Friday, March 29, 2019

The Hoosier Apex

     I have decided to take pity on the greater population of the United States because Purdue is now in the national basketball spotlight. As a result you will quite possibly be exposed to what is linguistically known as the Hoosier Apex, a select part of the country located in Mid-America. 
     When you visit there it seems like you have suddenly wandered into the State of Alabama. Hoosier people speak as if they are competing for the championship of Slow Talkers of America, and there is no such thing as a short conversation. It is where if someone says the word greasy the is transformed into a z, resulting in greazy. It is where the addition of the letter s, not z, is essential to a conversation: Have you sold your guyses house yet? No, not yet. How come? Relying on the past tense -  It just needs redecorated or somethin.
     So here are some Hoosier translations of words you may be familiar with and of which you mistakenly think you know the correct pronunciation:
     Creek – Crick (can also be a neck problem). Tower – Tar. As in Water Tar. Related is Shower – Shar, from the clouds or in the bathroom. Mango– not a fruit in Hoosierland, but a green pepper. Potatoes areTaters and Tomatoes are Maters. And by the way, when it thunders, the taters are rollin.
     Most words that you suppose require a at the end do not, e.g. lightnin, runnin, shoppin. You don’t sit, you set, and you set a spell if you mean to stay a bit. You haven’t eaten, you’ve et. And inexplicably you don’t get, you git. It can mean to acquire, or to leave immediately. 
     We eat pecon pie, like in wand, not pecan, like in band, and our mother’s sister is an ant, not an  Southern East Coast spawned awntBuggy isn’t a mosquito-filled night but a conveyance; my grandmother had one, with a horse. D’rectly is how you’re to come home from school, and Laws doesn’t mean rules, but is a substitution for Lord when combined with A’Mighty, thus avoiding taking God’s name in vain. 
     Yer is possessive, either singular or plural. Ain’t is isn’t, snoot-full is drunk, holler is either a shout or a low place between two hills (not many of which exist in Indiana) or in the woods (which do). And finally, you would be tarred from a long day’s work – or from learning to talk like this.
     It will, however, be worth it if Purdue keeps winning. You may even encounter a television announcer who can actually speak intelligently, like a true Hoosier. As a graduate of Indiana University (not the University of Indiana, which I think is squirreled away somewhere east of the Apex) I’m usually not respectful of the Boilermakers (not a steelworkers’ union) but I would never instead support the hated teams from Michigan or Ohio , may they feel the heat of eternity forever. Enjoy the playoffs!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Suffer the Little Children On the Two-Seat Side of the Plane

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had. (Romans 15:5, NIV)

Margie and I have been talking recently about what is a fairly new phrase for me: “God-sightings.” I know, I’ve been out of the loop. On the one hand it has caused me some confusion because “sightings” isn’t a word I’ve usually connected with God’s presence. God’s visibility has been rather limited in my life. Still small voices occasionally, but no burning bushes. At the same time I’ve been able on many occasions to “see” God in retrospect - not God’s physical features, but instances of God’s abounding love and forgiveness. They have shaped my life.

Those have been learning moments, and when I’ve taken them to heart they have prodded me toward kingdom living. The converse has also been true. I clearly recall times that God was inviting me to go in one direction and I stubbornly took the other. 

One occurred a few years ago. I had boarded a flight from Chicago to Colorado Springs, and since I was preaching the next day I reflected on a passage from Matthew’s Gospel. In it Jesus admonished his disciples who wanted to isolate him from kids. “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’" (Mark 10:14 NIV) I put on my seat belt and settled in to better understand Jesus’ response.  It was clearly a directive to encourage children, inspire patience, and support them. 

That’s when the stewardess, Christine, sat Shelby next to me. She said Shelby was a 6th grade boy heading home after visiting his divorced mother in Rochester, NY. Would I mind? He was accompanied by a 3 foot tall stuffed Ninja turtle in a large yellow sweatshirt.

