Monthly Archives: January 2014

Hope in the Midst of Despair

Back in the “good old days” (that didn’t seem so good then) of  the late 20th century we seemed to have a “motivational icon” for every decade.   For the 70’s it was a “Smiley Face” with the words “Have a nice day!”.   In the 80’s we sang “Don’t worry, be happy” with Bobby McFerrin.   For the 90’s we were told by Nike to “Just do it!!”

Those days seem to have gone away in the first decade of the 21st century, haven’t they?   We’ve experienced the sea-change of fear brought about by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon;  executive wrongdoing on a massive scale that cost many their homes and livelihood;  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in the death of thousands of our young men and women;  the threat of nuclear weapons development by Korea and Iran—our sworn enemies; high gas prices; mortgage failures.   What should the icon be for the first decade of the 21st century?–an “orange alert”?  Taps being played at a gravesite of our young men and women killed in the wars?   a foreclosure sign?  the song “Brother can you spare a Dime?”

The pain and suffering we see  is enough  to drive us to despair and a company called Despair, Inc. has tapped into it to make a buck by selling “pragmatic pessimism”.   For example, they market a glass mug with a line in the middle that says “half-empty”.   Also  lithographs that feature beautiful photos with depressing twists, such as a photo of a dark sunset with the saying:  “DESPAIR:  It is always darkest just before going pitchblack! ”  or a photo of a lightning storm, saying:   “PESSIMISM:   Every cloud has a silver lining, but lightning kills hundres of people each year who are trying to find it”

Despair, Inc. has tapped into a truth that all of us know and few of us want to admit—Pain and suffering is a grim reality for human beings.   It is part of the human condition.

In my work as a hospice chaplain I saw a lot of pain and suffering along with valiant attempts to alleviate it by palliative care specialists every day.   We all know that no amount of wealth, no measure of security, no low-fat, oat-bran diet can defend us against suffering, pain and eventually death.   At birth there is the knowledge that this new life will eventually end.  Good or bad, rich or poor, we know that pain and death are just a word, a mistake, an accident or an illness away from us all.    Depressing?  Exactly!   Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide with over 9 percent of Americans affected by it every year.

We’ve all known some amount of despair, haven’t we?    It happens in times of stress like a move, a job loss, an extensive illness, a loss of a loved one through divorce or death, an economic downturn or a natural disaster such as hurricanes, floods, forest fires.    While this despair usually lifts in time it is very stressful at the time and can leave us broken and in fear of our very lives—feeling like we have been abandoned by God.

This is not just a 21st century feeling—-it is part of the human condition and has been with us through the ages.   We see it in Psalm 22, our text today,  written hundreds of years before the birth of the Christ.   The Psalmist feels he is surrounded by enemies, broken in body, and spirit.  He cries out for help with the words:   “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”   In the midst of pain and impending death the psalmist seeks the intimacy of a relationship with God, but God seems so far away from helping him.   However he remembers that God HAS been a help for others and for his nation in the past; but just now he feels he is surrounded, tortured, and almost dead.   He hears the sarcastic taunts of his enemies ringing in his ears, “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him” (v.8).   No wonder he asks  WHY?

When we our those we love are in pain or are suffering, we also want to know “WHY?”    I remember a hospice patient, a man in his late 40’s dying of MS who told me:   “Chaplain, when I see God after I die I have only one question for God:   WHY!!!

But when we cry out for answers to the “WHY?” question we seldom receive them.   Perhaps it is because we are asking the wrong question.   THE QUESTION SHOULD NOT BE “WHY?”   but “WHO?

Although God may not answer the “why question,   God is not silent.   Someone has said “What God whispers to us in our pleasure, he shouts to us in our pain”.   And what God shouts is:  “I am here for you!   I will help you through this time!  Trust me!

This is what the Psalmist acknowledges.   This is what Jesus acknowledged on the cross when he said:  “Into your hands I commend my spirit” right before his death.   The answer to pain and suffering is not in the “why” but in the “Who”.  God will be with us if we trust in God’s presence.   And as Paul says:   “If God is for us, who can be against us?”   If we draw near to God he will draw near to us.

I love the words of a hymn that tells us this.   “I was there to Hear Your Borning Cry”.

I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.

I was there when you were but a child, with a faith to suit you well;

In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.

