Planting Seeds of Mercy, Compassion and Love

Howard Thurman, in his book, Disciplines of the Spirit writes, “There are many forces over which the individual can exercise no control whatsoever. A farmer plants a seed in the ground and the seed sprouts and grows. The weather, the wind, the elements the farmer cannot control. The result is never a sure thing. So what does the farmer do? The farmer plants, always the farmer works at it . . . in confidence and assurance that even though this seed many not grow to fruition, seeds do grow and they do come to fruition.”

These past months have brought turmoil in many sectors. Our political divisions continue to separate us. We demonize those whose viewpoints are different than ours. Last weeks confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia symbolized for me how fractured we have become. White nationalists, proud of their evil symbols of hate and bigotry marching with torches, brought shades of another era and time. It was as much symbol of our political discord as it was of the attitudes which formed it. And then the tragedy when a young man drove his car into a group of pedestrian aiming to injure and kill.  This has been a time of questioning who we are and what we are becoming as a nation.

At moments like this we ask ourselves what we can do to challenge the forces of evil in our world and in our nation. We wonder why we should keep trying, when nothing seems to be working.  We grow discouraged.  Challenging moments are those in which we most need to remember that seeds do grow.  Our task in God’s kingdom is to sow the seed.   Seeds grow. We know they do.   We  have seen that growth in our own lives.   We know too,  that without planting at appropriate times there would never be a harvest of good fruit.

Like the farmer, we are never certain which seed will grow. Planting seeds of faith, nurture, love, acceptance, compassion, tolerance, mercy, integrity, hope, joy, peace, commitment and service continues to be our task. Sowing good seed, loving God’s people, risking, caring and forgiving are ways we live out our faith day by day. No, our efforts are never a sure thing. But, God asks only that we try, that we do our best, and leave all which remains to God.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

Strength Under Pressure

 My parent’s house burned down on Easter Sunday the year I graduated from high school. In the process of rebuilding our house, my parents decided to put in a real basement replacing a small dirt cellar. We’d has a lot rainy days just before  the cement was to be poured and the ground was muck. It wasn’t long before the cement truck was throughly stuck some distance from the basement.

We had asked our neighbor Jim to come over and help us out. Jim lived down the road about a quarter mile and had a top of the line tractor . . . It was the biggest and most powerful tractor you could get your hands on at the time. We had seen his tractor in action when he pulled a bus load of kids out of similar mud. Which is why we never doubted that he would be able to free the cement truck. Although Jim put up a valiant effort, his tractor simply would not budge the cement truck more than a couple of feet – which got it even more stuck,  until it was firmly embedded in the mud. All of this created a dilemma. If Jim’s tractor couldn’t pull out the cement truck, what could?

Now, my uncle DD dabbled in a variety of trades. He owned the only restaurant in town as well as being its mayor. DD had recently bought an old pickup truck and converted it into a tow truck by installing a winch on it. He claimed that there wasn’t anything that winch couldn’t pull.  Still,  most of us were skeptics about the winch. In spite of our skepticism we called my uncle  DD after the tractor failed.

When my uncle arrived in his old beat up pickup truck with its winch, Jim looked at his powerful tractor and then at DD’s pitiful truck announcing to all of us, “If he can pull that cement truck out of this muck when my tractor couldn’t, I will personally shovel every last bit of this cement into that hole by myself.” By then it was quite obvious if the cement truck ever got unstuck, it was not going any closer to the basement than it already was. A considerable amount of manual labor was going to be involved in getting the cement where it belonged.

We watched as my uncle attached the cable, started the winch and attempted to pull out the cement truck. Just as we expected, the wheels of his little pickup spun and spun kicking up mud, but not moving the cement truck at all. Then someone thought that we ought to try chaining his pickup to the nearest tree. This tree was not a large tree with a thick trunk, but a slender tree about 10-12 inches in diameter. The hope was that the strength of the tree would stabilize the pickup.

