Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Digging My Friend's Grave

I dug my friend’s grave in the morning, and in the evening, in the dark, I laid him to rest. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to dig that grave. There is probably some rule or law that prohibits it. Maybe there is an opening or closing fee. I didn’t ask anyone. I just grabbed my shovel and went to work. Most of us have heard the expression: “He dug his own grave.” My friend could not do that for he had died a few hours before I started digging. He had no say in the matter. I actually dug two graves. Trying to excavate the first spot, I chopped up tree roots and battled my way down to a rock which would not budge. If only someone had placed a “Do Not Dig Here” sign on that spot, it would have saved me a lot of sweat. I gave up on gravesite #1 and tried to imagine a nearby spot that contained no underground tree roots or large rocks. Utilizing my x-ray vision, I found one and began again. The ground was softer and contained fewer obstacles. I had found the right place. As I worked, I asked the questions that anyone in my position faced: “How long, how wide, and how deep?” I hadn’t measured the body of my friend. It would have been unseemly. The very thought of it reminded me of the undertakers in those old Westerns who would casually stroll up to the likely loser before a gun battle and calculate his height for the coffin that would be constructed. So I dug a hole that I hoped would be longer and wider and deeper than needed (just like God’s love). What happened to my friend? What was the cause and circumstances of his death? He had died in his sleep. No autopsy was performed or needed. He was old and he had cancer. Both he and I had had tumors removed from our legs. I was lucky – the growth in my leg was not cancerous. My leg healed and I moved on. My friend was not so fortunate – his tumor was cancerous, and as the surgeon said, “I couldn’t get it all out.” He was given seven months to live. That prognosis was delivered in the spring. My friend rebounded, but we all knew he had been in the last season of his life. I was out of town at a clergy retreat when news of my friend’s death came to me. I packed up my books I was planning to read and hurried home. In a twist of irony, his death came five years to the day that news reached me of my mother’s death who had passed on in her sleep while I was on a clergy retreat in Arizona. I don’t know what it is about clergy retreats, but I have been called home from other events because parishioners have died. Future publicity material for these events may consider adding this warning: “This retreat may to hazardous to the health of those close to you.” I had planned on laying my friend to rest soon after digging that hole, but Holly – who was also out of town – changed her flight plans to arrive home that evening. She wanted to bid him goodbye. We both loved him. Just as I had wept when I first saw his body, so did she. She embraced him for the last time. We knew he was suffering, but we didn’t want to let him go. He had meant so much to us – more than we could have imagined when we first met him. We wrapped his body in a sheet I had had since my college days. It had a nature pattern and seemed appropriate. I had bought it as a twenty year old thinking that it would display my sense of chic. He wore it better than any old mattress ever did. I thought I saw his side move when I went to pull the sheet around him. Was it a miracle, a revival? No. Just a false hope. I wrapped him in his shroud and thought of the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani who wrap their dead brothers in plain coverings before they bury them directly in the ground with no coffin or vault. Like the monks, my friend lived a simple life and enjoyed uncomplicated pleasures. It didn’t take much to please him. I carried his body out to the newly dug hole. He was lighter than he had been when he was healthy, but he was not weightless. I had a headlamp on my head and Holly carried a flashlight. It was dark. I had my last embrace during that short walk, but finally I laid him down. I was thankful that the hole was longer and wider and deeper than needed. What would anyone have thought if they had come upon us in the dark? Would they have seen the shovel and the hole and yelled, “Grave robbers” and accused us of crimes against nature? If the authorities had been called, I guess we would have said, “We are making a deposit, not a withdrawal.” But our work was undisturbed by any others. We said a prayer and our goodbyes, and we went about the work of covering his body. We would never see him again. After the work was done, Holly retrieved a beautiful mum that a friend had dropped off, and she placed it on the flesh dirt. Afterwards, we drank a toast to our friend, our pug, our Captain. He was a good dog, a very good dog. If you believe that God prepares a room in heaven for each one of us no matter what kind of scoundrels we might be, it is hard to imagine a heaven worth residing in without all of our friends, human or otherwise.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Solstice

