I have long been intrigued by the lessons nature teaches us. When I am intentional and aware, over and over something around me in creation has something new to say or to remind me of a truth I need to hear once again.
A few weeks ago the sky in Snowmass was filled with smoke from distant fires elsewhere in Colorado. Our normal blue skies were occluded by the smoke for several days. If a visitor to the area had been here for just that 48 hour period, that visitor may very well have left with a mistaken assumption of what our skies generally look like.
Similarly, 49 years ago this month, my family moved to Los Angeles. In Southern California, fog and low clouds are the norm on many June days. When the fog and clouds clear, the area is often left with hazy yellowish skies with little distant visibility. The week we moved, sure enough, the mornings were gloomy with fog and the afternoons choking with smog.
But then it happened. One morning there was no fog. Instead winds began to blow and the air cleared. From our backyard, the San Gabriel mountains jumped out at me and I was astounded by their beauty and size. Had I only seen the normal June gloom, I never would have known such mountains even existed.
These two snippets are a great reminder of the importance of both perspective and sample size. As the saying goes, not only can you not judge a book by its cover, you also cannot judge a book by one page of content.
We are human beings. The vast majority of people are doing the best they can during this tough time. We all deserve some slack. That said, I have caught myself and seen others exercising snap judgments or opinions in response to seeing or hearing something.
It was just this week, when this happened, I was reminded of what nature has taught me over and over again. That is, there is often far more happening than we can see in the immediate moment and one moment in time is, more often than not, insufficient to reach informed accurate conclusions.
When you read stories in the four Gospels, there are numerous occasions when a person or group of people dismiss the importance of perspective and sample size. Said another way, in the Gospels and in our lives now, sometimes we forget that there is often a backstory, another truth, or something not obvious in a given moment that have a lot to say about what we are observing in a situation or in another person’s actions.
Just as particulates impede seeing a clear sky, when we forget the importance of perspective, sample size, and backstories, such things can act as particulates in our ability to see the whole story, understand context, or in fact empathize in what we are observing in the actions and words of another.
Jesus was a master at seeing the whole story of a person’s life. Because he did so, he was present in the lives of others precisely in the ways they needed the most. It is my prayer for all of us, that we will keep the image of particulates in mind when we are with or around another human being. When we do so, we too may be able to be just what they need at the moment as well.
I was quite excited the other day when our 20 year old daughter connected her i-phone to my car stereo and played song after song from bands I grew up with, including the Eagles. The group certainly was filled to the brim with extraordinary talent, including Don Henley. On one of his solo albums, he worked with Mike Campbell and JD Souther and together they wrote the song, “The Heart of the Matter.”
It is a beautiful song about love lost, the pain a relationship can bring, and how moving on can be a challenge. Here are just part of the lyrics. “I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter. But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter. But I think it is about forgiveness.”
While forgiveness certainly is central to our walk with Jesus, the line, “I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter,” caused me to pause and in fact think about Jesus and his life. Upon reflection, it seems that Jesus spent much of his time compelling people to go deep, down deep inside, in order to explore motives for taking or not taking certain actions. Motives for taking a position or not. Motives for a decision.
Just some of the questions Jesus asked those around him include, “Why would you not want to heal a person just because it is the Sabbath Day? Why would you want to stone the woman when you yourself fall short every day? Why are you so concerned about the words of what a law says more than the intent of the law? Why are you afraid? Why do you think some people are more important to God than others?”
In addition to these and hundreds of other questions Jesus asked his ultimate question. In essence he asked people, “What is the heart of the matter? In other words, what really is this all about? What is driving you? Where is your heart in all of this?”
As I think about my own actions, inactions, words spoken and words withheld during this time of vast upheaval in our country and world, I feel compelled to ask myself, “What is the heart of this or that matter for me? Where is my heart?”
In asking such questions, I realized that some of what I have done or not done, said or not said is based upon my heart being in the right place. A heart filled with love. That said, I have also recognized that some of my actions and words have come from a place not of love. A place where there is fear and a need for control or power. A place where I like being right. A place where what I like and am used to is at the forefront. A place in which I am in charge.
