Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Senior Discount"

They were just three little words, but they struck my face like an icy snowball when the ticket salesman at Cinemark directed them to me a few days ago. “Senior Discount, Sir?” he asked almost hopefully. Then after a brief pause, “Or Bargain Matinee?” I had hoped that some member of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation was standing behind me, but no such luck. He had aimed those words at me.
Now, I realize that this unintended insult doesn’t quite have the gravity of the “When are you due” question being asked of a woman who is not, in fact, carrying a child in her womb. But it still disheartened me.
Doesn’t this guy gripping the lowest rung of the entertainment industry ladder know just how great I look for my age? I am only 55 and I run five days a week. I ran a ½ marathon just the weekend before and finished ahead of many people years younger than me. Sure, I’m bald, but I had on a baseball cap. Sure, I’m on the cusp of prostate issues, but he couldn’t detect that inside his glass booth could he? Was I fidgeting?
And to make it worse, he was no young teenage whippersnapper. I am guessing that FDR was President when he was born. It’s a shame really that he has to work at all at his age. Even with his thick corrective lenses, he probably couldn’t pass the eye test at the license bureau. Maybe he was distracted by all the oldsters in the theater that day. After all, it was “Senior Monday.” Let’s face it: he barely looked up from his “Modern Senior Living” magazine. It was an overcast day and the sun was in his eyes.
Don’t get me wrong. I love and admire the Greatest Generation. That was a group that understood sacrifice. They made fantastic contributions to America and to the world. But I am smack in the middle of another age bracket - that self-indulgent group called Baby Boomers. We never wanted to act or look our age. When we were in our late teens, we wanted to look older, and in later years we wanted the respect and privileges that we had not yet earned. We know (or at least hope) that retirement and Social Security checks will one day be in our future, but not yet, Lord, not yet.
A friend of mine whose birthday is the same month and year as mine got his frozen snowball in the face a few weeks before mine when a pharmacist asked him if he should bill Medicare for his flu shot. My friend was so stunned that a medical professional overestimated his age by ten years that he went home and studied his face in the mirror. He then shaved off the grey moustache he had had most of his life. I saw him the day before he shaved off the mustache and the day after. The difference was incredible. He looked at least a week younger.
You can run, you can shave, but you cannot hide from your age.
How do you know when you are old and what can you do about it?
Another friend of mine told me that she knew she was old when she stepped into an elevator one day and no man turned to check her out. She was invisible to them. She said that she felt relieved rather than sad.
I am ok with being 55. In fact, I think 55 is a great age. I’ve seen a lot, but I haven’t seen it all. I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone, and I still feel like I’ve got adventures in my future. It is a good place to be.
Last weekend I heard about man somewhat younger than me – only 47 – who made a drastic life change. He quit his job, sold his house, and is currently floating down the Ganges River on a motorcycle powered raft. He is a cancer survivor and decided that he needed to shake up his life. He is embracing life and I admire him for it.
I don’t think I’ll be building a raft anytime soon, but I’m not ready to pack it in either.
As I reflect on my age and come to terms with how old I must look to others, I find a significant amount of wisdom in Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

I also am thankful for the late philosopher athlete Satchel Page who is quoted as asking: “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
My daughter-in-law Heather was working with an elderly patient at a nursing home when the woman asked her: “How old am I?” Heather responded: “How old do you think you are?” The woman answered: “25.” Heather then said: “You’re right.”
That is some great wisdom about aging from two women of very different generations.

