Tuesday, February 04, 2020

A More Compleat Tool Belt

If your only tool is a hammer, all problems are a nail
I am advocate for a good tool belt.  Good.  Not perfect. 
In the last decade I have become far more competent at household repairs than I was before that.  YouTube has been invaluable in this.  Where before I would enter a new task with trepidation combined with a lack of knowledge, I can now only deal with my own trepidation.  My knowledge is much higher. 
In effect, I am increasing the number of tools, and skills, associated with my tool belt. 
My tool belt is become closer to good.  It will never be perfect.  There will be times when what is needed to repair things in my home exceed my skills, my tools, and truth be known, my interest factor.  Some of these things I am just not interested in.  I am sure some of my pastor colleagues are just not interested in increasing their knowledge in numbers because their interest factor is so low. 
For now, I want to focus on the number of tools in our tool belt, and less about analysis of numbers as a wrench, screwdriver, or hammer. 
When I was introduced to the leadership at Hilltop United Methodist in 2012, one of the questions I was asked was focused on me as if I were the sole leader responsible for transformation.  I attempted to turn the conversation around to leadership as a cooperative, and communitarian, adventure.  One of the tools in my perceived tool belt is leadership development.  Jesus developed twelve and that development changed our world. 
In that same conversation, I was asked what I had learned in Colorado Springs that would work in Salt Lake.  My answer was while some solutions might transport, I expected issues at Hilltop were different than in Colorado Springs, and we needed to be adaptive in our leadership, rather than technical.  One of the tools in my perceived tool belt is adaptive leadership.  Jesus displays his adaptive ability on multiple occasions, often in his use of parables and storytelling as a way of teaching and leading. 
Clarity on purpose is another tool for that tool belt.  Our focus in the military focused on mission, and clarity from leadership as to what was important and what was less important in our missional focus.  One of the tools in my perceived tool belt is a laser focus on our purpose, our why, our mission.  Jesus missional focus was on Calvary and the Empty Tomb. 
The ability to absorb criticism is a critical tool.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t let criticism bother you.  All of us want to be liked and respected.  And you can get too far in front of those you are leading.  You must stay in contact with them, while, I believe, leading from the front.  I once asked a key leader why I was getting a particular task and he said “you don’t let other people bother you” and I replied, “Another person I have fooled.”  The truth of course is that like all of us, I want the respect and admiration of others, but there is a time for our skins to be a little thicker than it often is.  A United Methodist District Superintendent once told me my leadership task at my church was as pastor to lead my sheep to faithfulness.  Easy to say:  hard to accomplish.  A tool in my perceived tool belt is a thicker skin.  Notice I said skin, not a coat of armor.  Do I need to offer any specific Jesus example of a thicker skin at times? 
Other examples exist of tools and skills.  That is just four.  
I like the ancient English word:  compleat.  It suggests finality, and the reality is that I have discovered that in reality, the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.  So when I think back to this tool belt image, it isn’t a compleat tool belt, it is a more compleat tool belt.  Closer to finality, and perfection but still a mirror that gives me an incomplete view of the world around me.  Better but not perfect. 
My hope in my blogs is that elements of this completeness in creating and managing our leadership tool belt will emerge. 
A more compleat tool belt.  With more tools than a hammer. 
Selah, Dennis

Monday, February 03, 2020

A Sacred, Transforming Encounter

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
Psalm 42, Verses 1-3, NRSV

C. S Lewis in Mere Christianity suggests we are created with needs for which the means exist in the creation for those needs to be met.  Examples are food, water, rest.  He suggests that God is just such a need:  a need for which the divine encounter fulfills that.  He posits that we to seek the divine, the transcendent, through time and space.  Said another way, seeking the divine has been true across time and across cultures.  It is a universal constant.  That need is for Lewis, and he has persuaded me, a deep inner need for the spiritual. 

