Put Your Hand in the Hand of the One Who Quiets The Storm

Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River in Minnesota USA

One of my favorite routes to travel is Hwy 61 south of the Twin Cities along the Mississippi River. The beauty of God’s creation is always on display, from bluffs, to waters, forests and eagles flying overhead.  One windy day I stopped at Lake Pepin in Lake City where the river widens. Usually Lake Pepin  is  filled with sailboats, but  on that warm spring morning, not many ventured out. Those who did were tested by the waters and the wind.

I thought of the gospel writer who records the disciples saying of Jesus, “Even the winds and the waves obey him.” The setting was the Sea of Galilee after a sudden storm arose while they were trying to get across to the other side. Jesus’s disciples were frightened, terrified in fact. As people of the sea, they had a healthy respect for storms which arose, seemingly out of nowhere. It was no small thing to be tossed by the waves and blown off course by the winds. Disoriented, with neither sun nor stars to guide them, fear grew.

When we find ourselves in the middle of one of life’s storms we can quickly become disoriented. Winds and waves of a storm can throw us off course. What we thought we knew to be true may “no longer fit” the reality of our lives. It is at these times we most need the one who calms the seas and quiets the winds. When the disciples cried out “Lord save Us” both wind and sea quieted.

Song writer Gene MacLellan composed the words of a song that come back to me when I’m troubled, reminding me to trust the one who calms and quiets us:  He wrote:

Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who stilled the water
Put your hand in the hand of the man
Who calmed the sea
Take a look at yourself
And you can look at others differently
Put your hand in the hand of the man
From Galilee

The calm that Jesus brings is one that quiets our spirits, calms our troubled hearts and reassures our broken emotions, allowing us to reset our lives and build on more trustworthy and firmer ground. Storms are inevitable, but as certain as storms will come, is the knowledge there is one who is with us in the midst of each of them. One who still grants us a quiet center, even and especially in the most  turbulent of times.

We Have to Stop the Hate

so

There is No Way to Peace – Peace is the Way – Outside the Quaker – Friends Meeting Hall – Philadelphia June 26, 2005

I suppose it was inevitable really . . . that there would be a shooting. That someone or some political party would be targeted. With the hate speech and intolerance spewing through our air waves and with legislation being put together in secret, someone was going to snap. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.  When the shooting occurred as  GOP Congressmen were practicing for the annual Democrats verses Republican baseball game this morning,  it came as the climax of vitriol which has been going on for years . . .  inflamed by  last  years election.

We have to stop the hate. We have to stop the way we have been treating each other. We have to change the way we talk to each other and about each other. We have to stop assuming that anyone who disagrees with us politically or on social issues is our enemy. We have to start listening to each other and hearing why people believe and feel as they do.

A few weeks back, I ate at a Mexican Restaurant in LaCrosse WI. There was no internet service.  I don’t have a phone with a data plan. Although there was a TV on  it was set to a Spanish-speaking station. I could not understand a word.  Then, I realized what a gift it was. For the next hour or so I would be unable to hear or see any negative news coming from Washington. I would be free, if only temporarily, from the ongoing cycle of scandal, intrigue, and “awfulizing” being broadcast. I would be able to rest from the 24 hour news cycle that tells me everything is wrong with the world and  (depending on which station I tuned into)  whose fault it is. For the next hour and a half, eating with my family, I would be free of it all.

But, I am an avid news junkie. I would soon be going back into the spewing and the hating – reading angry tweets and angry responses. That place where there is no middle ground. In the midst of today’s shooting, in the trauma and tragedy of it, may there be honest reflection on the why of the shooting. How did we get to this place? How can we change the way we do politics?  Do we always have to disparage the person who opposes us? Can there be reason and honest dialogue about what is best for the country? Does whatever party that is in power have to flagrantly bypass honest dialogue with the other side? Does the party not in power have to demonize the party in power?    Can we start looking for the best and not the worst in each other? Can we all tone down the conversation, take a deep breath and use our minds and our hearts the way God intended?  Can we get back to loving our neighbor as ourselves, even in our politics?

Love Draws the Circle Wide

Westboro Baptist Church planned some picketing in my community today. If you have somehow missed Westboro’s hate-filled speech, consider yourself fortunate. Fred Phelps, who started the church, found fame when he and his people started to picket the funerals of soldiers around the country. They held up signs with hate messages aimed at people who were gay or lesbian, using derogatory terms.   The targeting of soldiers was a warped logic which tied the war against terror to what the Westboro people believe, is the country’s willingness to have gay and lesbian members in the armed services. In their arrogance, they cheered the deaths of those who gave their lives for our nation.    Choosing to intrude on the heartbreak of  parents, spouse and children, they  brought their hateful agenda  and picketed funerals.  Westboro’s goal in Minnesota today, was to protest decisions by the University of Minnesota Hospital as well as a local high school related to transgender youth.