I remember how my dad and DD looped the chain around the tree,  attaching it to  either side of the frame of the truck. I have this vivid memory of the day, watching the winch begin to work. At first it was only a few inches, but the cement truck had actually moved – the weight of the cement truck and the force of the mud pulled against the strength of that slender tree. Then the tree bent . . . while the pickup’s wheels started to rise off the ground, as the chain worked its way up the tree trunk. Meanwhile the winch kept pulling and my uncle’s pickup kept rising, until its front wheels where three feet off the ground and its back wheels a foot. All the while, the cable continued to pull at the cement truck. We watched as that slender tree bent and looked as if it could snap. We held our breath while  my uncle’s truck hung in midair. The tree looking increasingly like it could snap. But that winch kept right on pulling away and the tree stood firm until the weighted down truck filled with its tons of cement was pulled  free of the muck and the mud. Once free, the driver wisely parked a safe distance from our basement.

Right about then Jim, wished he had never uttered those fateful words, “If he can pull that cement truck out of the muck with that little pickup when my tractor didn’t even get it to budge, I will personally shovel every last bit of that cement into that hole.” Which he did with a lot of help.

When I look back on that day, I think of many things.The gifts of grace which come in our need.  Friends who reach out to help out. I think of the gift of neighbors to call on. And I think of the strength in that slender tree and how it surprised me. I still marvel, these many years later, at its flexibility and the pounds of pressure weighted against it. I think of how God gives us strength at times when we are under pressure and we wonder how we’ll be able to endure the forces aligned against us.

And once again the assuring words of Isaiah come to me.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
For God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:28-31

Becoming Free to be Compassionate

Ten years ago, the 35W bridge collapsed and fell into the Mississippi river during rush hour traffic on August 1, 2007. I rarely drove across the 35W Bridge into Minneapolis, but a wrong turn had sent me over the bridge a few days earlier. Thirteen people died. Many were critically injured. More than one hundred forty people were transported to hospitals by pickup truck, cars and ambulances. What I remember most were the number of people who immediately jumped into action. Before First Responders could get there, bystanders were diving into the river,  rescuing people trapped in their cars. They were just ordinary folks who happened to be there and knew they needed to help. That evening, no one worried about the political, ethnic or religious background of the injured or the rescuers.  All of that was immaterial.

Henri Nouwen said, “To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other. Often quite unconsciously we classify people as very good, good, neutral, bad, and very bad. These judgements influence deeply the thoughts, words, and actions. These self-created limits prevent us from being available to people and shrivel up our compassion.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

I often get discouraged about  the enmity between  people  in today’s society over  race,  religious faith or  immigration status.  Ten years ago,  in that life or death moment after the bridge collapse, all  judgements were suspended.   What mattered was searching for survivors, breaking windows of submerged vehicles and pulling people from the river. What mattered was getting children on a school bus about to erupt in flames or tip into the river to safety.  What mattered was stabilizing an injury  and offering comfort. It was one of our finer moments as we collectively worked together in the midst of a tragic event – evidence that if we choose to, we can be that again.

The Power of a Small Group

Chihuly Glass – The Garden

J.R.Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings,  tells the story of a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, who embarks on a dangerous journey to the Dark Mountain. Frodo quickly learns that he cannot do this alone. Along the way he acquires some interesting and very good friends. They include other hobbits, an elf, some humans, even a wizard. These odd companions are there for Frodo when he faces his most difficult challenges. Strange though they may be, the friendships formed will encourage Frodo to fulfill his life’s purpose. Through their combined strength they are able to defeat evil, overcome obstacles and find a path when there appeared no way to move forward.

In many aspects our lives in the community of faith fulfill those same needs. Each of us yearns for people who genuinely care about us. We ache for safe places where we can share our deepest selves. Sometimes, like Frodo, the friends who give us support and encouragement are a strange, but likeable assortment of personalities. They breathe life into our hopes, offer wise counsel and stand with us in our discouragement. In other moments we are the listeners, the encouragers and givers of support.

The power of a small group comes as friendships are formed, prayers are prayed, concern and compassion grows and our faith in nurtured. Trying to live our Christian life without other Christians is both painful and isolating. I continue to cherish the friendships formed in such small group settings where the questions of life were asked. For in those times and places I found fellowship and kindred spirits to share my life with. May you be blessed with these same gifts.