David in Psalm 42 is addressing that fundamental need for encountering, meeting God through the image of longing.

I have heard it suggested that we have a God sized hole in our souls, and we are incomplete until we allow that hole to be filled.  We long to have that hole filled and the world is ready to provide suggestions on how fill it for us with work, commodities, and self-worship.  That is an abbreviated list.  The world is far better financed and replete with marketing savvy than faith communities to persuade us to buy their hole filling element du jour.

We do need to be clear that in this meeting, we are expected to walk away from it, different.  Jacob wrestles with the angel in Genesis 32 and he walks away physically and spiritually changed.  His very name is changed:  Israel – one who wrestles with God.  We are all at some point, Israel:  one who wrestles with God.  But at the same time, our “soul longs for you, O God.” 

Lewis does not remotely suggest that the hole in our soul is filled in exactly the same way, with the same transcendent moments and events.  If that were true, then we would all find the same kind of music, preaching, service organization, readings, to be filling.  I am confident now you know that is not the case.  For many, the hole in their soul is not filled with activities inside the building called church, but specifically interactions with the homeless and with those in need of spiritual care and nurture:  many gifts, many elements, all together making up “the body of Christ.” 

I observed earlier about Jacob wrestling with God and then arising from that match with a new name:  Israel.  Immediately after that cosmic wrestling match, he encountered his brother.  He was fearful that in that encounter, his brother’s righteous indignation over the way Jacob left years earlier would continue to be present.  Instead, the reunion was a happy one, and the one who had wrestled with God, said seeing his brother was like seeing “the face of God.”  We see the Face of God when we encounter those around us.
I have no idea what the future holds for all of us.

But I believe that turning down the volume of the world message, and turning up the volume of the Jesus message comes about when we encounter the sacred.  Are we travelers passing through this world or is this world our permanent address?  Our biblical message is that we are traveling through, not staying.
In a quote of uncertain origin:  We are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human one.”

When we buy into the idea of encountering Jesus, we say that we are prepared to take up the values of Jesus, and tell the values of the world to move back a row or two in our pantheon of values. 

Peace be with you and I wish you far more than luck in life, I wish you an encounter with the sacred in the form of Jesus. 

Selah, Dennis

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Growing in Love

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 New International Version
We love [God] because he first loved us. 1 John 4:19 New International Version
The search for meaning in my life ultimately brought me to the Church.  That quest for meaning presented me, in love, with a life defined by the life of Christ, a Christian life, shaped by the Word of God and the ongoing presence of God in my life.  A life initiated in love but further defined by the need for constant growth. 
A Christian life in a state of growth consists of at least two further searches, if not more:  Acknowledging that God searching for us, we are searching for God.  Those two searches are defined and driven by love.  In the scripture above, we understand God loves the world and we love God because God first loved us.  That affirmation of love is meant to be meaningful and transforming.  Most of our lives have been transformed by love:  think about it, where would you be without love?
The love we experience is not static or stationary.  It is a constantly evolving and at its best, constantly growing, force.  It grows deeper through trust and mutual respect, tenderness and care, growing.  I confess love has transformed me, and I suspect you as well.  Love leads to growth. 
I once said in a sermon that “at the heart of God is to be in relationship.”  That day it was the relationship of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Today, let’s reflect on loving relationship within the Body. 
In the First Century, long before we had denominations and set aside buildings for worship, the Christian search for meaning thrived on relationship.  We lose our way when we forget that.  People are the church:  we sing a hymn called “I am the Church.”  