But Jesus was crystal clear. The heart of the matter needs to be love. Love of God. Love of others. Love of ourselves. Love drives forgiveness, selflessness, humility, flexibility, empathy, compassion, the ability to listen to vastly different perspectives, intimacy with God, and an openness to the movement of God within our lives.
So I invite you to join me in spending some time pondering our actions and words and feelings as of late. Where are they coming from? What is the heart of the matter? How much does love have to do with it? I am confident that when we take the time to reflect in such a way, we will find burdens lifting, replaced by God’s peace that passes all understanding, for God is love.
As our world continues to change dramatically and as the implications of the pandemic evolve, I, like many of you, have missed many things about the way things used to be. Such missing has led me to thinking about so many people who have left this life and now are across the horizon with God. Although he has been gone nearly 21 years, my dad has been on my mind a lot.
He was an amazing fellow and certainly was and remains a big part of my life. His words and actions have influenced much of what crosses my mind. The other day while watching some of the news on the riots, I thought of my dad. In the late 1960’s to 1971 my dad was mayor of El Paso. As a border city there were many challenges. But somehow, across racial, economic, and border divides, many problems were solved.
In 1970, as some of you remember, the Kent State killings happened. It was on May 4th that National Guard troops killed 4 students. The response across the nation was immediate. Protests, both violent and non-violent, exploded on many university campuses.
As mayor, one day my dad was in his office when someone entered and told him that students on the campus of UTEP, The University of Texas at El Paso, were protesting and things were getting out of hand. Several suggested that police arm themselves and dress in riot gear in response. My dad would have nothing of that.
Instead, he insisted that the police remove their weapons, go to the campus, and distribute massive quantities of ice water to the protestors. It was a brutally hot day in El Paso. He also asked the police to tell protestors that the mayor was immediately on the way to meet with them. There was no violence. Conversations began that day that continued for some time between my dad, university officials, the police, and students. I believe it is important to point out that my dad was a Omaha Beach and Battle of the Bulge 1st Army survivor. Weak and conflict avoidant he was not.
Recalling this episode has caused me to think about my own actions, words, and thoughts over the last several days and at other times of national turmoil. I have asked myself some tough questions, some answers of which I know, are compelling me to do some soul searching.
I’ve asked questions such as, “How do I respond when something upsets me? Are my thoughts about this and that likely to be thoughts that bring about peace, healing and resolution, or are they divisive, angry, mean-spirited, and far from empathic? Am I a peace-maker at heart? How can I be the presence of Christ for others when there is conflict? Do my words serve as weapons or as ice water? Am I willing to realize that my worldview is limited and there are other perspectives I will never understand, but I can listen? How can I be a unifying presence?”
While there are other questions, I know I have work to do. As followers of Jesus, we are all on a journey, but I believe that while we are in different places, our Lord invites us to his ways of doing things.
Before Jesus died on the cross he said to one of his followers, “Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords.” Our walk with Jesus must be one that yields peace, healing, unity, understanding, and love. Yet let us all remember that this is the hardest path there is because such a path led to Jesus’s crucifixion by those who sought, embraced, and lived by the alternatives.
Forward Movement is a ministry established by the Episcopal Church that publishes a daily devotional entitled Forward Day by Day. It is a tremendous resource for prayers and it can be found online.
One prayer that has been part of the publication for many years is below.
Give me strength to live another day;
Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties;
Let me not lose faith in other people;
Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery, or meanness;
Preserve me from minding little stings or giving them;
Help me to keep my heart clean, and to live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity;
Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things;
Grant me this day some new vision of thy truth;
Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness;
and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls;
in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
For a long time this has been one of my favorite prayers and the words within it seem incredibly relevant and appropriate for our current lives. Strength, courage, faith in fellow human beings, keeping our hearts in the right place, avoiding tit for tats, integrity, seeing what is good and right and true, joy, and being Christ’s presence for others are key themes within the prayer. I encourage you to use this prayer at the beginning of each day.
