Spirtual Observations

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News of the Newtown shooting felt like a kick in the stomach. My heart immediately went out to the parents, community and surviving children. I was amazed at the bravery and selflessness of the school staff.

After a time, however, I became overwhelmed by the spectacle of an entire nation which cannot seem to comprehend how such a thing could happen. I found myself very sad for multitudes of Americans so thoroughly alienated and estranged from biblical faith that they cannot fathom the dark side of human nature, and consequently remain bereft of any meaningful hope.

Jesus was once asked about the brutal murder of an entire group of worshipers.

Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”                             Luke 13:2-3

Read Jesus’ remark carefully. He made three points:

  • People who suffer horrific, senseless violence do not especially deserve it. The unjust nature of suffering is one of the sadder results of human sin.
  • We live under God’s suspended curse in response to human sin (Genesis 3:17-18). All of us are vulnerable to the many miseries native to being alienated from our Creator. One day, God’s passive alienation will become active judgment in which all of us deserve to perish.
  • We are presently in an era of precious grace, in which repentance and faith can neutralize future judgment, and heal present alienation.

Jesus’ words seem harsh to modern ears. We are so determined to justify our lifestyles that we cling to the secular dogma that humans are fundamentally good and children are born an innocent blank slate. Therefore, the only possible conclusions from Newtown are:
1) God is not good – either incompetent or evil, or 2) there is no God.

Jesus’ words are hard. They cut deep. But they remain the only source of hope the world has ever known. Because if wickedness is God’s fault, we are doomed. And if there is no God, evil is virtually inconsequential because life itself is no more than a brief flower. But if evil is our fault, the result of a bent nature every one of us is born with, then there is room for hope – hope that God exists, and he is good. If he is very good, he could help us in our distress.

Jesus claimed that God is more good than we imagine. It is only our pride that blinds us to him and condemns us to spiritual cluelessness. God is so good that he will decisively condemn wickedness, while saving morally compromised people (like me) who seek redemption.

I weep that none of this makes any sense in a nation which has so largely forgotten the biblical message. The outpouring of national sympathy toward Newtown is nothing short of inspiring. But in the end, we need more than hugs, tweets and random acts of kindness. We need hope.

I was delighted several months ago when I received another invitation to open a session of the Maryland Senate in prayer. This time, however, there was an additional request – to submit my prayer ahead of time so that, I was told, it might be accurately published in their records.

Several days before my scheduled visit, I received a phone call from the Senate asking me to please remove my reference to Jesus Christ at the end of my prayer. I said respectfully, I could not, simply because that is the only way I knew how to pray.

The day before my visit, I received another phone call informing me that because I could not comply with Senate protocol, my invitation had been withdrawn. The person dealing with me was most gracious and seemed to me personally embarrassed by this turn of events. She did, however, have to enforce policy.

An experience like this makes you think long and hard about the place of faith in a pluralistic society.

I responded to the Senate indicating that I was most sympathetic to their concerns. Why should someone lead the assembly in prayer in the name of Jesus, when there are members of the Senate who do not believe in Jesus, and could not reasonably be led in that way? I would feel equally offended if I were led in prayer by a Muslim, with the expectation that I would be praying in the name of Allah.

In fact, it seems to me that the days when Americans can be led in any sort of public prayer are gone. Such prayers are bound to be offensive, either because they would be sectarian, or because they would have to be spiritually diluted to the consistency of melted Jell-O.

Which is why I never intended to lead the Senate in prayer. I intended to pray for them. Here, I think, is a way forward in re-forging the partnership between church and State intended by the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers rejected the establishment of any particular religion, and I think that does rule out publicly leading robust prayers from any religious tradition. But those same Fathers had no intention of isolating the government from the spiritual concerns and religious influence of its citizens.

I believe a proper partnership could be re-established by asking a community’s religious leaders to pray for the nation/state/public assemblies, rather than try to lead those entities in prayer. That is to say, let community religious leaders ask God’s blessing in any way they believe is right, praying with all the sensitivities and fervor of their faith. But let it be an “I/them” prayer, not a “We/us” prayer. Let the one praying ask God to bless, rather than try to lead the whole group in asking for God’s blessing.