Too often we get focused on denominations or buildings to define the church, and that is the wrong focus.  At our best, we are a restless, searching, people who are, in humility, leading other hearts to Christ. 
We call the Church the very Body of Christ.  The Church, at its best, is focused on helping us be Christians that are constantly in a state of communicating, receiving, and giving.  We are, at our best:
·        Communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ to a cynical world, 
·       Receiving nurture, direction and hope regularly in order to be forces of transformation in that cynical world, and
·        Proudly, joyously, giving back to God our Time, our Talent, and our Treasure. 
Let’s spend some time this season of our lives with great intentionality looking at where we are, or perhaps are not, growing.  Are we growing in the depth of our relationship and if not, what are we doing about it?  Growing in our minds, growing in our service, growing in the joyful sharing back to God what has been given to us in the first place.
Be alert, be attentive, be awake to the small still voice of God calling to you about how you might grow.  In order to truly understand that call, you may have to first be open to your potential for growth leading to joyful response. 
Selah, Dennis

Saturday, February 01, 2020


“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse.  'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become ….’”
The Velveteen Rabbit
I once was asked why I didn’t title my sermons.  
My not serious, tongue in cheek, quip was that I was a closet Episcopalian, and while I believed in Jesus, I didn’t believe in titles.  Episcopalians do not title their sermons, Methodists normally do.  But I assure you, I am not a closet Episcopalian.  Their Sunday duds are just not me.  might become an Episcopalian, but I doubt it. 
I wonder if the issue is less about title and more about the why, the purpose of the sermon, and for me, it is about being, becoming.  “What does it mean to be a Follower of Christ?”  
Spanish has two verbs to be.  One has an element of permanence, and the other is understood to be temporary.  If you use the wrong verb to say someone is smart or beautiful, you are actually suggesting it is not part of their normal state.  I see this doing/being in the same way.  We have to do the church enough, that at some point it stops being doing, and it becomes a vital statement about who we actually are. 
I assure you that after having prepared right at 500 sermons I am not the same person I was 500 sermons ago.  Church is a different reality for me than twenty years ago, sometimes even twenty minutes ago. 
Being a Christian within the church is, in the sense of the two Spanish verbs to be, permanent and temporary.  Gradually as we become real in terms of being little Christs, the meaning of Christian after all, he becomes permanently part of who we are, and we leave more and more of the temporary behind. 
Wesley would call it "moving on to perfection." 

I suspect this moving on is never completed, that in this life, we are never fully 100% finished.  To paraphrase Paul from 1st Corinthians 13, I suspect it is a state of constant becoming, a state of seeing in the mirror and just getting it dimly, always seeking more light, more clarity, moving always towards becoming. In the words of the Skin Horse, you become real, real as a follower of Christ.
Selah, Dennis

