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September 2010
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November 2010

Looking Ahead to Readings in November

History_of_the_byrds As I am looking ahead to November, I’m writing in October and living in late September.  My mind has just accepted that Summer is over and I will not get the garage arranged as I desired, but I am not at all prepared for the reality that Fall is ending soon and Winter is coming.  Whether I accept all this is irrelevant to Mother Nature, as the world keeps turning and changing whether I’m ready or not.  It’s a fact that this is completely predictable every year, but that is irrelevant to my own sense of timing.  I’m not ready for the change, so how can it be happening? 


I see other people in my life struggling with time cycles and change as well.  James is in his senior year in high school and looking towards college.  It is sinking in that he will graduate and be somewhere else next year.  Michael began to get upset about school starting about August 1, just to get a jump on hating it.  My father has been fighting cancer for many months, and there are times when I think I will not have him in my life much longer.  Jeanne’s parents just hit 80 years-old this summer.  While they are still vital and skiing from their home in Switzerland, they are beginning to think and plan with the realization that life will soon change for them. 


As I think of these time changes, the Byrd’s song “Turn, Turn, Turn” goes through my head (they borrowed it from Pete Seeger, who borrowed it from Ecclesiastes, who may have borrowed it from the Babylonians.)  “To every thing, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”  The Byrd’s version of the song went to the top of the Billboard charts as the Vietnam War was escalating and two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated.  The world is churning with great events, large and small scale, as I write, and while it is hard to discern the purpose underlying it all, God is there in the midst of change. 


November’s lectionary readings underscore this message.  By the end of the month we will pass through Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent.  The lectionary prepares us for Jesus’ birth by reminding us of his death and its significance.  Jesus answers questions about what life is like in heaven, talks about the destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem and just before Advent, we will read of Jesus at the Last Supper and Gethsemane.  Life was full of rapid and often cataclysmic change in Jesus’ life as well.  Through the eyes of faith, change does not have to trouble us, for there is a time and season for everything as we “turn, turn, turn.”  Blessings to you as we embrace the change together.

November 7  -  All Saints

Luke 20:27-38

November 14

Luke 21:5-19

November 21

Luke 22:14 - 23:56

November 28  -  First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44



Luke 18:1-8 "If at First you Don't Succeed..."

Wednesday morning - I'm still in need of a conclusion, but the body of what I want to say is together.  Staying persistent...



Think for a minute about all the wise sayings pertaining to persistence.  We learned Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare as children, noting that the fast little rabbit lost to the persistent turtle.  In the end the victorious turtle proclaims, “Slow and steady wins the race.”


“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”  This is attributed to Robert the Bruce, legend has it, after watching a spider in the stable.  Robert was in hiding and losing his battle against the Longshanks and saw the spider try six times to swing up to a beam and start a web.  Bruce felt great sympathy and then saw the spider make a seventh effort, inspiring him to go forward with the fight.  He went on to defeat the English and became one of the best loved Scottish kings.  Now we have a range of one-liners such as, “If at first you don’t succeed, hide the evidence.”  Or “If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.”


Some of the best stories of persistence come from the publishing field. 


George Orwell’s Animal Farm made Time’s list of best English-language books ever written, ranked in at #31 on the Modern Library’s List of Best 20th-Century Novels, and won retrospective Hugo award in 1996. But not only was Orwell’s classic written off (and completely misunderstood) by a publisher who noted, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA,” Orwell’s peer and good friend T.S. Eliot was also less than impressed. Orwell sent a draft to Eliot, who responded that the writing was good, but the view was “not convincing” and that publishers would only accept the book if they had personal sympathy for the “Trotskyite” viewpoint. 


It hard to believe that 36 publishers read Gone With the Wind and “Frankly they did not give a damn.”  J.K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books, which have made her the wealthiest author in history, were rejected by HarperCollins and Random House.  Talent is never enough for an author; it is usually talent plus persistence unless you are a celebrity with nothing really important to say. 