As I read about Jesus and the children, Shelby was inventorying candy and gum from his backpack, his pockets, and the sweatshirt of the turtle, whose name was Leonardo. Most of the candy went directly into Shelby’s mouth. I looked up a moment later to see Christine standing over us. Shelby had pushed the call button, but he couldn’t remember why. Christine reminded him to raise the window shade because we hadn’t taken off yet, and he did – repeatedly – while unwrapping some more gum. Shelby was truly a multi-tasker.

After we took off Shelby pressed the call button again, and when Christine arrived he asked for a Coke. She said drink service would be soon (“But when?!”) (“Soon!”). This conversation provided just the opportunity for him to ask me to stand in the aisle; he needed to get out and go to the bathroom.

At last, a Coke for Shelby. I thought the two-liter bottle of water in his backpack had run out, but from his viewpoint it was just poorly packaged. He couldn’t gnaw a hole in the bottom of it like he could in a plastic airline cup. Doing so allowed him to suck the contents out from the bottom; he accomplished this while stirring what remained with his finger, disrobing Leonardo, and asking why I didn’t get a Coke. I told him the leaders of my congregation only permitted me to drink Pepsi. After I explained the meaning of “congregation” he was off to the bathroom again.

Another call to the stewardess. In response to his repeated inquiry – “How long?!” – Christine told Shelby that we were still at least an hour away from Colorado Springs. This allowed ample time for him to eat more candy, use his seat as a trampoline, study the height to which a tray table would bounce and question the passenger behind him about her destination. Evidently it hadn’t occurred to him that we were all headed for the final stop, Colorado Springs. He also made another trip to the restroom.

A half hour from home, Shelby had engaged in at least three rounds of energetic fisticuffs with Leonardo. He marked the final round by pushing the call button, again wanting to know our arrival time. Christine responded and said, “Twenty minutes.” He decided there was an opportunity for one last bathroom run. And this was the moment my Christian commitment to encourage little children deserted me. Lacking compassion, I tried to dissuade him.
“Think about something else.”
“Like what?”
“I don’t know. Think about taking a shower.”  He groaned.
“Drinking fountains.” 
“Niagara Falls.”  

He rolled his eyes and crawled over my legs, headed aft. I could see that there was a line for the restroom, and then the captain came on the loudspeaker with news of thunderstorms ahead and the need for seatbelts. I waited to fasten mine because I knew Shelby would be back soon, and after we hit the first air pocket he was, eyes wide from the sudden drop. He hopped over me into his seat, buckled in, and told me he didn’t have to go that bad after all.

Paul’s challenge of encouragement faces us in the story about Jesus and the children. Encouragement can be a burden. We have to work at it. But Jesus knows we’re also blessed by it. As we encourage others, not just children, to persevere in patience and faith, we gain fresh perspectives and new understandings of God’s grace for ourselves. I suspect those are “God-sightings.”

But I also suspect something has been left out of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ meeting with these disciples, parents, Pharisees, and kids. I wonder if, when he insisted on letting the little children come to him, at least one mother in the crowd didn’t say under her breath, “Be my guest.” 

Michael Sayler, a former Christian Education pastor

Thursday, January 3, 2019

On Intent

I abandoned the project I had chosen:
Copying the renaissance master drawings
From the illustrated book of renaissance master drawings.
I found that I could visualize them
One after another
But using pencil or charcoal or chalk and paper
To match one, let alone each, proved impossible.

Which was discouraging
Because these drawings replaced my intent
Being of a religious leaning
To read the Bible in six months,
Not beginning in six months, but over the immediate span of six months,
A plan frustrated by my decision to read at night
When sleep conquered the text, beginning with Genesis (In The Beginning).

