Tag Archives: sorrow

It’s been a tough week…

Ok. Take a deep breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Think about good things.

Really, I meant it, breathe out. Let it go…

Some really bad things happened this week. Really bad.

A general was laid to rest after giving his life in service to his country.

A Missouri town is in terrible upheaval.

A family is without their son.

Robin Williams. THE Robin Williams. The “Carpe Diem” said in a horse whisper, is dead.

And, of course, SFC Hairston died in Afghanistan this week. As have thousands.

And we should not forget those suffering in the hands of ISIS extremists.

And there is always Gaza.

It’s been a tough week.

Maybe, this night, as we prepare for tomorrow’s worship, we could all just remember that everyone is suffering their own hurt. That each person’s tragedy is their own, their pain is their own, and our pain is not their pain.

This is important. Grief is important.

This week, I’ve seen some “tragedy shaming” making its inevitable rounds. The memes showing images of graphic suffering with a “my tragedy is worse than your tragedy” theme. Hey everyone – its tough out there, people are hurting, you are hurting, I am hurting – shaming each other for not making your tragedy as important as their tragedy isn’t terribly helpful.

I’m sorry you are hurting. I am too. Each of the above events impact us in different ways. I’m not going to lie, there was a moment when I was about done hearing about the General, as great as I’m sure he is, thousands have died in the last decade – THOUSANDS. What makes his different? Rank?

But you see, that is exactly it – I am, in that moment, comparing my suffering and other’s suffering. A pointless and hurtful enterprise. Unhelpful at best. Painfully shaming at worst.

As we prepare our hearts for entering the Sacred Space tomorrow, may we focus on where we are grieving and think about how our fellow saints are grieving so that we might minister to them the healing Gospel.

Life is hard. We, as Christians, at our best, can make life easier by hearing the pain and offering the Grace needed for healing to begin.

“Bear you one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ.” 

Amen

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Hope

This last week, during counseling, one of my inmates made a profound observation about his life,

 “I know I’m going to make it, but right now really sucks.”

What a resilient statement. It’s a life-giving, hopeful statement. It’s based in reality. It is a recognition that he is full of sorrow and discouraged but, based on his past journeys through similar terrain, he knows that he’ll make it.

On the same day, Good Friday, I served Communion in the SHU. The SHU is the “specialized housing unit” 23 hour lockdown, solitary. Inmates end up there because they are having a difficult time getting along with others or obeying the rules. It is, by it’s nature, a depressing place. Inmates struggle back there. It is not a pleasant place to be. I put on my stole, filled individual communion cups, and took the trays into the SHU. The inmates are usually very respectful of my presence in there. They’ll stop their conversations and, particularly if I’m bringing communion, they’ll quietly prepare themselves for their turn.

The SHU becomes a sacred place. A place where God is present.

I move from cell to cell. The small feed tray is opened and I kneel down outside of it. Because of the low height of the open slot both myself and the inmate inside are in the kneeling position. Though a massive steel door separates us from one another, our faces are inches apart which creates a very intimate experience. Behind us, radios squawk, correctional specialist discuss what needs to be discussed, other inmates talk through their doors to one another, but in that sacred space between me and the inmate, God is there. I invite the inmate to confess whatever they need to God and then say amen out loud so I know to pray. When they are done (this can take a few seconds or even minutes as we kneel on the hard cement floor), I pray for them, myself, and the correctional staff. I thank God for the forgiveness promised in 1 John 1:9 and praise God for mercy and unmerited favor. I speak the words of institution:

“I will tell you the story as it was told to me, that the same night Jesus was betrayed, he took bread…”

We partake of communion together and end with the Lord’s prayer. Some of us have known each other so long now that they could recite the entire liturgy with me. When I finish, it is not uncommon for the inmate to have tears in their eyes. Yesterday, I ended with, “My friend and brother, it is Good Friday. Easter is Sunday. I’m so sorry that this will be your Easter.”

Over and over, they would say something like, “your right Chaplain, but God is here.”

Hope is so powerful. It can carry us though such hard times. It can give us strength to make it. It can endow us with the courage we need to see life as it is – tough, but we’ll make it. Hope is the very stuff of life.

When I hear hopeful statements like that, I am encouraged that growth is taking place. I am convinced that though it may be hard for them to experience it, they can see it in the Gospel. For that moment, that sacred moment, it’s going to work out.

Life is bigger than their suffering. 

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My Country. A romantic and cynical meditation.

