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THANKSGIVING MOOD

ETERNAL LOVE…AND EVERLASTING RAGE

Throughout much of my life I assumed fury merely popped up periodically among families but over the years I’ve learned that it can have staying power. It struck me when a woman in her sixties attended my church for a few weeks. She finally said “I grew up in the Baptist church and now I want to become a Methodist but I will have to wait until my 95-year-old mother dies.” I thought she was joking until she assured me her mother still had fits of anger over her faith. Six months later the daughter said “OK, Pastor, she died and I’m ready to be a Methodist!”

I heard about a prominent author who chose to stop worshipping with his family’s faith community. When his father was dying, the last words he uttered to his son was “Go to church, dammit!”

A seemingly gentle lady in another church revealed that she has six grown kids, three are progressive and three are ultra conservatives. She revealed that she was at wits end trying to calm them down about issues during the Thanksgiving dinners. She decided to tape on her front door one year a statement that read “If you plan to be become infuriated over politics or religion today you can just turn around and go back to your own homes!” They did but they were so ashamed they sent notes of remorse and promised to behave next time. I don’t think the offspring believed their mother could be enraged but she admitted to me that she felt it full bore every year.

Why are we so reluctant or afraid to release some of our ire among our families and church members? I’m not sure but there is another annual battle zone that begins on Thanksgiving among shoppers. It’s known as the Black Friday Mob when and where we may find our neighbors and church friends who might get punched. Shoppers will take things from another’s cart and manage to bash each other every year.

Will our not-so-nice subterranean impulses ever vanish? Here’s hoping that Bruce Bliven, when he penned these words, was thinking of us.
“Human nature can be changed with the greatest ease and to the utmost possible extent. If huge…dangers lie in this, it also contains great hope for the future of humankind.” Forbes, 1956

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RAGE, ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Experts claim we need to keep our rage in check by playing soothing music while driving on crowded freeways. I tried it with country western music but it didn’t seem to work for me. Johnny Cash can drive you crazy.

Road rage has increased big time in recent years. My first experience with it occurred on an L.A. freeway in about 1956 when I was attempting to avoid a large metal box in my lane by moving over to the next one. An angry motorist would not let me in. He was screaming at me and offering a signal that is not to be found in the motor vehicle handbook. To my surprise he was wearing a clerical collar. I figured it was a costume, given it was near the Halloween season. After becoming a minister I met several colleagues who admitted they too used that signal, along with me.

Statistics report that most angry motorists are men in their thirties and that’s about the age I was when I used the middle digit to make a point. What if cars owned by young adults have to listen only to relaxing music?

I’ve wondered if the motor vehicle department might offer courses for road-rage motorists who are addicted to being explosive on the highways. If the angry attitude is increasing why not try to come up with ideas on how to calm down such hotheads?

Of course I would tend to rely upon one-on-one bonding if at all possible. I have alluded to road rage scenarios in my essays in the past but I think the theme needs to be lifted up again now that I have three grandchildren who are beginning to drive.

I commuted for a time in San Diego by taking interstate-five in the early mornings. The six lanes were jam-packed with motorists driving 95 miles per hour and slowing down to 10 miles per hour several times at 5 mph and back to 95 with bikers weaving in and out. I recall on my freeways years ago most drivers were doing 80 miles per hour so I slowed down, out of revenge I guess. I got several nasty signals.

You readers may not want to bond with motorists as I did that morning. I followed the last angry flasher until he left the freeway and drove to a Starbucks store. I walked in behind him and stood in a long line. I asked where he lived and where he was born and raised. He talked about his town and his grandma for about ten minutes. I didn’t mention how he had greeted me just before our little sweet talk. If I had not met him in that store I would have hated him for about five or ten minutes.

Now, when I have mean motorists who give me that naughty symbol, I smile at them and wave vigorously as if I know them. They quickly go from being mean to nice because they assume I may be their neighbor or one of their bosses at work. A few of them will go ahead and wave at me apologetically with happy fingers.

We have experienced animosity on our highways for decades but now it seems we are living with anger in our country like never before. My hunch is, given our attitudes on politics, we will have to risk bonding with our neighbors, coworkers and church members. We have stayed away from them for too long. We can try meeting in groups to air our opinions but bonding one-on-one will likely be more effective.

Running deep with those who are at odds with us is much more difficult than bonding with strangers. But what if we feel our country is going to hell in a hand basket and we hold back from what we truly feel? And what if we are not as right about the issues as we think?

