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.

In the Era of the Urgent – Clinging to the Important

My kids and I were early adapters to email. We had this little Tandy 1000 that my oldest son left behind when he headed back to the Navy. We discovered that when all the stars were aligned just right, we could access a younger son’s college email account hundreds of miles away. It was 1993 and I was just becoming aware of a thing called the “Internet.” Shortly after that, we moved to a community where the city was on the cutting edge of public internet service. What I know to be true is that having that much access to the internet, not just email . . . but the vast knowledge base of the world, radically changed how I used time.

Along the way I discovered that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Instead of phone calls to kids it was easier to send a mass email to all seven at one time, then contact each individually. Email replaced voices . . . Internet searches the comfort of a book . . . thoughtful reflection was lost to the noise and intrigue of learning more and more and more about the world.

As much as I love the internet with all the connections and information available there, I began to recognize with the ancient writer of scripture who said in Ecclesiastes, 3:1, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” –  There is even a time for turning off electronic devices. Having that much access to electronic media with its constant contact adds noise to our lives. Our minds get cluttered by the dissonance of competing news streams flooding our brains. Beeps, rings, buzzes and dings distract us with their demand for attention. We let ourselves  be pulled away from the important to what appears more urgent.

What I’ve learned in our digital age is that we need space and time to process the massive amount of information we are consuming, with all of its contradictory truths. We need time to compare what we are reading in our social media and news sources with the heart of God, revealed in Jesus. We need to let the words and wisdom of Jesus guide our thoughts, expand our minds and then live those words out in compassionate action in our world. And there are times when we just need to unplug our devises, so we can spend quality time, minus distractions – with the people we love.  In the era of the urgent, we need to cling to the important.

 

Remembering to Remember the Sabbath

When the Israelites were on the way to the land of promise, God gave them Ten Commandments which would guide their life together. You can find the story of their journey from slaves in Egypt to the land of promise in the Biblical book of Exodus. I suspect that one of the least kept of the ten, is to “Remember the *Sabbath Day and keep in Holy.”  This commandment is the only commandment that starts with the word “Remember.”  (See Exodus 20) I wonder if it was because God knew we would be tempted to believe that Sabbath rest was unimportant.

Imagine how radical it was to ask people living on the edge to take a day off . . . to actually rest and pause in their busy lives . . . to spend time with their creator God. The Israelites were told not only that it was OK to take a break from their work, but that God commanded a day of rest. The day would be a day to reflect on life and one’s relationship with God. It created by, its very existence, time for family and friends.

There have been times when people have turned Sabbath rest into legalism, where the least activity brought offense and broke a rule. But, that was never God’s intention for the Sabbath. When Jesus was questioned one day about his actions on a Sabbath, he said to those who complained, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

God’s intention has always been that Sabbath rest would be an opportunity for us to take a break from life as usual, to allow ourselves time for something else. We would find in Sabbath rest opportunity  to ponder things of eternity and the things of God. It would allow us to renew our body, souls and spirits . . . it would offer space to heal our  wounds and for our souls to be restored.

Wayne Muller in his book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,” writes “If we forget to rest we will work too hard and forget our more tender mercies, forget those we love, forget our children and our natural wonder. God says: “Please don’t. It is a waste of a tremendous gift I have given you. If you knew the value of your life, you would not waste a single breath. So I give you this commandment: Remember to rest. This is not a life-style suggestion, but a commandment – – – remember to play and bless and eat with those you love, and take comfort, easy and long, in this gift of sacred rest.”

*Traditionally, the Sabbath was thought of as the Seventh Day of the week (or Saturday by our calendar). Christians began to worship on Sunday as they remembered that Christ was raised to life on the first day of the week.

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

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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?