I had counted reading a substitute
For my goal
Of regaining my former athleticism
(Which I never really had)
By swimming at least a mile each day
Only to find myself exhausted after eight pool lengths
Or the lanes too crowded or the facility closed 
So abandoning the water I returned to the land

Swimming was meant to be a countermeasure
For my poorly chosen plan 
To lose weight and stop smoking and refrain from alcohol 
In order to enter a monastic life pattern 
Of prayer, reflection, and meditation
Just to find those forbidden fruits 
Singing a siren song
Too hard to ignore

I had hoped for success in that effort 
Because of my previous inability 
To read beginning in January
Last year’s 20 best books
Which I purchased all at once but they remain
On the nightstand beside my bed
Awaiting the renewal of my interest

But now I will immerse myself
With the help of a writing group
To author a book of poetry over the coming months
Perhaps one or two poems a day
Of which this is the first
Even though composing it has bored me

January 2019

What We Asked You

We asked you where we were going
On buses at night with our backpacks
And when would we come back
To the homes that sheltered us
But you said nothing

And you let us out in a world of tents
And we found our beds
Along with a thousand other children
And we asked you how long we would stay
And you said nothing

And we told you we had heard about 
Huddled masses yearning to breath free
And we asked you who would care for us now
With no caretakers to turn to like before
And you said nothing

And we told you we heard that any immigrant
Could come into your country and seek asylum
And you said, Sorry. We are overwhelmed.”
And we said “We heard it was a law.”
And after you finished from roaming throughout the earth, 
Going back and forth on it, you said

“That’s not what it means.”

Monday, December 24, 2018

I Dwell in Possibility

In a Saturday Night Live skit from 2012 Cicily Strong ("The Girl You Wished You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a  Christmas Party") challenged Seth Myers to reveal what he wanted for Christmas; he responded by saying, “A new iPad.” Her wish? “An end to genocide.” That brought a rather bemused look from Myers, probably because it seemed to him an impossible request. She scolded him for his reaction. “Seth, wake up and smell the music. Open your iPad and learn what it takes to be a decent human being.” 

Despite the comedic setting, hers was the answer of the two requiring some measure of hope. You know, what Emily Dickinson calls “ a thing with feathers.” Or as she puts it elsewhere,

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors – (1)

My theology professor in seminary was frequently asked whether he believed in the resurrection and eternal life. His invariable response was, “Well, we can hope.” This was a less than suitable answer for some students. They were in the mood for quotes from the King James Bible. As a result they began challenging him and other faculty members about their beliefs concerning the “end times.”  This was during the huge popularity of Hal Lindsay, when any theology of value supposedly had a specific sort of apocalyptic foundation. It was also reminiscent of the religious leaders in early Jerusalem who waited until there was a public gathering, then tried to embarrass or discredit Jesus by entrapping him with legal questions.  The 1970’s students in question made little headway converting the faculty and, disquieted and upset, withdrew from classes. They enrolled elsewhere. 

It took others, like me, some time to see the sense of “Well, we can hope.” I began to understand that the teacher’s reply had no connection to hope for rain, safe travels, or a raise in pay. Instead it was linked to the repeated promise in the Hebrew Bible that God is faithful to save, and the New Testament assertion that hope, along with love and faith, abides. Besides, in the New Testament the foundation for hope is the belief in the resurrection of Christ. Without that, as Willie Wonka would say, “You get nothing.” (2) Or as Paul writes further, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (3)

But hope, albeit faint, does surface occasionally. Annie Dillard writes about Miss Arvilla Pulver, the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in an 1800’s Washington settlement. “Over time she had come to believe and pray that an educated, humane generation might actually arise from every American hamlet, and work selflessly for the nation, to break the power of the [business and banking] Interests, meliorate living and working conditions, ban corruption, end exploitation, and redistribute wealth.” (4)

In religious terms this, like the desire for an end to genocide, is probably more of a wish than a biblical hope. I embrace both, however, even if the humane generation of Arvilla Pulver only shows up in Washington DC.

Pastor Mike

  1. Dickenson, Emily.  “Hope is a Thing with Feathers” and “I Dwell in Possibility.”  The Poetry Foundation. 
  2. My apologies, since I just saw my grandson William in the play, “The Chocolate Factory.”  He was terrific.
  3. I Corinthians 15:19
  4. Dillard, Annie. The Living, p 67

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Salvation and Old Women

I’m (re)reading Galatians, with a commentary by my friend Sam Williams alongside the text, wondering whether discussions about salvation have any merit, and what my ideas about it are. They’re sort of fluid, centering one minute on biblical descriptions of people seated around a throne singing “Alleluia,” and the next on being absorbed into some sort of cosmic bundle of love. My wife, much more spiritual than I, votes for a connection between salvation and belonging to a loving, like-minded community, and she’s probably correct.