When I was a kid, I experienced summer as endless. When classes let out in June, it seemed as if an infinite number of days rolled out before me until those ominous school bells would call me back in early September. Summer was a season of plenty – plenty of warmth, sunlight, and free time. If we didn’t do something today, it didn’t matter. There was always another summer tomorrow. Summer meant abundance to me. Nowadays, summer almost seems likes it’s over before it begins. Why did I ever learn about the summer solstice? It threatens to ruin things for me. June 20 was the longest day of the year in our part of the world – at least in terms of daylight. Amazing as it seems, it is all downhill from here. We will actually be losing daylight for the next six months – first it is an unnoticeable drip of a moment or two, then there is a persistent flow, then a rush of hours swallowed up by the darkness until late December rolls around, .and daylight begins to get its revenge and nibble away ever so slowly and quietly at the dark. What happened to the summer? One of the truths that I cling to during the usually cold and snowy Northeast Ohio winters is the knowledge that after the winter solstice that every single day gets a little bit brighter. That fact has often brought me great joy and consolation. So if the winter solstice is an occasion of hope for me, should the summer solstice be experienced as a time of loss? I hate to give up on summer already. I deeply resonate with the connection of the summer solstice to the birth of John the Baptist and the winter solstice to the birth of Jesus. John himself said with respect to his position with Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) John was great, but not as great as Jesus. Instead, he paved the way for Jesus. After John’s birth (which will be celebrated in a few days), the days grow shorter. After the birth of Jesus, every day brings more light. I love that idea – it reminds me of the yin/yang – in the midst of the darkness there is a spot of light; in the midst of the light, there is a spot of darkness. Both darkness and light have their time and their place. This connection just might be the one that makes me celebrate the summer solstice rather than mourn it. It is also an idea that can give all of us hope amidst any dark situation in our lives as well as make us thoughtful and appreciative of the brightest days we experience. In the face of the coming darkness that summer solstice portends, we decided to face it bravely yesterday and celebrate. Holly and I and some friends joined with a group of people in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a Yoga Solstice Festival. There is nothing quite like manipulating a 56 year old body during a dozen sun salutations to make a guy feel really alive – or old – or broken down. We had to sign waivers to participate – yoga can be dangerous, you know. But I enjoyed it and I really love those position names - especially downward facing dog. Do real dogs ever get into that position? I don’t think our pugs could. We didn’t stay too long but headed home where we hosted a backyard summer solstice cookout featuring a Weight Watchers approved menu. We even managed to stay up long enough to see the sun set – we are wild living folks – but the party ended shortly after that. Take that, summer solstice. Bring on the darkness – but, please, only a moment at a time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

To Hoodie or not to Hoodie

Like everyone I have talked with, I am saddened by the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin and outraged at the lack of justice in Sanford, Florida. The shooter has not been charged with any crime. Groups too numerous to count have sought to find meaningful ways to express their sympathy and solidarity. One popular response is the wearing of hooded sweatshirts at rallies and other events. Trayvon was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was profiled as a suspicious person by the shooter. Both of my sons wear hoodies, but since they are white they are unlikely to be called suspicious because of that kind of attire. A few days ago, Lebron James released a picture on Twitter of the Miami Heat wearing hoodies. And some of my clergy colleagues will be attending a worship service and prayer vigil in Cleveland after which they are planning to don hoodies and march a short distance around town.
I affirm this expression of concern about this horrible incident, and I hope that all in attendance (marchers and bystanders) will be moved to consider God’s vision of a peaceful and just world. And that they also are moved to action.
As much as I support this witness by others, I am conflicted as to the best way that I can participate in this process. I just don’t know if wearing a hoodie is the best way for me to express my own feelings. As a 55 year old white suburban male, I wonder at what my hoodie wearing, Cleveland marching image would say to others. Part of my struggling is with my own collection of hoodies. You see, I could wear a blue hoodie that I have which has the letters M-I-C-H-I-G-A-N on the front, but I can tell you that more than a few Buckeye supporters through the years have acted irrationally at the sight of those letters. Better to leave that one in the closet. Then there is that crimson zipped hoodie which has on its front these letters: H-A-R-V-A-R-D. A bald middle aged white man wearing a Harvard sweatshirt while marching for justice? I might as well be pictured in Doonesbury as a cliché for out of touch intellectual elitist. Then there is that brown hoodie I was given for completing three trail races last fall. It says “OhioOutside” on the front. I love the people I have run alongside at trail races, but they are among the whitest groups that I am ever in. And a group of hood wearing white folks probably sends the wrong message too.
I just don’t want to be like one of those palm waving folks who showed up as Jesus was coming into Jerusalem. They came for the excitement, they were attracted by the energy of it all, but in their end their faith in and commitment to Jesus was as deep as a thimble. Part of the cheering crowd one day, but a no-show after that. I don’t want to be a hoodie-wearing hypocrite.
So I think I am sitting out the hoodie wearing movement right now. It is right for others and a genuine statement of support for them to make. I hope it is a life-changing way for them to be involved and a genuine witness to their faith. But it just isn’t right for me. I am still struggling with the response that is true and authentic for me.
Let us all hope that all of our responses to this crime are more than just fashion statements.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When are you "all in?"