Groucho Marks had an interesting and final word on politics. “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Groucho Marks, recalled on the occasion of his death, August 19, 1977.

David Brooks, the columnist for the NY Times, may appreciate Groucho’s death bed musings when he contends we are under a siege mentality in our culture. Brooks believes “…we’re in a traditional moment and the very foundations of society are now open to question.” He admits there is no easy solution to overcome the siege.

Ah, but why not risk drawing close to our rivals and going deep enough that we may discover we are the one diagnosing things incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies? And here’s hoping it will not be our final words.

WHEN RETIRED PASTORS PLAY IT SAFE

“Courageous risks are life giving, they help you grow, make you brave and better than you think you are.” Joan L. Curcio.

Evidently I had no clue what it might be like to retire fully. I waited a year before I attended my last church. When I did show up a dozen members greeted me on the patio. It felt good to have that kind of attention. A month later about six members embraced me and the next time two greeted me and others waved at me while heading to the sanctuary. The office of the pastor shifts rather quickly and I was not taking it very well.

There are retiring pastors who have hobbies, art work or gardening chores to look forward to when making a graceful exit, and life is fine for them. I tried jigsaw puzzles, gardening and art classes and failed in all three. I wound up not finishing the puzzles, killed my plants, and having to draw ridiculous pictures of potatoes and pliers for the art teacher! What’s with that?

It struck me that I needed to have a creative edge in my pensioned years, something that matters deeply in my life. A newspaper columnist in my last church who had published several books suggested that I find a way to write three pages a day until something unique comes to mind. I assured him I had been writing four pages a week on sermons for over 40 years. He claimed that the daily pages might be another form of creative writing, and that turned out to be true.

The author also said daily writing can bring forth something fresh, original and valuable. It occurred to me that the daily writings made a difference in how I distinguished things that I missed while pastoring my churches,

Ralph Keyes, in his book “The Courage to Write,” claims most authors, whether novelists or non-fiction writers, hold back what they honestly feel. I knew I was not revealing what I felt in my sermons. I tipped-towed around my deepest emotions when writing my sermons. No, that’s not true, I would edit out the juicy stuff before preaching it.

When I reflect back on my self-published book it struck me that I didn’t have the courage to reveal what I truly felt about my ministry and life. I played it safe and I wish I hadn’t. Keyes suggests that fear has to be a critical factor in honest writing.

What if I had exposed what I was thinking and feeling during my tenure? I waited until I retired before I risked running deep with my sermons, thinking I would be more daring by preaching at other churches.

Ah, but I did find a way to deal with subterranean sentiments after retiring. I led several retreats with Methodist men from someone else’s church. We dealt with rage, affairs, fear and porn, passions we pastors hold back on our own turf. They were successful ventures that would likely not be revealed to their friends and possibly their loved ones. There had to be members in my churches and other congregations who were dealing with secreted mayhem that we preachers don’t know about or choose to not know.

This is what jumped out at me, and I’m still trying to comprehend it. After I retired I learned that several members in different churches I bumped into in markets or malls were living in hellish relationships. Three women claimed they were being stalked and acting mean-spirited by their prominent husbands in the community. There was no physical abuse but they were definitely living in fear with no way out until divorcing.

I never came across that level of mistreatment among members before retiring. Was there less such tragedies in the past in our laity or has the culture moved us to a point of anger and chaos? Sociologists are finding that fear in our culture is pervasive in our time.

When I served as a street chaplain on Skid Row the encounters reached the deepest emotions in us. I had never experienced those profound bonds in my congregations. I wished I could have bonded with my church members at that emotional level. When active clergy see me coming now they go the other way. I get it.

A NEW SOCIAL FABRIC

David Brooks states in a NY Times column that “After World War II the Protestant establishment dominated the high ground of American culture and politics.” I was privileged to have emerged out of that high ground as a Methodist pastor in the 1960s and I have experienced the steep decline in our mainline churches over the last few decades.

The setback hit me like a brick wall while serving as a district superintendent in California a few years ago. A colleague was giving an audit on the attendance for his district churches. When he came to a congregation that had 1200 in attendance, when I was in seminary in 1965, he announced that there were only 70 members in the pews. I sat there stunned and saddened. The other superintendents were used to it.