I frequently link salvation to past life experiences that have left deep impressions on me, some taking place as early as grade school. One involves attending an overnight children’s church camp where dinner was followed by a worship service. At the end of it several counselors gathered in a circle with a candle, and with all the other lights out they asked whether we would rather stay out in the darkness forever, or  join them and come into the light Jesus offered. I fairly sprinted to the candle. No dark eternity for me; at seven years old I wasn’t that dumb.

I also remember, in second grade, being bullied by two classmates who delighted in making fun of the way I walked (slightly pigeon-toed) and then tripping me. Salvation came when they finally quit. 

But I sometimes played the opposite role by kneeling down behind Tom Thatcher. He was oversized as a fifth- and  sixth-grader, especially clumsy, and renowned for the time he put a Scheaffer pen ink cartridge in his mouth and bit down on it, drooling blue ink to the delight of everyone else in the class. 

So in this other role I would kneel, someone else would push, and Tom would go down backward. I felt no remorse for this until I was in college and Tom, who had joined the Marines, was killed in Viet Nam. A few years ago I saw his name on the wall in Washington D.C. I’ve often thought that if salvation were achieved because someone earned it, and it was between the two of us, Tom would be the more deserving, and I would be consigned finally to the outer darkness.

But my understanding of salvation as an escape from trouble or illness or death has often been reinforced. When my five year-old daughter and I took the train one night to downtown Chicago to pick up a friend at Union Station and returned with him on another train to Berwyn, we waited in the rain to cross the tracks. I could see the commuter train coming into view and even though the gates were down I said to my daughter and my friend, “Come on, we can make it.” But an angel dressed as an old woman grabbed my arm and said “Stop!” just as the express train roared by on the inside track. When I caught my breath and turned to thank her she was quite gone. So now, unlike my wife, I think of salvation in terms of Jesus, light, rain and old women. It is really quite comforting.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

On Mercy

Four traditional values are typically lifted up in Protestant churches during the advent season: Peace, Joy, Love, and Hope. But a fifth value, Mercy, is often overlooked.

In the Hebrew Bible, there is a group of related words that are often translated as “mercy.” “Ahavah” refers to God’s enduring love for Israel.  “Rachamim” comes from the root word “rechem,” or womb, suggesting a maternal connection between God and human beings.“Chesed,” the word translated as “mercy” in Psalm 85, suggests God’s steadfast loyalty.

(Schmalz, Matthew, “What is the True Meaning of Mercy?” The Conversation. February 8, 2017 Retrieved Dec 10, 2018)

Mercy is foundational to our understanding of the person of God. In the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms refer repeatedly to God’s mercy. The Psalmist loves God because God has heard his cry for mercy (Ps 116). He pleads for mercy when forgiveness is desired, when enemies threaten him, or when judgment is feared (Ps 146). 

Mercy is shown when sin is confessed (Prov. 28:13). God desires mercy, the acknowledgment that the Lord is God (Hosea 6:6). Mercy is acting justly and with humility as one walks with God (Micah 6:8). In many respects the request for mercy is at the core of the argument that God has no choice but to be merciful because God is and has promised to be loving, kind, and steadfastly loyal. The Psalmists and others gently tug on God’s coattails to remind him to behave himself. It is also a recognition that because God is merciful, so should his people be. 

The difficulty with mercy, as we find it in the New Testament, is how subversive it is. In the beatitudes (Matt 5:1ff), "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom belongs not to the wise or powerful but to those who are "poor in spirit," that is, people who recognize their spiritual poverty and their need for divine salvation. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Those who suffer in this life will receive comfort in the next. (Saturday Night Theologian “Matthew 5:1-12” 30 January 2005 Retrieved December 10, 2018 retrieved December 10, 2018)

Mercy becomes problematic in Matthew for two reasons. First, like forgiveness, it is reciprocal. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” “The measure you give is the measure you get.” Judge not lest you be judged.” And here, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” It doesn’t say specifically that the unmerciful won’t receive mercy, but that’s the implication. Mercy appears to9 be quid pro quo.

