Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ashes to Ashes

I admit that I have not always been enthusiastic about Ash Wednesday services. As a Baptist the holiday has seemed too “Catholic.” Many Baptist churches do not even observe Lent. During my ministry I have always acknowledged the official start to Lent, but usually with a Lenten Bible Study. No ashes.

In my final five years as a pastor I participated in an ecumenical service held at a nearby Congregational church each Ash Wednesday. But never a palm ash graced my forehead. Then a few years ago they began offering ashes on the palm or the back of your hand. I gave it a try. It was meaningful.

Then last night I attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Community Church of Sandwich, where I was a pastor for many years. The words, hymns, and quiet of the service spoke to me. “Ashes to ashes,” the preacher intoned.

It just so happened that earlier that day my wife and I had gone out for a Valentine’s Day lunch at a Chinese restaurant. On the way home we caught a glimpse of snow-capped Mount Chocorua in the distance. She mentioned our plans to have our ashes scattered at the summit of that peak after our deaths.

“I wonder who will bring our ashes up there,” she wondered aloud. “Our kids,” I replied. “Maybe our grandkids.” Then a few hours later I was listening to the preacher say the words “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

For months I have been reading the first century Roman philosopher Seneca as part of my morning devotions. (I read a portion of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Stoics.) I am on the second volume of a collection of works by the Stoic philosophers. I am presently in the middle of Seneca’s famous essay, entitled “On the Shortness of Life.”

It all seemed to fit. Suffering from vertigo for the last five weeks and having to walk with a cane has made me especially conscious of my vulnerability. I greet other people with canes. We compare canes. There is a cane camaraderie. A friend loaned me a crampon to attach to the end of my cane so I can navigate icy terrain.

I am now acutely aware of, and empathize with, older folks who have a difficult time walking. I know it is only a matter of weeks or days (I pray) before I am cane-free and skipping down the road. But for now I am very conscious that I am not immune to the Law of Entropy.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Infirmity and mortality put life in perspective. They bestow wisdom, which gives our days meaning. Life is precious because it is brief and fragile. “O Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) That is what I learned on Ash Wednesday.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Adventures in Vertigo

Three weeks ago, on January 9, our bags were packed. We were ready to go to Florida for a two month getaway, starting with a family wedding in Orlando. I woke up at seven o’clock, got out of bed, went downstairs to shower, and immediately the room began to spin. I could not stand up. I could not even sit up.

Surely this would pass, I thought. It did not. I yelled for my wife Jude. She rushed down and asked what she should do. Should she call an ambulance? I replied, “Definitely.” The forty minute ride in the ambulance was exciting. Being nauseous and riding backwards in a van is not fun. In the ER they feared a stroke. They did a CT scan. There was something unusual on it. Perhaps an aneurysm, the doctor said.

He said they better do an MRI. Forty-five minutes of torture later, nauseous, dizzy, and strapped into a mask and what felt like a strait jacket, I emerged. No aneurysm. No stroke. Just a small meningioma, benign growth in the front of my brain. An abnormality but harmless. Nothing to worry about. (I always suspected my brain was a bit abnormal.)

A wheelchair ride over to the ENT doctor confirmed a diagnosis of acute vertigo caused by labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear, likely caused by a virus.  “No problem,” the doc said. “It should clear up in 4-6 weeks. But if there is permanent nerve damage then full recovery could take 2-8 months.” “Thanks for the good news,” I replied.

For two days I lay in bed. I could not move without vomiting. I could not stand at all. I could barely open my eyes. I could not read or watch television. All I could do was listen to an audiobook and pray. They talked about sending me to a rehab hospital.

On the third day I arose. (The Biblical parallel was not lost on me.) I walked with the aid of a walker all the way to the door of my hospital room. Hooray! By my sixth day in the hospital, I could walk with a walker all the way down the hall. That meant I could go home instead of rehab. In the last two weeks I have graduated to a cane.

This Sunday I even made it to church to worship. It was my first outing in three weeks, besides a follow-up visit to the ENT. I was never so glad to be in church. To be welcomed and greeted and prayed for. To sing hymns. The previous Sunday we had to stay home and listen to a podcast of the church service on the computer. It just wasn’t the same.

Jude has been my savior, nurse and shower attendant. (Not as much fun as it sounds.) Prayer and meditation have been my constants in the midst of vertigo. While the world was spinning around me I reached out to the One who is the Center of the storm, calling out to the Lord who calmed the waves and wind on the Sea of Galilee. God is the Solid Rock that does not move, though the earth shift under my feet.

Today I am on the mend. I am still unstable on my feet. The walls and floor of our house still tilt as I walk. I still use a cane. I often catch myself by leaning against a wall. It has been a humbling experience.