Friday, September 30, 2011


Last weekend I ran the Akron Marathon. I wasn’t fast, but I wasn’t last. And even if I had been last, I would have been OK with that if I had finished under the allotted six hour time limit. I don’t know what happens at six hours – maybe lions are released to devour those last runners or perhaps cars are encouraged to run them over – but I am guessing that some runners might choose those options over continuing to run.
Those who have completed marathons have been known to make some fantastic claims:
“And now I’m finishing a 26-mile race. Damn! This is better than winning an Emmy.” Oprah Winfrey
“It’s like tacking PhD at the end of your name, getting married, having a baby. Your life will never again be quite the same, and regardless of what the future brings, you can look back and say, ‘I finished a marathon.’” Hal Higdon
“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience another life, run a marathon.” Emil Zatopek
“I’ve learned that finishing a marathon…isn’t just an athletic achievement. It’s a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible.” John Hanc
If you have run a marathon, you can decide whether or not those quotes reflect your own experience. I am still processing how I feel about it all but I know I can relate to this quote:
“I have run a marathon. Okay, so it’s been done before. But not by me.” Cliff Temple
I don’t think a 26.2 tattoo is in my future, although I wondered about the young woman with “13.1” tattooed on the back of each leg. Was I supposed to add those up and get “26.2” which would identify her as a marathoner or was she saying she was a half-marathoner? It wasn’t the first time I have been confused by a tattoo.
I have mixed feelings about buying one of those 26.2 stickers for the back of my car. You know those kinds of stickers, don’t you? Some say MB (Myrtle Beach) or OBX (Outer Banks) or HH (Hilton Head). Those bumper stickers tell the world that the driver likes those places – that they have vacationed there and would like to go back again. But if I put a 26.2 sticker on my car, would I be saying “I ran a marathon one time” or would I be saying “I run marathons all the time.” I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.
Like most people who have run a marathon, I said to myself during the last few miles: “Never again.” I knew I wasn’t going to quit, but I am not sure whether or not I’ll ever do it again. But doesn’t the Maui Marathon sound great? What about the Big Sur Marathon? Or Napa to Sonoma? That kind of scenery just might be worth it.
One thing I learned last weekend: 26.2 is a long distance. It seemed longer than I imagined it would be. And running 20 miles in training seemed a lot less to me than running 26.2 miles in the race. All I knew is that I had to keep moving ahead. I could not stop.
Some of the things that helped me keep moving ahead were the cheering crowds and the volunteers who handed out water and GU. It would be hard for me to overestimate their importance. A few (like my wife and some church folks) knew me, but most had no idea who I was. But they were there to bear witness to the fact that on a Saturday in September I was attempting to do something very, very hard. Some called out my name (it was on my shirt), while others shouted: “You can do it.” Their belief helped me to believe. And those volunteers handing out water seemed to be living out that parable of Jesus about those who gave food to the hungry and water to the thirsty. By the time I came around, the real athletes were long gone, and I was clearly among “the least of these.” But the volunteers and the crowds welcomed me as if I really counted. That was very powerful.
How have you been supported in those rough times of your life – those times that seemed like they would not end – those times that seemed even tougher than you had imagined they could be? Even though it may have been your burden alone to carry, were there people along the way who offered you what you needed when you needed it – encouragement, support, prayers, cheers, food, water, belief? Did strangers as well as friends assist you? How have others helped you get to a better place?
Don’t underestimate how significant your support can be to someone experiencing a challenging time. That time of testing might be self-imposed or it may have fallen on the person like an avalanche of bad circumstances. The person might be someone you know very well or they may be a virtual stranger to you. But they can use your support. You can’t always bear their load for them (no one could run 26.2 miles for me), but they need to know that they are not alone, that someone is bearing witness to their struggles. You can let them know that they count and that they will get through it. Your belief can help them to believe. You can help them keep moving ahead.
The day after the marathon, a young man named Kevin worshipped with our church. He was from Midland, Michigan and was in Akron to run the marathon. I am guessing that most out of town runners were doing something else rather than being in church the day after running those 26.2 miles. But not Kevin. When he shared his story, I knew why. He told me that the shirt he wore during the marathon was covered with signatures that people from his home church had signed the week before. Those signatures were their way of being present with Kevin as he ran his race far away from home. When he saw those names, he knew that they were praying for him and rooting for him. Those names helped him keep moving ahead. He knew he was not alone on that 26.2 mile course.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Trapped in Indiana