Second, God’s mercy seems reserved for those on the margins of society who have faith. Mary, who lives there, perceives it keenly. 

She mentions it twice:

46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful of the humble state 
     of his servant,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-53)

This God is the Mighty One who scatters the proud, brings down rulers, lifts up the humble, sends the rich away empty and fills the hungry with good things. Mercy is for the poor, the beleaguered, the outcasts, the bullied, and the ill-treated. 

“Those who long for inner righteousness and outer justice (the Greek word can mean both) will see their desires fulfilled. There are few who are truly righteous, and many who think they are, are not. … 

“If your heart doesn't ache at the injustice in the world--the poverty, the socio-economic inequality, the racism, the hate, the intolerance of one religion for another--you are falling short of the righteousness that Jesus taught and exemplified.” 

(Saturday Night Theologian “Matthew 5:1-12” 30 January 2005 Retrieved December 10, 2018

Sarah Dylan points out that mercy was much needed by followers of Jesus. They were often the “pushed out.” They ate with and entered into social relationships with the opposite sex and with “sinners.” They were encouraged to abandon their families and follow Jesus. They refused to enter Into contests of honor, forgiving enemies and seeking reconciliation instead of revenge.

 “Such disobedience shamed the whole family, threatening everyone's welfare in the process; small wonder that those who engaged in it were so often pushed out.”

 Dylan says that Jesus gathers in all of these people and he gives them honor. “Their human fathers may have disowned them, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs.”

Jesus also gives them family. “They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.” 

(“Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A”  January 25, 2005 Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Retrieved December 10, 2018.

In the Gospels, then, mercy has the character of a rescue operation, throwing a protective cover over those who have been forced to the margins of society. They become an echo of Onesimus, once considered worthless but now useful, worthwhile to God. (Phil 1:11) Mercy is God’s response when people yell “Uncle,” when conditions are so bad that when Jesus meets them on the road they cry, “Have mercy! I give up - save me!” And he does.

Paul takes things a step further. He wasn’t out on the social margin, he was at its center. And mercy wasn’t granted because he followed Jesus. He hadn’t reached out to Jesus for healing or even for forgiveness. It wasn’t promised because he had declared his faith and now deserved to be saved. HIs only contribution was to fall on the ground and go blind for three days (Acts 9:3ff). Mercy was given to make an example of him - Paul was the worst of sinners: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy” (1 Tim 1:6).

God displayed his immense patience in Paul’s life as an example for those who would come to believe in Christ. Paul’s reasoning in retrospect was that as the worst of sinners, the persecutor of Jesus and Christians, all others’ sins would pale in comparison to his. And those others, in turn, could see that by example God’s patience, and likewise God’s forgiveness, was being extended to them. God isn’t impatient; God is merciful.

The prospect of this sort of mercy is a surprising offer to those of us who realize that we, like the rich ruler (Luke 18:18ff), have at some point been dipped in an anesthetic. We only vaguely recall that we may have stolen, but only a little, lied, but not grievously, lusted, but not openly, and retaliated, but not murderously.

We are the ones who still mimic the rich ruler’s shortcoming: we haven’t loved because we don’t know how. Instead we are business people who have treated competitors deceptively, not of honestly. We are politicians who have sought revenge instead of reconciliation. We have chosen power over others instead of community, and wealth over giving. We have been dismissive of strangers instead of welcoming, and we have objectified members of the opposite sex, seeing them only as opportunities for physical satisfaction, as having no personalities of their own that we recognized or that we cared about. 

Paul, the undeserving recipient of mercy, opens the door to God’s mercy for us. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “This is why we pray, ‘Purify our hearts so that we may worship Thee in honesty.’