While in the hospital the physical therapist asked me, “Do you normally get around without a walker at home?” I gawked at her, “Of course. Do you think I am an old man or something?” The look on her face confirmed her thoughts. I guess my bald head and grey beard don’t help.

I suddenly knew what it was like to feel like – and be treated like - an elderly person. Upon reflection I realized I am twice the age of the hospitalist and every nurse and aide who was treating me. Oh my! When did I become the oldest person in the room?

I thought of the way I have viewed the elderly throughout my ministry. That is how people are viewing me. It filled me with renewed respect, compassion and appreciation for older people, a club which apparently I had unknowingly joined.

Hopefully in a few weeks (rather than a few months) I will be back to normal. I am still hoping to make it to Florida sometime, but not until the spring at the earliest. In the meantime I will contemplate the joys of being officially older and hopefully a little wiser.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Pilgrim’s Progress Redux

 The author lived more than 300 years ago and is arguably one of the most influential writers in world history. His best-known work has been called “the second best book in all the world.” It tops The Guardian’s (the respected British newspaper) list of the 100 best novels written in English. 

It has been translated into more than 200 languages and is second only to the Bible in the number of copies sold worldwide. Wikipedia calls it “one of the most significant works of religious English literature, and has never been out of print. It has also been cited as the first novel written in English.”

No, this is not a work by Shakespeare. It is John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s more complete title is The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. (Its original title would fill half this page!)

But the chances are you have never read it. In recent decades it has fallen out of fashion, even among devout Christians. I first read it when I was 18, when I spent a summer reading all the classics that my formal education did not see fit to assign me. That was the summer I also read Dante, Homer and Milton.

I fell in love with Pilgrim’s Progress again when I visited the John Bunyan Museum and Library in Bedford, while on sabbatical in England. It prompted me to read his other works and lead discussion groups on Pilgrim’s Progress in my church.

I have often wondered what Bunyan would have written if he were alive today. That led me to my most recent writing project, entitled The Seeker’s Journey, subtitled A Contemporary Retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress.

This is not your grandfather’s Pilgrim’s Progress! In my retelling of the beloved allegory, Seeker (who later changes his name to Pilgrim) meets Campus Crusader on his university campus. The evangelist instructs him to begin his journey by entering through a gate illuminated by a lamppost, which strangely resembles the one at the boundary of Narnia.

Instead of the Slough of Despond this modern Pilgrim falls into the Bog of Existential Angst, and then stays in the Town of Therapy for a while. Where Vanity Fair used to be, now there is Prosperity Gospel Ministries. Pilgrim visits the City of Megachurch where he meets people who suspiciously resemble Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Benny Hinn.

The allegorical characters are still here, but their names are more familiar to modern ears. There is Judgmental, Bored, and Spiritual But Not Religious. Pilgrim meets Tolerant and Intolerant, Psychologist, Evangelical, and the Dark Knight of the Soul. Calvin and Arminius live in a cave overlooking the Valley of Dry Bones. Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama make cameo appearances.

In the Theologian’s House he encounters many interpretations of the Bible and Christ, all of which are recognizable from the American religious landscape – from Creationism to Feminism. Pilgrim visits First Baptist Church where he stays at the home of a Fundamentalist family. He fights the dreaded Apollyon, travels through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and encounters the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.

These are just a few of the adventures that Pilgrim and his companions have on their journey from their home in the Shadowlands (shades of C. S. Lewis) to their Destination beyond the river. Along the way there are references to Harry Potter, Philip K. Dick, Talladega Nights, and Mark Twain. The ending will surprise you.

The Seeker’s Journey: A Contemporary Retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress is a humorous romp through the landscape of 21st century American Christianity, which I hope will get you thinking and laughing. It is available in both Kindle and paperback. I hope you enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Sloppy Gardener

A man went to sow seeds in his vegetable garden, but he wasn’t very careful. He dropped some seeds along the path on the way to his garden. The birds quickly found those seeds and ate them. He also sowed seeds at the upper end of the garden where the soil was shallow. Bedrock was only a couple of inches below the surface. Those seeds did not last long. They germinated, but there was not enough soil for them to put down deep roots. When it got hot and dry, those plants withered and died, because they had no roots.

Other seeds were sown along the borders of the garden where grass and thorns encroached on the growing area. Weeds crowded out these vegetable plants, depriving them of nutrients, water and light, and they soon died. But other seeds were planted in rows where the soil was rototilled, fertilized, and weeded regularly. They got full sun and plenty of water. These plants produced a large harvest. There was enough for the gardener to eat all he wanted, freeze some, can some, and still have enough to share with friends and neighbors! Dig deeply into this story and reap the spiritual reward!