I was trapped in Indiana. I couldn’t go forward or backward or even sidewise. It was 10:37 pm, and I had been driving for six hours. Following my workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, I had left Iowa City heading east; I had driven through Iowa, Illinois, and almost all of Indiana. My goal: my bed in Northeast Ohio – a lot of miles and a lot of hours away. I was not on a time schedule, but I knew that I only had so much energy left. The last Starbucks I had passed had been closed for the night (just when I so desperately needed caffeine – what is wrong with these people?), and I needed to keep moving.
But I wasn’t moving. I was stuck. I was jammed between a gate in front of me and a car behind me. All I wanted to do was pay my toll, have the bar rise up, and be released. Before that night, I had often wondered why so many states still used human beings to hand out cards when that task could so easily have been done by machines. Well, apparently my thoughts had resonated with the operators of the Indiana East-West Toll Road (What a great title for the directionally and financially challenged: “What direction does it go? Does it cost money? Hey, the answer is in the name. Wow.”) This road is no longer operated by the State of Indiana but by a private company whose parent companies are in Spain and Australia. In 2006, this company paid Indiana $3.8 billion for the rights to collect fees on the road for the next 75 years. Part of the plan to recoup that $3.8 billion must have been to replace human workers with automated toll booths.
Machines are great, aren’t they? They always show up to work on time. They don’t get sick. They don’t take lunch breaks. They don’t ask for raises. They are always there smoothly humming along 24/7/365. Just replace the Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs every six months, and these automated toll booths are just like Las Vegas slot machines only better. They keep taking in your money but never pay off.
I’ll be honest. I often prefer dealing with a computer or automated unit rather than trying to communicate with a human being. Amazon’s website was designed with me in mind. I would buy a lot fewer books if I had to drive to a bookstore or actually talk to someone. If I only have a few items, I prefer the unmanned check-out lanes at the grocery store. Pump my own gas? No problem. Online banking and ATM’s make me smile.
I was buying two coffees, a breakfast sandwich, and a pecan roll a few weeks ago, and the human being working the cash resister punched a few buttons, and my total bill appeared on the screen: $12,000. At least, he knew he made a mistake and corrected it. Some clerks would have held out their hands expecting me to produce 120 crisp hundred dollar bills. Let’s be honest. Human customer service is often lacking. That’s why I often prefer the computer. It usually has less of an attitude problem.
And it isn’t that I dislike people. I like Tiffany who sits behind the glass at the drive thru bank window. She is friendly enough, but she knows her place (behind the glass) and I know mine (in the car). So I am not anthropophobic. At least I have never had it diagnosed.
But that night on the Indiana border, the machine failed me. The automated unit into which I had fed my credit card to pay my $7.50 toll grabbed my card and refused to give it back. And it wouldn’t open the gate either. I am sure the driver of the car behind me was having choice words for me and was probably reaching for a weapon under his seat when I pushed the button that said “Need Help?” The voice that answered was every bit as clear as someone talking to me through a tin can connected to my speaker with a wire.
“Can I help you?” (An irritated voice that might have been human or machine.)
“Yes, my card is stuck and the gate won’t open.” (I didn’t swear or say how I really felt.)
“Did you put the card in the cash slot?” (An accusation.)
“No.” (I hoped that I was telling the truth.)
Then those threatening words: “Well, I’ll have to find a supervisor.”
It sounded like she had to issue an All Points Bulletin and launch a search covering the entire State of Indiana and parts of Northwest Ohio to find that elusive supervisor. I got the sense that she was not happy actually having to deliver on the “Need Help” invitation. A typical customer service response by a human being. But perhaps she had a right to her irritation. This kind of thing had probably never happened before. Maybe she would be summoned to appear before an emergency meeting of the Board of Directors in Australia to investigate this surely unprecedented incident:
“One of our machines failed in Indiana? Nonsense. Let’s arrest that Ohio driver and torture him by withholding Starbucks until he tells us what really happened.”
In a minute, the voice returned saying ominously: “The supervisor will be there soon.”
I had second thoughts about asking for human help. I tried to look at my surroundings with unemotional Zen like concentration. Maybe I would sense a new option. But the gate was still down in front of me blocking my way, the car was still behind me likely filled with terrorists armed with WMD’s, and my card was still stuck in the machine. I wasn’t sure if I could even open my car door wide enough to run away. And if I managed to get out and run, they would always find me. I couldn’t outrun them forever. I’ve seen those movies. I just hoped that if I sacrificed my own life, they would spare the lives of my family. Those human customer service supervisors just make me nervous.
About five minutes later, a car pulled up. I held my breath and knew it might be my last. I was shocked when a woman bounded out and skipped towards me. She seemed almost giddy. Instead of yelling at me or accusing me of hurting her machine she said:
“Hey, I’ve got the keys. I’ll help you. Machine ate your card, huh?” She inserted a key into the side, pulled out a panel, extracted my card, and handed it to me. “This happens sometimes. Try it again. But just let it pull in your card. Don’t push it.”
What, no accusation? No charges of machine abuse? I did as she instructed. The unit accepted my plastic offering, did whatever mysterious things it does with credit cards, and then shoved my card back at me. Feeling like I had won a prize by being allowed to pay $7.50, I took my card and receipt. But amazingly enough, that toll booth machine wasn’t done just yet. It casually raised up that bar that had been blocking my way as if it did that kind of thing all the time.
I was no longer trapped. The cell door had been opened. I was free to go wherever I wanted to go as long as it was in an eastward direction and away from Indiana.
Before I pulled away, the supervisor said: “Have a great night, sir.” And I think she meant it.
I was speechless. I had been saved by a human being, a friendly human being who acted like she was happy to help me, like it was her job to assist me. She didn’t yell at me or try to make me feel unworthy. A human being had actually been superior to a machine in customer service. I drove away into the night seeking Starbucks and the Ohio border. I had a lot to think about.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Unanswered Questions

I am heading west tomorrow for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I have my MapQuest directions all printed out. The directions read like this: “Take a left out of your driveway, jump on the Ohio Turnpike a few minutes later (also heading west), and keep driving on Rt. 80 for about 560 miles.” If all goes as planned, I will travel a straight line from Hudson, Ohio to Iowa City, Iowa. Nothing out of the ordinary will happen, and nothing will go wrong – just like life. It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

The workshop I’ll be attending is called “Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay,” and participants have been asked to bring ideas for essays we’ll be developing while we’re there as well as actual magazines which might publish these essays.

So, I’ve been looking at magazines and examining their policies about submitting articles. Of course I am looking for those magazines with editors who have been waiting all of their lives for the essay that I will send them. “Stop the presses, change the cover, I don’t care about the expense, we’ve got an article written by Jim Bane here. I couldn’t put it down, I laughed, I wept, I was inspired, and I’ll never look at life the same again.” I haven’t quite found that publication yet.

I have identified two solid prospects, but I am puzzling over a third. A friend suggested a well-known religious publication, and I checked their submission guidelines. After a quick read, I doubt if my writing would fit their standards. A few quotes from their webpage: “Dramatize the situation, conflicts, and struggles, and then tell how the person was changed for the better or the problem was solved.” I would have no trouble dramatizing an event – I’m a preacher, I do that every Sunday in sermons when I am not on sabbatical (thank you New Horizons Christian Church). But unfortunately, in the world in which I live people are not always changed for the better and problems are not always solved – at least not in the length of a small article in a monthly religious periodical. Some problems just don’t seem to get solved to our complete satisfaction, do they? And some people do change for the better for awhile but later revert to their former lousy lifestyles. That doesn’t stop me from lifting up these people and situations in sermons because I think that most folks in our local church community have experienced life in a similar way. Life is rarely as simple and straightforward as those MapQuest directions from Ohio to Iowa.