I SUPPOSE that very few casual readers of the “New York Herald” of August 13, 1863, observed, in an obscure corner, among the “Deaths,” the announcement,—

         “NOLAN. Died, on board U. S. Corvette ‘Levant,’ Lat. 2°
  11′ S., Long. 131° W., on the 11th of May, PHILIP NOLAN.”

 

I had not read those words since high school. I did a monologue for state dramatic competition that year based on “The Man Without a Country” by Edward Evert Hale. It opens with those lines. I bought a book today of Classic American Short Stories not knowing this was part of the collection. It’s been over 15 years.

My dad wrote it. I remember listening to a reading of it by someone who would have been very comfortable reading the news on NPR. I wanted to perform it with more passion. I yelled alot. That’s how I tended to communicate passion, I talked faster and got louder.

In retrospect, it’s a wonder no one ever walked out laughing hysterically or trying to clear their heads of the headache inducing noise. Instead, they listened, politely. Some even confessed to being “moved.”

The story is of an American Officer who gets involved with Aaron Burr’s attempted overthrow of the US Government. Young Philip Nolan is enamored with Burr and bored by garrison life (much like many young officers I meet). He gets involved with the scheme and is caught. At the Court Martial, he curses the United States.

The courts dragged on. The big flies escaped,—rightly for all I know. Nolan was proved guilty enough, as I say; yet you and I would never have heard of him, reader, but that, when the president of the court asked him at the close whether he wished to say anything to show that he had always been faithful to the United States, he cried out, in a fit of frenzy,—    6
  “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”    7
  I suppose he did not know how the words shocked old Colonel Morgan, who was holding the court. Half the officers who sat in it had served through the Revolution, and their lives, not to say their necks, had been risked for the very idea which he so cavalierly cursed in his madness.

I love that passage. Must be because I now have sat in those proceedings. I’ve watched group think happen. I’ve watched old men bemused by young impulsivity. I’m even becoming a bit curmudgeonly judgmental myself.

A life at sea. Without news of home. Without even a word of home. Without identity. Without belonging. A man without a country.

As a teenager the story was moving if not understood. How could I? I was a teenager. I hadn’t really been out of the state of Michigan. How could I understand the gravity?

Nolan goes to sea. He’s haughty. Arrogant. Full of himself. Wrongly imprisoned by a government he refuses to recognize, he takes his punishment in stride. He moves from ship to ship, never going in sight of land, ever the guest of the Captain, never hearing of the United States, never reading of it in censored papers. It begins to wear at him. Then this happens:

So Nolan was permitted to join the circle one afternoon when a lot of them sat on deck smoking and reading aloud. People do not do such things so often now; but when I was young we got rid of a great deal of time so. Well, so it happened that in his turn Nolan took the book and read to the others; and he read very well, as I know. Nobody in the circle knew a line of the poem, only it was all magic and Border chivalry, and was ten thousand years ago. Poor Nolan read steadily through the fifth canto, stopped a minute and drank something, and then began, without a thought of what was coming,—

         “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
  Who never to himself hath said,”—
  23
  It seems impossible to us that anybody ever heard this for the first time; but all these fellows did then, and poor Nolan himself went on, still unconsciously or mechanically,—

         “This is my own, my native land!”
  24
  Then they all saw something was to pay; but he expected to get through, I suppose, turned a little pale, but plunged on,—

         “Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
  As home his footsteps he hath turned
    From wandering on a foreign strand?—
  If such there breathe, go, mark him well,”—
  25
  By this time the men were all beside themselves, wishing there was any way to make him turn over two pages; but he had not quite presence of mind for that; he gagged a little, colored crimson, and staggered on,—

         “For him no minstrel raptures swell;
  High though his titles, proud his name,
  Boundless his wealth as wish can claim,
  Despite these titles, power, and pelf,
  The wretch, concentred all in self,”—

and here the poor fellow choked, could not go on, but started up, swung the book into the sea, vanished into his state-room, “And by Jove,” said Phillips, “we did not see him for two months again. And I had to make up some beggarly story to that English surgeon why I did not return his Walter Scott to him.”

 

A man with soul so dead… mark him well…

Maybe its because I’ve been an Army Officer for 8 years now. Maybe its the fact that I am pastor to hundreds of men who themselves have been imprisoned by their government for their actions, maybe its that I’m a father. I was reading it tonight at the “soft play” area at the mall. Kids are tearing around each other running up and down the plastic frogs and leaves. I am choking up. I look up at the children and swallow some tears. What kind of torture would it be to never hear of home? To never know the love of family? To lose the absurd and glorious identity in one’s tribe? My country?