Friday, January 31, 2020

Pronouns Matter

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many are one body, so it is with Christ.  1 Corinthians 12:12 (ESV)
In my time in the Army, I often heard leaders say while pointing to the US Army strip on our uniforms “there is no me in Army” then point to our name tags, mine of course saying SHAW and offering “there is no I in Team.”
There is no me in Army, there is no I in team. 
The preamble to the Constitution starts, “We the people.” 
The New York Yankees do not allow names on the backs of their jerseys, only numbers.  
Some coaches tell basketball, football, and baseball players to play for the name on the front of their jersey rather than the name on the back.  The back has their last name, and on the front, is the team name. 
All of those ideas point to the same concept that Paul was pointing to in his ongoing philosophical dispute with the church in Corinth:  when you sign on to be a follower of Christ, you leave the stuff behind you previously held on to.  For Paul, the image of a healthy human body was helpful to understanding the idea of team:  the team worked together and the eye was the eye, and it didn’t try to be the ear, mouth, or ankle. 
There is no me in Church, there is no I in team.  Me and I are called pronouns, which mean they can be used as a substitute for nouns. 
Here is my point:  Pronouns matter, they matter a lot. 
How many times do we hear national leaders over the last twenty years get into extended dialogue where the pronouns used are I, me or my.  Those are all first person, singular pronouns.  Somehow when Jesus says “I am the light of the world” that is positive, but when a leader pronounces “I am the light of the world” it is jarring. 
Personally, I always try to make sure the pronouns when I speak to leaders about leadership are to the maximum degree possible, if first person, plural.  We.  Us. 
When in active church leadership, I ask that when we sing “Spirit of the Living God” the pronouns be us, rather than me.  “Melt us, mold us, use us.”  Yes? 
But that is so hard.  Look at the very first sentence of this thought piece:  quickly it gets to first person, singular.  Sometimes the I statement is unavoidable.  First person singular isn’t automatically sinful.  But other times, it would be more true, more helpful, and more kind to go to plural pronouns. 
Reading European sports writers talk about the recent World Cup was interesting.  England are something.  Not England is something.  My word processor gives me an error on are following the singular noun, England, but England in the context meant is a team, a plural. 
Maybe we need to think of the Body of Christ in a European team concept:  The body of Christ are …
English teachers will freak out but in reality the plural verb makes an excellent point – a team is intrinsically plural, not singular.  You want the team to get to a place of unity, oneness, functioning as one.  But even in perfect oneness, perfect unity, it is still a collection of me’s and I’s. 
I used The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown several years ago for sermon illustrations.  Boys in the Boat is the story of the University of Washington Rowing Team and how, spoiler alert, they won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1936.  In part, the book is about how one man, Joe Rantz, neglected and abandoned by his family, had to learn to sacrifice his personal individuality for the unity of the team.  When Rantz makes that psychological, spiritual shift in his understanding of how it all fits together, the crew is one with each other.  The nine members of the Crew become one. 
For Paul, this thing called church is a one.  He sees it in terms of the complexity of the human body, many diverse parts and roles, but still functioning as a single thing.  All of this diversity of function and role still serves to keep the body healthy and viable.  Every member of the body, that is eyes, fingers, feet, stomach, ears, all function in support of the one that is the entire body: the entire body of Christ. 
This Jesus stuff isn’t easy.  It isn’t going to happen without effort and hard work and a willingness to make that psychological, spiritual shift in understanding of how it all fits together.  You’ve got to sacrifice much of our individuality to make it all fit together.
One of the barometers in how we assess how we are doing on this “body of Christ” stuff is the pronouns.  When first person singular dominate, we are probably focused on the wrong things.  When the dominant pronouns are plural, we are probably functioning consistent with what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 12. 
There is no me in Church, there is no I in team. 
Selah, Dennis

Casting Out Fear

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  1 John 4:18 ESV
Fear is a natural element of the human condition. 
It is easy to utter the words “fear not” -- much more challenging to live out of an ethos that actually does it.
In Exodus the Israelites construct a Golden Calf to worship rather than this God of Liberation. 
Like the Wilderness Wandering Israelites, we are quick to turn fear into our own  Golden Calf, a Golden Calf that its flawed priests point towards and encourage us to “worship and honor the God of Fear, because that God feeds a natural element of your humanness.”
It is after all, a natural element of the human condition, and as a natural element, wants to be fed.
The Star Wars fictional character Yoda sees fear as leading to darkness in our souls:  “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.”  Jedi Master Yoda doesn’t say “a path” he says “the path.”  That is absolute: “the path.” 
Jedi Master Dietrich Bonhoeffer is equally absolute calling fear “the archenemy itself … crouch[ing] in people’s hearts.”  Again, the article is definite:  the. 
I grew up in a Christian denomination that, I felt, operated from fear.  Too often the theology was fire and brimstone, turn or burn.  The overarching approach was often to use fear to rally us away from the ‘dark side.’  I remember far fewer sermons on the idea of love being a superior or at least an equal, countervailing, force against fear.  Instead of trying to remind us of the force of perfect love, and bringing us to that, fear of hell or damnation was very often the key lens by which we were led to see the force of Jesus.
Much of what drew me to Wesley and the People Called Methodists is the idea of love made visible in Jesus.
In the First Letter of John, we see this idea of love being made visible in Jesus in striving towards perfection in love.  This leads to our fears, our natural human condition, being cast out. 
Cast out is the same phrase used to describe overcoming demonic possessions.  Think about that for a second. 
If fear is ‘The path to the dark side” and “The archenemy”, perfection in love is “The” force that leads us away from fear and towards wholeness.
“Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” John 14:27
Selah, Dennis

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Gifts of the Spirit

Galatians 5: 19-23:  Now the works of the flesh are obvious: … 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.