Another admonition from the submission guidelines of that same magazine: “Don’t leave unanswered questions.” I don’t know about you, but I live with unanswered questions every day of my life. I don’t believe that I will ever have all the answers to all the questions I have – at least they won’t be answered on this side of the grave. Even the walk of faith involves questions and doubts. Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward:
"I worry about 'true believers' who cannot carry any doubt or anxiety at all, as Thomas the Apostle and Mother Teresa learned to do. People who are so certain always seem like Hamlet’s queen 'protesting too much' and trying too hard. To hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt. To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable."

The prodigal son found in the Gospel of Luke is one of the most provocative and well known parables of Jesus. A story that would almost fit the submission guidelines of that magazine. A son demands his share of the inheritance and in essence declares that his father is dead to him. The father complies, and the son leaves town and stays away until all the money is spent. While sweating with the swine, he realizes that life would be better back home and heads back. You know the rest – the father seeing him, running to him, embracing him, loving him, accepting him, and throwing a welcome home party for him. “My son has come back. He was dead but is alive.” I am a father and this story always, always pulls at my heart. No matter how many times I hear it.

And the parable would be so much simpler if it ended at that party – life changed, situation resolved, no loose ends, and no questions unanswered. But Jesus just won’t leave it alone, will he? Because there is that second son working out in that field – the “good and faithful” son who didn’t run away, who didn’t waste the money, who had to pick up the slack when his younger brother hit the road. He hears the noise from the house, hears that a feast is underway for that lazy brother of his, and not surprisingly, he gets angry. He is resentful. He doesn’t want to join the celebration and pretend that it’s all copacetic. The father leaves the party and goes out into the field to encourage this son to join the other.

And the parable ends there. Will the older son show respect for his father and come to the house? Will be realize how much he missed his little brother and with tears in his eyes give him a big hug? Will he grab him by the neck the next morning and say: “It’s your turn to work. I am taking the day off.” Who knows what happens next? The story ends before everything is resolved leaving us to speculate about what happens next.

I don’t believe for a second that the writer of Luke misplaced the neat and happy ending that Jesus had originally intended. Jesus wanted us to deal with the tension and confusion and conflicts and doubts in this parable. He wanted us to wrestle with the enormity of God’s love for us even when we have strayed as well as our own personal challenges in trying to forgive others. Jesus wanted us to wonder about just which role we play in that parable.

Jesus wanted this parable to reflect real life – your life and my life. Real life which so often resists neat and clean and straightforward answers. Jesus invites us to resist easy answers to the difficult questions that we have; he invites us to struggle – but not to struggle alone but alongside him. “Come to me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, for you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30.

Tomorrow I head to Iowa. Will the trip be as uncomplicated as MapQuest suggests? I doubt it. But the uncertainty won’t stop me from opening the door and leaving home.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Abbey Normal: Part 3 (Surprised by Communion)

Disciples of Christ (the religious movement that ordained me into ministry) must always be hungry. We insist on having communion (aka The Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) during worship services every single week. This sets us apart from many other groups under the holy umbrella of Protestantism (such as Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC’s, and certainly most mega-church movements) who have concluded that the Lord’s Supper needs to be celebrated only now and again. Since our local church usually has two Sunday worship services and I preach at both services, I share in communion over 100 times every year. I have communion more in one year than many Christians have in a lifetime. I don’t say this to boast, but instead to state how very privileged I feel to participate twice a week in a physical reminder of Christ’s great love and sacrifice for all of us. You might argue that Disciples aren’t really that hungry but just have short attention spans and need to be reminded again and again and again so that we won’t forget.
I am about halfway into a three month sabbatical, and so far I have been in North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania with trips to Michigan, California, Iowa, and Virginia in weeks to come. It seems like almost every Sunday morning I find myself in a new place. Although my sabbatical has been a wonderful blessing and I have been able to devote more time than ever to writing, to reading, and to my personal devotions, I realized during my recent visit to the Abbey of the Genesee just how much I was missing that weekly communion experience. And I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would be able to share in the Lord’s Supper while at Genesee. The Abbey is very welcoming and I enjoyed and appreciated their hospitality, but I had accepted that while I was there that their celebration of the Eucharist (held every day) was not open to me since I am not Catholic. Their understanding of that sacrament is not the same as mine, and I did not want to trample on their hospitality by coming forward during Mass because I thought to do so would be like walking into my host’s home with muddy feet.
Even though I had accepted in advance that I would not have communion while I was there, I was surprised by the deep loss I felt when I stepped aside while others came forward to receive the elements during Mass. On the way to the service, I had eaten a chocolate chip cookie baked by the monks and had joked with myself that the cookie (which had no doubt been prayed over sometime in its creation) would have to take the place of the communion elements. It didn’t work. It didn’t satisfy.
This experience made my think of all the ways that various churches partially welcome people into their midst but do not allow them (for one reason or another) to have full and complete communion. We hold back the body of Christ and offer a cookie instead (or maybe only crumbs) so that people won’t feel left out. It doesn’t work. It will not satisfy. A cookie is not communion. Of course, everyone is welcome as long as we don’t ask and they don’t tell. As long as we keep things on a surface level. But that’s not true community or real communion is it?
During a meeting the next day with one of the monks, I shared these feelings - my appreciation for their hospitality, my respect for their tradition, as well as my sense of loss. At a lecture the day before, this same monk had asked this question: “How many of you are out of communion with Rome?” During our session, I reminded him of his question and told him that I did not feel out of communion with Rome, but that Rome seemed to be out of communion with me. I told him that I understood that he didn’t make the rules but was bound to carry them out. And I respected his obedience to Rome. His reply surprised me: “I can’t offer you dispensation, but my understanding is that if you need communion you can have communion.” In other words, I didn’t have to pretend to be Catholic, but I could still be welcome at the Lord’s Supper.
The next day (my last full day at the Abbey), I arrived early for Mass which was a special celebration of the birth of John the Baptist. And I can tell you without a doubt that I needed communion. I had a serious communion deficit to make up. And after all of the readings and the chanting and the incense and everything else, the time came for the worshippers to come forward to receive the elements. This time I didn’t step aside but walked to the communion rail with my hands out to receive the host. I was nervous and excited as I put it into my mouth. I moved down the rail to the priest who held the chalice, and he offered it to me. As I tipped the chalice to my lips, it wasn’t that usual Welch’s grape juice that I tasted, but it was wine. I had known it would be wine but I had forgotten. How fresh and unexpected it was for me. What a marvelous surprise. My communion deficit was instantly overcome. I truly felt in communion with Christ and with those around me. I will not forget that meal.
What did that bread and wine taste like? They tasted like love.
When was the last time that you were offered true communion instead of a sweet cookie? Did it surprise you? What did it taste like? Did it taste like love?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Abbey Normal: Part 2 (Worship)

