Chasing the Stick
Lord, I have given up my pride
and turned away from my arrogance.
I am not concerned with great matters
or with subjects too difficult for me.
Instead, I am content and at peace.
As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms,
so my heart is quiet within me.
Israel, trust in the Lord
now and forever!
Psalm 131, TEV
This is one of my favorite psalms. The Good News Translation calls it “A Prayer of Humble Trust.” The secret of the psalm is hidden in one of Paul’s letters, as he writes, “I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learned this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me (Philippians 4:12-13, italics added).
Each author seems to be saying, “I’m good, God’s good, my relationship with God is good. I’m content.” True contentment is a rare and precious condition. Can we get there? The Old and New Testaments agree that we can. But how?
Perhaps the answer is simply than we first thought. Consider the baby in the photo above. Does he know math? How much of the Bible has he read? Can he catch a fish? Can he play Scrabble? Of course not. What does he know?
She knows the most important thing of all: he is loved.
As adults, we learn so much that some of us eventually think we know everything. But we can never know everything. When I first moved here, I gave someone directions to the arboretum without even knowing what an arboretum was. And I used to try to fool kids by telling them about the days before mp3s and CDs and cassette players, when we had record players in our cars and had to drive really slowly over the speed bumps to keep them from skipping.
Guess what? Chrysler actually made these cars in the 50s and the 60s. I was wrong.
Sometimes we just pretend to know something to get out of a conversation ~ for example, with a child who won’t stop asking questions. “Why do moose have antlers?” “Because they need coat racks.” “Why is the sky blue?” “Because of refraction.” “What’s refraction?” “It’s the thing that makes the sky blue.”
But what’s more important than the answer? The interaction.
I was at Paul’s house the other day playing fetch with his Boston Terrier, Tater. Tater is a very strong dog. He’d bring me a stick, I’d throw it, he’d fetch it, then he’d refuse to give it back to me. I could lift the stick so high his back legs would be a yard off the ground, but he still wouldn’t let go! Once I finally got the stick, I accidentally threw the stick somewhere he couldn’t find. He looked and looked and looked. He could have kept looking, getting more and more frustrated, not eating, not sleeping and finally falling into depression. But he didn’t; he found another stick.
The same trap waits for us when we keep chasing an answer we can’t find. What’s at the end of the stars? Who made God? How can the Trinity be three and one at the same time? If God is good, how could He allow this to happen? We can spend all our time being anxious and upset and confused and eventually angry and depressed; or we can find another stick.
I am not concerned with great matters
or with subjects too difficult for me.
Instead, I am content and at peace.
The apostle Paul writes that he has discovered the secret of contentment. “I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.” And he knows what he’s writing about. Paul is in physical pain every day. He is in prison, possibly forever. He is wracked by guilt whenever he considers his former life, and whenever he loses his temper, which is often. Yet he draws strength from God. He can do all things through Christ; he just has to choose to do so. The Little Engine That Could knows this as well, and the thought of what he can do spurs him on to do amazing things.
Most of us were taught as children to finish what is on our plates. But when we’re at a buffet, the same rules no longer apply. If we put something on our plate that we don’t like, we don’t have to finish it; we can go back to the table and get something else. Many people feel that they have to finish out their terrible life, because that’s what they have chosen or been given. But life with God is like a buffet. God is saying, I’ve put a lot of good things on that table. If you don’t like what you have, choose something else: another path, another action, another chain of thought.
May we trust in the Lord, now and forever. May we have the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
Words of Encouragement
Happy World Environmental Day! It’s a great day to plant a tree, or simply to take a walk outside. In the words of Max Ehrmann, “it’s still a beautiful world. Strive to be happy.”
In this spirit, we offer these facts. (Remember facts? They still exist!) And if you’d like to double-check these facts, simply Google the research. Ready for some good news that really can change your life? Here it is.
Harvard’s Steven Pinker does a great job summing up what we really need to know in his essay, Human Progress Quantified, as reprinted in John Brockman’s new anthology, Know This:
People are living longer and healthier lives, not just in the developed world but globally. Vastly more children are going to school and learning to read. Extreme poverty has fallen worldwide from 85 to 10 percent. Despite local setbacks, the world is more democratic than ever. Women are better educated, and in more positions of power. Hate crimes have decreased.
You may be saying, “What? This doesn’t sound like the news!” It’s probably not the news you’ve read ~ it’s the real news. Yes, we have horrible acts of violence ~ but the world has grown progressively less violent in recent years, with fewer people dying in acts of terrorism and war. And yes, there are threats to our way of life, our environment, and so on ~ but these are all counterbalanced by the acts of many, many good people. Don’t give up. And don’t believe everything you read at face value. We have grown more afraid at the exact same time as we have become safer.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who have been discouraged by recent events in the world. There is still reason to hope, to love, to believe, to go on. I am not writing these words as a Pollyanna ~ nor are they platitudes. I believe that it is realistic to be positive, although it takes some work. To get there, we may need to tune out the alarmism and the fear mongering, and to concentrate on what is good and true and right ~ for example, the benefits of friendship, nature and the arts. While we can’t stop bad things from happening, we can’t stop good things from happening either. There are far more good things than bad, but we can focus on either one, and our thoughts will determine our mood.
