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and peace!

 

 

 

 

I Take Bible Too Seriously to Take It Literally

The only book we had in my childhood home was the Bible! Though my mother had only a sixth grade education, she read the Bible daily until her death at age 96.

In our home, the Bible was more than a book. It was a revered icon, a visible repository of God’s revelation. We learned its stories, memorized verses and entire chapters. It was the source of our ethical compass.

The church of my childhood proudly described itself as “fundamentalist.” The King James Bible reigned supreme as “God’s Word,” as though dictated by God rather than being published in 1611 under the direction of Anglican King James I.

One of my most dramatic and memorable childhood experiences was seeing a copy of the newly Revised Standard Version of the New Testament burned during worship. The preacher declared that “Communists and atheists” translators had “tampered with the Word of God.”

He proceeded to set the pages on fire so that this “corrupt” version of the Bible would burn, just as its translators would “burn in hell.”

The preacher’s point was clear: We must take this book seriously; tampering with it has drastic consequences!

His point is correct! The Bible is to be taken seriously. Failure to do so has far-reaching consequences.

The problem is this: “Seriously” to the preacher meant “literally.” He failed to realize that literalism can be a way of avoiding taking the Bible seriously, and the results can be devastating.

Literalism tends to rob the Bible of its depth, beauty, mystery, and imagination.   Taking it literally means you don’t have to probe its meaning because the meaning is self-evident (” the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” or “it means exactly what it says”).

Literalism can be an avoidance mechanism against the deeper meaning. Focusing on the details of whether a great fish really swallowed Jonah distracts from the harder truth of the story: God loves our enemies as much as God loves us!

Or, reading the first two chapters of Genesis as factual accounts of how creation came into existence enables us to avoid the question why and our role as participants in the ongoing nurturing of the earth.

In reality, we are all selective literalists. A participant in a Bible study challenged my assertion that one can believe in Genesis and in evolution.  He argued, “The Bible clearly says that God created the world in six days. Evolution contradicts the Bible and I believe the Bible. The Bible means exactly what it says!”

A few weeks later, we had moved to a discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s admonition to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “go the second mile.” I asked, “What are the implications of these passages for our criminal justice system and the use of the death penalty.”

The man who had previously insisted on a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 responded: “Well, it can’t be taken literally or we would have to be pacifists.”  He obviously was being selective in his literalism.

Some passages should be taken literally: The Great Commandment, love your enemies, the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13 to name a few. But even these have to be interpreted, amplified, explained.

Taking the Bible seriously requires that we interpret each part by the meaning of the whole. That is, every passage has to be viewed in terms of its relationship to the overall theme of the Bible–God’s mighty acts of salvation of human hearts, communities, and the entire cosmos.

Ripping verses from the Bible and using them as “proof texts” is tantamount to a surgeon removing an organ without knowing the organ’s relationship to the whole body. We would charge such a reckless surgeon with malpractice.

I firmly believe in the authority of Scripture! Its authority, however, does not reside in its verbal inerrancy.

Here is my understanding of the Bible’s authority: Its authentic witness to the Word-Made-Flesh and its power through the Holy Spirit in community to transform human hearts, relationships, communities, and the entire creation into the likeness of Jesus the eternal Christ.

Being transformed by the Bible requires more than superficial reading, like reading a fortune cookie or daily horoscope. It requires delving deeply into the context, language, nuance, ambiguity, contradictions, and mystery beyond the literal words.

Taking the Bible seriously involves the insights of the community, including the scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the Scriptures.

Serious reading of Scripture requires putting ourselves in the stories and being changed by the message. Scripture interprets us as surely as we interpret Scripture. Only those willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture take the Bible seriously.

So, the final test of how seriously we take the Bible is the character formed in us. Is the Bible —

  • shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the true Word of God?
  • expanding our capacity to love, including those deemed the “other” or “enemy”?
  • deepening our commitment to and practice of compassion and justice?
  • empowering us to participate fully in God’s present and coming reign in Jesus Christ?
  • increasing our faith, hope, and courage to live God’s vision of a healed, just, and reconciled creation?

If the answer is “no,” we aren’t taking the Bible seriously, even if we literally “believe every word it says.”

Lingering Advice from My Dad

My dad only completed the sixth grade in school. He became the primary breadwinner in his family of five sisters at age fifteen when his father died. His was a hard life of 84 years.

He was a farmer, textile mill worker, and handyman. His life was defined by hard work, unquestioned honesty, no pretense, and stubborn perseverance. Though not demonstrably affectionate or complimentary of his kids, we never doubted his love for us or our mother.

He adored our mother and treated all women with respect. He never considered himself better than anyone else; and he was totally unimpressed by titles, wealth, or positions of authority.

Though he was a man of few words, some of his messages formed me. Here is one of them.

“If a bully picks on your brothers or sister, he’s picking on you. So, help your sister or brother.” As tenant farmers, we moved around. Schoolyard bullies often tested the new kids. The first days in a new school were frightening. One of us usually got pushed around by a “tough guy.”

There were four of us Carders, three boys and a girl. Dad’s admonition worked! It didn’t take but one encounter for the bullies to learn — jump one Carder and you’re up against four. My sister, by the way, was the one most feared!

The world is full of bullies in high and low places. They are bullying and exploiting the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless, the immigrants, LGBTQ+ colleagues, the powerless, the vulnerable. They are bullying our brothers and sisters.

Resisting bullies and exploiters is a joint effort! The writer of Hebrews states it strongly:

“Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place”(13:1-3 CEV).

Dad was right: “If a bully picks on your brother or sister, he’s picking on you. So, help your sister or brother.”