If you come to The Abbey of the Genesee seeking to worship God you have come to the right place. There are services around the clock starting with Vigils at 2:25am. Lauds is at 6am, Sext at 11:15am, Vespers at 4:30pm, and Compline at 6:40pm. Surely if you want to worship God then one of these times will fit your busy schedule. These are the services that are open to the public at this monastery in Piffard, New York, and Father Jerome told me that the monks have a couple of other worship times as well.
And if you like your services to be short, you have also come to the right place. Most are less than a half hour except for those which are combined with a Mass (with Holy Communion).
And if you are tired of that so-called contemporary praise music with those electric guitars and much too happy singers, you’ll find none of that at the Abbey.
And those long and boring sermons (or even worse – those in which the preacher tells you all those personal stories) won’t be found at the Abbey of the Genesee.
But if you long for predictability and order and formality and simplicity, you should be thrilled. And if walking into a quiet church in which no one speaks to each other or whispers in the pews and people stand when they are supposed to and bow when they are supposed to and don’t leave until they are supposed to and pray the Lord’s Prayer every single time, then you need to come here. God is respected and revered here.
The major portion of each worship experience is the chanting (substitute the word “singing” if “chanting” scares you) of the Psalms – usually three per service. You can chant along with the monks – the words are contained in a large hymnbook (a beautiful book all by itself) that lays in front of the choir stalls you can sit in. No notes, just the words, you’ll get the hang of it. Just don’t be in a hurry. I believe that the monks chant every psalm every week. And the order is set – no last minute bulletin changes for these guys. Worship bulletin – who needs them? No announcements either. The monks also sing a song; we all sing praises to the Trinity a few times and bow as we do it; and a passage of scripture is always read. Bells toll to begin worship and to end it, and there are plenty of moments for silence.
You wouldn’t use the words “praise” or “contemporary” or “traditional” to describe these round-the-clock 24/7/365 services. They are not part of a category that most of us are familiar with. They are not the latest thing to come to a local church near you. You might even find them a bit strange.
But the robe-wearing monks have been worshipping God this way for a long time. The basic outline for what they do is contained in “The Rule of St. Benedict” written about 1500 years ago. Talk about that “Old Time Religion.”
As a local church pastor who has to come up with something new (at least sermon wise) every week, the simplicity and predictability and order of it all speaks to be on a deep level. I feel relieved just walking in the door. And our music director might feel the same way. Every when I am not at a monastery, I will often think about monks chanting the psalms – there must be some monks somewhere in the world lifting up those psalms every minute of every day, every day of the week, every week of the year. Even if I am not in the room with them, I know they are there. Even if the language they speak is not English, I can hear them. And I am grateful for their constant and abiding and faithful witness.
This type of worship is not for everybody, and I need other worship styles as well. I enjoy a high energy worship experience. But I also need these simple monastic services – these low tech, counter cultural, slow moving opportunities in which it is clear that we are not trying to impress God or anyone else with our performances or with our fervor. We are content, instead, to sing simply the words from the ancient songbook of our faith (the Psalms). We enter the worship space quietly and leave it in the same way. It may look like we haven’t been touched or changed by it all, but we have.
I am hungry for God, starving for God, and my soul is fed through monastic worship. It isn’t the only meal I need, but I require it as part of my spiritual diet. Are you starving for God? Do you go from church to church or experience to experience just hoping for a scrap of spiritual bread? Something that will sustain you? Where and how is your soul fed?