Nolan gives a speech after the ship he is on rescues some slaves. He is speaking to a midshipman.

  But he could not stand it long; and getting Vaughan to say he might go back, he beckoned me down into our boat. As we lay back in the stern-sheets and the men gave way, he said to me: “Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in his mercy to take you that instant home to his own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no more matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there had got hold of her to-day!”

 

The Country Herself. Your Country.

Perhaps it is because I wear the flag on my shoulder every day. Perhaps it is because I am so familiar with war and the Army. Perhaps it is because I grew up as the son of a preacher and thus have a precondition towards a bit of cynicism.

I’ve always felt a little ambivalent towards patriotism. I avoid overly romantic ideas of country, home, and hearth. If I have to listen to “American Soldier” one more time… It’s just that I’ve heard it SO MANY TIMES already!!! I see the holes in the arguments. I know too well my own flaws and the flaws of those I serve with. I know intimately the darkest side of those casually and without nuance are oft called heroes. It is difficult to not grow cynical.

But then there is this – beyond DC, beyond generals, beyond policy, memorandums, Operations Orders, rank structures, toxic leaders and egos – there is the Country Herself, my Country and I belong to her as I belong to my own mother. It’s true. I will not deny it.

Why do I serve?

Is it for the pension? Tricare? Ego trip? Maybe. Those are certainly part of it. But that’s not why I stay long hours in the prison. It’s not why I give up my weekends and evenings to provide programs and counseling. It’s not what keeps me working with Soldiers who want to give up on life. It’s not what drives me to organize yet another relationship building event. It’s not what gets me up in the morning for another pavement pounding 4 mile run. (Ok, maybe that). It certainly does not give me comfort when my kids miss me and I need to go into work to take care of a former Soldier, now prisoner or another Joe.

No. That does not cut it.

It is the joy of duty. The joy of belonging. It is the call of my Country.

I belong to her.
Epilogue:
Read the whole story. Read how he dies. Read about what Nolan wants on his deathbed. See if it does not move you. The last line of the story is what Nolan wanted on his tombstone:

“On this slip of paper he had written:
    “‘Bury me in the sea; it has been my home, and I love it. But will not some one set up a stone for my memory at Fort Adams or at Orleans, that my disgrace may not be more than I ought to bear? Say on it:—
 
‘In Memory of
 
PHILIP NOLAN,
 
Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.
 
  • HE LOVED HIS COUNTRY AS NO OTHER MAN HAS LOVED HER; BUT NO MAN DESERVED LESS AT HER HANDS.’”

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Mothers and Goats.

Mother’s Day is complicated.

For some, it’s this wonderful day filled with joy and excitement, love and comfort, poorly made breakfasts and eating out. For others, it’s a reminder of death. It’s a reminder of failure. A reminder that all the struggles to have children didn’t work out and judgments passed on those who choose for perfectly fine reasons not to have children.

Sometimes, Mother’s Days feels a little like “celebrating the fertility gods…”

During the Civil War and long after, Ann Jarvis had founded Mothers’ Day Work Clubs in Grafton, WV and five other cities to improve sanitary and health conditions. The Mothers’ Day Work Clubs also treated wounds, fed, and clothed both Union and Confederate soldiers with neutrality. A great legacy to mothers and their labors to better the world we live in. On May 12, 1907, two years after her mother’s death, Anna held a memorial to her mother and thereafter embarked upon a campaign to make “Mother’s Day” a recognized holiday. It was an opportunity to recognize what mothers go through and sacrifice to raise children. It was, and is, an opportunity to highlight that poverty and struggle exists for some mothers. She succeeded in making this nationally recognized in 1914. The International Mother’s Day Shrine was established in Grafton to commemorate her accomplishment.

By the 1920s, Anna Jarvis had become soured by the commercialization of the holiday. She incorporated herself as the Mother’s Day International Association, trademarked the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day”, and was once arrested for disturbing the peace. She and her sister Ellsinore spent their family inheritance campaigning against what the holiday had become. Both died in poverty. According to her New York Times obituary, Jarvis became embittered because too many people sent their mothers a printed greeting card. As she said,

A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.

—Anna Jarvis.

Mother’s Day is complicated.