When are you “all in?” How often are you fully committed (heart, soul, mind, and strength) to an event, to an experience, or to a relationship? In what parts of your life, do you push all your chips into the center of the table and leave nothing back in case things don’t work out?
If you are like many people, you are rarely “all in.” You body might be somewhere, but your mind is elsewhere. You might be performing one task, but you are already thinking about the next one. You are talking on the telephone, but you are also responding to emails. Your body is with one person, but your heart is with another. You are driving and texting at the same time and doing a poor job at both. You can claim that you are using your time wisely by multitasking, and you may be crossing off a number of items on your “To Do” list. But as you lay your head back on that pillow at the end of the day, are you satisfied and at peace with how you spend those hours or are you exhausted and fragmented?
In the course of a typical day, I perform a lot of things half-heartedly or distractedly. I do not fully invest myself as I pick up my dry-cleaning, shop for groceries at Acme, or make a deposit at my local bank. I try to be friendly and cordial and display some of the fruits of the spirit like patience, kindness, and self-control. After all, some of the clerks and cashiers know that I am a minister so I have to keep up appearances. But I don’t think that everything I do every day is worth all my chips.
Other folks seem to be “all in” all too often, don’t they? Every conversation, every encounter, every event turns into an intense and personal determiner of their self-worth. They seem to be in a constant battle with something, someone, somewhere. They are obsessive about everything. To them I say, “Lighten up. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It is never just about you.”
I imagine that Jesus was “all in” a lot of the time. When he listened to you, I believe he looked you in the eye, looked into your heart, and didn’t look over your shoulder to see if the next person would be more interesting than you. When he preached and taught, I am sure he was fully engaged. When he went away by himself to pray, he put everything he had on the table with God. He threw himself on the ground when he prayed. He sweated blood. He wept. Jesus was not texting when he was with you, with God, or with the disciples. That’s why some people turned away. Jesus wouldn’t look by them or around them but looked at them and inside them. They weren’t equipped to handle such focused intensity and intimacy. What would it have felt like to have been touched or healed by a person who saw you so completely?
I believe that Jesus was fully engaged almost all of the time. He did not fear committing all he had. Many things were worthy of his complete attention including things that others did not value like lilies, lepers, or little children. But are you “all in” any of the time, in anything that you do? Is there anything in your life that you love so much, that you are so committed to that it takes all of your attention and may even take your breath away? Something you give yourself to not grudgingly or fearfully but thankfully and joyfully.
For physician and philosopher George Sheehan, his “all in” was running. He wrote: “When running becomes for me, as my poet friend put it, ‘a total entered experience.’ It becomes a religious experience. I give it my body. I give it my mind. I give it the yearnings of my heart, the further reaches of my soul. From the act of running – now an act of awareness, of love, of stretching myself – comes whatever wholeness, whatever certitude I possess then and for the rest of the day.” The Running Life, p. 274
Though I am not as fast or graceful or thoughtful or eloquent as George Sheehan was, I too am “all in” when I run. On these frigid winter mornings, I don’t need outside encouragement or motivation to slip on those layers of wicking clothing that make me look like a middle aged super hero. When I am running ten miles on the Cuyahoga Valley Towpath and my sweat is turning to frost on my hat and my nose is running, I may not look much to you. Despite my appearances, I am really something – I am a human being fully immersed in an activity that brings me deep joy and tremendous satisfaction – my heart and my soul and my mind and my body are all singing the same tune. I am a concert even if it is music that only God and I can hear and appreciate. These experiences heal my brokenness and keep me whole all day long.
Going “all in” is not a sacrifice or a risk, but it is a decision and a commitment. Going “all in” enables you to begin to see and then to become who you really are when all parts of you are working as one. Going “all in” restores you to wholeness and helps you discover your true self – that person that God intended you to be all along.
When are you “all in?” In what activities or experiences do you fully and gratefully invest all parts of yourself rather than hedging your bets and holding something back? When are you a beautiful concert in which every part of you is in harmony with the rest? What does that sound like, what does that feel like, to you?

Friday, January 13, 2012

"A Tooth's Got To Know It's Limitations"