That means that occasionally I will be blessed in the name of some other god. I would not participate in such a prayer, but I would not be offended by someone else’s faith. As long as different religious leaders were invited in approximate proportion to the respective numbers they locally represent (including meditations from atheists), there would be no favoritism shown to any religion. And the public would benefit from exposure to the spiritual sensitivities and world views of its citizens. Such prayers would not be the prayers of the group, but only the prayers of the religious leaders involved.

And when I, as a Christian pastor, pray, I would ask God to act in the name of Jesus Christ.

I have asked the Maryland Senate to reconsider its policies along these lines. It would enable us to celebrate religious integrity in a pluralistic society.

We are in the midst of our annual month of prayer for the church. Congregational prayer meetings are intimate experiences, because you find yourself praying about personal things – things that really matter. This is true even if you pray silently and the only one who hears is God. However, when you pray aloud, everyone hears, so it also becomes a time of sharing for those who care to do so – opening a small window onto your soul.

The thing is, vocalized public prayers are always crafted for other people to hear, so they are never entirely honest. Perhaps that is why Jesus taught us to pray secretly, where only God can hear. But public prayer is an attempt at honesty, and the attempt is good for the soul, and good for the church.

As a young Christian, I learned to always pray aloud at least once in a prayer meeting, or share something during every opportunity for public testimony. It reminds me that I am not there only for myself, but for others, too.

Practicing “public prayer” is most beneficial to ourselves, though. When it sounds different than our private prayer, the misalignment reveals something of ourselves we might not otherwise discover.

This is the eulogy I gave for my Mom, Faye Parkinson, at her memorial service on October 24, 2009.

The BBC was founded, Johnny Weismuller broke the one minute 100 yard freestyle, Warren Harding introduced the first radio into the White House, construction began on the original Yankee Stadium, and the Eskimo Pie was patented – all in 1922 when Faye Wilson Whitmore was born.

Every one of you who has ever written a eulogy knows how impossible it is to summarize a life in a few moments … and how important it is to try. Faye’s story spanned over eight and half decades. It was a tale of faithfulness to family and to education. Spiritually, Faye’s story was a cliffhanger right up the end.

Her father was trained as an electrical engineer in Montana, and her mother was in nursing when she married. Growing up out West in the late 1800‘s, they were tough, practical, independent people willing to take a risk. Their risk was migrating to romantic Florida to strike it rich raising oranges. They accomplished the Herculean task of clearing away jungle and getting an orchard going just in time for … the Great Depression.

Life was hard for them. Their four children were taught to depend on themselves and each other, and not to find false comfort in religion. Faye told us that she always wanted to go to church as a child, but never had the opportunity. It’s been interesting for me to go through her old newspaper and magazine clippings. So many of Faye’s clippings had religious themes, and warm thoughts about Jesus, even though they were from what you might call a secular point of view.

Florida made some good memories, like her marching band that one first place (she played the baritone). But, as it was for all but the wealthy few, hardship was the name of the game during the Depression. The family scraped by any way they could – renting rooms, Faye assisted in a photographic studio. What a tribute to her parents, Albert and Halle, that all the kids went to college and were prepared for bright futures. Patty would become one of the Army’s first women lawyers; Jean would head up a department at Rutgers University. Faye set her sites on invading the male-dominated world of pharmacy.

But during college, she met a genuine WWII war hero – a decorated young civilian pilot who few as the engineer on 53 bombing missions, and was rewarded by being sent to Pensacola for enough college to fly as an Army pilot. They fell in love, and after an unsuccessful attempt by Bob to love the orange business, they were off to Bob’s hometown of Eastport, Maryland, where Bob carved out a career at Friendship Airport. (Excuse me for being sentimental, but I still like “Friendship” better than “Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall.”)

Life didn’t work out quite as Faye thought it would. At first, sexual harassment in the workplace short circuited her pharmacy career. And then, there were soon three boys to raise. She turned to education, helping the next generation love learning the way she did. She spend 26 years in the Anne Arundel County School System, mostly at Severna Park Elementary, where she touched hundreds of lives, several of whom have kindly written to me upon hearing of her death to tell me how much she meant to them when they were in third grade. Eventually, she rose to Vice Principle at Oak Hill.