Climate Science is Not an Opinion

Melting Glacier at Hurricane Ridge in Washington’s Olympic National Park

These have been challenging times for those of us who are concerned about environmental issues. Whether it is President Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris Accord, or the removal of pages of data about Climate Change from national web sites.   I am deeply troubled by the anti-science attitude of our present Administration. Recently the Press Secretary for the Interior Department refused to allow the Park Superintendent at Glacier National Park meet with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg out of fear that Zuckerberg would get a picture of the park superintendent with a melting glacier in the background. Denying reality is not helping any of us. Ridiculing the science of climate change isn’t going to protect our shores against rising oceans.

On his  approach to  Jerusalem, Jesus must have been thinking of  the way people he knew and loved were ignoring the warnings of those who feared the destruction of the Holy City.  We read in the gospel of Matthew Jesus’s cry, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate.” – Matthew 23:37-38   These words are traditionally read around Palm Sunday, but have more than one meaning. Jesus was referring not only to his death and rejection by the people, but the destruction of Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem was looking for a savior that would restore the city to its former glory. Jesus knew that if they continued on that path, only destruction and devastation would await the city and its people. In 70 AD, after uprisings unleashed the wrath of Rome, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed. People who didn’t flee were slaughtered. The temple was obliterated. Jesus wept over a city he knew was making decisions that would only bring destruction, grief and sorrow.

We are faced with a similar decision. Will we listen to the prophets God is sending us about the danger the earth is in or will we persecute them instead? Today’s prophets are mocked by Climate Change deniers as they warn us of the dangers of Climate Change, speeded by our use of fossil fuels. Skepticism has gotten twisted into a warped religious belief that recognizing and acknowledging climate change caused by people is somehow un-Christian. It’s hard for me to comprehend the logic of that reasoning. This strange philosophy thinks that if there is a real problem, God will save us from environmental damage we do, because that is what God does.  Most often though, God acts through us.   In other moments,  deep challenges have been times when people have come together looking for solutions.  Scientists discovered cures for deadly diseases.    Nations were born.  Life saving procedures were discovered and perfected.

God must weep for us in our foolishness when we act as if  the scientists God has raised up,  to show us what we need to change,  are mocked. God must groan over us when we   blindly assume it doesn’t matter what we do.  Climate science is not an opinion to be decided by our political bent, but a conclusion based on rigorous studies. God made us stewards of the earth for a purpose – not to destroy the earth but to care for it. God gave us minds so we would search for the truth. God sends us prophets so we will pay attention to their wisdom. God gave us an intellect to use. Our role as people of faith is to listen, to respond as we able to and set a direction that will be healing to our planet.   For God wants us  to pass on to our children and grandchildren a world that is healthy . . . a world where they can live to grow old.

God Calls Us to a Higher Standard – that of Loving Our Neighbor as Ourselves

Hobson’s Resort Lake Jefferson MN 1950’s

My brother was eleven and I was nine, the hot sticky Sunday afternoon, when we decided to run away. Our plan was never to be gone long. Just long enough for the cabin we were suppose to clean to be cleaned without us. Life on a small mom and pop fishing resort demanded that each of us, from the time we were quite young, would be doing our part. My parents grew up in the era when a family would work together in a small business, whether it was the farm of my mother’s heritage or the hotel of my dads. Throughout the afternoon, we had waited for that cabin to be emptied. All plans for the afternoon were on hold until we were done with our jobs. While we sat outside waiting for it to empty. we stewed. The later it got the more we complained.

About five P.M,  we saw the people who had rented the cabin were packing up. By then, our steaming had reached its limit. We decided to take off. We ran along the lakeshore planning to hide in some nearby woods. But first, we needed to get past our neighbor’s home and the corn field between us and the woods. I don’t know that we ever thought about what might happen when our parents discovered we were not around. We simply figured that our mother would clean the cabin without us. When we got back, the work would be done. The plan might have succeeded  if someone hadn’t spotted us running along the shoreline. We were about half way to our goal when we could hear the distinctive sounds of our dad’s ancient muffler-less pickup truck. We watched in dismay as he backed up through the dirt road in the middle of the corn field. We knew we were doomed.

Most of all I remember my mother’s anger that day. It was a hot muggy and long day for her too. The help she had anticipated had disappeared. Expectations of children have changed a lot since my growing up years. What I think of today is how our running away created more work for my mother, who was already tired and worn out herself. She wasn’t any happier than we were with that very late check out time. For her, there was another cabin that needed cleaning and more wash to be done. I think how disappointed she must have been in us.