“It requires a great honesty to realize before whom we stand, for such realization is more than having a thought in one’s mind. It is a knowledge in which the whole person is involved, the mind, the heart, the body and soul. What is left for us to do except to pray …and even if such prayer is tainted with vanity, His mercy accepts and redeems our feeble efforts.” 

(Essential writings, “Out of the Depth We Cry for Help.” Orbis books, Maryknoll, NY, 149-150)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

May I be Excused? I Want to Watch Us Gas the Children

It’s a unique opportunity. I was never able to watch Israel in action against the Palestinians first hand, and events happened so quickly In Ferguson that the tear gassing was over almost before it started. But now I have my opportunity. The chances are good that the military will continue this long enough for me to see it up close.

I’ve plotted a route from Oregon to Tijuana. 1082 miles; 17 hours, 3 minutes. Two 9 hour days or one straight run. If I take I-5 I can see the poorly maintained California forests that should have been raked. And then the excitement that comes from watching hopeful immigrants scatter in all directions. At least some of them will scatter.

“Designed to force people out from behind barricades and trenches, tear gas causes burning of the eyes and skin, tearing, and gagging. As people flee from its effects, they leave their cover and comrades behind. In addition to its physical consequences, tear gas also provokes terror.’” (1)

So most will run, but in Tijuana some - the children - couldn’t or didn’t. If a person can’t flee there is the danger of getting whacked in the head with a gas canister - a substantial blow. One news report said, “Children screamed and coughed in the mayhem of the tear gas. Fumes were carried by the wind toward people who were hundreds of feet away, not attempting to enter the U.S.” But some were admittedly trying to bypass the fences and barbed wire in an attempt to get into the US. What did they expect, anyway?

So I imagine it will be exciting if the gassing continues. The excitement will be generated by panic. Lots of people running around screaming have that effect. It will be accompanied by fear on our side of the border, because after all, these folks have been labeled terrorists, gang members and criminals. What if they actually bypass the troops? Surely they will overrun our cities, steal our jobs, and rape our women.

And excitement will be generated in us by the knowledge that corporations are profiting from this approach. “Over the past two decades, sales of tear gas, and less-lethal weapons more broadly, have grown substantially. Just as tear-gas salesmen in the 1920s monitored news headlines, today’s chemical executives receive  market reports informing them, for instance, that civil unrest has become commonplace in many regions of the world, from protesters in Brazil to activists in the Middle East. Governments have responded by purchasing record amounts of non-lethal weapons.” (2)

Finally there is the recurring hope that the Wall is truly coming. We entertain our dream of it in the knowledge that Donald Trump’s erection won’t be just a barrier to keep the criminal elements out. It will provide order for a government that is sadly under-equipped to process more than ten or twelve immigrants a day, even though they have valid reasons for seeking asylum and the legal right to enter the country. 

A wall will help us maintain a white population in the face of a growing citizenry of non-whites. It will reinforce our notion that we are strong, even invincible, in the face of international criticism, and that the executive branch is more powerful than the judiciary. And finally it will reassure us that we don’t have the resources to embrace 2,000, or even 20,000, refugees. I personally don’t want to be reminded that churches all over the country would welcome a family or two and help them resettle. Or that what we might spend erecting a few miles of a wall would accomplish the same thing. Or that the cost of sending thousands of troops to the border is much higher than setting up a tent city, with beds, restrooms and air conditioning to house a lesser number of refugees. I can hardly wait to get there.

(1)  Feigenbaum, Anna. “100 Years of Tear Gas.” The Atlantic: August 16, 2014
(2) Ibid

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Compassion is a Balancing Act

In seminary we spent an inordinate amount of time discussing theological jots and tittles, such as the need for the adjective “personal” when referring to the Savior, as in “I have accepted Jesus as my personal Savior. Some said the modifier was unnecessary; Jesus made salvation possible individually and communally. Others contended that through Christ God met us personally, one on one, uniquely addressing our sinfulness and our need for forgiveness., and we should be clear about it from the beginning. I confess to being in the former group. I was more concerned with the result than I was with God’s methodology, and for me these conversations about a personal Savior joined a long list of topics that couldn’t be proved one way or another. 