It’s complicated because we are complicated. We humans relate to one another in complicated ways. We have these great intentions but somehow, like Mother’s Day, it does not translate into the legacy we’re wanting to leave. Anna Jarvis had a vision of celebrating her mother, she had a vision of celebrating mothers everywhere but somehow that vision became blurred. When other’s started to carry the torch and started to make the day their own, it became something that Anna looked at with distain – “it’s not me!!”

…Cause parenting is never like that!!…

My own mother died 13 years ago this June. Mother’s day is complicated. I have three children who have an amazing mother and I celebrate her today. I also miss my mother. My mother’s mother died recently. They had a complicated relationship. It wasn’t always good. It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t always breakfast in bed, soft hair brushing sessions, saintly talks and iconic paintings. It was sometimes dark and moody. Stormy and frightening. Kind of like the relationship I had with my mom.

One of my fondest memories of my mother was out on the “farm” in Michigan. My mother was idealistic. She had these great dreams of simple living and independent subsistence – living off the land. We kids lived out that dream for better and for worse!

One year, we got goats. Little, jet black African Pygmy goats with white stripes down their throats – I hated them. I mean, they were cute until I had to care for them. Let me take that back, they were cute for about a day. Then the stinkin’ male, “Buck” put his little horns on me and we had a “hate/hate” relationship from that day on. We would milk them… have you ever tried to milk a pygmy goat? It is everything you could imagine. A bit like milking pencils. That bite. And kick. And crap all over you. Seriously cramped my style.

One year, my parents went to Pensacola for school leaving me and my sister home to hold down the fort. Buck gets into 50 pounds of corn feed. 50 pounds of corn feed. Do you know what that does to a goat? 50 pounds of corn feed? Bloat. Gas. Impeding death.

I walked in on a bloated goat staring up at me and immediately my life passed before my eyes. This was bad. There was no way I could tell my mother that I let the goat eat itself to death. I called my grandma Dee. She raised goats, she would know what to do. She laughed. Literally laughed out loud when I explained my plight. When she stopped laughing she helped me understand the proper way to help a goat pass gas.

I hated those goats.

We had the goats a couple years. The second winter, Buck got sick. Started acting funny and within a day went from ok to expired. I watched his little life spiral away. I was not sad. I mean, I didn’t do a little happy dance or anything, but I didn’t really grieve either.

Mom said to bury it out in the field.

January. Michigan. There was no burying of the goat that was going to happen that day!

But then, I was not about to tell my mother that. You didn’t really contradict my mom. You nodded and said, “yes ma’am.”

So what was a 16 year old boy to do with a goat that he hated?

Rigor mortis was setting in by the time I got around to taking care of the goat. The day was just starting to end, sun going down and it was cold. I stood in the darkening barn and stared at that goat. What to do? I saw a trash barrel and being the “inventive” young man who effectively sought for the “low hanging fruit” (some people call this lazy but they just don’t get me) I put the goat in the barrel. I mean, it was as good as place as any until I could figure out how to bury it in the frozen ground.

When I put the goat in the barrel, his hooves stuck out and it struck me as kind of funny since… oh stop! Don’t judge me. I was 16. I was burying a goat. On a farm. If you grew up like that, you would have a macabre sense of humor too…

So there the goat was, half in a barrel frozen in death looking like it was just about to jump out. I arranged it just so… looked taxidermied. By then, it was dark and I needed to do homework. I went back into the house knowing that I’d take care of it tomorrow some time. For the record, my sister thought it was funny too.

Later that night, I was reading in my room when my sister Emily pounds on the door. POUNDS!!

“Jon, mom went to get wood!”

“What? Ok. Why would I care?”

“Jon! Mom. Went. Out. To. Get. Wood…. IN THE BARN!!!”

My heart dropped to my feet.  I could see my burgeoning basketball career ending in years worth of grounding. I ran down the stairs as fast as I could go. I tore through the dining room and out the kitchen door…

…just in time to hear a blood curdling scream come echoing from the barn across the snowy lawn. I watched frozen in terror as the beam of my mother’s flashlight shot up and down reflecting her arm movements as she strode back through the deep snow towards the house.

There was nothing to say. There was no excuse. There was no escape.

“JONATHAN RANSOM FISHER! YOU DID NOT BURY THAT GOAT!!!”