We are well prepared to hear and understand this parable about a widow who is so persistent in demanding justice for her cause, that even a judge known to not care about justice gets worn out and just wants to be rid of her.  I am inclined to accept this at face value, though I am troubled when I think about this more deeply.  Is persistence always the best thing for our spiritual life?  What if I am persistently seeking the wrong thing?  In the Twelve Step Big Book for Alcoholics Anonymous, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.   

Addiction is an example of someone who is persistently wrong because the solution to every emotional problem is to take a drink or get high.  No one is more persistent than an addict who wants to get high.  A woman named Brenda went through our program at Hillcrest House.  She had ruined her life smoking crack.  As she got clean and went to therapy she learned that she had Bipolar Disorder and had used drugs to self-medicate her struggles.  She was in her late 40s and didn’t even have a GED or much job history.  For two years she really worked at her life.  She took care of multiple health problems, studied hard and went to 12-Step meetings every day.  When she got her GED, she began working on a college degree on-line because she had surgery and couldn’t start attending school.  She was the most persistent person I had ever seen in her recovery and she once told me that whenever she felt like quitting and not doing the things she needed to do she remembered how persistent she was when she wanted crack.  “I would walk two miles in a blizzard when I wanted drugs.  When my dealer wasn’t around, I would find another one.  I would do anything to get the money I needed for my habit.  So when I think about not going to a meeting or giving up on school or struggling to cope, I just remember how persistent I was for drugs and that is how persistent I need to be in my recovery.” 


As I think about her words I realize that we are all persistent in our habits and behaviors, for better and for worse.  A psychiatrist named Aaron Beck discovered that depression is often related to persistently negative thought patterns.  People with depression often have these destructive thought patterns in common, which Beck called cognitive distortions.  They filter out everything good about themselves and only hear and believe what is negative.  When confronted with a problem, they “castrophize,” meaning they take the problem to its worst possible conclusion in their minds rather than believing it to be something they can deal with.  “All or nothing thinking,” where the words always, never and “there is no alternative” lead to depression.  Beck built his therapy around helping realize their distorted ways of seeing themselves and their world, and helping them develop new ways of thinking and seeing.


For years I was persistent in thinking that I was responsible for solving everyone’s problems, and if I couldn’t I was a failure.  Because of my persistence, I was too busy trying to fix people that I didn’t do what they most needed, which was to listen and to love.  When I had health problems, I was determined in my thinking that my problems would go away if I just ignored them.  I was unrelenting in my belief that I did not need to change my life to be well, and I was enduring in my denial.  Persistence really isn’t that hard.  I am persistent to a fault about many things.  What is hard is being determined in a new direction.  What is hard is breaking an old habit and attitude, and acting and thinking differently.  Old ways of thinking are hard to break because we know them and they are comfortable. 


Now I am ready to understand what Jesus had to say about persistence in prayer.  It is easy to lose heart when we pray, because if we are truly praying, some of our persistent ways of thinking and acting will be challenged.  When we pray, we want answers, we want help, we want solutions.  But are we ready to change?  Can we give up our old solutions, our pat answers and our persistent ways of seeing other people in order to allow the creative renewal of the Holy Spirit?  Anyone who has truly tried to pray, knows that this is not easy.  Jesus is saying to hang in there and don’t lose heart.  Even and unjust judge will eventually listen, so will not our loving God hear us if we are persistent?  The real struggle is not whether God hears us.  God is not an unjust judge.  The issue is we often have our own inner judge that will not let us hear God.  God can’t work when we are busy filling our lives we the distortions and judgments that separate us from divine grace. 



Luke 17:11-19 "Dealing with Ingratitude"

Why do you offer help to another person?  How important is their response to you?  Do you expect gratitude when you go the “second mile” for someone else?  What do you feel when they are not grateful?  Do you feel used, angry or frustrated?  If so, then this parable about the ten lepers is crucial to avoiding ministry burnout or compassion fatigue.


