I am not immortal

When I was younger–much younger–life seemed to stretch before me forever. Oh, I knew there would come an end…sometime. But that seemed so far in the future that I didn’t really worry about it.

Now, though, things are different. I know that I have fewer years before me than those behind me.

That really came into focus with the word that someone I went to high school with…whose wedding I played for…whose family has attended my congregation…had a massive heart attack and died last night. He was my age.

And now, even though I am not worried about death, I do wonder. Just how many years do I have left? and how am I going to use them?

I had so many plans…so many dreams. Some of them I’ve accomplished. Some have been left by the wayside as I realized they weren’t really what I wanted after all. But there are still some left unfulfilled–and still desired.

Yet life intervenes. It’s not all bad when that happens. Sometimes it helps us realize that some dreams need to be released in order to allow room for others to grow.

But I am still coming to grips with the realization that I am not immortal. The future that seemed to stretch so far ahead when I was younger has now shrunk. I still don’t see the end of the road, but I know it’s coming.

So what am I going to do with the time that’s left?

Sure, I can make my bucket list…and check off the items as I accomplish them.

But the important things on my list are these two items:

  • that the people I love know that I have loved them and continue to love them…
  • that I have done what I can to make the world a better place for everyone.



Taking a stand

I’ve been thinking recently about several people: Dietrich Boenhoeffer, Irina Sendler, Oskar Schindler, Corrie ten Boom, Immaculee Ilibagiza…ordinary people who made extraordinary decisions that changed not only their lives but the lives of many others as well.

Were they perfect people? No. They were like us–they had flaws. But when they saw something wrong, they made decisions to do something about it. Would I have done what they did? I don’t know…

They all lived during extremely difficult times…times when many others hunkered down to protect themselves. Why didn’t they?

They’re not particularly household names. Many have probably never heard of at least some of them.

Dietrich Boenhoeffer was a German pastor during World War II. He saw the glorification of Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party as a danger to the Christian church–and preached loudly and strongly against the church’s cooperation with the Nazis. To counter the nazification of the German church, he started a movement that ultimately became known as the Confessing Church. He had opportunities to live safely abroad, but he felt that his calling was to be with his people…to lead them in opposition to what he saw as fundamentally evil. He eventually became involved underground activities against the Nazis, culminating in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler…a decision that led to his capture, internment in a concentration camp, and ultimate death at the age of 41. Do I agree with everything he said and did? No. I think that some of his theology was flawed–but at the same time, he saw the danger in the church becoming an arm of the government and did what he felt necessary to try to bring the church back to its mission.

Irena Sendler was a young Polish nurse and social worker. Hallmark made a movie of her story–The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. When the Nazis came to power, she began doing what she could to help isolated Jews–offering food and shelter. But when the Warsaw Ghetto was created, she saw the future for Poland’s Jews–a dark future–and began doing what she could to change that. She (and others) began smuggling children out of the ghetto, finding them safe places to live until they could hopefully be reunited with their parents…a hope that could not be realized. She was eventually captured and tortured–her legs and feet fractured–but she did not give up names of her compatriots. Although she was sentenced to be shot, she was rescued and remained hidden until the war was over. At a time when the Nazis were creating hatred and division–creating propaganda that called the Poles to see their Jewish neighbors as “other” and “less than,” Irena saw them as people who needed help.

Oskar Schindler has become known to us through the movie Schindler’s List. He wasn’t a particularly nice person–an opportunist and a rather shady businessman. But something got to him, and he ended up being an unlikely rescuer of Jews, using them as factory workers in various situations…giving them the opportunity to survive. I don’t know that I would have liked him. I know I would not have liked some of his activities…and yet, somehow he was touched and instead of simply feathering his own nest, he used his connections to save some who were seen as “other” and “less than.”

Corrie ten Boom was the unmarried daughter of a Dutch watch maker, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church whose story can be found in The Hiding Place. When the persecution of Jews started, she and her family started hiding them, because she saw that persecution as injustice and as an affront to God. She and her family believed in a principle that also guides my faith tradition–the worth of all people. Their actions ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of Corrie and her sister Bessie in a concentration camp, where Bessie died. Other family members also died as a result of their actions. After she was freed from Ravensbruck, she began traveling to countries that had been impacted by the war, trying to bring reconciliation and healing. She found herself coming face to face with her own biases when a former guard asked for her forgiveness–and she was only able to do that through the grace of God. In many ways, I like her…but could I lived through what she did with the trust and confidence in God that she had? I don’t know.

Immaculee Ilibagiza is definitely not someone most of us have heard of…because she lives in a part of the world that is outside most of what we are familiar with. She was 23 years old when the Rwandan genocide began. People who had been friends and neighbors began to see each other as sub-human and turned on each other in a murderous spree that lasted months. Immaculee was sheltered by a local pastor, along with seven other women. They lived in a 3×4-foot bathroom for three months, hearing the murders going on…hearing neighbors on the hunt for people they wanted to kill. When she was finally able to come out, she discovered that most of her family had been killed…many of them by a man who had been in their home as a friend. When he was tried and found guilty, she was given the opportunity to respond to him–and she chose to respond with forgiveness. She tells her story in Left to Tell…but I wonder…how? How does one find the strength to forgive someone who has killed your whole family? Could I have done that?

I have been fortunate in that I have spent most of my life living in safety. I have not had to worry about how others have seen me…I have not had to worry about family members being killed. I have not been looked at as “less than”…

And yet I’m living in a time and situation where that is true for many people. So what is my responsibility? How/when do I take a stand? I consider myself an ordinary person as did these people. Yet their faith called them to what could be seen as extraordinary decisions and they could not be silent in the face of injustice and cruelty…in the face of some being seen as “less than”…so how can I?