I haven’t thought of that story in years but this mother’s day, it came to my mind. My mom died of brain cancer in June 2000. I was miles away in Idaho. I got the call on in the morning. I arranged a flight home that afternoon. The traveling singing group I was singing tenor for said goodbye with reassuring hugs as I was driven to the airport by a church deacon I can’t even remember in a beat up old red S10. My life had changed that day and I could not even know how. I could not even imagine what the future would hold.

I missed mother’s day that year. I had been home but Mom wanted me to keep my word to the ensemble group and the college. I was in Idaho. I don’t have any memories of that time except that my group was awesome. They were so kind. The chaos of my life reflected in their eyes.

Mother’s day is complicated.

Legacy is complicated. We hope that people will carry on what we have given them. I hope my children will carry the torch I bore from my mother/father, her’s from her’s and on it goes.

Jesus, in John 17, is praying for us. That we would carry the Legacy.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Its part of a greater prayer in this chapter and ends with our role in the coming Kingdom of God. The coming Kingdom of justice and mercy. The coming Kingdom of love and compassion.

The prayer has a present and future reference. It is a prayer, first, that disciples to whom God gave to Jesus may be one and, second, that those who “will believe” may be one and those present and future disciples may become “one.” Did we do it? I’m not sure sometimes… ok, most times…

Unity is never a fixed reality to be taken for granted as accomplished. Rather, it is an ongoing gift from God, who makes it possible to us, and an ongoing demand if we are, indeed to carry out our mission of bringing “the world” to the knowledge that “you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (v.23) Saints, our unity is the testimony that the “lost” need to experience. It is the testimony that Jesus was and is real.

Our unity.

God sends Jesus as the “Word” – logos – the very expression of God. We know God through the testimony of the Word. We know God through the incarnation of Christ. Jesus notes in this prayer that others know Christ by us. By our unity. By our love. They know Christ through us and God through Christ. That’s the mission. Unity. Love.

What about doctrine? What about dogma? What about worship? What about…

Unity. Love.

Saints, we are the second body of Christ. We are a revelation of Jesus. When we do right, Jesus does right. When we are hateful and bigoted, Jesus is hateful and bigoted. When we justify evil speech and call it Scripture, it become’s Jesus word. When we beat each other up over silliness and trite ideas, it is Jesus. That becomes the legacy. That becomes the testimony. That becomes the Word.

Hands. Feet.

These are not metaphorical, esoteric ideas in a dusty book of theological reflection – it is real! Literal! When I stand at an inmate’s door in solitary confinement, it is as a representation of the body of Christ. When I crawl next to a Soldier huddled behind the safety of a humvee wheel in Iraq, it is Christ huddling next to him. When I curse in anger and frustration, it is the voice of Christ. Christ represents God. I represent Christ.

Sara and were talking about this. She noted: As the Body of Christ, we rejoice with those who rejoice and we suffer with those who suffer. We show the love of God when we grieve with those who grieve. We show the love of God to our kids as model love to them. We show the love of God when we stand together as a body and don’t focus on our division. We show the WORLD the love of God by loving each other within the Body. The Body is ONE, it says. If we cut our arm, we bandage it. We care for it.

We in the Army realize this a little more than others I think. It is drilled into us that we represent the Army wherever we go. Whenever I put on a uniform, I am the Army to whomever I meet.

We are a family. We care for one another. Life is stressful enough without us beating each other up! We have surrogate grandparents, surrogate dads for kids whose dads are gone, surrogate moms for those who have gone to serve. We share the common suffering and the common pain.

We do this as an Army family and as a church family. We care for one another and so fulfill the law of Christ. Let us continue. Let us lay aside those things that come between us and live out the Gospel, the answer to Christ’s prayer. The testimony that He is risen! He is risen indeed!

13-19 Now I’m returning to you.
I’m saying these things in the world’s hearing
So my people can experience
My joy completed in them.
I gave them your word;
The godless world hated them because of it,
Because they didn’t join the world’s ways,
Just as I didn’t join the world’s ways.
I’m not asking that you take them out of the world
But that you guard them from the Evil One.
They are no more defined by the world
Than I am defined by the world.
Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth;
Your word is consecrating truth.
In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world,
I give them a mission in the world.
I’m consecrating myself for their sakes
So they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission.

20-23 I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.
The same glory you gave me, I gave them,
So they’ll be as unified and together as we are—
I in them and you in me.
Then they’ll be mature in this oneness,
And give the godless world evidence
That you’ve sent me and loved them
In the same way you’ve loved me. (The Message)

 

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A Prayer for Boston… and us.