Every work of creativity, every gesture of kindness, and every act of volunteerism makes a statement: this is our beautiful world, and we are a part of its beauty. Although we may think we are powerless, the opposite is true. These are our words of encouragement: despite what you may have read elsewhere, we are still headed in the right direction.
One of our parishioners wrote in with this question: “On Confirmation Day, my mother took me aside and said, ‘Believe what you can.’ What do you think of my mother’s advice?”
The father of the epileptic boy encounters Jesus on a particularly bad day. Jesus has just finished yelling at his disciples, exclaiming, “How much longer must I put up with you people?” And then this guy comes along, and asks Jesus to heal his son “if he can.”
“If I CAN,” retorts Jesus. “If I CAN? I’m the Son of God, just believe in me!”
This poor guy. He just wants his son to be healed, and he doesn’t think it’s possible, because his son has always had this condition, but he holds out just a little hope, because he’s heard about Jesus, and Jesus has done it for other people, so why won’t he do it for him? Or can he?
Often when we’re going through our own problems, someone offers these words: “Just believe, just trust, just have faith that everything’s going to work out.” Easy for you to say, we think. Easy to say, hard to do. We know that Jesus existed, we know that he helped people then, we know that he is helping people now, but if he isn’t helping us in the way we want to be helped, at the time we want to be helped, we doubt.
MercyMe’s song “Even If” is an expression of faith separate from outcome: “I know you’re able and I know you can / Save through the fire with your mighty hand / But even if you don’t / Even if you don’t / My hope is you alone.”
The man cries out, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” And Jesus, perhaps impressed, perhaps chagrined, reaches out and heals his son. By this we learn that Jesus honors great faith, but he also honors honesty plus desire. There is a gap between the man’s belief and his unbelief, what he has and what he wants, where he is and where he wants to be, who he is and who he wants to be. He does believe, but he doesn’t believe everything, and he needs help right now.
Earlier this week, a person said to me, “I’d come to church, but I don’t believe in God.” My response: come to church anyway! Few of us believe fully and consistently. Some doubt. Most have never read the whole Bible. None of us are perfect. Not even the pastor knows everything. We don’t have all the answers; we give directions. To this person, as well as to the person who inspired this sermon, I offer these words, “Believe what you can, but keep trying to believe more. And trust that God will reach in to close the gap.
Are Christians supposed to have fun?
I was very excited about preparing this sermon, especially when I Googled “Scriptures on fun” and discovered that fun is mentioned over 200 times in the Bible. But much to my dismay, I soon realized that every one of them was bad. The Bible says things like, “You’ve had your fun, now have your punishment!” and “Avoid the company of people who love to have fun.” How could this be?
Much of the outside world believes that Christians are not supposed to have fun. The idea may have originated from the Puritans, who were not known for being party animals. If we look back at that time, we realize that life itself had little fun to offer. If a person had too much fun, the crops didn’t get planted, there was no food for winter, and the whole family died. That’s not fun at all.
Our Caffeine Committee met for the first time this week and came up with 33 fun ideas for our church. When I mentioned this to the pastor in the next town, he remarked, “You’re more fun than John Wesley!” But that’s not saying much, because John Wesley was not such a fun guy either. He was a Type A personality who “never spent a moment idle” and is responsible for making United Methodist ministers take the same oath.
Was Jesus fun? Or do we do a disservice to our children when we tell them that Sunday School can be fun, and that church can be fun as well? Should we be telling them, “You have all week to have fun, so get it out of your system, then come to church?”
We know there’s something wrong with this statement, but what?
I decided to look up the etymology of fun. As it turns out, the Middle English definition of “fun” is “to be a fool or make a fool of; to cheat or to hoax.” In other words, when the Bible translators used the word “fun,” they had a different definition! If one didn’t know this, one might insist that to take the Bible literally is not to have any fun at all, ever. But the modern definition of “fun” is “enjoyment, amusement, lighthearted pleasure and good humor without malicious intent.” And this type of fun is all over the Bible, especially when one remembers that the root word of “enjoyment” is joy! From Ecclesiastes to Paul, Scripture writers remind people that joy is a gift from God. Sources of enjoyment include laughter, singing, dancing, and making a loud noise with drums and clashing cymbals.
Ecclesiastes also reminds us that there is also a time for everything: to paraphrase his famous list, a time for work and a time for play. In elementary school, this meant class and recess; at home, it meant that one had to shovel the driveway before sledding, and finish one’s homework before going outside. When one’s work is done, there should be no guilt in play.