(Original translation of Matthew 13:3-9, commonly known as the Parable of the Sower. American Paraphrase Version, copyright 2017 by Marshall Davis. All rights reserved.)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Story of the Spoiled Brat

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons, who worked with him in the family business. The younger son could not stand working for his father any longer. He said to his father, “Dad, I need to get out of here! Give me my share of the business.” Without saying a word, the father liquidated half of the company’s assets and gave his son the money.

Within days of cashing the check, the younger son was gone. He hopped a plane and traveled to a Caribbean island where he lived large, hosting extravagant parties for other expats. Soon he had spent every cent … and more. He went deep into debt to the luxury hotel where he stayed. To make matters worse a hurricane hit, devastating the local economy. 

The young man found himself penniless and friendless in a foreign land. He tried to find work to support himself, but the only job he could find was collecting garbage at the same hotel where he had previously lived in luxury. Almost all his paycheck went to pay off his debts. Some weeks he found himself sifting through the garbage to find something to eat.

Then it dawned on him. He could go back home and work for his father! Even the lowest employee at the family firm lived better than he was living now. He would ask his father for a job. He would act humble and remorseful and say to his father, “Dad, I am so sorry for what I did. I see now that I was wrong, and I hurt your feelings. To make it up to you, please let me work for you as a regular employee.”

He found a cruise ship going in the right direction and signed on as a dishwasher. That got him to the mainland. Then he hitchhiked to the city. He rehearsed his speech as he walked the final blocks to the family company headquarters. His father happened to be looking out his office window and saw his son approaching. Overflowing with love, he ran to the elevator and met his son in the lobby. In front of all his employees he embraced his son with tears of joy flowing down his cheeks. 

The son immediately started in on his spiel, “Dad, I am so sorry for what I did. I see now that I was wrong. I hurt your feelings. To make it up to you, please let me work for you as a regular employee.” But his father interrupted him and shouted to his employees, who were standing around gawking, “Don’t just stand there! Can’t you see that my son is back? Joe, go to Armani and buy him a new suit, and some shoes, too. Lucy, go next door to the restaurant and get some food for us all. Spare no expense. We are going to have a party! For I thought my son had died in a hurricane, but now he shows up alive and safe. I thought I had lost him, but now I have found him again.’ So everyone partied.

Meanwhile the older son was down the street with a client. As he approached the building, he could hear music and laughing coming out of the company headquarters. He asked one of the employees near the entrance what was going on. He told him, “Your brother has come home, and your father is throwing a welcome home party for him.” 

When he heard this he fumed in anger, went into his office and slammed the door. When his father learned his older home was back, he went to his office and encouraged him to come out and join in the celebration. But the son replied, “I have served you faithfully for years, and you never once threw a party for me! But now this ingrate son of yours, who jeopardized our company and lost all our capital, comes home and you throw him a party!”

His father responded, “Son, you are with me all the time. This whole company will be yours one day. Be glad that your brother is home safe. Come out and make a toast to him. For I thought he was dead, but he is alive. He was lost to me, but now he is home.” 

(Original translation of Luke 15:11-32, commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. American Paraphrase Version, copyright 2017 by Marshall Davis. All rights reserved.)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Story of the Lost Ring

What woman, having lost her diamond engagement ring, would not look for it? Of course she would! It wouldn’t matter if she had ten other rings in her jewelry box! She would turn the house upside down searching. She would turn on all the lights, get out a flashlight and search the dark corners. She would move the furniture and get down on her hands and knees looking for that ring. When she finally found it, she would immediately phone her best friend and tell her the whole story. And her friend would rejoice with her. In the same way the angels in heaven rejoice over one person who returns to God.

(Original translation of Luke 15:8-10, commonly known as the Parable of the Lost Coin. American Paraphrase Version, copyright 2017 by Marshall Davis, all rights reserved.)

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Parable of the Lost Dog (Luke 15:1-7)

All sorts of people were coming to hear Jesus. They included child molesters and Ponzi schemers, alt-rights and communists, neo-cons and neo-libs, white supremacists and jihadists, atheists and Religious Righters, drug dealers and drug abusers, corrupt CEOs and WikiLeakers. 

Democratic and Republican leaders were concerned. They warned the public, “This guy associates with hate groups and extremists!”

So Jesus told them a story. “Which of you, if your dog got loose and ran away, would not go looking for him? Of course you would! Even if you had a houseful of other animals, you would leave them and search the neighborhood and nearby woods tirelessly. You would put up posters and post photos on social media. When you found him, you would hug him tightly and carry him home. You would post on Facebook, “He was lost for 24 hours, but I finally found him!” and your friends would rejoice with you. They would “like” the post and leave congratulatory comments crowded with emoticons. But I tell you, there is more joy in heaven when one person returns to God than over all the ‘good’ people who never go astray.”