We went to Sears last weekend to buy a new oven. They were having some kind of “after the holidays/ we need to make more money/ friends and family” sale. We’ve needed a new oven for a long time, but we kept putting it off. But we finally grew tired of cutting up wood and building a fire every time we wanted to make chocolate chip cookies. The thrill of Early American cooking was long gone. And we had a very generous gift card that our church had given us for Christmas so we knew that we had a good start on the cost.
Since it was a few weeks after Christmas, we didn’t have to battle that post-Christmas crowd, but instead we were competing with that New Year’s Resolution gang – you know, those people who were still hopeful and hadn’t quite given up on life change in the New Year. I passed by one woman who was carefully caressing a treadmill under the watchful eye of what looked like a 17 year old salesman. I am sure he has had many years of experience in the mechanized exercise machine industry. You could tell that the woman was asking herself: “Is this the one that I have been searching for? The one that will help lead me back to where I used to be and help me get me back into that dress? But am I ready to commit? My heart has been broken before.”
A few aisles over, I walked past a couple who were looking to get a better night’s sleep in 2012. They were listening to a slightly older (19?) sales guy drone on about the litany of benefits that this particular mattress would bring them. I am betting that he could get a good night’s sleep on a straw mattress thrown on the floor. What 19 year old ever has trouble sleeping? The woman was lying on the mattress while her husband stood a few feet away. “I can’t get up,” she shouted. I glanced over and she looked like a upside down turtle. She was rocking back and forth but she was stuck on her back. “I won’t help you,” her husband said. I didn’t slow down to see what would happen next, but the paper didn’t have any story about “Woman Trapped in Mattress Files for Divorce” so I am assuming someone helped her up.
I am not sure if all the Sears shoppers I saw that day will succeed in their resolutions, but I appreciate the new beginnings that a New Year offers. In a related sense, I am always thankful when we pass the Winter Solstice that guarantees that we’ll have a little bit more daylight every day until the end of June. It gives me a sense of hope.
Our church has begun the New Year with a worship series called “Walking the Twelve Steps with Jesus,” and we are examining the spiritual and Biblical aspects of the 12 Steps of AA. I wanted our church to start 2012 with an emphasis on hope and personal change. About twenty of us are participating in new small groups on this topic as well. I shared at the beginning of the series (the same day that we bought our new oven) that one thing that I am sure of is that Jesus wanted us to change, to be freed of our sins and addictions, and to follow him without excuse or restraint. Jesus wants our walk of faith to be more of a joyful dance than a death march.
The reason that many of us resist full commitment to the walk of faith is that we sense that this commitment will involve giving up part of ourselves. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” We don’t always want to lose the old, do we? It can feel like death. Most of us don’t rush towards death, do we? And this walk of faith does involve death – the dying of who we have come to be so that God can create something new in us, through us, and with us.
One of the dangers of getting older is that we can become cynical about new things and resistant to change. It is ok to be skeptical, to be wise about where we commit our heads and our hearts, but it is not healthy to become so suspicious and pessimistic that we never allow any new life to touch us and to move us to new places.
But change can be hard, can’t it, even if we are in a new year and are participating in a supportive small group? If we have any significant addictions or sins, we know that they can grip us and that they resist letting go of us without a battle. And in many cases we have mixed feelings because we once welcomed these addictions into our lives, didn’t we? We gave them a place to live and they don’t want to be evicted. Check out Luke 8:26-39 if you want to see a great Biblical example of this struggle.
And getting free of our addictions and sins is not painless either, is it? This letting go can create a space in our lives that aches to be filled.
As I write this, my tongue is poking into an empty space in my mouth that until yesterday was filled with one of my upper teeth. I had had that tooth in my mouth for a long, long time; we had enjoyed a lot of great meals together; but after experiencing some pain in it for weeks I had gone to see Carlo, my dentist. When he saw the condition of my tooth, Carlo channeled Charlie Brown and said, “Rats.” I have never heard any medical profession looking at me say “rats” before so I knew it was serious. In searching for the appropriate way to tell me, he paraphrased Dirty Harry, “A tooth’s got to know its limitations.”
So yesterday, he numbed my mouth and extracted that tooth. It didn’t come out in one quick yank like in the movies, but the removal required a number of twists and jerks and tugs before it was all out. That tooth did not give up easily even though it was diseased.. It liked its position in my mouth and in my life. When the procedure was over and he was bringing me back into an upright position, I asked to see the extracted tooth, my former companion on many a gastronomical journey. I saw the dark areas where it had died and caused me pain and I also noticed the three red roots that had kept it in place. No wonder it was so hard to remove.
I will miss that tooth for awhile. There literally is an empty space in my mouth. But like all good things that have gone bad, it was causing me more pain than joy. It had to go so that I could enjoy eating again. I lost something but I am moving on.
As we continue to live into this New Year, are there some things in your life that have to be extracted, some sins or addictions or habits that may once have been life-giving, but now cause you (and others) more pain than pleasure? Are you ready for some old thing in your life to be removed so that you can have a place for something new?
My wish for you my friends is that you still have hope for 2012 and that whether you are trying to get free of an addiction, seeking to improve your physical condition, or even just attempting to get out of bed without assistance that you will not give up on yourself. Remember, you might need to tug more than once. Bad habits can be difficult to remove.