This last week in the news was the story about the giant hornets that are now on American shores. I love the outdoors and God’s astonishing creation, but frankly, these hornets look downright scary. One to the most disturbing aspects of these social wasps is that they sting and they do so mightily and painfully. Someone sent me a video of a fellow allowing himself to be stung just to see what it feels like. My reaction was, “Yikes.”
As I watched the video and the stinging wasp something interesting happened. I thought about the prayer I shared above and especially the line, “Preserve me from minding little stings or giving them.”
Over these last few weeks, I have witnessed loving acts of kindness, altruism, generosity, new levels of prayer, consideration, and words that reflect that we are all doing the best we can and we all need to cut each other some slack. That said, on occasion, whether through social media posts, letters to the editor, passing strangers on walks, or while shopping in grocery stores, I’ve seen people stinging others through behavior, words, or facial expressions. I certainly have had a stinging thought or two.
This time is more than upending and upsetting. I understand the stress and upset many of us are feeling. But through it all, I pray that as followers of Jesus, we, with God’s help, will avoid stinging anyone, even those with whom we disagree. “Oh Lord, keep us sweet and sound of heart,” the prayer I’ve shared says. What an amazing opportunity we have to allow ourselves to be the vessels through which God’s love is spread even when we get stung.
This week has been strange. I have felt out of sorts. Along with sadness and spikes of frustration, perhaps what has been most troubling is that it has taken me a few days to figure out what is going on. On a walk this morning, it hit me.
I like many of you have lost a lot of people in life. People that really mattered. My parents. Some friends. Relatives far and near. This aside from the countless folks I have had the privilege of walking alongside during the dying process. With each death, in varying degrees, has been grief. Sometimes profound. At other times moderated by things such as relief that suffering has ended or gratitude that a full life was lived.
Grief, while a different journey for every person, generally includes sadness, anger, a whole host of other emotions, feeling out of sorts, and a surreal disconnected feeling. It is this surreal disconnected feeling that I now realize I’ve been experiencing since the coronavirus has hit the world and turned most things upside down.
I recognize I’ve been having thoughts such as, “This isn’t real. This can’t be happening. I’ll wake up tomorrow and everything will be fine. I’ve never felt this way before. I feel separated from what I know. Where is Rod Serling?” The bottom line is that I’ve been grieving. Understanding this helps me know, at least in part, how to respond to the time we are in.
For me, when grieving, I know it is so critical to emote, pray, give myself space to do nothing, acknowledge what has been lost, and realize that some of what I feel at the moment will have at least a slightly different flavor down the road. I also know it is vital to be gentle with myself, forgiving, and to recognize I am doing the best I can in a tough circumstance. Sometimes it is ok not to be ok and often I need to cut myself some slack. I also know that grief happens despite and in the midst of having deep faith and a love of God. Again, while our journeys are unique to each of us, I invite you to consider some of these points in your own life as we go through this shared experience.
I believe God is fully present and in charge. I trust that we will get through this as God’s beloved human kind. There are great people doing amazing, astonishing things every day to deal with this crisis. We have much to be grateful for and many that need our appreciation. I also understand, however, that many of us are grieving and that while we may not be grieving continually throughout each day, grief makes sense and it is ok. God gave us our hearts to feel not only joy, but sadness.
I along with our entire Chapel team are here to be helpful to you. We love you and so does our loving, sustaining, healing God.
“What can I count on? What can I trust? What can I hold onto? What will be here tomorrow? How can I feel secure?” These and many other similar questions represent what I have been hearing from people over the last several weeks. To be honest, such questions have crossed my mind as well, because life as we have known it, in many respects, has been upended. While much of what it means to be alive remains in place, so much of what defines life in our culture has been significantly constrained.
As we remain in the season of Easter, I have been reflecting upon the Gospel descriptions of the morning Jesus rose from the dead. One of the most poignant stories is found in chapter 20 of John’s Gospel. Here, Mary Magdalene, whose life had been transformed by Jesus, stood weeping outside of the tomb. Consumed by grief, loss, and confusion, Jesus appears to her, although she does not recognize him at first. However, when Jesus says her name, Mary understands immediately that Jesus is before her. Jesus then says, “Mary, do not cling to me.” Or, “Mary do not hold onto me.”