Friday, June 24, 2011

Abbey Normal: Part One (The Silent Treatment)

You always notice it at mealtime. There are no casual conversations. No jokes. No comments about the weather or the latest sports scores. There are no angry words spoken either. No passionate theological debates though I am sure that there are significant differences among us. No word comes from anyone’s mouth except for a few announcements made before the meal by our host Kathe followed by a prayer. There is just silence from the dozen or so of us. Silence except for the clinking of silverware against the plates and bowls. Silence except for some quiet background music that comes from a small CD player.
This is not the silence that sometimes accompanies a couple who have been fighting with one another before they enter a restaurant; a bitterness, a resentment, an “I better not say anything because I can’t trust myself” silence as they sit across from one another and act out the ritual of a loving couple out on a date. Or the silence of a grieving family who are eating because they must but whose thoughts, minds, and hearts are somewhere else.
No, this silence is not filled with negative emotions. This is not the silence that leads someone to want to shout: “What’s happening here?” This silence is different. This is a quiet silence not a noisy silence. This is a silence that has not been imposed on us but freely chosen by us.
You see we are all housemates at least for a few days at the Bethlehem Retreat House which is located on the grounds of the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist Monastery in Piffard, New York. A sign in the wall says, “Silence and Solitude,” and that is what all of us have come seeking. I don’t know anything about those others who share mealtime with me. I don’t know why they have come, what they are seeking, what they are experiencing, I don’t even know if they speak my language. One young man left after only one day – maybe that had been his plan all along – but the size of his suitcase suggested a longer visit had been planned. Now and again, I would like to ask those around me who they are and why they have come, but I know that their story is none of my business. It is between them and God. I hope they find what they seek.
I have been here for about a day and a half. It is the fourth time that I have come to a monastery for a silent retreat. Genesee is new to me, but the silence is not. The first time I went on a weeklong silent retreat, I almost left after a few days. I started making up excuses to myself for why I had to go home. I seemed to be losing myself without my spoken words, and I was afraid of what would be left of me when all the words were gone. Is that what a stroke victim feels like whose words will not come back to them?
I know that my loss of words is only temporary and self-imposed. They will return to me as a gift when I leave at the end of the week. One thing of which I am sure – the world is missing nothing when my mouth is shut. Many of the words I speak are inane rather than profound, sarcastic rather than soothing, banal rather than extraordinary. I have often regretted something that I have said; I have rarely regretted keeping quiet.
One of the reasons that I am keeping silence this week is that I have heard enough of my own words; I have had my fill of my own brand of wisdom. I am seeking something rarer and deeper than the voice of Jim Bane; I am seeking the voice of God. I yearn to hear God’s perspective. By being quiet, I hope to remove some barriers and give God a larger space in my life to move around and talk with me.
People expect me to be witty and always have something clever to say. And I usually give them what they want. But even in those times, I know that the value of my verbal contributions are limited. Most of what I say is forgotten almost before it leaves my mouth. And it should be.
My temporary housemates have no clue how clever and witty I really am. They expect nothing of me at mealtimes except to keep my mouth shut. I am giving them what they want. It is a great relief for all of us. I am freed of the burden to speak and they are freed of the burden of listening to me. It is an arrangement that benefits everyone. As our information sheet says, “If you are breaking the silence, you are taking it away from others.” I don’t want to take away anything from anyone while I am here.
St. Benedict (who 1500 years ago wrote the guidelines for monks to follow) said that “so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive is their talk.” I often wonder if I am a mature believer (I doubt it) so I will keep silence this week. I will not speak so I can be in a better position to listen.
I have always liked the passage from James that says: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” I have always liked it, yet so rarely followed it. What a great formula for building community.
What about you? You probably have a number of folks in mind who you wish would choose silence and be unable to speak to you for a few days. But is it time for you to give your mouth a rest, to lay down the burden of speaking, and to free others of the load of listening to you? Is it time for you to take a silent retreat?