That was true until recently, when I began to see God as my personal antagonist. The awareness surfaced in worship when our pastor, Steve Fawver, addressed the subject of compassion. For the past several weeks he has focused on portions of Henri Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands. The chapter “Prayer and Compassion” states, “Prayer can never be antisocial or asocial. Whenever we pray and leave out our neighbors, our prayer is not real prayer.” (82)

The message coincided with the horrific fires burning in California, both north and south, where a multitude have lost their lives, thousands have lost their homes, and thousands more are under evacuation orders. But to understand my sense of God as my personal adversary I need to step back several years.

In 2012 fire ravaged the Mountain Shadows neighborhood where we lived in Colorado Springs. In what was an historical event at the time over 350 homes were destroyed. The number was record-setting. If I were to identify pivotal life moments, the fire in Mountain Shadows would be included - with our marriage, our children’s births, my ordination (1973), and my first car (a 1965 Ford Fairlane).

And our home, along with 5 others on the street, survived the fire. The rest of the subdivision lay in ruins. We had substantial damage, but our insurance covered it all. For those whose homes had burned I had a great deal of empathy. I thought that was enough. But as Edwin Friedman points out in A Failure of Nerve

On the one hand, there can be no question that the notion of feeling for others, caring for others, identifying with others, being responsive to others, and perhaps even sharing their pain exquisitely or excruciatingly is heartfelt, humanitarian, highly spiritual, and an essential component in a leader’s response repertoire. But it has rarely been my experience that being sensitive to others will enable those “others” to be more self-aware, that being more “understanding” of others causes them to mature, or that appreciating the plight of others will make them more responsible for their being, their condition, or their destiny. (137)

An incident from the California fires stresses the point. I heard about a woman who was driving through the flames trying to escape when the traffic came to a stop, the fire came toward her, and she finally called her husband on her cell phone and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. I’m going to die here.” He said, “Don’t die without fighting. Get out and run.” She did, and she survived. It was empathy with stern advice. I believe in the aftermath of the Mountain Shadows fire I was very empathetic, but less concerned about being actively involved. I felt bad for the fire victims. I really did. I even gave them some money. Such generosity. I could have done more.

And excessive empathy wasn’t my greatest shortcoming. It was a lack of humility. Down deep I reasoned that our home survived, and it was our effort that made it so. We had taken out a “good” insurance policy, one that covered all the possibilities. We had worked hard to have enough money to make the payments. I even had a back-up plan. I took pictures of every room, all of our belongings, just in case the house burned and the insurance company quibbled with us. Woe unto those who don’t photograph their stuff. 

When we had to evacuate the neighborhood we had friends who took us in, who fed us, who gave us a room to stay in, because after all we were good, nice people whom others would feed and shelter. We knew we had a safety net. 

And most important we had stood, prior to the evacuation orders, in our driveway with other friends and prayed for our home and our safety before we hopped in the car. Surely not everyone had done that, and surely it was a sign to God of our faithfulness. A part of me (that I prefer to keep hidden) felt we had been rewarded in kind. Their homes burned and ours didn’t.

Then God the Antagonist began to show up.  In retrospect the first appearance was last summer when California was previously burning (It seems California is always burning) and I started with the snarky prayers. “Lord God, the smoke from these fires is making me really uncomfortable. It’s annoying. It makes my eyes water.” And God said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Your attitude is not good, and your priorities are out of whack. Maybe I should show you really watery eyes.” 

Recently, as the destruction in California has become greater and the death toll has increased, God’s presence has become more frequent. God my Antagonist. I can’t decide if God has gently taken my chin in hand to look me in the eye, or put me on the ground with a divine foot on my neck. Maybe it’s some of each. This is the God about whom the Psalmist said, “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me,” (139:5) and has said to me, “You can do better than this. Three hundred and fifty homes are a pittance, and yours in Colorado certainly wasn’t at the center of all things. Neither are you.”

I am more and more convinced that compassion is a balancing act. It is empathy and action. Or as 1 John puts it, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?  Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (3:16-18)

Pastor Mike