Although Jesus then asks Mary to go to the disciples, I have to wonder what Mary thought at the moment Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me.” I can imagine Mary thinking thoughts such as, “OK Jesus, but what do I hold on to now? How can I let go of what I have come to trust?”
In reflecting upon this part of the story, I do not believe that Jesus was asking Mary to give up her relationship with Jesus. Nor was Jesus compelling Mary to no longer depend on Jesus. But I believe Jesus was asking Mary to let go of what she had known, what was familiar, in order to move forward in her life and in her relationship with Jesus.
It is as if Jesus was saying, “Mary, you have known me as I have been. But now it is time to let go so that your relationship with me will be even deeper, more profound, and even more life changing. You must let go of what has been familiar, in order for our relationship to be more than what it has been.”
At this time in life, when so much of what is familiar has been shaken, I have to wonder if Jesus is asking us some similar questions and in fact is inviting us to explore some things.
Is it possible, at this time in our lives, Jesus is saying things like the following. “I invite you to take a look at what has given you a sense of security in the past. To explore what you have counted upon. To look at what you have been holding onto.”
“Are there ways of being, thinking, and living you need to let go of to move into a deeper relationship with me? Could this time of grief and confusion and loss be an opportunity to re-evaluate what you have been counting on? Is this a chance to hold on to me in new ways, a chance to go deeper in our relationship, a relationship that will never go away despite circumstances?”
While we are not standing in front of Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, all of us are standing next to the grave site of a former world. Although much will remain and many things will go on again as we have known them after this pandemic recedes, the world has been changed permanently, just as it has following other pandemics, wars, and world crises.
In the midst of it all, we have a grace-filled opportunity to let go of some things in order to move into a profoundly deeper relationship with God. Painful, hard, upsetting, discombobulating? Absolutely. Nevertheless, we have been given a profound opportunity to discover more of what God has in mind for each of us, which of course includes his boundless love.
The other evening I was playing a card game called Monopoly Deal with one of our daughters. It was a delightful time. As we played, I imagined the countless people worldwide who likely were doing something similar in this mandated downtime. I also thought about the massive numbers of people around the world who have no access to clean water, food, or any modicum of medical care as the virus spreads. This fact in combination with all the grief that is happening is soul crushing. All of this is agonizingly heartbreaking and I don’t know what I can do other than pray, pray, pray.
This is such a unique time, although there have been many similar times in history. There is no way to know what the future precisely holds or how things will play out. How things unfold in the immediate days ahead is unpredictable at best.
The other evening I needed a distraction so I played Yahtzee on a phone app. I’ve enjoyed the game for decades. It can be relatively mindless or it can bring back memories of studying probability theories in high school math classes so long ago. You may remember that the likelihood of rolling any one number on one die is 1 out of 6. The likelihood of rolling three dice and ending up with the same number on each is 1 out of 36. And the probability of rolling a Yahtzee in which all five dice match is 6 out of 7776.
The point of all of this is despite the uncertainty in the game of Yahtzee, at least you concretely know the likelihood of specific outcomes. With this virus we do not know with any certainty the probability of any exact outcome. Said another way, playing games in Las Vegas is clearer than the time we are in now, hence the angst I along with many others often feel.
Yet, in this tragic and very difficult time, we have a tremendous opportunity to work toward living as Jesus invites us to live and that is with a primary focus on the moment and the day at hand, rather than the uncertain future. In the midst of his talk known as the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” He said this in a broader discussion of worry.
His point. Focus on today. Pay attention to what needs to be dealt with today. Trust God and turn the future over to God. Easier said than done, you bet! Yet prayerfully I believe this is exactly what God is calling us to do, with God’s help. While this is much more challenging than the cliche of “stop and smell the roses,” the moment is where we live, where God is, and where life’s greatest joys are to be found.