Jim Bane

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Let Pain Be Your Guide

“Let pain be your guide.” Who first said that anyway? Was it Jesus or the Buddha or Mohammed? Or was it from a Bruce Lee movie? That expression might reveal a deep insight to some, yet I could also understand how it might sound like shallow psycho-babble to others.
I have been turning this expression around in my head for about a week since it was directed to me by an intern in orthopedic medicine. I don’t know if that intern had memorized this expression from a classroom lecture entitled: “The kinds of things to say to people recovering from surgery” or if he has experienced them as words to live by in his own life.
Of course, I immediately thought of the many coaches I have had over the years who loved to say: “No pain, no gain.” I think this was meant to be either motivation for us to do stupid things to prove our dedication to the sport or justification for their cruel drills such as the one called “Blood Board” that we participated in during middle school football. The especially witty coaches would say, “Hey Bane, no pain, no gain.” They were so proud of themselves and acted like they had discovered rhyming. I played along and pretended that I had never heard such a clever use of language (except in grade school by eight year olds).
Which expression: “Let pain be your guide” or “No pain, no gain” has contained greater wisdom for you in your own life? What kind of pain have you found to be inevitable and potentially helpful, and what kind has been overwhelming and debilitating? Do you approach pain or avoid it?
I don’t seek pain for myself nor do I want to inflict it on others, but I know especially in my role as a church leader that pain in one form or another is unavoidable if the church is to become or to stay healthy. I know that my actions have brought pain to others, but in most circumstances I believe that living through the pain and emerging from the pain has brought the church to a better place. Even with that knowledge, I have been saddened when my actions have caused others to be deeply hurt. May I never say: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” That sounds a lot like: “Your pain is not as great as my pain.” That judgment is not mine to make.
I appreciate the expression “pain management” because it contains the truth that we can’t eliminate pain from our lives, but with the appropriate resources we can get out of bed in the morning and keep moving most of the day. But there are days for all of us, aren’t there, when the pain is just too great – either physically or emotionally or spiritually – and the best response we can come up with is to stay in bed and hope the next day brings some relief?
Doctors like to ask you to evaluate your pain on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the worst pain imaginable. My mother had severe arthritis in her back and her legs and had to go to the pain management center every so many months to be examined. She needed to prove to them that she was still hurting so that they would continue to give her the medications she needed to function. I was with her once when she was asked to state her pain level. “Ten,” she said without hesitation, and I am sure that she was telling the truth. And I am also sure that the meds never completely took her pain away, but at least they eased her suffering somewhat.
While I was the recovery room following my leg surgery two months ago, one of the nurses told me that she was going to give me some morphine before the other anesthesia completely wore off. Within seconds, I had an incredible sense of peace and well-being. I can honestly say that I would have liked to have remained in that state for a long time. But after a few hours, they packed me up and pushed me out the door in a wheelchair. And they didn’t give me any of my new friend morphine to take with me. Pain was in my future, but so was healing. I couldn’t have the healing I wanted without the pain that I didn’t want. Pain indeed would be one of my guides.
I ran a 5K race a few days ago. I was slow before the tumor was removed from my leg and am even slower now. I still ran faster than I should have run. But it wasn’t about the time, it was about the participation. It was about running outside on a spring morning in Northeast Ohio with 100 other people – some of whom, I am sure, have had significantly greater challenges than me to overcome. I was incredibly thankful just to be running.
I don’t think I got any of those endorphins, but running was still a lot better than morphine.
May your pain lead you into a deeper and better place with yourself, with others, and with God.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The First Time I Was Told I Might Have Cancer

The first time I was told I might have cancer was in 1973. I was a junior in high school, and had seen a specialist because of severe pain in a part of my body I really wanted to keep. The specialist said that it looked like I had a tumor, it might be cancerous, but if he had to remove my body part that I could still have “a normal life.” I don’t recall any sympathy or empathy as he delivered those lines to me. It was more of “this is the way it is, kid, deal with it.”
A few days later when I woke up after surgery, I looked at the bandages and wondered what was there and what was missing. It was a while before I heard the good news that I did not have cancer and still had all my body parts. I remember feeling relieved and grateful, but it didn’t become a turning point in my life after which I dedicated myself to smelling the roses everyday and all that kind of stuff. It had all happened pretty fast, and I didn’t have a lot of time before the surgery to ponder what cancer might have meant to me. Although my physical activity was restricted, within a few days I was back at school, going to class, doing homework, laughing with my friends, and doing all the kinds of things a 16 year old does.
The second time I was told I might have cancer was just over two weeks ago. I had been under the care of physical therapists and a sports medicine specialist for a pain in my left leg that just wouldn’t go away. The original diagnosis was a hamstring injured while running which turned out to be an accurate yet incomplete assessment. I was under treatment for most of the fall and into the winter before the specialist decided to order an MRI.
Two days after the MRI, I met with the specialist and a resident who was learning the finer points of doctoring. I wondered later what he learned that day. The specialist came in and announced, “I am afraid we’ve got some bad news, Mr. Bane. The MRI revealed that you have a large growth in your leg, and it might be cancer. It will have to be removed.” Now, I was already sitting down, so he didn’t have to say, “Mr. Bane, please sit down.” I didn’t fall over because I don’t think I absorbed what he said right away. My initial verbal response was: “Well, does this mean I’ll be in the wheelchair division (of races)?” No one laughed.
He took me out to a computer, brought up the MRI, and showed an image of a large mass that didn’t belong in my leg. He had a name for it that sounded less threatening than tumor, but within minutes I couldn’t remember what it was. He said he was turning me over to his partner whose specialty was surgery and oncology. Who wants to have an appointment with any specialist with the word “oncology” on his card, anyway? I was given a date for a week later and was out the door and into my car and driving home.
Not counting the time I spent waiting to be seen, the entire visit was about 15 minutes in length. Other than the fact that I got to see an MRI, the interaction was roughly equivalent to the “you might have cancer” conversation I had had 38 years before.
The events might have been similar, but my response to them was not because in the 38 years separating those “you might have cancer” conversations I have actually grown quite fond of living. As a 16 year old I didn’t want to lose that body part; as a 54 year old I didn’t want to lose my life just yet. I have learned in those 38 just what a loss it would be to die, for you see, I am not a Buddhist or a Hindu. I don’t believe in reincarnation. I am a Christian and I believe that this life is the only one I am going to have.
Now, you might be thinking about me: “What a dunce. Doesn’t he know that even if he has cancer, it doesn’t necessarily lead to death? And why did he immediately assume he has cancer anyway?” –OR- “What a shallow, faithless person (especially for an ordained minister). Doesn’t he know that everyone who lives will die someday? And doesn’t he realize what a blessed and long life he has lived compared to most of the world’s people? And shouldn’t he be looking forward to a future in heaven – the sooner, the better?”
Intellectually, I did know that a cancer diagnosis does not have to be fatal. I have known many people who have been successfully treated for cancer (even if they did lose a body part or two along the way). And I also knew that I have led a truly wonderful life with so many, many blessings. God has been very good to me. And after presiding at so many funerals, I think I have faced the fact that someday my body (like everyone else’s) will give up the ghost.
But my clinical intellect was no match for my emotions. Cancer felt like death to me, and I wasn’t prepared to die yet. My father died a week shy of his 48th birthday, and I remember the relief I had when I turned 48. I felt like I had passed an important threshold leading to a new phase of my life. Was this new phase to be so very short?
I have always kept a journal, but the day after the second time I was told that I might have cancer I stopped writing in my old notebook and started a fresh one. At the top I wrote: “The Rest of My Life Journal.” I feel that this second time for me is a turning point in my life regardless of how much longer my life might be. I don’t know what kind of turning point it will be yet, but I sense that it is pivotal.
Since I started that new journal, I have had surgery and a growth larger than my fist was removed from my left leg. On the back of that leg, I have an incision about seven inches long which is held together by staples. It looks like something stitched together by Victor Frankenstein, and once it heals it should provide a disturbing enough scar to scare the average child. If only short shorts were in fashion again.
Some people get a tattoo as a visible reminder of a significant event in their lives. I have thought about getting a tattoo before, but I won’t need one now. That scar will be my tattoo.
I still don’t know if I have cancer or not. The initial biopsy of a small part of the tumor was negative, and I should learn this week about the biopsy on the whole mass. I feel like I am running to escape the forest that is filled with monsters, I can see the clearing ahead, I glimpse the sunlight, I am almost there, but something might just get my ankle and pull me back in. I am not out of the woods yet.
Regardless of what I hear this week, I hope that I respond with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness because 38 years between my first and my second cancer scare is longer than what many people live. I haven’t just had a “normal life,” but a life richly blessed. I have no complaints to lift up to God or to anyone else. I’ll seek to be happy with whatever years I might have left. In the meantime, I try to live out these words of Paul in Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I would give my right arm for...