What has always stunned me about the Westboro Baptist church are actions which are antithetical to Christian Love and compassion. As a pastor I find it hard to reconcile the Jesus of the gospels with the arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Westboro church.  I found myself  praying that our young people were protected from the hate speech and that the Westboro people had changed hearts. Ironically, at the very end of his life, Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church he founded, because he came to see the world more compassionately than his followers. He pushed for reconciliation with two of his granddaughters who had been shunned by the church. The church he grew became even narrower in their ability to love and accept people than he had been. There was no longer room for Fred Phelps in his own church.

Edward Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”  is a favorite of mine, for its insistence that God loves all of the world’s people and wants us to do the same.

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

God is the one that keeps drawing us into the larger circle. God pulls us from the isolation of judgmentalism, arrogance and self-righteousness into the greater truths of love, compassion, mercy, kindness, gentleness and humility.

I’ve heard no news coverage of Westboro Baptist Church today. The community made a decision not to confront or encourage a counter-protest in the places Westboro chose to picket, so the group would be denied the publicity they wanted. I don’t know if they came and picketed or not. I do know that the community decided to work together and silence their message of hate, by simply ignoring it. It was a teachable moment to remember that the greatest commandment,  after loving God with all our heart, minds’ soul and strength,  is to love our neighbor as ourself.

Living in the Joyous Generosity of God

“When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God . . . Life with God is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God’s purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined.” Walter Brueggeman in The Threat of Life.

To be trapped in a prison of fear and hate, is to cheat ourselves of the gift of life God has given us. God wants so much more for us than this. God wants us to find meaning and significance in our daily lives. We can never find that meaning when our hearts are filled with bitterness. The day may be beautiful on the outside,  but inside we are a simmering stew, ready to spew our frustration and our anger on the unfortunate person who crosses our path. The day God has given us to enjoy  is wasted.

I’ve found what appears from the outside to be fear and hate  is  often on the inside – pain this isn’t being dealt with honestly. We cannot hide our pain from ourselves or from others. We may think that we are succeeding quite well, but those who know us best see the telltale signs of hurt. Little things cause us to be upset easily. What we once would have let slide off us, we now internalize and become defensive about. The hurt inside us spews out in the way we speak and live with others. We hurt people we don’t intend to hurt. We say things that we did not intend to say. We find people trying to avoid us. Our cause may be just, but our approach to people may be very unjust. The apostle Paul wrote “Though I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal . . . If I give away all I have and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” I Corinthians 13:1-3)

But how hard to love, when we are hurting inside. How hard to love when we cannot or will not love ourself. How hard to love, when we are not wise enough to share our hurts and pain with our friends. God gave us each other so that we could share our journeys. There is nothing heroic about hiding the sad and painful things that are happening in our lives. We are meant to live in community with one another. Sharing our burdens is one of the ways we live with joy in the Christian life. When we choose to live according to our fears and our hates and yes . . hidden pain, our life becomes small and defensive lacking the deep joyous generosity of God. God wants more for each of us than this. God wants each of  us to know the joy of Christ’s love – both as one who receives  and one who gives.

When Washington Plays Havoc With Your Values – Contending With Difficulties

In January of 1780, Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams, who would later become the sixth  US president, “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed . . . The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties . . . Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”

I learned a new word recently, “Awfulizing.” A person engaged in “Awfulizing” assumes the worst case scenario will come true in any situation. “Awfulizers,” can only see the potential hazard ahead and prepare themselves for a disaster. I think I’ve been doing a good bit of “Awfulizing” myself in recent weeks.

I have watched unfolding events in Washington with despair. Every time I’ve seen regulations cut that would protect consumers, the environment or the work place -I’ve set off on a case of “Awfulizing.” I’ve agonized over the House version of the health care bill. Each time, I have assumed the worst that can happen will happen. That was before the past weeks in Washington, where there has been a media circus revolving around connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, resignations and the timing of firings. While all of this is going on, the concerns and needs of ordinary people are put aside in the midst of the latest scandal talk.

I read an article a few weeks ago where a person likened today’s period of “Isn’t this awful” thinking to the experience of England in the Blitz. During an eight-month period, from the fall of 1940 to late spring of 1941, England was bombed almost daily. While many people in England are bemoaning *Brexit the writer pointed out, that any fallout from Brexit could not compare to what people endured as they lived through the Blitz in London. The writer then added, nor does it compare to the height of World War II when almost every family in the United States had one or more family members deployed in the war effort.

What I’ve been forgetting in all of my “Awfulizing” is that, while I don’t like much of what is happening in Washington these days, God is still God. God still works through God’s people for good. God is a God of justice. When God works in the hearts, minds and souls’ of God’s people, truth rises to the surface. There is “Awfulizing” and there is action. God always calls us to move from looking at the problems in our world to working on positive solutions. The choice is really ours. Where does God need us today? Is it “Awfulizing” or is it to start working for solutions?

