Put on Compassion – Put on Love

In David Brooks book The Road to Character he talks about the difference between  résumé virtues and  eulogy virtues. He points out how very different they are. On our résumé we lift up our qualifications, our skills and gifts. We tell a potential employer why we should be hired over someone else.

Eulogy virtues are different. He says of them: “The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former.”

When I meet with families before a funeral, I often ask family members to tell me about the qualities of the person. What is it about their loved one they will miss the most?  Most often I will hear about the good things. They will remember special meals, trips, a kindly father-child talk . . . The mother who hovered over them in moments that were hard . . . the son or daughter who was always there . . . a spouse who took care that life was easier for the other.

Sometimes, there will be silence when I ask that question. No one really wanting to tell me about the person we are planing the funeral for. From all that is unsaid, I hear the pain of a life that left emotional distress, anger, resentment and suffering behind. We are each given a finite time on this earth. What we do with our lives during that time is ours to choose. What Virtues are You Growing?

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” Colossians 3:12-15

A New Year – A Time to Bless and to Heal

A year’s ending gives us a peculiar vantage point. We look back on the events, people and circumstances we’ve encountered. There have been moments of joy, others of sorrow. Some came as the bitter sweet irony of both. We have had times to savor and celebrate. There have been losses which caused our hearts to bleed. People who have been precious to us are deeply missed. There were times we acted on our best impulses and our highest motives. To our regret, there were other times when were less than we wanted to be.

A year’s turning gives us opportunity to rethink where we have been and how we want to live our lives in the future. Howard Thurman’s writes in his book of essays and prayers, “The Centering Moment,” “We anticipate tomorrow, not because it is our promise and our due, but because there is within us a deep yearning for the fulfillment of that which we have not known before, for the opportunity to be what, if we have another chance, we think we may become. Brood over us as we stand on the threshold. . . Make tender our spirits that we may not through any callousness of mind or hardness of heart, hurt and maim and injure where we could bless and cure and heal. Leave us not alone to the independence of our minds or to the hardness of our hearts and spirits, but surround us with Thy caring, that what we do will be what we mean and what we say will be inspired by the integrity of the intent.”

May this New Year, truly be that for you. A NEW YEAR. May it be an opportunity to start fresh.   For we have been to Christmas. We have seen the star. We have heard the angels singing. We have knelt at the manger. It has been given to us to know that the light of Christ is in our world and darkness has not and cannot overcome it.

May your New Year be blessed with the deep assurance that Christ’s light will be with you throughout this year.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”   II Corinthians 5:17

Who in Your Life Needs Some Applause?

Some years ago, I had an opportunity to attend a friend’s ordination service in a small Wisconsin church. The sanctuary quickly filled with friends, relatives and seminary classmates, along with those who would be participating in the service itself. It was a “high day” in the church. A day of putting in your best efforts. And, yes, given the nature of things, a day to impress all who came. I noticed a boy about seven years old sitting at a piano in the chancel area. I assumed he was helping one of the adults nearby or had been told to stay there while a parent was out doing the important work.

But, Chris was not there to help. He began to play a piano prelude. His skills were average seven year old, basic piano. Sometimes he stumbled over the keys. There were sour notes. At other times his pieces came off like a polished professional. There were pauses when Chris looked through his book for another piece he knew how to play. Once, during his twenty minutes of playing, Chris’s brother was sent to him with a message to start over at the front of his book (where Chris was a little more skilled).

Eventually, the choir came in and the organist was able to take her place at the organ. Chris had started towards his pew when someone at the back of the church began to clap. Soon sounds of applause filled the sanctuary and an enormous smile filled Chris’s face.   We are people of many different experiences. Our maturity and faith level vary. Some of us stumble in life in areas other are proficient. At times we get confused and need to go searching for direction. We attempt a project only to see if fail miserably. We become discouraged, afraid and unwilling to try again. We may find ourselves being sent back to the beginning. There are even moments when we have to admit to ourselves, that the notes we are striking come out sounding just a bit sour to our own ears.

As I thought about Chris, it seemed to me that this small incident reflects the family of faith  at its best . . . people applauding and encouraging the best efforts of others . . . Recognizing that all of us will stumble along the way. There will be sour notes and lost places. In our support and encouragement of one another, we become Christ to a world that needs a reason to smile. Who in your life needs some applause?

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.”  I Corinthians 12:4-6

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.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  John 15:12

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.