I will start with a confession.  When others show ingratitude, I feel a burning heat that radiates from the top of my head, like a hot coal has been placed there.  Ingratitude burns me up.  I don’t know why I feel it there at the top of my skull.  Others tell me ingratitude feels like a kick in the stomach, while some just feel a deeper weight on their shoulders.  Where do you feel it?  When I feel someone else’s ingratitude, and my head starts going hot, I feel anger.  My addled brain starts to act like a overheated engine and shuts down my movement as I think, “Why am doing this anyway?  What’s the point if people aren’t even grateful?  That is it, I quit!”  I don’t expect big rewards for the good that I attempt to do, I just want people to show a little gratitude. 


Early in my ministry, one couple became such a force of negativity that I was ready to leave the church.  They were not the only negative people, in fact a small faction of parishioners agreed with their stands against changes I was proposing.  But their resistance burned me up because I had done so much for them.  I had offered counsel and support when their college age children went through hard times.  I had buried both of the wife’s parents.  When her father was dying, I rushed to the hospital and prayed with them.  I remember this holy moment where I held her father’s hand with my right and her hand with my left.  We recited the Lord’s Prayer and when we said “Amen” he breathed his last breath, as if his soul was waiting for that moment to peacefully go to God.  At that moment, I felt more like a minister than any other, shepherding a family through the great mystery of life and death.  It was mind boggling to me that the same family could so vigorously oppose everything else I was trying to do in the church.  Hadn’t I proven myself over the early years?  After all the ministry I had done, where was the gratitude? 


Over time I learned that this couple was also being eaten up by their own ingratitude.  They were demanding and judgmental with their children, with each and with their church family.  They worked very hard, had a nice home as well as a vacation home, and a pile of money in the bank.  But they were nearly always unhappy.  They not only found everyone else’s efforts unsatisfactory, they were deeply unhappy with their own efforts.  Nothing was ever enough.  While it was helpful to understand them, I learned to keep my distance from this toxic level of ingratitude towards life. 


The couple represents an extreme version of something very common in life.  Gratitude is not always an outcome when we give our best.  We get taken for granted-whether it is at work, in our families or even at church-our gifts and labors are often unnoticed.  They are quickly eaten up like the brownies at coffee hour and no one says thank you even as we are wiping up the crumbs.  Like me, you probably feel like not doing any more when that happens. 


Jesus is warning us that loving our neighbor will not always be rewarding or fulfilling.  I see this parable as a follow up from last week’s Gospel reading in Luke 17:5-10.  Jesus says that we should take the attitude of a servant, where we do our work and not expect great rewards just because we did our duty.  Now he gives a living example of why this is important.  Ten lepers are healed and only one comes back to give thanks.  If anyone should be grateful for healing, it would be a leper.  Leprosy is a horrible disease, not only because it creates terrible, oozing sores on the skin and numbness in the nerve endings, but it is also a very isolating disease.  People fear it, and lepers were sent out to live beyond the city limits.  People were judged as being sinful for having this disease, as if they had done something terrible and this was God’s punishment.  You were guilty of something just because you had it.  To be released of such as disease is a gift beyond measure.  It is not only a restoration of health, it is a restoration to community, to relationship, to the possibilities of life and love that a barred to a leper.  Isn’t it astounding that only one came back to say “thank you?”  And to make it just a little more astounding, the one who did offer gratitude was another of the despised Samaritans.  Why do they keep showing up making everyone else look bad? 


Jesus is making a clear point that hits home to me.  Don’t love your neighbor with the expectation that you will be flooded with gratitude and go home every day with a warm, fuzzy feeling.  It is a hard lesson for me to accept, because feeling taken for granted is a prominent issue for me to overcome.  I am learning to turn the tables on ingratitude.  Instead of focusing on those whom nothing seems to be enough, no matter what you do, I am working at shifting my focus to gratitude.  I can’t control other people or how they will respond to my efforts.  I can only control my own mindset.  I try to take this attitude.  I do what I do because it is the right thing.  I do my work because I love it, not because people will love me for doing it.  People can be grateful or not.  The important thing is that I am grateful and joyful. 


Gratitude is the heart of loving our neighbor and doing ministry.  Why do we love?  Because God first loved us.  When I felt like a leper, God loved and sustained me.  So why should I be upset if someone else isn’t grateful for my work?  I have so much for which to be grateful.  That is where my best energy comes from – not someone else’s gratitude, but my own.