*Brexit -The decision in 2016 by popular vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The decision impacts everything from trade and students attending colleges outside of the UK, to international banking.

Echo Chambers in the Church

The problem we have in communicating with each other is that so many of us live in echo chambers. We choose friends who think like us and believe what we believe. We listen to and read the media which reinforces our world view. Sometimes, in order to simply ignore what other people believe, we avoid the subjects we disagree on. We often do that so no one gets upset. It may make peace for the moment, but it sure is hard to understand where another person is coming from, when we never talk about the subjects we disagree about.

The trouble with echo chambers is that the echo only responds with what we have already said. “Hello” shouted into a canyon may return multiple times – but it doesn’t challenge our thoughts, beliefs or values. It gives no opinion other than our own. It doesn’t cause us to do that walk in “another person’s shoes” that can be so enlightening. Instead it only reinforces what we already believe.

My denomination, The United Methodist Church, has spent the entire period of my ministry trying to come up with common language that all of us can live with related to the GLBT community. We agonize over whether clergy will be allowed to marry gay and lesbian couples. We put language in our church rule book, The Discipline, that disallows any person in a homosexual relationship from serving as clergy in our Conferences. Since my ordination in 1985, many denominations have come to terms with a changing world view on sexuality as genetic factors have been linked to sexual orientation. Others, like my own, are frozen in a different time span. What makes it even more difficult is that the United Methodist Church has a growing number of members in Africa, where in some countries, homosexuality is not only frowned on, but outlawed. A church that has positive statements related to the issue can also be outlawed in those countries.

Some days, I am completely frustrated with my denominations inability to find a way where we can all live together. Yet, I realize that what is frustrating for me, is incredibly painful for my colleagues in ministry whose sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters are among those who feel the sting of rejection by the church. As do our members in local churches who carry that same sting of rejection for themselves or their cherished family members.

Many of us would just like all references to homosexuality taken out of the Discipline, allowing each Conference (Local body giving oversight in a certain area) to make decisions about these matters. Others are terrified of that direction. Last year, in 2016, my denomination almost reached the point of splitting. My bishop is asking all of the clergy in my Conference to pray for an upcoming meeting of Clergy in looking for a way forward – a way to move beyond our impasse.

Of one thing I am sure . . . if there were easy answers, we would have found them already. In preparation for our upcoming meeting, our bishop has asked us to spend time meditating and Journaling around the first chapter in the book of Acts. It is that point when Jesus leaves his disciples, asking them to remain in Jerusalem. He promises that they will receive power as the Holy Spirit comes upon them. I think what my denomination needs, what my church needs,  is that in our listening and praying, we open ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit. In doing so, God may just give us the wisdom to move beyond our entrenched positions. God might surprise us by taking our divided house and making us whole.

John Wesley’s “Aha” Moment on Aldersgate Street

We call them “Aha” moments, where an insight, a truth or an awareness touches us in a way that has never happened to us before. The same words we have heard for years suddenly hit us in a uniquely different way. John Wesley had one of those moments on May 24, 1738.   People of the Wesleyan heritage continue to celebrate the day as Aldersgate’s Day. For Wesley, the  founder of Methodism, it was a life changing experience . . One that would influence him for the rest of his life. He writes in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

John Wesley carried a heavy burden when he headed to Aldersgate Street that night. He had returned to England after a short time as a missionary in the Georgia Colonies. Feeling the sting of failure and defeat,   he was painfully aware of the mistakes he had made and the attitude which got him sent home by the governor of the colony. The night of May 24th, 1738 Wesley  left home with a heavy spirit.  He returned with a joy in God’s compassionate love.  That transcendent moment became foundational in John Wesley’s life. Before he was only saying the words of faith, now they came alive. Before he knew about faith, after he experienced the presence of the living God. Before he believed with his intellect, forever after he would believe with his heart.

That night, he knew with a certainty that whatever he had done wrong, whatever mistakes he had made, however foolish he might have been and even the hurt he had inflicted – were not greater than God’s love and forgiveness. God was telling him in that moment, that  he was forgiven. God’s love for him was real. This knowledge and assurance gave Wesley new courage to move beyond the limitations of yesterday and moved him out into the world. God was working in his life to bring renewal and hope to millions of people. From then on, he would face the world with courage hope and faith.

Throughout the centuries there have been men, women and children who have also  experienced the warmed heart . . . People of all ages and stations in life. The message of assuring grace is a reminder of our place in God’s heart. It is a source of strength and hope. God’s touch can turn a life around. It can make friends out of strangers  . . . it can guide us to God’s truth. Our one common awareness of God’s Spirit can transcend differences in theology, doctrine and belief.

John Wesley would ask people of other traditions, “Is  your heart right, as my heart is with yours? I ask no further question. If it is so, give me your hand. For opinions, or words, let us not destroy the work of God. Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship.” John Wesley was on to something. When we see each other as God’s beloved children – even those we disagree with, we can begin to transcend our differences and work together for good.