God of grace and God of glory. We are in the need of comfort. We live in a world with evil and evil makes us afraid. Angry. Vengeful. We want justice. On days when an 8-year-old is killed to make a point, we want justice. Give us patience. Grant us peace to wait in our judgement to ensure that the right person or persons are brought to justice rather than the wrong. Grant our leaders supernatural wisdom in dealing with this situation that they might make the best decisions. Discernment to see through the passion and anger to the truth.

Be with the helpers this morning. The doctors, nurses, and EMTs who have spent the night working on survivors – give them peace and rest. The police, fire fighters, Soldiers who have responded and secured the area, grant them rest. I pray for the mental health workers, pastors, and chaplains who will spend the next weeks helping others work through this tragedy. All of those that helped – the professional and the volunteer.

Give us grace as we remember the dead, the dying, the living and recovering. Be with us and grant us peace. Amen.

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Meditation on “Suffering Well”

Text: Acts 9:1-20

I’ve been into a song recently: “I Vow to Thee my Country,”  a British patriotic song, created in 1921, when a poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice was set to music by Gustav Holst. I’ve loved the tune long before I ever knew it is also a song because the music of Holst has so long entranced me.  The words are very obviously an English patriotic song:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

“Her pride is suffering.” This line jumps out at me. Just like this phrase jumped out at me in our Text, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 1:16) God will show Saul how much he will need to suffer after taking the name “Paul.” In other words, “don’t worry about making Saul suffer Ananias, I’ve got that well in hand.” God, in order to accomplish God’s work on Earth through this newly minted Apostle – will show Saul suffering.

Is God’s pride suffering?

Suffering does in fact become a point of pride for us. Why do we do that? We even give it badges and tabs – airborne badges are not significant because someone jumps out of a plane (anyone who goes to a vacation spot can skydive with minimal instruction) it becomes something because of the school that goes with it. The suffering.

This is true across cultures. Suffering is worn as a badge of pride. If, somehow, a group can attach some kind of ribbon, award, t-shirt etc to suffering – hey, if we take your picture and put it on the wall, would you eat some kind of “ghost-pepper-habanera laced-pure gasoline-donut?” We do this because there is a measure of pride in our suffering. It’s that pride one gets when they are like, “I had all my children in a barn on top of hay with no anesthesia.” Look at me – I suffered through. See the badges on my arm? See the ribbons on my chest? I was there!

Suffering is a way to distinguish the truly motivated from the “posers.”

Suffering has been, for ages, a way to prove your worth. Show you are serious. Demonstrate that you are for real. Something to aspire to. Something to revel in.

Those who have “been there” often minimize the sufferings of others since they “weren’t there.” Sometimes suffering becomes politicized and abused – images of suffering become the stuff of commercials.

Suffering is cheapened. The video of the Soldier coming home to see their loved ones becomes something used to sell cars and insurance. A cheap shot – appealing to the emotions.

There is physical suffering. Mental Suffering. Spiritual suffering.

But the best suffering, the suffering deified in books, plays, and movies is that which suffers for another. We tend to see suffering as a way to get past politics and religion. Suffering somehow validates the message and the messenger.

It was suffering that brought down the british empire in India. Suffering that ended eras of discrimination in this country. Collective suffering has ended bitter wars. Of course, it is also suffering that extends them when people talk about the idea of “we can’t end it – think of the blood and treasure already spent…”

There are really only two kinds of suffering:

1. The Suffering that is a part of the human condition – the suffering that we all have because it’s just a part of life. The suffering that is necessary because to have happiness, you must have sadness. To have pleasure, you must have pain. To have the beautiful flowers of spring, we must have clouds and rain. One does not exist without the other.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism recognizes the reality of human suffering. The first truth is that there IS suffering, the second is the origin of suffering, the third is the cessation of suffering and finally the path to cessation of suffering.

Life is full of suffering. To suffer is to live. We can fight it, we can avoid it, we can shape our lives so as to discourage it as much as possible, we can muddle through it but in the end, everyone will suffer.

I spent Friday at Kansas University listening to a professor talk about depression – how it is actually, like obesity, a disease of civilization. It is a disease of affluence and abundance. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors (we know this by studying those who still live in those types of societies) knew nothing of depression. Depression comes because of our comfort. Even when we shape our lives to absolute comfort, that pursuit alone can be suffering.