Twenty years ago I was serving at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord, New Hampshire. It is a historic church that sits adjacent to the State House. St. Paul’s was a great church and one thing I enjoyed was the bell tower. At the top of the stairs of the tower, if my memory is correct, were 8 bells of various sizes. To ring the bells, there was a bank of wooden levers. By pushing a lever down, a particular bell would ring. I spent some time in the tower learning how to play hymns on the bells. To this day I cherish this experience.
One afternoon I was in the tower playing away when all of a sudden our parish administrator came running up the stairs. She said, “Robert. Robert. You need to stop. The Senate is in session and the bells are so loud they cannot deliberate. They just called. They asked who on earth was making all the racket. I did not tell them it was you.” I was certainly grateful for that especially as I knew the governor at the time.
Bells have been part of faith traditions for centuries. The use of bells by priests is found in the Book of Exodus. There we learn that Aaron wore bells whenever he was in a particular area of the Temple. In the Christian tradition, bells were introduced by an Italian Bishop in the 400’s. A Pope in 604 sanctioned bells for use in worship. Since that time, church bells have been used for worship, to announce the beginning of worship, special services, or simply for celebratory purposes.
Church bells can be small or quite large. One bell at the National Cathedral weighs over 3500 pounds. Other bells around the world are even larger. Regardless of bell size, there are few sounds as glorious as church bells ringing.
In Psalm 100 we find this verse. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” When we worship God, we are invited to do so with joy, even and perhaps especially in the midst of painful hard times. One way to do this is with bells. Also in Psalm 100 is this. “God made us and we are his. We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” In other words, we worship God with joy because we are God’s. We belong to God through it all and nothing changes that.
This Sunday is Easter, the day we remember and celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. It is the day humanity learned clearly that new life follows the life we have now and that death is a passage into something wonderfully and beautifully beyond description. Because of Jesus, we can trust eternal life is ahead and this changes everything, including how we live now each day.
To help us celebrate Easter with joy, let’s use some bells and connect ourselves with those who have worshipped God over many centuries. I invite each of you to join me, following our online live broadcast of our Easter service at 9AM, MDT, to go outside, wherever you are, and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. If you have bells of some kind, use them. Ring them with vigor to express your joy over Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. If you don’t have bells, I invite you to make a joyful racket unto the Lord. Use pots and pans, anything to express joy to God. And if you cannot join us at 9 MDT, sometime during Easter Sunday go out and make some joyful noise. You might just get somebody’s attention who needs a smile.
This time in all of our lives is so tough, hard, and unsettling, to say the least. The losses many are experiencing are massive. I believe it is during this time, we need a dose, even if just a small one, of joy. Joy over our Lord who is guiding us through this time. Joy over God who loves us without bounds. Joy over our Lord who promises us that when it is all said and done, all will be well. Happy Easter my friends.
Without a doubt, as I reflect upon my 60 years of life, I have learned the greatest lessons through pain, struggle and tough times. Often when in the midst of something difficult, however, it can be hard to find meaning or to gain insight into what can be taken from the experience. Sometimes the passage of time is required to gain perspective.
I suspect the global crisis we are in now, will one day prove to be a teacher to each of us if we are attentive, intentional and prayerful, today and in the future. Said another way, through the very significant hardships, fear, and up-ending consequences of this current time, we have been given the opportunity to reset various aspects of our lives, how we live them, and who we are down deep. When what we are accustomed to is stripped away, we can be forced to explore our values, priorities, and ultimately what matters not only the most, but at all.
While what we learn from this time will be unique to each of us, my hunch is that shared realizations may happen. Having said this, however, I pray that some specific lessons will come from this pandemic. Others likely will have very different hopes. That said, it is my prayer that these months will remind us of our utter dependency upon our loving Creator. That every day we wake up we will embrace the truth that any given moment we have is a gift from God, ripe with opportunities to serve and live selflessly.
After this crisis, I pray that we will embrace face to face relationships with people in person and understand that being in person with another is where true connection and intimacy happens. Perhaps we will learn to distance ourselves from uni-dimensional forms of communication and learn to pause to look into the eyes of the person in front of us.