I don’t know that my parents ever thought about the appropriateness of the tasks they gave us  or the ages we started them. I do know, I learned to value teamwork and working together for a common goal. Often, the resort schedule interfered with what I wanted to do. Most often my parents made sure I was able to participate in school and 4H activities throughout the summer. There were the less busy days when we went fishing or swimming. I wouldn’t have changed where I grew up. I treasure the memories of working together and having a share in the success of my parents business. Working together for the common good became not only a family value, but one carried into life.

Isn’t that what we need more of in our country today? Working together for the common good . . . Not beating each other up over who we voted or didn’t vote for, but finding common solutions that work for everyone. Isn’t that what our nation’s founders dreamed of when they created this country? It will take all of us, working together to heal the wounds and division  that  separate us.

We moved on from that moment at the resort. I carry with me memories of my father’s hidden laughter as he yelled at us to get into the truck. I think of my mother’s genuine anger and something of remorse that we caused a difficult day for her to get worse. We tend toward self-centeredness. We ask ourselves what is best for me and mine, forgetting how our wants can impact others. God calls us to a higher standard – that of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Families – Hanging on to the Precious

Just like there are no perfect people, there are no perfect families.  Even the best of families have their moments of insensitivity,  missed cues,  self-absorption and blind spots.    Each of us, goes through this life making mistakes, wishing we could change things in our past, feeling regret for words said or not said. At times we are wrong. We do and say what we will later wish we had not. Disagreements flare up.  People who should know better hurt us. What we do with those moments of hurting and of being hurt can shape the rest of our lives. Our response can turn a life around, or bury one in resentment.

One of the saddest stories I hear as a pastor, are stories of adult siblings who simply do not and will not try to get along with each other. In one of the first churches I served there was a woman in her mid seventies who continued to hang on to a grudge against a brother that started when they were teens. Worst of all, her anger was based on a simple misunderstanding. Her children and her other siblings begged her to see her brother. The brother so wanted to make peace with his sister. No appeal could reach her stubborn heart. Her grudge and the anger she carried had become a way of life.

In another church there was a man who refused to see his very ill mother, not because he was mad at her . . . No, that wasn’t the problem. He was angry at his brother. Harsh words had been spoken by both. After the argument, he had decided he would stay away from his family. When his mother because seriously ill, he refused to visit her, lest his brother be there.  I spent forty-five minutes one day  pleading with him  to visit his mom, who had only been given days to live.   Still her son refused.  But, sometimes God gives us the gift of extra time. His mother rallied. Then three months later, she was once again near death. I never knew just how God got through to her son. A  couple of days before his mother died, he came to see her that one last time.   Still simmering with anger towards his brother though, he would not attend his mother’s funeral.

One of the joys in my life is to have siblings who know and understand my growing up years. Shared memories bring peals of laughter and nods of understanding as a story begins. I think siblings are the only people who can fully appreciate your childhood. The know both the gifts and the flaws of your parents. There is a shared memory of what it was like to live in a particular family in  a specific time of  life. I know families that are terribly dysfunctional with a legacy of trauma, abuse and heartache.  It can be necessary to leave the family of origin behind for one’s emotional health. But, the families I’ve mentioned here were not ripped apart by addiction or dysfunction. They were just ordinary people who made a couple of mistakes.

For most of us, the arguments would have been over in a few days or we would have found a way to get around the disagreements. Someone would have apologized,  or made a phone call to break the ice.  But for others . . . Well grudges can lodge in the hearts of some very good people. This is what makes me the most sad. I see families where siblings are upset with  other siblings. Grudges are hung on to. Experiences which ought to have been left behind, forgiven or resolved years before have been carried into the present. I think of the joy that is being missed.  The shared journey which is unique to ones sibling. I listen to those who have never had a brother or a sister and how they envy those of us who do.  I think of how the person carrying a grudge is hurting themselves, denying themselves companionship, friendship and the joy of shared memories.

What I hope and pray for my children is that they always have each other and that they are wise enough to let go of the inconsequential to hang on to the precious  in their relationships with one another.  The psalmist says, “ How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head . . . It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life for evermore.” Psalm 133:1-2a & 3)