2. The second type of suffering we experience is the suffering that comes as a natural consequence to the choices we make. Those choices can be good and we can suffer as a result or bad and suffering can still be there.

All this is in anticipation of a phrase from our Text this morning that jumped out at me. In Acts chapter 9, Luke recounts the salvation of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul has been about the business of persecuting those Jews who are challenging the established norms of power. Those people who are challenging the powers that control Jewish life through religion. Their leader was dead, they have been driven out of Jerusalem and now, Saul gets permission to pursue holy war against them in Damascus.

Of course, the more power is applied to the problem, the greater the problem becomes. Saul, on the road to Damascus has a classic trance experience. He sees a bright light, hears a message from God that changes his entire paradigm about the world around him, and finally interprets the experience as a calling to do something about it.

Of course, no one would believe him, why should they? He went all Gestapo on them! He CAUSED great suffering.

Ananias is afraid and should be. There is nothing about this situation that is a good thing. The man God is telling him to visit has been killing his people. Killing. In that situation maybe I would be tempted to rebuke this evil spirit that is calling me to interact with evil. Clearly can’t be a message from God!

Ananias goes. He accepts the calling by faith. In so doing, he plays a pivotal role in the Christian story. With Paul, the whole thing changes. With Paul, the whole thing shifts. What if Ananias had said, “no?”

Here’s the phrase, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” God will show Paul that suffering is a part of this calling. The Message puts it this way, “And now, I’m about to show him what he’s in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job.”

The suffering that goes with this job.

Why does Luke want us to see this? To know this? Because so much suffering has already happened. Think about it, there is really only one way for Paul to show that he’s not up to evil purposes and the testimony of Ananias is only going to go so far! All this hearing messages from God isn’t going to convince people who are full of fear! Paul will suffer as a natural consequence of his choices and that suffering will validate that his has truly been called of God.

You see, over the centuries, one of the things that has consistently validated the testimony of Christ-followers has not been dogma – it has been “suffering well.”

It is a hard saying no doubt but that does not make it any less true – when we suffer and maintain our testimony, our beliefs are validated.

Suffering is talked about, recorded, and struggled to be interpreted throughout the Scripture and it is beyond the scope of this morning to address it fully but we will look at one passage – I Peter 3. In this text, Peter writes to a church that is starting to experience what suffering really is all about. He assures this new Church that when they suffer for God, it is good. It is right. It is a blessing – so long as it is done with a clear conscience. So long as they are in the right and suffering it is a privilege.

Maybe you could even say, “Her pride is suffering.”

Of course, if you are suffering, as Paul notes, because of murdering, theft, or “meddling in others business” then you’re on your own! Good luck with that because there isn’t much to be gained there!

Here’s the thing: We love to claim that our suffering is of Christ, for Christ when sometimes we’re just suffering the natural consequences of our poor choices or the ramifications of our actions. If we are jerks and people don’t like us, it doesn’t validate the message of Christ, it just makes us look like jerks. When the Body of Christ acts like little children and throws a temper tantrum every time we don’t get our way and people start treating us accordingly, it does not have much to do with bearing the Cross.

Cancer is not a test from God. Diabetes is not a test from God. Failing one’s APFT is not a test from God. It is suffering, but not from God. How you respond to these types of suffering is, however, a profound testimony of faith.

Saints, suffer well. Know that Christ has suffered from you and before you. Many have walked the paths you now tread. Some have walked them and validated the message of their faith, others (like me) have walked those paths and come up a bit short. That’s ok. Everyday is a new opportunity to be the Body. To demonstrate the Love. To enjoy the blessing of walking through this life with Christ.

We all suffer. Anyone looking at these words are either recovering from, about to start, or are deep in the throes of suffering. Part of being in the Body is that we do not have to suffer alone. We are in Christ and with each other. Let us support one another and encourage each other as we muddle through this life, suffering well.

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Space Alliens and Grief

I have busy mornings. Every Soldier does. There is PT, getting ready for the day, coming up with something pithy (thought of the day) for my morning staff meting, and having breakfast with my family. I make the breakfast thing a priority because its important that we all begin the day together and end the day together at dinner.

There is not a great deal of time in that routine for doing other things besides what I have mentioned. When that routine is upset, it can set the day on edge.

