Brian’s Song

When I was fourteen I watched an ABC movie of the week called “Brian’s Song”. I was moved by the music as I was drawn to the interracial bonds Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo shared, the vast differences in their personas, and the struggles and griefs that were surmounted. The narration opens with Coach Halas saying, “Earnest Hemingway once said, ‘Every true story ends in death.’ Well…. this is a true story.” His closing narration is: “When they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember, but rather how he lived…. how he did live!!!!”

When I heard the movie was going to be re-broadcast (you couldn’t choose when to watch something then), I grabbed my new Craig “T-stop” cassette tape recorder, held the microphone to the TV mono speaker, and made an audio tape of the music, and some of my favorite speeches that I listened to many times. “To Sir With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were the only other movie music and speeches I recorded on audio while they re-played on TV.

I once was too ashamed to share that about myself, but I learned during classes with Suzanne Stabile that a “2” on the Enneagram feels other people’s feelings, while having no sense of their own feelings. She also told me that my embarrassment was because male “2s” have a hard time in our culture — at least it’s not as difficult as what female “8s” face.

Maybe I was being prepared by a loving guiding hand in my life-long vocation — the times I’ve spoken out for and worked for racial justice, visited those recovering in hospitals and rehab centers, led youth groups, and the years I spent as a hospice chaplain and minister to grieving families. I’ve appreciated a variety of personas, orientations, views from points, rather than homogeneity. I’ve worked with media across cassettes, 8-tracks, slide/tape shows, video, CDs, DVDs, digital, powerpoint, and streaming. My spirituality has been transformed alongside changes in technology.

On July 6, the actor who played Brian Piccolo, James Caan, died — every true story ends in death. I will remember knowing him through his many magnificent roles throughout my life for which I am grateful. 

What movies had an impact on your life in your youth? How has technology changes affected your way of living? What do you appreciate about James Caan’s lifetime of work on stage and screen?

Set Free for Freedom

Jesus’ apostle named Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Galatian church.

“For freedom God through his anointed one has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.”

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

How do these words speak to you today?

Dialogue (Part 1 & 2)… & 3 & 4

Last night our three sisters and brothers-in-law got to see Chicago in concert in Kansas City. The second song was led by the author Robert Lamm — Dialogue (Part 1 & 2). As I “sang” the lyrics I could recall screaming the words with Terry Kath’s voice and guitar on the LP at full volume in our Frat house in college. I still want to shout down war, starvation, and “repression closing round” as I hear others say, “if you had my outlook your feelings would be numb — you’d always think that everything is fine.”

A few years before, the inserts and posters of “Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall” set read: “we can change the system”. Dialogue Part 2 proclaimed “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.”

I wonder what parts of Dialogue 1 & 2 I need to hear today? I wonder what Dialogue Part 3 might be about?

One option could be the dialogue in churches about whether the kingdom of God that Jesus talked most about is someplace you go after you die, or is it a vision for the world now? As Brian McLaren writes in his new book “Do I Stay Christian?”, is the church a refrigeration unit before shipment to a final destination, or does following Jesus mean actively working to change our systems that are leading to the violent or climatic destruction of our whole ecosystem. Is God’s goal to throw away our world like garbage (after pulling “my tribe out”), or is God showing us ways to save creation now?

I believe and I hope Dialogue 4 would repeat 2: “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.” What dialogues do you see going on? When have you heard, “Will you try to change things with the power that you have: the power of a million new ideas”?

Stressed backwards is Desserts?

During my first attempt at being a hospice chaplain, I was intrigued by a speaker coming to Kansas City named Darcie Sims. Her book title “Why Are Casseroles Always Tuna: A Loving Look at the Lighter Side of Grief” drew me in. I heard her speak on October 5, 2001—3 weeks after 9/11 when our whole nation was grieving. That was also two weeks after my brother died; I’m glad I wrote a lot of notes because I was too numb to hear it at the time.

One session was for caregivers and hospice workers called “Creative Coping: First Aid for Burnout and Compassion Fatigue.” She talked about stress. Darcie said, “stress isn’t a thing or a person; it’s our response to a thing or a person.” Guess who’s responsible for how we respond? She said, “Expectations are the major source of our stress. Stress is the distance between what you expect and what you experience.” How realistic are you about your expectations? How many of your expectations come from the voice of another who “shoulds all over you”? How much do you have compassion for yourself as you care for others?

