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

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)

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.

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?

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.