Mortality

I just lost another high school classmate.  I remember Doug the way he was, and I smile.  I’m sorry the ravages of age and disease took him from us too early.  Or is it right to say, “Too early?”  Who are we to determine how long life should last?  The Psalmist tells us that our years are numbered…”threescore and ten,” as I recall.  That’s 70, and that’s where a lot of us are, who were born when our fathers came home from World War II.  The answer, of course, is to live every day responsibly and joyfully, as much as we can.

But the death of someone my age strikes me.  The existentialists tell us that each human being has to grapple with the reality of “non-being” until he or she comes up with a solution that keeps us out of a psychiatric ward.  Many of us have found peace in knowing that this life is only a brief span when seen in the breadth of eternity.  We even believe that the One who has gone before us has already conquered death itself. And we trust Him to bring us home.

Before I travel, which I’ll be doing in a few days, I always seem to need the kind of secure bedrock that I’m describing.  In a day of global terrorism, I have to get my “house in order” and my final chapter prepared.  God is the one who promises protection and provision…or strength to face unanswered prayer and the suffering that comes with it.

So I say, “Rest in peace, Doug. I hope you found an anchor in the storms of  life, and I pray you’ve discovered safe harbor on some sunny distant shore.”

Ramblings

Since I’ll be away from this blog for a while, I’ll leave you with a few paragraphs that capture some of my thoughts.

I have much anxiety over the upcoming political conventions.  We’re divided as a nation, and I see no one on the political horizon who can bring us together.

My hope is more and more for a spiritual renewal across our land.  I’d like to see this happen in all the religions who have the right to practice their faith in our nation, where freedom of religion is a basic right.  That includes those who claim no religion.

Law enforcement has been battered recently.  I think we need to support the police in almost every case.  When officers become the perpetrators,  they should face the same due process as any other lawbreaker.

Our military is plagued these days by lack of combat readiness, limited budgets, and low morale.  Political correctness has made it harder and harder to maintain the high standards of honor, strength, courage, and discipline that many of us knew in the old days.

Many Christians, I fear, are going to vote for a pompous, impulsive, megalomaniac because he’s the only alternative to the Clintons, whom they hate with a fervor that separates them from New Testament Christianity.

I’m going to try to remain hopeful for our nation, but a columnist this morning reminded us that we’re probably as broken as the headlines claim. There’s more bigotry, racism, and disunity than I can recall over the past few decades.

More to follow…

 

Our Hope

The boldest headline I ever saw on CNN.com struck me this morning.  “Who Can Make It Stop? Is There a Leader Who Can Stop the Chaos and Heal America?”  I immediately wished I were preaching tomorrow morning.  What a great way to address the current fears of many congregations and communities! And a perfect segue to the answer found in most sacred scriptures.  Only God can meet the deepest human need and give moral guidance to enable us to build strong bonds between individuals and groups who have hated one another for generations.  We can’t find that kind of leadership in most Republicans and Democrats who are vying for high office this year.

In a devotional book I peruse from time to time I read recently that if government were the hope of the world, Christ would have come as an Emperor…in the line of the Caesars.  Instead, the Son of God came as a Friend of Sinners, a Healer, Teacher, Guide, and Savior. We need to remember that when we struggle for an answer to CNN’s question.  As I’ve written before, we tend toward idolatry when we place all our aspirations in one candidate or one party.  Anything human is eventually going to let us down and fail to deliver on the promises made on the campaign trail.

One more thing about idols.  A wise friend once told me that anything or anyone I love more than God-even a good thing or person-is a false deity.  He also said that if we love them too much, we’ll be torn with terror when they are threatened and we’ll be crushed by despair if we lose them.  Finally he gave me these words, “Until you identify your idols, you can’t understand yourself…and you can’t follow the only Leader whose word is eternally true and whose character is entirely trustworthy.”

He alone is our hope.

Strength in Weakness

In our younger years we all have a sense of invincibility.  We feel strong and energetic, with our future wide open and our self-confidence bubbling over.  But as the stresses and strains, the pains and the pounds start accumulating, we begin to wonder, “Do I really have it all under control?”

My dream world came crashing down thirty-five years ago.  On July 6, 1981, I noticed a sudden weakness in my arms and legs, and I quickly went to my Cincinnati doctor. His diagnosis was that of a crippling neuromuscular disease, and he admitted me to the hospital within an hour.  I remained there for twenty-five days, wondering if I still had a chance to live a good life and to provide for my wife and daughters.

I’ve never been able to adequately describe the fear and helplessness of those awful hours.  For the first time in my life, although I was at the peak of physical condition, I couldn’t control my own body.  I had to be fed by someone else; I needed assistance whenever I used the restroom. It was embarrassing and humiliating, and I remember calling out, “God, why? Please tell my why?”