Paul is big on the idea of the Spirit.  The Spirit is clearly an important theological idea for Paul.  References to the Spirit fill Paul’s letters as he coaches his far flung flock.  One is quoted here.  Paul was having trouble with Galatians Community UMC.  Things had fallen apart after he had left. 
I like to think of the Galatians readings in terms of car dashboard lights.  
When we are in proper relationship with God, our fellow co-laborers in the church and ourselves our dashboard lights are green.  Love, joy, peace and other good things are displayed consistent with what Paul enumerates in Galatians 5: 22-23.  The machine should work well when the lights are all green.  However, we need to check our spiritual engines when the dashboard lights are red with strife, anger, factions, envy and the like.  In the car dashboard world, green is normally good, red is normally a problem.  Fruits of the Spirit are good; Works of the Flesh are not.  Galatians 5 helps us understand and measure how we are doing with this relationship stuff.  The passage is an indicator of relationship. 
The issue here is how we use our gifts in order to produce Fruits of the Spirit.  Sometimes we know what those gifts are:  I am good at numbers and I am not particularly good at small engine repair.  But I didn’t know I was good at numbers until I got dropped into a position in 1973 that called for me to be a numerical analyst.  I struggled for a while but mentors and coaches helped me and turned that struggle into strength.  What we now see as a gift was at one time not a gift.  It was honed and developed by others, plus my own willingness to be coached to success.  I had to be a numbers disciple, a student, for a while.  In reality, I am still a numbers disciple, constantly looking at web sites and articles about how to better display data so that it becomes information, but I digress. 
I had to trust others to see that gift in me that I didn’t know that I possessed. 
In my learning and growing here, I didn’t become angry or exercise poor self-control.  In fact, this endeavor became an object that lead to joy.  When it comes to being a numerical analyst, my dashboard lights here were never red, always green. 
Look to the dashboard lights and crosscheck them against Galatians 5.  Green?  Red?  Listen to your heart.  Listen to others.  Listen for God.  Remember that God sometimes speaks in a small, still, voice, except when small, still isn’t working. 
Selah, Dennis