In fact, I think my most vivid memory of Faye – vivid because it was reinforced so many nights all through my early years – was of Mom grading papers. She was always grading papers.
Faye was the last survivor of four siblings. Jean just died a couple of years ago. David and Patty are buried at Arlington. David was a pilot on D Day. He survived the war, but was later killed in an air crash testing new equipment. I was seven years old and was there when Mom got the telephone call – it was just about the only time I ever saw her really cry.

Faye taught me a love for learning, for reading, for science, for thinking. I read through all the classics in our small library at home, and hungered for more. My brothers were more normal – into hydroplaning and bicycling and other good stuff. I was the bookworm. It must have been a challenge to raise three fellows with such different interests.

As a child, I remember long road trips to Florida to see her parents, and how good the free orange juice tasted when we crossed the Florida State line. I remember hot summer days at Ocean City with huge french fries and arcades. My idea of heaven as a six year old was to hold out my hands in front of an Ocean City arcade, and watch my parents fill them with nickels – which is what you needed to play those wonderful machines. Faye made the best crab cakes in the whole world, and a truly remarkable lima bean casserole. Most people go camping in a tent. Occasionally, we would take out the 16 foot runabout that Dad and Mom built with their own hands in he back yard. They would throw over an anchor on some river or creek, throw a tarp over our heads, and we would camp out on the water.

She and Bob left Eastport in 1960 to build their dream house on the water at Weems Creek. What a project! I have never worked harder than I did at her side – clearing the land, hand mixing never ending loads of concrete for a large patio, building terraced steps down a 60 foot embankment to our pier, digging out the hillside to add a special family room. Faye especially enjoyed caring for the flowers and landscaping.

During those years at Weems Creek, when I was a young teenager, we would occasionally, at her initiative, watch Billy Graham Crusades together on television. Each time surprised me, because she always echoed, almost in a parrot-like way, her parents’ dislike for conservative religion. She was raised that way, and didn’t see any reason to change. Even so, Mom seemed to look wistful – but each time, we both agreed that the gospel he was selling didn’t really make any sense. Trusting in Jesus for salvation and eternal life, public confession and baptism – that was not for us.

Faye took more pictures than anyone I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, they have deteriorated quite a bit – it was a lot of work just restoring the few we have on display today. But she was a good photographer. Working in the darkroom for hours led to chemical allergies, but she continued to take pictures as long as she could remember how to work a camera. Her landscape photography was remarkable. And that helped her with another passion of hers, which was oil painting. Her passion for landscapes led her through all 50 States in her lifetime. She actually put together one picture-book for children, though it was never published. She did, however, publish my Dad’s memoirs. How we wish she had also written her own.

When Dad died, she began the last 15 year chapter of her life in this world. Her next house was designed the way she liked it – bright and airy, rather than dark and moody. She became involved in her community as she had not been before – especially with quilting and genealogy and exercise. And she suddenly found a vigorous voice when it came to politics. She attended church here occasionally, because she always supported her sons. Micki knew that same support – Faye drove Micki to her own mother’s funeral when my injured back had me laid out. Faye was definitely a second Mom to Micki.

The last 10 years were hard for Faye. Her mother had sunk into deep dementia before she died, and her younger sister, Jean, went down that same, long path. Faye cared for Jean as long as she could. She also enrolled in a John’s Hopkins program testing Alzheimer’s treatments. This meant that she had regular screening, and against all our hopes, it soon became evident that she had the same disease.

Our grief is focused today, but it’s been smeared across ten years of losing Mom a little bit at a time. It’s not like she became a different person – she didn’t. Right up to her last illness, her caretakers remarked about her graciousness and warm smile. She had a great smile. And I can tell you that I never heard her complain about her condition – not even once.

The disease didn’t change who she was; it’s just that there was less of her every week. At first, it was just her short-term memory. Then she began to forget things, and confuse people. The folks who cared for her in her Alzheimer’s unit thought my name was David, because she referred t me as her older brother). Once, she thought I was her Dad – but that’s understandable because I look a lot like him, especially in the way I’m follicly-challenged (bald). It didn’t matter though. She was always glad to see us – I think she recognized us, even if the names were hard. And besides, we always remembered her.