When you heard the wonder of the word, I was there to cheer you on;

You were raised to praise the living God, to whom you now belong.

When you find someone to share your time, and you join your hearts as one;

I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.

In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young.

I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.

When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes,

I’ll be there as I have always been, with just one more surprise.

I was there to hear your borning cry.  I’ll be there when you are old.

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.    Amen.

Making the Most of our Time

Most of us are so busy reliving the past or being anxious about the future that we miss living in the present.   We would do well to heed the simple advice of the old song:   “Yesterday’s gone, sweet Jesus! And tomorrow’s still out of sight.   Teach me today, show me the way, One day at a time.”

We all know that the present is all we really have.   What is past is past and we can do nothing to change it, but only learn from it.   what is in the future is unknown, as is our own future unknown.  What we have is today!

And every “today” offers us choices as we live out our lives.   The choices must be made in the “present”, but they help determine how we deal with our past and what our future might be.

Victor Frankl, a German Jew who was placed in one of Hitler’s worst concentration camps during World War Two and yet survived, wrote that the one thing that a concentration camp could not take away from the inmates was their power to choose what attitude they would have.   We have been created by God and given the power to make choices as human beings from the beginning of creation.   Regardless of  what happens , we can, for example:

  • Choose to love—rather than to hate.
  • Choose to smile—rather than frown.
  • Choose to build—-rather than destroy.
  • Choose to persevere—-rather than quit.
  • Choose to praise—rather than criticize.
  • Choose to heal—rather than wound.
  • Choose to give—rather than grasp.
  • Choose to act—-rather than delay.
  • Choose to forgive—rather than blame and hold a grudge
  • Choose to pray—rather than despair

All of the above and much more are choices we are faced with, often on a daily basis.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:   “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes”.  In the long run, we shape our lives aand we shape ourselves and help shape our world by these choices.

The choices we make are ultimately our responsibility, but we have wisdom available to us if we place our trust in God and pray for God’s guidance for our lives, acknowledging that we do not know it all but stand in need of God’s loving wisdom.

That wisdom is there for us when we pray words such as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.   The courage to change the things I can change; and the wisdom to know one from the other.

The Apostle Paul wrote these words of advice to the churches in Ephesus :  Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.   (Ephesians 5:15-16)

The original Greek translated “making the most of our time”  expresses the idea of “redeeming the time—i.e. purchasing, buying up, and then setting free the time, as slaves could do during ancient times.  As we redeem our time from the domination of the past and the fear of the future  we are better able to live our lives fully in the present!  That “Makes the Most of our Time.”

Spiritual Nomads in Search of God

When a person stops growing they begin to die.   That is true of us physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.   One of the advantages we experience in   growing old is that we have a chance to look back on  our lives with all of the joys and sorrows, gains and losses,  ugliness and beauty and still grow as we look for what Richard Rohr refers to as our “true selves” that emerge over time.   No longer do we   need to build  “a successful career”,  to “placate the boss”, to compete in the business, academic or religious world.  As we grow older we finally see that is not what our life was really about.   That turning- point in our lives comes for most of us when  something we cannot fix, mend, or control occurs and we turn to God and say:   “God, my life is in your hands.  I can’t do this without you!”   At that point we stop growing the “self” we have built up in our minds and the minds of our friends and family and   begin to grow our “true self” as one of God’s children.   

On my spiritual journey through life I spent the greater portion of the journey not knowing God.   Oh, I knew about God.   God was an intellectual construct that I made in theology classes in seminary.   I preached about God.   I married and buried people in God’s name-but I myself was  just a spiritual nomad wondering in the desert in search of a God I did not know.    Always in the back of my mind I considered myself a “fake” minister because of that.    It was not until the summer of 2010 and the sudden death of my wife of 50+ years that I finally ran into a situation that I could not fix, mend, or control.   I cried out to God:   “Help me!   I can’t get through this on my own.”   And I felt a peace come over me immediately that let me know that God was there, that God would lead me through the dark valley,  and that God loved me all along and had been there waiting for me to call on his name!