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Familiar in the Unfamiliar

[The Angels ask Mary]:  “Woman, why are you weeping?”
[Mary] said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (Which means Teacher).  John 20: 13b-16 (NRSV)
I was in my fifties before much of the significance of this scene started to really lay claim to my soul.  Every time I explore the scene again, it grows in power, its meaning sharpens a little more. 
Easter, 2018, found me preaching from the Gospel of John and the extract above is part of the common reading for the day.  I will touch on other elements of the scene, but the center piece of the message is how Mary recognizes Jesus through the calling of her name.   
John in his beautiful writing style is looping back earlier in his Gospel where the Good Shepherd says about his sheep: "The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). The Good Shepherd then adds, "I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14).  Mary is part of his flock, so it should not be surprising that she recognizes the risen Christ when his voice is heard calling her name.
Mary is experiencing the familiar, Jesus, in an unfamiliar place, the garden outside the tomb. 
Because she is a member of Jesus flock, she recognizes Jesus through her called name. 
For Mary, here in this scene, it was the voice of Jesus calling her by name, making the unfamiliar, familiar.  Life is like that, we are able to live and survive in the unfamiliar because of the familiar. 
Sometimes, for some of us, the familiar is television, the older the better.  Remember the television series that started in 1983 and ran till 1992, about a bar in Boston, ‘where everybody knows your name:’ Cheer’s?  Our name is a powerful force to take us to familiarity even in a place of unfamiliarity.   
The familiar is often best understood, experienced, in community.  James Baldwin published in 1961 a collection of essays about the black experience in the United States, under the dark title Nobody Knows My Name.  Baldwin’s title suggests he is haunted by the absence of community, i.e. Nobody.  In comparing Baldwin’s essays with the Gospel of John with community one writer suggests:
When one's name is known and called, one is enfolded in community. When Mary's name was called by the risen Jesus, she was enfolded into the company of heaven, and she recognized the One who now lives directly within and from the life of God.”
That is goosebump:  Jesus is calling Mary into the community of heaven.  In her case, it is a community of the faithful who encounter the risen Jesus.  At this moment in the John biblical narrative, it is a pretty exclusive community:  her.  Be not anxious:  It doesn’t stay that way. 
Do we understand, when Jesus calls us by name, it is a call to community? 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:  “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.”  Are you ready to be interrupted by God? 
Here’s the question: if Jesus calls you by name, would you recognize his voice?’  Here my Bonhoeffer twist is, ‘would you want to recognize his voice?’ 
An industrial size dose of candor would compel many, if not most, to admit we do not truly believe that Jesus will come to us in the garden and call us by name. 
If Jesus does, we will do everything in our power to pretend we don’t recognize the calling voice. 
For many, if not most, recognizing Jesus voice in the garden would scream out for immediate rejection.
Jesus is calling us to disconnect from the preferred familiar, and emerge in a reality so profoundly different, so totally unfamiliar, we cannot imagine it.
At least, we cannot imagine it, until Jesus calls us by name. 
It is important to place ourselves in spaces where we experience and affirm Jesus in our midst.  We do this in hearing “the body of Christ, broken for you”, in the scent of the oil from the candles, in the familiar sound of a favored hymn or anthem that stirs us in places too deep to be named, in the feel of the Bible given to us in love in a confirmation class fifty years ago.  Those are the familiars that help us to live in the unfamiliar and are part of how we hear the voice of Jesus calling our very names.  The unfamiliar for me from 2012 to 2019 included the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, my wife staying overnight for Family Promise, or in community creating emergency buckets at the United Methodist Committee on Relief in Salt Lake. Last night it was for me feeding the needy at Asbury UMC here in Charles Town.  
Easter comes, and then it comes, and then it comes again.  Easter in a familiar rhythm, sound, sights and smells.  However, from those familiars, we are called to serve, and that can make the familiar pretty unfamiliar. 
Are you familiar enough with the voice of Jesus to recognize he calling you by name, and if yes, is he calling you into the unfamiliar?  If so, listen.
Selah, Dennis

Monday, January 27, 2020

Listening in order to Understand

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.
James 1:19-21, The Message.
I use a quote from Stephen Covey a lot:  “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
We all regularly encounter those who start sentences with something like “I don’t understand” but then complete what began as a quest for understanding with why what they don’t understand is clearly wrong, stupid, or something they strongly disagree with. 
This is basic human nature:  it is part of the human condition. 
My reaction when this happens is to think “you must think you understand enough about this to say you don’t like it.”  I hear the religious authorities of Jesus day saying to “I don’t understand this Jesus dude, and I don’t like him.” 
I confess I find this type of conversation jarring.  I operate in the faith that optimism, enthusiasm, and hope are contagious. 
May I invite all of us to lead with our ears and follow with our tongues? 
May I invite everyone to replace replace negativity with the "help me understand.” 
Bonhoeffer nails it (as he usually does):  "The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God's Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them."
He also writes:  "There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that .... is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person."  It almost sounds like the Covey  above!  Maybe I need to change who I am quoting from Covey to Bonhoeffer?  
Rise above basic human nature: listening is not part of the human condition.
In the 1951, John Huston movie “The African Queen” the character played by Humphrey Bogart laments that how he behaves is “only human nature” to which the Katherine Hepburn character answers:  “Nature … is what we are put in this world to rise above.” 
We are Easter people. 
Let us endeavor to spread the joy of the empty tomb in all that we do. 
John Wesley wrote: “I have often repented of judging too severely, but very seldom of being too merciful.”
It can be argued that judging too quickly is a form of judging too severely.
Perhaps in seeking understanding, we might reduce the need to request mercy later.
Selah, Dennis