Nine out of ten. That’s how many of the 2010 Oscar best picture nominees that I have seen so far. This tells you what I do with some of my free time. I call it “sermon research.” Just saw “127 Hours” a couple of days ago, and like some of the other nominees it is not a movie for everyone. I first heard the story of Aron Ralston (on whom the film is based) about three years ago, and I have shared it as a sermon example in our church as well as a lesson for churches I have coached. In my preaching, I almost always prefer true stories (no matter how many loose ends) to “minister stories” or fables such as the person throwing starfish back into the sea or the “I am a battleship/ I am a lighthouse” tale. Don’t even bring up Footprints. I figure that if I can’t find a true story to illustrate a passage of scripture, then I need to preach on a different text.

As you likely know, Ralston became famous for his courage in overcoming an incredible challenge. While hiking alone in Utah’s Blue John Cavern in 2003, Ralston became trapped when a boulder came loose and pinned his right arm to the cavern wall. During his 127 hours of captivity, Ralston explored a number of options before ultimately deciding to cut off his arm so that he could escape.

Ralston did not want to cut his own arm off but any less drastic measure would have meant his death. Before managing to free himself, he had even scrawled his name on the wall along with the date and RIP. He knew the consequences of staying trapped.

When I have talked about Aron Ralston, I have invited people to think about whatever it is that might be trapping them and holding them down. With some local churches, the large cost of maintaining an aging building is the boulder that is killing them and preventing them from realizing new life. Individuals (and organizations) are often held back by unhealthy relationships, patterns of behavior, addictions, or debts.

In many cases, the boulder (like Ralston’s right arm) was once healthy and life-giving. Those churches needed those big buildings back in their boom times. Those old patterns of behavior were once new and fresh and effective. But over time, healthy can become deadly. The rock on which people once built their lives now crushes them; the building which enabled ministry now prevents it. I have suggested to churches that in order to have a fresh start that they might have to cut off their right arm – that building which they love so much – because to stay in it will lead to the grave. The same is true for individuals. There is no question about whether it will hurt. It will hurt a lot. The only question is whether the person or group is willing to endure the pain so that they can be free.

There is an old expression that goes like this, “I would give my right arm for…” This saying expresses the passion that someone possesses for a certain goal and their willingness to sacrifice a great deal to get it. It is not meant to be taken literally. But Aron Ralston came to understand during his 127 hours of captivity that he would have to give his right arm if he wanted to live. It was not just a metaphor for him.

What would you give your right arm for? What are you personally prepared to sacrifice so that you might have new life? Or bring new life to others? Some individuals and organizations have already carved their names and dates and RIP’s on a wall in a cavern that will be their graves. They have chosen a path of pain avoidance. Their 127 hours are counting down. It is only a matter of time. But their choice to die does not have to be your choice to die.

I believe that God offers each of us choices that can lead to life. We always have a choice, but those decisions are often very, very tough. That’s why we try to evade them if we can. Ralston’s autobiography is called "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." Is that where you feel you are today? No matter what you decide to do, even if you choose to do nothing, there will be consequences, won’t there?

“I have set before you life and death, blesses and curses. Choose life that you and your descendents may life.” Deuteronomy 30:19

While he was trapped in Blue John Cavern, Aron Ralston had a vision of a young boy – a child he understood to be his son. In 2009, Ralston married Jessica Trusty, and in 2010 their son Leo was born.