In my retirement it struck me that we church people, along with most everyone else in our culture, have seldom bonded deeply with each other. We resist revealing our fears and anger but we manage to not hold back on road rage.

Brooks claims “… a new social fabric will have to be woven, one that brings the different planets back into relation with one another.” Our Methodist churches are deeply divided over the gay issue and politics, and in need of relating with one another. We will have to risk bonding deeply one-on-one among our members to turn a corner on finding that high ground again. The social fabric could also start with Congress members getting back to engaging with their counterparts.

Here’s a thought for starters. “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”

Katherine Mansfield (d. 1932),Journals

WHEN MOMENTS MATTER

“Every situation – nay, every moment – is of infinite worth, for it is the representative of a whole eternity.”
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1823

While teaching at Arizona State University in the 1970s I asked my students in one of my classes if they would consider going to Prescott AZ on a Saturday to meet and possibly bond with total strangers. They were shocked.
One asked with a tinge of fear “Are you serious?” Another remarked, “You’re joking, right?” It took them a month to relent and sign on with 15 students out of 30 in the class.

I told them all they had to do was find a way to urge a stranger to open up for a few minutes or longer and for the students to be candid within the encounters.

We stood in a park and I asked them to go out for three hours and try to sit down on a bench with a stranger or with someone in a coffee house. I asked them to start by asking where they are from and then where were they were born and raised. The second question can be a bit more intimate.

They returned, and I asked “How many of you managed to draw close to your strangers.” Five students shot their arms up and were eager to respond. They were surprised to sense they could have that kind of connection in such a short time. I asked “How many of you were willing to reveal your own feelings?” They admitted it was just one-way moments.

Annie, a first year student, raised her hand and burst out with “I did it, I did it but I will have to admit I walked for two and a half hours and I felt I could never have the courage to run deep with a stranger. I happened to sat down on a bench in front of a barber shop. There was just one patron in the chair and I suddenly decided to wait for him to leave and I was going in. It was a bit like jumping into a fox hole.

“I opened the door as the elder barber was cleaning up and I burst out with ‘I’m on a special project today and my leader, not me but my leader, he thinks it is possible to run deep with a total stranger within a few minutes but frankly I’m terrified right now.

“OK, I’ll start but you don’t have to do your part if you don’t want to. I’m in my first year at university and my parents have covered my entire tuition so I don’t have to work. I stay awake at night worrying that I may flunk out and my parents would be unhappy. I also have two close friends in my town and I have not been able find a new one yet. I will admit that I have cried at night and no one else knows that.

“Now, you don’t have to…”

The barber interrupted her. “It’s my turn now. I have been a barber for 47 years and my wife wants me to retire and I don’t want to let go. My clients and I open up with each other when we are alone in the shop. My wife wants us to be able to travel and not be tied to my work. I stay awake at night thinking and wondering how to deal with this.”

Annie asked, “Have you told your wife about it.”

“Nope, not my wife or anyone else…except you, just now.”

Annie beamed and said “You know what, I think I am going to get an A-plus on this project!”

“If you don’t get that grade you send your leader over to me!”

I believe beings are built to bond instantly with total strangers but our culture has allowed us to pursue prolong friendships and wedlock too soon.

HERE COMES SUSY

HERE COMES SUSY

“I believe the future is only the past, entered through another gate.”
Arthur Wing Pinero, 1893

Susy is a rather new-fangled monstrous time machine located beneath the shopping centers outside Geneva Switzerland. What caught my attention was a reference to a book titled ‘Science is Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ by Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist who has come to know Susy.
I have always tried to find a way to comprehend and preach about heaven but I came to believe the philosopher Aeschylus, a playwright around 456 BC, may have had it right when he declared that “The future you shall know when it has come; before then, forget it.”

But I can’t seem to forget the essence and meaning of heaven. I ducked preaching about it throughout my tenure. A decent preacher should at least have given it a shot. So, now in my retirement I am a little braver about such matters. What can they do to me?

I can’t quite grasp how I might live near my mother in the afterlife who died early when my step mother will be on the scene. And what about those who have had numerous divorces? Will they be in the same neighborhood with their families? That’s got to be rather thorny. Who will help us on those matters? Maybe there will be angelic therapists who provide sessions

When I spoke about heaven at a men’s retreat a gentleman in his early eighties approached me and said he was newly married. He told his wife we would be talking about heaven. He happily announced “And we will be together in heaven!”

“Oh no,” she replied “I will be with my first husband there.”