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Denied Pain: A Redux

“Courage is forged in pain, but not in all pain. Pain that is denied or ignored becomes fear or hate.”
 BrenĂ© Brown, Braving the Wilderness

 I think many of us know the expression, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

As BrenĂ© Brown offers in Braving the Wilderness, that expression is sometimes, but not always,true.  Courage can be forged, but fear or hate might be as well.

Too often those in pain try to talk to someone, you, me or another friend, about their pain.  On our best days, we listen.  On our worst, we tell them to be tough and soldier on.  I have, too often, witnessed this danced out with exactly this be tough and soldier on choreography when asked to deal with depression.  Sadly, I have led this dance myself more than once.

A person has a broken ankle and we stop, cast them, operate if necessary and shower them with special care.  A person has a broken heart stemming from life’s pains, and we often, too often in my opinion, tell them to suck it up and drive on.

On forced road marches in the Army, I often heard non-commissioned officers telling soldiers to “take two salt tablets, put your mind in neutral, and drive on.”  It worked.  Often in fact.  Not always.  When I comment that we need to be prepared to listen for the pain, it is the deeper pain that is being denied, or ignored.  That is the type of pain that leads to anger and/or fear.

A powerful, insightful, book I read several years ago was Hillbilly Elegy.  The author deals well with the deep pain of living in a culture where that pain is denied or ignored.  To re-quote Brown:  “Pain that is denied or ignored becomes fear or hate.”

I think there are movements in this country right now feeding from the trough of denied or ignored pain.  These movements are across our political landscape, and not isolated to any one group.

How people are often moved to action is through a careful, intentional dose of hatred that is used so stoke the ovens of fear.

What we have too often is a single coin, with two sides:  one side – fear, the other - hatred.  Fear and hatred are two sides of the same coin, minted by those who use that coin to fund and fuel dissension and separation.

We live longer, have less poverty, are better educated, and are generally healthier than at any time in human history.  But still we live so often in fear.  Communities lock down because of a shooting and helicopters fly over our heads shaking us out of a world of confidence into a world beset with basic human fear, and we ask do I face this and rise, or do I flee, and if I do flee, where do I go that is truly safe?

So often FEAR is Forgetting Everything is All Right and that is a basic element of the human condition.  I was once told, there are 365 times we are told to Fear Not in the Bible.

In Romans 5: 3-5 we are told “we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”  Each of us has a role in the steps here from suffering to hope.  Moving from suffering to hope is not a personal, singular journey.  Each of us are potential messengers of the Gospel on this journey.  

Our task, our sacred call, is to listen deeply for the pain in others (or ourselves) and be agents that cause that pain to not be denied or ignored.  Listening to others is important.  Allowing yourself to be supported by others serves to help release that pain.

Sometimes we minister by quietly sitting, quietly listening.
     Sometimes we minister by moving from sitting and listening to rising so that we are instruments of change in a world that might too often be guilty of the charge of not listening for the pain.
          Sometimes, two salt tablets and putting our minds in neutral is not the Christ-like response.  You figure that out by listening, and being open to not believing everything you think.
               Sometimes what doesn’t kill you, makes you meaner or more fearful.  Learn to recognize that in yourself.  Be alert to seeing it in others.

Everyone of those sometimes contains a suggested Christ-like response:  be a friend to those to whom love is a stranger.

Selah, Dennis

I published a slightly different version of this two years ago based on a Sermon Series preached at Hilltop UMC in Sandy, Utah, thus "a Redux".