An experiment you might try is this. First thing in the morning write down what you’re worried about. Write all your worries, but put each worry on one index card or slip of paper. Put them all face down; then pick one. That’s what you get to worry about today; carry it with you, and give it the worry it deserves; act on it. The rest you can let go today; some people email the rest to the best worrier they know; some read Matthew chapter 6; some put them aside until the next morning.

What do you find helpful in your life in these stress-full times? How do you seek healing from burn-out or compassion fatigue? To whom do you go for help in seeking your answers for “what is mine to do?”

William Sloane Coffin

During my final year of seminary, as 1983 began, I heard a taped sermon that transformed my life—an all-too-rare occurrence.

The sermon by William Sloane Coffin at the Riverside Church in NYC begins with words I would never forget: “As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family ‘fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’ – my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.”

10 days after his son died in a wreck, the father preached this sermon to his church January 23, 1983. You can search the sermon online; you can download the audio through his archives site.

As a pastor and hospice chaplain for 35 years, Coffin’s words still ring true: “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said.”

“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths……. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Since 1983, I have imagined being in hot pursuit, swarming all over many funeral consolers. With all the best intentions to protect God or insulate pain, I have overheard each of my top twenty list of deadly things to say to a grieving person. 

When you put your personal grief into words, what do you think, write, or say? Which cultural comments have not been helpful to your grief work and journey? What expressions and actions have brought you transformative comfort? 

Skyhook

Friday’s story was about our three-year-son driving our minivan with minimal damage to objects or persons. How fleeting life can be. The way I saw things at the time, I wondered if God had helped to guide his little hand to shift past catastrophic reverse and into a safe drive of a few inches forward. I don’t see it that way today.

I see God as present in and loving his/her/their entire creation—including me. I don’t see our creator as operating some skyhook that rescues some people from the actions of themselves or others, while leaving others behind. From my tradition, I agree with Jesus: children, your Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

Skyhook rescue theology raises concerns for me. I can never answer the “why” question. Why would I be rescued while another suffers who is not rescued?—or the reverse of course! It’s the temptation to act like I am so special, God will rescue me from hitting the ground if I jump off a building (Matthew 4:5-7 and the other accounts of Jesus’ temptations).

Seeing a skyhook is dangerous. The “rapture” conspiracy theory (that is neither Biblical nor faithful as I see it) says God will skyhook people like my tribe before destroying the world. If God doesn’t care about this world and people who are “other” than me, then why should I? Why would I care about others, the environment, or climate change if God is going to throw it all away like garbage?

A divine skyhook takes away our human responsibility to seek answers to rampant violence, including the threat of nuclear destruction. Because God does not and will not rescue us from the consequences of our actions, we might want to reconsider our behavior.

How has skyhook rescue theology been a part of your journey of faith? When have you been reassured by seeing that way? What stumbling blocks came in your path from that perspective?

Mimicked Behavior

On a Saturday in 2000, I was in the back yard burying our beloved cat, my wife was taking a quick shower, and our son was playing safely inside. Because I had opened the garage to get the shovel, I could clearly hear the sudden crash, bang, shatter, and rolling rattle sounds that came from there.

When I ran in the garage, I saw that our mini-van had pulled forward enough to run into a metal shelving unit, bend it in half, and send its contents crashing to the hood and floor. Our three-year-old was in the driver seat, the engine running, the gear on the wheel in drive, and the doors locked.

I was thankful he had passed reverse while shifting gears, because of all the dangers of gaining speed down our hill, crossing our street, and running into our neighbor’s house. Drive had done minimal damage. 

I faced a problem: how do I get our son to unlock the van doors when he has the key? How do I hide my anxiety and anger so he’ll be willing to open the door? Seeing his anxiety and fear, I calmly said he was not in trouble but I needed him to unlock the door. He did. I hugged him hard, before we cleaned the mess together. 

Sunday morning a friend, called to ask if our son could pick up her children for church.

A three-year-old mimics the daily behavior he observes to climb up a dresser to get the correct key, open the van door, climb in, lock the doors, insert the key, start the engine, and shift the gear to drive. What behaviors does an assault-rifle murderer mimic? 