I pray that we will get back to God’s understanding of the world. Borders, differences in languages, backgrounds, cultures, religions, and various ways of doing things does not mean we are not all God created human beings. All of us are on the same singular planet and hope resides in flipping the way we see others and how we approach global problems. Historically every great challenge that has arisen in human history comes from the distinctions we make, not God.
I pray that what gives us a sense of security and stability will move from that which is ephemeral to that which remains over time. Friendships, families, congregations, integrity, honesty, doing the right thing, empathy, lack of ego, and love, in my view, are where security for daily living comes. Stability arises when who we are in public aligns with who we are in private. Assets come and go. And while wealth can and has been used for great good, stability and security does not come from things temporary. What gives us a foundation is that which we take with us into eternity.
I pray over time that as a result of this crisis, our definition of success will broaden. That our tenderness toward others will increase. That our sense of who our neighbor is will reflect what Jesus taught us. That indeed we will treat every person as we wish to be treated. That we will embrace the truth that when one person hurts, we all hurt. That we will learn to seek joy, share it and laugh more. That we will learn to take what we do seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. That stress will be embraced as a signal to turn in a different direction. That we will honor this planet as a spectacular gift from God and act accordingly.
While there is much more that I pray for, when it is all said and done, I pray for a dramatic resurgence in love. The love of God. The love of others. And loving compassion toward ourselves. As we say over and over and over at the Chapel, as God is love, the only thing that really matters is love and actions based on such love. I pray that through this time we learn most of all to celebrate, emulate, communicate, and live our lives based on love as our number one priority. Idealistic? Certainly, but we have chosen to follow Jesus who calls us to His ways, not ours.
Please know we are praying for you and we want to know how we can be helpful to you and those you love.
Several decades ago I along with my classmates were at the midpoint through our 36 month residential seminary training in Tennessee. For the vast majority of us, it was a very difficult time, largely because of the uncertainty of the future along with the extreme academic and spiritual demands placed upon us.
I recall lots of my friends were stressed, in tears, worried about income, because none of us had any, and uncertain as to what the future would hold. Few if any of us knew where we would end up serving.
It was at this particularly shared low point that we were all gathered in a classroom. As we took in yet more information about this and that, it was then we heard a strange distant sound. Over a few minutes, the sound became louder and clearer. It was the sound of singing and of musical instruments being played. The volume increased as did our puzzled expressions.
Then, to our great surprise, the doors of the classroom burst open and the room filled in with seminarians in other class years, dressed up in funny costumes singing a very clear repetitive line. That line. “We are all in this together. We are all in this together. We are all in this together.” This dramatically changed our perspectives and outlook amidst our worries and uncertainty.
The world wide pandemic is obviously difficult beyond description and my seminary experience is vastly insignificant in comparison. But one thing is quite relevant. Indeed, we are all in this together. For every single human being across national boundaries, ethnic identifications, orientations, political persuasions, income levels, lots in life, philosophical differences, and spiritual paths, we are all in this together.
In the midst of hunger, unemployment, illness, fear, boredom, worry, uncertainty and more, we are all in this together and to me, this makes all the difference in the world. It is my prayer that each of us individually and we as human kind collectively, will gain new perspectives, levels of understanding, empathy, compassion, and love for all people across every divide. We have always been on the same boat and perhaps, just perhaps, something will come from this time that reminds us of this profound truth.
We are all God’s children, no exceptions. Can you imagine the global shift if we were to embrace such a truth. And perhaps, just perhaps, the profound losses that we are experiencing along with the new normal will lead us to look at each other through new eyes. We are all in this together.
God created all of creation and everyone in it. That was God’s choice. In response, the choice has always been left up to us as to how we will respond to what we have been given. The path of love or the many others humanity has taken since inception.
Over the days and week ahead, please let us know how we may help you, through prayer, grocery shopping, a call to check in, or simply a reminder that you are loved by God and all of us at the Chapel. We are here for you and we are all in this together.