Ugly American

Back in the late 1950s/early 1960s, a book titled The Ugly American became famous (and, in some quarters,infamous). It was an unflinching look at how Americans were often perceived throughout the world…and it was not pretty.

While not true of all Americans, nevertheless, it was true that far too many Americans working or traveling abroad came across as loud, obnoxious know-it-alls who were convinced that they were God’s gift to the world and had no need to listen to/learn about/be aware of any other culture’s history, beliefs, or perspectives. In practice, what this often meant was that rather than listening to what people said they needed, Americans rode in on their white horses with a predetermined set of policies to be implemented, regardless.

It has taken us 50+ years to move past that stereotype…and less than a year to slide back into it.

We now have a leader who has used shameful and obscene language towards those who are brothers and sisters in other lands. He has celebrated those who believe that the mere color of their skin makes them better than others of different skin tones. He has lied–and then lied again to cover up the original lies. He has bullied other world leaders…and refused to work with them in any way to help our planet. He has denied policies that were put in place to protect those who are vulnerable.

It would be bad enough if if were just him. But he has made it acceptable to be cruel to others…to be divisive…to bully.

The America he wants to create is not the America I want to live in. I have no desire to be one of the ugly Americans portrayed in that book–and being recreated in today’s culture.

The America I want to create is memorialized on the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I hope and pray that it doesn’t take us another 50+ years to understand what we have done to ourselves and our relationships in the world with our embrace of the ugly American stereotype…and that we will be able to again live the promise of Lady Liberty.

Light in the darkness

Although I’m not a fan of winter cold, I do like the month of December because of all the beautiful Christmas lights that are up. They provide colorful light in the winter darkness.

But then the Christmas season ends–and the lights come down.

The darkness then seems so much stronger. I wonder sometimes just how long it will last…and how long it will be before we see the light again.

It always comes. The darkness cannot conquer the light.

But even more than that, I am reminded of my responsibility to be a bringer of light into the darkness that is part of my world. At times it seems as though the darkness will never end…and at times it seems to be getting stronger and stronger.

But darkness cannot conquer light.

I loved the Harry Potter books and movies. They were a reminder of the constant battle between darkness and light–and the hope that light would eventually triumph (which it did). Sometimes the situation seemed hopeless…and what seemed to be light actually was darkness and vice versa. But, as J.K. Rowling said, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

So who are we?

The winter months give us a choice. We can increase the darkness…or we can be the light that shines in it.

As this new year starts, I am reminded of something that Martin Luther King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

May we be the light and love that drive out darkness and hate.

A prayer for a new year


We stand at the threshold of a new year. The days stretch before us…clean, bright, waiting for whatever we will write on them. That is both an exhilerating and a frightening prospect; will we write things that will support others…bring us together? or will they be filled with division and hate?

There are so many possibilities!

Grant us the willingness to walk in the path you have called us to…a path of healing, of hope, of wholeness. Give us strength to persevere when things and people around us would conspire to call us to take the easy way.

Help us to look at those around us with empathy…to be willing to give others the benefit of the doubt…to listen with open ears rather than our preconceived notions. May we see you in the faces of “the other.”

Most of all, as we move into the future, give us the courage to truly mean this prayer…to live it, not just say words that disappear into the air.

It will not always be easy. But you promise to walk with us–and we claim that promise as we move into this new year.

We pray this in the name of the One who showed us how to live. Amen.

In a stable

Nobody wants to give birth in a stable—
	smelly and dirty…
	noisy with animal sounds…
	nothing private or pleasant.

But maybe that’s just why it happened that way--
	Emmanuel…God with us
		not just in pleasant-ness
		but in the dirty-ness of life.

Maybe we seek you in all the wrong places--
	failing to see you in those who are “other”…
	searching again in Herod’s palace
		when—if we open our eyes--
			we find hope in the stable.

Opening lines

When I was in college, my American lit teacher told us that our final would include 50 quotes to identify. We would have read 49 of the items, but there would be one quote from something we had not read in her class–but that it would be very recognizable. It was.

“Call me Ishmael”…from Moby Dick. That’s probably one of the most famous opening lines in a book…along with “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Many years later I read another book that had an eye-catching opening line. The author, M. Scott Peck, received the Community of Christ International Peace Award in 1994, and I was reading his book The Road Less Traveled. The title had caught my attention because it was taken from one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. To be quite honest, I don’t remember a lot of the book–but I do remember the opening words: “Life is difficult.” Peck went on to say

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult–once we truly understand and accept it–then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Those first three words have stayed with me because there is profound truth in them. We want life to be easy…we want things to go our way without us having to struggle. Sometimes I think we envy those who seem to have no problems, no challenges–but that’s only because we haven’t walked their paths.

“Life is difficult.” That doesn’t mean that we have to give up. Far from that! But once we understand that we will face struggles…that things will not always go our way…then we can be prepared to meet those issues and challenges and be ready to find ways to get through them.

Sometimes life is difficult because of things beyond our control; sometimes it’s because of choices we have made. Yet it’s in struggling through those challenges that we have the potential to grow. I’m reminded of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to get out of her cocoon. He watched for a while and then–feeling sorry for her–cut the cocoon open for her. But instead of opening her wings and flying away, she remained shrunken and shriveled, living only a short while. She needed to struggle in order to grow strong and become what she had the potential of being.

We do need support from others–and we need to be available to support others as well. Even though life is difficult, we cannot use that as an excuse to turn our backs on others in need. But in doing so, we need to be sensitive to the kind of support needed–a support that builds and strengthens rather than taking away initiative.

Powerful opening lines stay in our memory because they speak truth…because they challenge…because they can bring hope. “Life is difficult”…but once that is accepted, we can learn to live with it–and it is no longer important. It just is.