Because of law-suits, the auto industry added a safety feature; you have to have long-enough legs to put your foot on the brake to start the car. I wonder what safety-features the weapons industry might be adding today, if our rights to sue them weren’t taken away from us when they were uniquely made immune from liability by Congress in 2005 with the PLCAA?

No Guarantees

Like many towns in the 1980s, we provided an all-night party for all high school seniors the night of their graduation. Parents and community leaders organized a party of celebration, celibacy, and cheer (sans alcohol). A YMCA was transformed into a casino/nightclub/coffee house/activity center for 14 hours. As the preacher, I was assigned the roulette or craps table.

The sub-text was to guarantee the safety of the graduates on a dangerous night. One year I learned there are no guarantees no matter how hard you try.

Two hours after going home at 7 a.m., one graduate drove the two-lane thirty-mile highway to Columbia to buy something. He fell asleep at the wheel, and was killed in the car crash.

24 hours after their graduation, I hosted 24 youth with our mutual shock, silence, sobs, stories, and unanswerable questions. One life lesson we learned was that you can’t guarantee safety, no matter how many safety steps you take. The lesson was not worth the cost.

The next year, after another annual all-night sober celebration, we told the participants to sleep it off.

How have you learned that you can’t guarantee someone’s safety? Given that there are no guarantees, what steps do you take to seek safety for yourself and others? How might this reflection affect your response to this week’s guns and graduations?

What Must I Do to be Saved?

The day after Tuesday’s most recent “massacre of the innocents” (Matthew 2:16-18), I opened my mailbox to find the above propaganda from Congresswoman Vicki Hartzler (or her opponent trying to smear her? — one never knows). One of the many images idolizing violent weapons manufactured to kill people looked like Patty Hearst robbing a bank in 1974. Timing is everything.

Acts 16 is one lectionary passage for this Sunday (timing again?). Paul and Silas are put in chains and in jail, because they healed a slave-girl fortune-teller. They interfered with the business of those who profited from her. It seems you suffer if you lovingly interfere with business profits — however abusive that business is. Times haven’t changed much.

An earthquake frees Paul & Silas from their cells of inaction and chains of silence. Their jailer figures the empire will kill him for allowing prisoners to escape. The jailer asks them, “What must I do to be saved?” He was NOT asking, how to get a ticket to heaven when I die; he was asking how to be saved from this empire of violence and vengeance, domination and hate all around him.

He asks what he must DO and the two tell him what to do. Believe, follow, live the life of Jesus and you and your household will be saved. Practice the life of love, sharing, community, equality, justice, peace, non-violent, active resistance to evil, and you will be saved from this system — you and your household. Find ways to participate in grace and peace everyday.

That is the question I keep hearing this week. After another arsenal annihilation, what must I do? What actions am I called to take in response? What must I do to be saved from violence, vengeance, weapons, war, autocrats, businesses profiteers who silence any dissent? What are you called to do? How might you grow in love and non-violent resistance to bring any hope of salvation to this household of our nation and world?

Mother’s Day

In early 2020 BC (Before Covid) I began to work with the church deacons and worship committee to plan a Mother’s Day evening service for our community. It was to be a service of healing and wholeness for those for whom Mother’s Day is a complicated day.

For decades I have listened to various voices crying out how painful Mother’s Day is for them.   Some women knew they would never give birth due to infertility or circumstance.  Some grieved miscarriages. Some grieved the death of a child. Some grieved the death of their mother. Some said their relationship with their mother or their child had been complicated.

While these women and men encouraged the church to celebrate Mother’s Day in worship and honor and give thanks for all our mothers do for us, some chose to avoid their pain by not attending themselves. Therefore our church planned to provide a special evening service to gather together for worship with prayer stations, lament, song, Scripture readings, and meditation in order to receive the comfort and healing our faith provides. We wanted people to know they are not alone as they experience empathy during a difficult time. “Bear each other burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” – Galatians 6:2.

For all of us in 2020, Mother’s Day was complicated. We couldn’t physically gather together in community to worship in the morning or evening. Out of love we didn’t gather for a meal.  We worried about every mothers’ health, as we electronically honored and thanked mothers whose roles were changing in so many ways.

If I understand the text, Hosea 11:1–11 speaks of the motherhood of God. I invite you to read Hosea 11:1-11 and ask yourself what you need to hear during this week after Mother’s Day 2022. 

Who is one person with whom you could connect who had a complicated mother’s day?