Now, as I look back on my life I see the hand of God everywhere I look and as I look forward I see God’s hand leading me.    God has blessed me with a loving and caring wife.   God has blessed me with loving and caring children and grandchildren.    God has blessed me with a peace I have never known before.  And God has blessed me with growth—-growth in my faith in God.  I am no longer a “spiritual nomad” searching for God.    I am  growing daily as God’s child through reading and study of the bible and through  reading of the writings of those in the Christian Faith who are seeking to make God a reality for those around them.    I am seeing that God’s only requirement for me is to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind and my neighbor as myself.    I am growing  still at 77 years of age and hope to continue for a long time.   But if I die tomorrow, that’s o.k.    I know that God loves me and will take care of me both in life and in death.

Are you a spiritual nomad?   Do you feel like the Prodigal Son?    Remember, God ran out to meet the prodigal son and threw his arms around him and welcomed him home.   He’s waiting to welcome you also!

Be still, and KNOW I Am God!

“We as Christians are much more comfortable with theology than with experience.”    Perhaps this is a way of saying that it is easier for most Christians to talk about God than to talk to God!   Why?   I think  the answer  to that question is that we have difficulty talking to and sharing our deepest thoughts with someone we don’t know!   And many who profess themselves “believers” have never had a personal encounter with God.  I think that Richard Rohr’s premise in his book Falling Upward,  is “right on”.    He suggests, as I understand him,  that we really do not come to know God until we experience God in a direct and personal way and that way  is usually the result of a traumatic experience which causes us to  realize we have no control over what has happened and cry out to God in our pain.    That experience may be many different things,according to Rohr, but often is the loss of a loved one, a spouse or a child.   It is then that we feel God’s presence and strength within  us when we cry out for help,  and it is then that we come to know our God in a personal-relationship kind of way.   At those times, God is not an idea or a theology or  a theory—God is a person who gives us strength to get through the trial we face and we can feel that strength working in our lives.  It is our cry—“God, I can’t get through this without you!” that leads us to  the experience that we can come to God as a person and  have a relationship as we  talk TO God,  not just ABOUT God.

To say we love God and not spend any time with God is to not be honest with ourselves.   Those we love we spend time with.   When we are in love with another person that person is the most important person in the world to us and  we  want to spend as much time as we can with that person.   One hour on Sunday, never reading the Word of God, and never praying says volumes about  our lack of love for God,  regardless of what we might profess.   

This is what the Psalmist sings about in Psalm 46:   “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.   Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. ……..Be still, and know that I am God!   I am exalted among the nations.   I am exalted in the earth.   The Lord of hosts is with us.   The God of Jacob is our refuge.”    

Looking at Life in the Rear-view Mirror

You can’t drive by looking only in the rear-view mirror of your car. Likewise, you can’t go through life looking only through the rear-view mirror.   If we live only in the past we miss the joy and blessings of the present and the opportunity to plan for the future.  After all, the present is the only time we really have.   The past can’t be changed and there is no guarantee we will have a future on earth!

That’s not to say that we never should look at our past life through the rear-view mirror.   We have to know where we’ve been to understand where we are and to plan for where we’d like to be.   The beginning of this new year, 2014,  is a time when it might be good to take a few glances in the “rear-view mirror of the past year”as we steer our lives into the future.  

I’ve never been much for making “new year’s resolutions”.   But I do think it is a good idea to assess the past year in order that we may value our accomplishments, be cognizant of our failures, and thus make adjustments for our goals for a new year based on what we have learned from both accomplishments and failures.  And we need to seek to discern God’s hand in both the accomplishments and failures.

I would propose we ask ourselves several very personal and important questions.    They should be answered honestly and as fully as possible.   The questions are:

  •   What have I accomplished this year, as a child of God, that was worthwhile and noteworthy?   How many of these accomplishments do I think God holds as worthwhile and noteworthy?  Why do I think that?   How has my life made a difference for those whom I have touched in some way?   How has my own life changed because of these accomplishments?  Where do I see God’s hand in my accomplishments?
  • Where have I failed to be what I should and can be as a human being and a child of God?    What do I wish I could change and how can I make those changes with God’s help?
  • What have I learned from both my failures and successes?    How would I describe the different person I should strive to be in the coming year in the light of lessons learned from failures and successes?
  • Based on the above questions, what goals should I have for this current year that lies before me?

I would suggest that not only are these good questions for individuals to ask, but are very important for churches to ask as they begin a new year.