But what if one’s work is not done? New research suggests that afternoon naps and play breaks at work lead to greater focus and productivity! Rest and recreation bring rejuvenation. We had this right in kindergarten, and promptly forgot all about it. While these things were once considered lazy or irresponsible, now they seem necessary, confirming what our spirits already knew: we are supposed to have fun! If fun produces joy, and joy produces praise, then fun is a path to God. So with apologies to King James (great Bible!), let’s start enjoying our lives a little bit more, because God has given us all good things.
How to Deal With a Crazy Year
Until recently, it seemed that news unfolded at a fairly predictable pace. But ever since the inauguration, this pace has increased at a seemingly exponential rate. The New York Times even ran a piece this February titled “Does Reading the News These Days Leave You Feeling Fatigued?”
Many people have expressed their fears to me about the nation and the world, on top of ongoing personal and family concerns (which is where most pastoral work is done). Of particular concern: the inauguration riots, the continued divisions in our nation (most recently exposed during the peaceful women’s marches), and the recent executive orders on immigration. The common themes: What should a Christian believe? and How can I stay calm?
As to the first question, I offer a Scripture that has been close to my heart this year: “I urge that petitions, prayers, requests and thanksgivings be offered to God for all people: for kings and all others who are in authority, that we may live a quiet and peaceful life with all reverence toward God and with proper conduct. This is good and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to know the truth. For there is one God, and there is one who brings God and human beings together, the man Jesus Christ. who gave himself to redeem the entire human race” (1 Timothy 2:1-6).
In short, before we choose political sides or share political opinions, let’s pray that God’s wisdom is visited upon all of the world’s leaders, regardless of party or affiliation. After this, it’s time to pray and peacefully discuss our own beliefs and options. Some will feel compelled by conscience to protest; the Long Island Council of Churches recently sent out a ready made letter for this purpose, which can be accessed here: Protesting Executive Order on Immigration & Refugees. The Christian Church has a long history of protest. But it’s important to be reflective rather than reactive. In other words, before we protest, our faith calls us to thoroughly examine all sides, so that we can explain our beliefs from a Christian perspective while keeping our consciences clear.
Many people have been telling me that they feel torn, because one segment of their peers (family and friends) is marching and/or writing protest letters, while another is expressing support for the recent actions in our administration. Each person should search their own conscience, and pray that God will illuminate the proper path. United Methodists use Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (often paraphrased as the Bible, each other, head and heart). Such people have told me that they feel paralyzed and upset, and want to do something, but don’t know what. To such people I say, volunteer and/or give! For example, Christ’s love is shown through Having Friends INN, the Souper Bowl of Caring, our Thrift Shoppe and our recent New York City Sock Drive. These things operate outside the political realm, and they never wear out. Whether one wants to “make America great again,” “keep America great” or “help America not to lose its greatness”, positive, helpful community involvement ALWAYS helps. When the world’s problems seem too big, think small ~ think local.
And now to the second question: how to stay calm?
Jesus asks his disciples, “Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?” He goes on to say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness … do not be worried about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have enough worries of its own” (Matthew 6:25-34, abbreviated, various translations).
In this Scripture, we again see the difference between reflective and reactive. To be reflective is to wake up and declare victory in Jesus ~ to realize that all things are in control, and that the universe is unfolding as it should. To seek God first means that we will not need to seek Him as a reaction to any of life’s events, because we will already be in an attitude of prayer.
I am consistently amazed to find answers to today’s questions in Scripture ~ continuing proof of eternal truths. Psychology had not yet been invented, but the Son of God already knew ~ and taught ~ that generalized anxiety never helped anyone. His solution: prayer and meditation, leading to a “peace that passes understanding.” Paul echoes these words in his letter to the church at Philippi, writing, “Fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honorable … and the God who gives us peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9, TEV).
I have a friend who’s worried about a surgery that is currently months away ~ so worried that the anxiety is ruining her current days. Another friend is worried about an upcoming career change. My response has been a simple question: “What day is it?” The answer: “Today.” This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. It’s easy to ruin a perfectly good day by concentrating on the news (which despite its perceived immediacy does not directly affect many of us), our ongoing problems, or an uncertain future. But the future has always been uncertain ~ except in Christ, who has secured the future for those who seek him.
In The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have a conversation about finding joy. They say that many people believe they will be happy when a certain thing happens ~ a new love, a new job, retirement. They are always waiting for joy to arrive, but missing the things that can lead to joy today. Their “secrets of joy” are not surprising, but are worth repeating: 1) Be positive; 2) Be grateful; 3) Help others. Tutu tells a story of a prisoner whose life is a living hell until he hears the cries of another prisoner and befriends him. Meaning can be found in any situation.
Ironically, the message of these two religious leaders addresses the Matthew Scripture from a complimentary angle. Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will have enough worries of its own.” Tutu and the Dalai Lama say, “Don’t just wait for tomorrow’s blessings; today has enough blessings of its own.” Joy is available today, if we seek first the kingdom of God.
In conclusion, yes ~ it’s been a crazy year so far. Everything seems unstable. But one thing remains constant, rock solid, reliable, unchanging. God is still the answer, and He is only a prayer away.