There was one short period that was fun – that when she started having great-grandchildren. There were a few weeks when I would go in and tell her about her grand-children, and it each time, it was as if she had just heard it for the first time. That was fun.

But that was all that was fun – for me, anyway. Frankly, my faith was greatly challenged by her Alzheimer’s. For several years, I agonized with God over her deterioration. The Bible says that God always works good out of difficult circumstances for those who love him. Mom never told me that she loved God – and even if she did, I wondered how could God ever use such a scourge as Alzheimer’s disease?

And then, and I believe it was partly in answer to prayers, there came a period – before serious confusion took over – when Mom got younger. She began to react to flowers and trees and nature with the wonderment you usually only see in children. I believe that the Alzheimer’s actually reduced her mental age – took her back for a short while to the days of her youth, when her interest in God had been redirected by her parents. And then, back before even that.

She said she wanted to come to church regularly. And through some very special people here who brought her every week, she got to know some genuine Christians outside of her own family. She liked what she saw. She sat in the front row here a couple of years. True, she often went to sleep during the sermon, but there’s nothing really unusual about that(!) She asked for a Bible, though by then she couldn’t read it. We did get some very child-like books about God’s promises and such, and she liked it when I read to her from them.

Then one week, both to me and to others, she worked very hard to ask something. Her ability to frame sentences was so frail that it took her three tries that week to communicate it to me. She wanted to be baptized. She wasn’t content to just sit there and enjoy her new faith; she wanted to go up front and be baptized for all to see. Her faith was childlike, but it was one of the last fully rational things she ever did. The God who turned the cross into the gate to eternal life had actually used the Alzheimer’s for good!

And consistent with her new faith, Faye changed. While she didn’t always respond a whole lot to me as I droned on, or sang to her – yet, whenever I read the Bible, or prayed, she would get a big smile, or raise one hand up toward heaven. And she did give me a smile whenever I told her how much I was looking forward to spending eternity with her.

I miss Mom today. I know I will see her again, though – not with confusion on her wrinkled face, but with that winning smile of hers. The smile that will forever delight the God she was moved to seek so long ago, and finally found.

Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us …. we have become orphans …” (Lamentations 5:1–3)

Mom died today.

I’m certainly grateful that her final struggle is done. Anyone who has cared for a parent with Alzheimer’s knows that you lose a little more of that special person with every visit. It is a great comfort knowing that one of her very last rational decisions brought her to faith. Faye was well cared for in both assisted living and at the nursing center.

Still, one is never ready for the day when you become an orphan. After Dad’s death fifteen years ago, I expected this day to arrive. But a parent is an irreplaceable thing. When the relationship orbits closer, and when it arcs farther away, a parent always provides … not a second home, but a second haven. A face that recognizes you as none other can. A door that always opens. A history that is part of what you are.

When both parents are gone, there is an emptiness beyond the grief of losing someone you love. However much they have done for you and however old you are, when they are gone, you become an orphan. Nothing – not even your web of friends and family – can change the fact that you have become profoundly alone in a new way.

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18–19)

Jesus understood this aloneness as the legacy of human death. Praises to God for every parent and child reunited in the new heavens and new earth. But Jesus came to eliminate my orphan-ness even more fundamentally. He restored familial roots with my Creator that were torn and shredded by sin. The cross reconnected me with a parent’s love that will never pass away – because this Parent will never pass away. I feel alone in my little world decorated with past memories. But I will never be alone in the universe I have yet to shape in eternal fellowship with my Lord.

Being an orphan is hard. But bless the Living God – he loves orphans.

A significant segment of baby boomers has spent decades yearning to play with the toys of Star Trek. Cell phones were stimulated by the passion to own a Communicator, PDA’s quench the thirst for Tricorders (or PAD’s, if you are especially into Next Gen), Tasers passibly function as phasers on stun, and we get to experience Bones’ bio-bed each time we have a CAT scan. Every Trekker knows warp drive really exists – we just have to figure it out.