This morning, it was a stuffed lion. Lila. Not sure why Sophie named her favorite animal after her cousin but she did and Lila is a presence at our house. Lila comes to dinner. Lila doesn’t like green food. Lila was not impressed with so-and-so at school today. Lila would really like to watch some TV now…

This morning Lila was missing in action. Nowhere to be found. There were tears. Sobs. Snot. The usual grief. I spent some time this morning doing grief counseling with my child. We walked through shock, denial, anger, bargaining and (after giving approximately 55 seconds of my morning to actually look for said stuffed lion) were reaching acceptance through the depression – we stat down for breakfast. There were bites of cheerios and concerns about whether or not Lila had a blanket on her, wherever she was.

That’s when this happened: (I quote from my Facebook)

Sophia was concerned about her stuffed lion that she couldn’t find this morning so Ransom calmly told her it was probably taken by space aliens who have a space ship with a green light that sucks animals into the ship where the aliens get to play with it. Not to worry, the aliens are mostly nice.

… Not. Comforting.

I was all, “Son. Really??” Sobs begin all over again.

Then, the little stinker walks into his and ‘Fia’s room and comes out with Lila after two seconds.

“Where was that Ransom??”

“Oh, she was just under ‘Fia’s pillow.”

Right, of course she was. Why didn’t I think of that. Bad Dad…

I listen all day long. I hear stories all day long. I hear grief all day long. Sometimes, I’m so worn down from all that, I stop hearing what is being said and I assume (or pass judgement) on what is being said based on my circumstances.

“That’s not a big deal.” “I wouldn’t worry about that.” “There are worse things happening in the world. What makes you so different??”

These are not helpful. They are not kind. I don’t mean to be unkind. I certainly do not intend to blow people off but I’m busy and busyness tends to erode pastoral care.

With people, fast is slow and slow is fast.

Today, hear what someone is saying to you. Really listen. Stop. Use eye contact. Present open body language. Listen.

When you want to respond. Don’t. Continue to listen.

It’ll be more helpful than you know.

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March 21, 2013 · 1:51 pm

Christmas Sorrow

Christmas Tension – how do we celebrate joy in the midst of such pain? 

(This year, Christmas 2012, was the year that a gunman killed 27 people in an elementary school, 20 of them children, because he was mad at his mother. What follows is the Communion meditation I wrote for service that Sunday, 16 December 2012. Memorial Chapel, Ft. Leavenworth, KS )

As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, we do so struggling with the tension of celebrating the Christmas season with all the bells and lights and food while there are dozens of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and relatives mourning the tragic killing of their loved ones. Children have died and children are not supposed to die.

There is raging on the internet. Sorrow in the streets. Fear in the hearts of mother’s and father’s who are wondering if they should even send their children to school. I know this fear for I have this fear. There is no small amount of hopelessness and helplessness that there is no way to even end this problem. I read just this morning that two more shootings have happened in this country. People are wounded and dying. Is this how we solve problems in this country, at the point of a gun? It is senseless, it is tragic, it is frightening.

Has God left us?
Has God hidden his face from us?
Has God any power whatsoever?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wondered this as he watched his nation descend into madness. The North and the South were not agreeing. Politicians who should have been solving problems were digging in, bulwarking their beliefs behind cannon and musket. His son went to war and was wounded in battle, returning home to never walk again.

“For what?” Longfellow wondered. “Where is the peace?”

Every year during the war, on Christmas, the bells of churches would ring calling for a ceasefire, for peace. At night, after the holiday had passed, the guns would start anew and more would die. On Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow wrote the familiar lines in response to the horror of the bloody fratricidal conflict in general and to the personal tragedy of his son, Lieutenant Charles Appleton Longfellow, who was severely wounded in November 1862. Has God heard? Has he forgotten? Does God care?

Yes.

God knows sorrow. Knows senseless death. Has a broken heart for us and for our children.

CHRISTMAS BELLS

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.’

There is hope in Longfellow’s words. Therein is strength.

As we approach this Lord’s Table this morning, we remember that Christmas is not really about the bells, lights, food, and four-day weekends. It’s about a child that was born with a mission, a child born who would sacrificially die to cleanse sin from the world, giving us an example of true peace. When Mary sees old Simeon in the temple, he tells her prophetically that “a sword would pierce her heart…” in relationship to her son. In that moment, Mary sees that there is more to the story than just a baby. In the midst of joy there is often pain. As there is here, at the Table.

All are invited to claim Christ. Let us come to the Table this morning, remembering Jesus’ sacrifice as we remember his birth.

Now, I will tell you the story as it was told unto me, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed took bread…

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