And then came some answers, slowly and almost imperceptibly, but enough to send a beacon of hope to my soul.  Under the wise care of Drs. Warren Webster and Jim Anthony, good friends from the church whom I was now trusting with my life (as though I had a choice!), I began to realize my need for something outside myself for my very survival.  This should not have come as a shock to me, since I’d been preaching this message for a decade.  But it was a truth I’d always directed at others, never at “self-reliant, self-sufficient Russ Clark!”

I also came to a much deeper love for my wife and children and other family members who surrounded me with their support, encouragement, and prayers.  The congregation of Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church rallied around us and offered help of every kind.  One member was quite creative in his approach when, as the son of a physician, he borrowed his father’s medical bag and smuggled a six-pack of Budweiser into my room.  Of course I was forbidden to imbibe, but I’ll always remember Larry’s act of kindness.  (I wonder what he would have done if a nurse had intercepted him and said, “Doctor, we need you in this room right now!”)

Another discovery was a passage of scripture I’d referred to many times in helping others understand why life sometimes flattens us.  The ancient sage, in describing his own thorn in the flesh, wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”  What on earth did he mean by that, I often questioned.  Then one night, alone in my room, it came to me, “He’s not talking about muscle power at all.  He’s saying that when we come to the end of our rope, when all the props are knocked out from under us, then we can find that the only power that really matters is inside us.”  The conviction and confidence that God is with us, in spite of our frailty.  When our little sand castles crumble, we can turn to a more authentic trust in a Creator who will help us rebuild on solid rock.

That was half my lifetime ago, since I’ll reach age seventy in just a few days.  So I’ve seen that time in Deaconess Hospital as a turning point and a change of course.  Oh, I still continued on the same career path with the same loved ones around me, but I was a different person.  You might say I’d been “born again,” except that those words carry too much baggage these days.  Let’s just call what I’m describing “The Midlife Miracle.”

Or simply “Strength in Weakness.”

 

 

Passing By

This week, many priests and pastors are preparing a sermon on The Good Samaritan.  The biblical text is found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, and it’s so familiar that many miss the message.  It’s the story Jesus told of a man traveling down a road, when  he was suddenly attacked, robbed, beaten, and left for dead.

As he lay bleeding by the roadside, two religious snobs passed by and ignored him.  These were the men who knew the scriptures by heart and added a few hundred laws of their own.  They were so busy acting holy that they failed to recognize human need.  Sound familiar?

I’ve often cringed when I’ve read this narrative, because all too frequently, I’ve been the one who kept going when I should have stopped.  I’ve tried to study hard and come up with all the right answers, while falling far short of the Great Commandment…to love God and to love my neighbor as myself. I’ve been in such a rush to make it to the next meeting that I forgot that “the greatest of these is love.”

Human need is all around us, isn’t it?  Many who’ve been broken by bigotry and oppression are lying on the berm as we race along the highway to “success,” assured of our spot in some inner circle of favor.  We might feel pretty smug until we find that our Lord made the “one who showed mercy” the hero!  And the one who stopped to help was a foreigner, a half-breed who was regarded with disdain by the religious folks of that day.  This man went the extra mile after bandaging the wounds; he took the battered pilgrim to an inn for rest and healing and then promised to pay for the stay.

May we be alert to the cries for help we hear every day…and often in the night.  Someone needs to know we care enough to stop, to listen, to speak words of  healing, and to dig deep into our resources to offer whatever we can to make a difference in another life.

God doesn’t want us to pass by.

 

Reflections on the Fourth

I remember July 4, 1991, when our plane landed in Los Angeles.  We’d been on a long and hard mission trip to India and were exhausted.  But I’ll never forget the relief and the comfort I felt to know I was back in America.  I’m sure many of you have experienced the same emotions.

America the beautiful, flawed in many ways, but still our homeland.  Our nation’s politics are the joke of the world right now, and yet most of us wouldn’t change our form of government for any other.  We know our systems are imperfect, because the men and women who lead us always fall short of the mark. This is nothing new. Democracy is not the search for perfection; it’s the art of the possible.

It’s also the best way humans have found to give dignity to all and to strive to provide a good life for every human within our borders.  Our history is marked and marred by occasions when we ignored our founding documents and trampled on the rights of minorities, but in my lifetime I’ve seen us move to correct our mistakes and to make amends in many ways.  So the USA is still a land of opportunity for millions.

Some of us have fought and bled for our freedom and the liberty of other nations.  I’ve told many who’ve thanked me for my military service, “It was a privilege, and I wish I could do it again.”  That is from the depths of my soul, for this land has been good to me.  I’ve had to work hard and to suffer hardships, but I’ve always been aware that the nation whose birth we celebrated yesterday is a gift from God.

Let us give thanks for this treasure.