But the real Holy Grail of Trekdom is the Transporter. That column of twinkling lights thoroughly captured the imagination of a generation that is traffic-bound and over-busy. How I long to be able to “beam” myself across distances instantly. Short circuit cause and effect. No need to travel … just be there.

I think baby boomer believers like myself – especially minister types like me – have a secret yen for a ministry Transporter. We know where we are, because we are very conscious of our own well-being. If we are well trained biblically, we even know where God wants us to go. The result is a prayer that we transmit to a divine Scotty, “Beam me over there, Lord.” No cause and effect. Just be there instantly.

One of the saddest facts of life for a Trekker is that there is no Transporter. It is highly unlikely that such a device could ever exist. It was not even a serious science fiction prediction, but only a cheesy special effect created to save production money. What a shame.

There is certainly no Transporter when it comes to ministry. Typically, real life ministry is cause and effect. God does not beam us or others from one condition to another. If we need to get to a different place, we have to travel there. Need to get past grief? Escape drugs? Rebuild trust? You have to travel there. Spiritual change is a time and energy consuming cause and effect business. The Lord certainly acts behind the scenes with divine power. We even get to experience that power consciously, as we do when we are regenerated and come to faith. Yet, even with being born again, what we consciously experience is not regeneration, but rather conversion – the process of changing our mind about life in repentance, so that we build a new life around faith.

Change is always experienced as a process. James says that “you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Just as you don’t get stronger muscles without a process of exercise, you don’t get stronger or more mature faith without excercising it – often in challenging situations.

There are days when I would give anything for a ministry Transporter. From one high point in life’s terrain, my Tricorder senses another high point some distance away. The Tricorder of wisdom works – that is where I need to go. I flip open my Communicator and ask the Lord to take me there. The Communicator of prayer works. God hears. God cares. God answers my godly request and procedes to take me where I need to go.

But there is no Transporter. To get to one high point from another, I have to travel through the valley in between. In order to mature and grow, faith has to be pounded, stretched, hardened and shaped. “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to discern good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14) Constant use. Trained discernment.

There is no shortcut around hard-won experience, because the change we are after is not really a change in terrain, it is a change in ourselves. The Lord God does not circumvent our souls or our wills by beaming us through challenging trials, because it is our souls themselves that need to change. Rather, he travels with us through the valleys and trains us along the way.

“Gentlemen, the Transporter is out. Phasers on stun. Let’s get moving!”

On our recent Men’s Retreat, two different ideas merged in my mind into a third, which was, for me, a new concept.

In one message, we were urged to evaluate our inner spiritual life and relationship to God by the external and visible measures of our lives – the way we actually spend our money, use our time, etc.

In another message, we were directed to consider 1 Corinthians 11:3, “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” The topic was headship, and we were urged to lead our wives as Christ leads us.

All this led to a flavorful “chocolate runs into peanut butter” moment when the two thoughts collided in my brain. The result is a new observable indicator which makes faith visible: the way that I believe Jesus leads me can be clearly observed in the way I lead my wife. That is, the way that I lead my wife, Micki, expresses my concept of headship. It therefore expresses for all to see (especially me) my own notion – right or wrong – of how Jesus Christ functions as my Lord.

While my words, my confession, express what I think I ought to believe about Jesus’ headship, or Lordship, the way I treat my wife expresses what I actually believe about headship. Therefore, the way I think about her, speak to her and physically treat her captures the way I actually believe Jesus thinks about me and treats me. Do I believe Jesus ponders my welfare every day, or takes me for granted? Do I believe Jesus secretly harbors negative thoughts behind smooth words? Do I believe Jesus treasures who I am (warts and all), or only wishes to “use” me for his purposes?

Indicators (gauges, readouts, etc.) are useful to help us understand what is going on in a system, so we can monitor it and make changes when necessary. As I see deficiencies in the way I think of, or treat Micki, I see deficiencies in my faith. As I see devotion, joy, thoughtfulness and sacrifice in my relationship to my beloved, I observe the confidence I have in Jesus’ Lordship over me. Here is another gauge to monitor my soul and encourage a more biblical faith.