The dejected gentleman said “OK, Reverend, what do I do when I get there?”

“Well, maybe they will invite you to dinner.”

He had a great sense of humor and said to me the next morning “I guess I’ll accept the invitation if it pops up.” It can be complicated over there.

There may be other convoluted concerns when it comes to landing in heaven. In this life our kids and grandkids can grow up and move out of state or country and we may have little contact with them. What if heaven has the same afterlife mode of living?

Who, indeed, will be knocking on heaven’s door, or better yet who is on the other side of that gate and where are they headed? Will the Higgs and Susy particles blow right through heaven and on to another stratosphere out there?

I’ve been thinking about particles being generated and emitted by our mid-brain Insula urges, deep emotions that may converge beyond this life with the dense cosmic elements that have allowed for our existence. But here’s the hitch and it’s a major one, our Insula particles may be destined to unite with the atoms of those unfamiliar to us. We might be connecting with unacquainted particles in a vast universe.

What if we are built to bond with as many strangers on this earth as possible and we have not bothered to do so in our lifetimes? What if our lovely bonding particles are launched into the stratosphere after this life and we won’t know beans about how to connect with those passing us by? That’s got to be embarrassing.

A book by Alexander McCall Smith titled “Trains and Lovers” features four strangers bonding deeply over a four-hour stretch. The last words by one of the passengers when they left each other mused “Loving others is the good thing we do in our lives.”

Lisa Randall, who researches atoms with a fine tooth comb, admits that “Scientists can observe material mechanistic phenomena in the brain associated with thoughts and feelings, even if they can’t put it together to see how it works.” OK, too much intellectual info, but what she seems to be stating is, our deepest emotions have not been examined enough to see how our brain particles work.

Ah, but we have faith on our side. So why not assume heaven’s doors swing in and out?

LET’S TRY RUNNING AHEAD OF THE PACK

“What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: we contemplate the future … and that sets us apart from other animals.” -Martin E.P. Seligman and John Tierney.

Some scientists are questioning the discovery but I’m sticking with Selgman and Tierney on this one.

One day while sitting at my desk in my office I had the urge to take a look at the church archives. I wish I hadn’t. The worship bulletins and newsletters from seventy years ago were no different than what I was putting forth weekly. I was a bit repressed wondering why I hadn’t up-dated the latest materials. I was determined after that to do something about it.

I decided to try preaching on the theme of coming up with a vision for the church. The following week a young eager member barged into my office and said he liked my sermon. I was pleased but he didn’t stop there. He was so excited he couldn’t hold back.

“You know what we ought to do, Reverend?”

Before I could reply he blurted out “We should provide a place in our church for seniors in need in the community. We could use that big room that has a street exit and we might hire a part-time social worker and a half-time nurse to offer services. I woke up at 2 am this morning and it hit me like sledgehammer. What do you think of that, Pastor?”

I was stunned. All I could think about was that ‘big room’ to which he alluded had been the choir rehearsal room for over 50 years. The idea hit me like a giant mallet, and aside from that, the church was dead broke. Three other members urged me to go for the senior center. Obviously, the young fire brand who came in first must have pushed for the concept onto others.

I figured I could wear a flak jacket and present the idea to the church counsel. I invited the members to consider revising our bulletins and perhaps coming up with a vision for the church. Big mistake. Several lay persons thought I was a heretic by messing with the bulletins and an irate gentleman bellowed “Why in the hell do we need a vision when we haven’t had one since the church was founded a hundred years ago!” I thought he had a good point but were they the animals that don’t have much to offer by way of projecting ahead?

I continued on nervously and pitched for the senior center. We happened to be in the immense room where the choir had been rehearsing for eons. The new member who volunteered to chair the finance committee turned white. He gritted his teeth but managed to mouth the words “We’re broke and I’m out of here!” He left through the exit door to the street that is seldom used and never came back to the church.

The choir director was a highly regarded and lovable staff person who was in her 24th year. She ran out of the sanctified room. I let the finance guy go and raced after her. I thought that was a smart move. When she got to her car, I can’t tell you what she thought of me in that moment.

The project was passed and it turned out to be a highly successful community center that was adopted later by an interfaith organization and still exists after forty years. And we turned a corner on finances and attendance. My talented choir director took a few weeks off and returned to her music ministry.

OK now, who were the animals in that venture and who were the visionaries? Frankly, I don’t want to know!