Reopening after COVID is HARD!

Do you have any frenemies? You know what I mean, family members, friends, or others that just get under your skin? You are friends, but they are just as easily classified as enemies. Passive-aggressive behavior is their specialty. They say things like, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” or “Do you like your hair that way?” Both comments sound innocuous, even helpful, but you know they are really trying to get in a jab under the guise of “speaking the truth in love.”

I like Nathanael-types as in John 2:43-51. Nathanael thought out loud like many of us do and said about Jesus’ hometown, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When Nathanael finally meets Jesus, the Lord says of him, “Here is a true Israelite, one in whom there is no guile.” Some Bible translations say, “deceit” instead of “guile.” Either way, Jesus pegs Nathanael’s basic character trait as a straight-shooter, one who isn’t a passive-aggressive flatterer who is a well-intentioned dragon, or a devil in disguise.

Can our world take the truth, or have we created a world where truth gets so massaged that it is hardly recognizable? COVID-fatigue has severely hampered our abilities to be honest with each other. Our lack of Nathanael-like clarity for fear of being labeled or chastised in our hyper-sensitive world has caused us to keep quiet and repress our true feelings. Unfortunately, those repressed feelings come boiling to the surface at some point, and one of the easiest places for that to happen is the church. At first glance, this is a good thing. The church is where we should be able to voice our thoughts without impunity, but, let me tell you, loosening our restrictions has been TOUGH on everybody who works in and with the church! It has become quite apparent that it was easier to shut things down than to open them back up. I had hoped that we wouldn’t have to get back to “normal” in stages or in a piece-meal fashion, but thanks to the powers that be, “Here we go!”

This is all on my mind because we’re so tired as a culture, and our feelings are on our sleeves. Some people haven’t been vaccinated. Some have. Some people can’t get vaccinated due to health issues. In other words, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all plan or strategy for reopening, so can’t we be patient and quit being so “what about me” in our selfish desire to get back to what WE think is normal? Worse is that COVID and reopening our shut-down world has given a megaphone to everyone’s opinions. We live in an age where the squeaky wheels get the grease, and with all that we have been through this year it seems that everybody’s wheels are way louder than a mere squeak. We have taken the autonomy of the individual to an extreme. Everyone’s truth is declared to be THE truth, and if everyone’s truth is THE truth, then there is no truth. It’s really all just opinions and everybody’s got one, and a lot of people have had theirs on full display.

The truth is that only God is TRUTH. I am not the absolute truth, and you are not the absolute truth, so why can’t we all just keep trying to do the very best we can under whatever our circumstances, let God be God, and we all do the right thing as consistently as possible. It could be said that the Golden Rule is an excellent example to follow. However, in our autonomy-worshipping society, even the Golden Rule has been co-opted by free-thinkers and self-absorbed survivalists who don’t give a whit about what’s good for everybody. Our self-interests and so-called “rights” have made us little kings and queens of our own domains. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been flipped, reversed, and turned into “What’s good for me better be good enough for you, end of story!”

It is reminiscent of the passages in the Book of Judges (17:6 and 21:25) that are so indicative of our world right now, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Everybody can’t be right, right? So, how do we determine the best course of action in any given situation? Do we go with our gut, what our friends say, what the media suggests, the advice of sage counselors, or as in the words of the main song in the popular animated film, Frozen, do we just let all boundaries go? Unfortunately, I can hear the echoes of my youngish granddaughters singing “Let It Go!” in perfect pitch. Great, except the self-proclaimed independence it promotes is rubbish. Read this snippet:

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small

And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all

It’s time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I’m free

To be sure, things turn out better as Elsa mitigates her newfound acceptance of her own autonomy by remembering her family and the community of friends that she has. She realizes that “me being me” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I sure wish our world and everyone in it, including me, and a boatload of church members would figure that out. We, like Elsa, may discover that our own worst frenemy is ourselves.

Individual autonomy can be helpful for traumatized ice princesses, but not if our independence sinks us deeper into selfishness. That is the prison that our culture is embracing. Isn’t that the root of a lot that’s going on? It can be called such things as sheer selfishness, my way or the highway, or the living out of the words in William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” NO, WE ARE NOT! Jesus is, and His two great commandments, not one without the other, are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Winter Ends, COVID Continues, yet JESUS Wins!

Lent has begun and I’m having a bit of PTSD. No kidding, but aren’t we all? It has almost been a year since this pandemic started. Our last “normal” worship service was March 15, 2020. I remember having hopes of being back in church by last Easter, then spent 5 months preaching to an empty sanctuary pretending to look at invisible people. Things got a little better in late summer when we returned to face-to-face worship, or maybe it would be more accurate to describe it as mask-to-mask with 5 socially-distant services and safety protocols. We did have a Christmas Eve service in the parking lot of the mall engulfed by the rain, but buoyed by the hundreds of carloads of people holding their battery-operated candles. We all claimed the Apostle John’s words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We have learned how to be both resilient and virtual in every way imaginable. As one of our staff members put it so aptly, “We’ve been learning to fly the plane while we are building it.” Many of us wish that we had bought stock in Zoom, and here we are in Lent again, but 2021 seems to be 2020 part two. We are weary.

I am weary of the restrictions, the utter flip-flop of doing ministry the way that I have done it for 44 years. Zoom Sunday School works, and I’ve found out that Zoom pre-marital counseling sessions are pretty darn effective. I miss being able to hold the hands of the dying and hurting; visiting people when they need me most in tangible physical real, not cyber ways. I think what is depressing me most right now is the vestiges of spring’s approach. If we were still in the cold, dark wetness of winter, maybe I wouldn’t mind this melancholy so much, but I’m feeling like Bill Murray in the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Everyday is “here we go again,” and it’s not getting that much better. The weight of all the losses, the isolation, and the eradication of what we took for granted and have lost is overwhelming.

Yep, we’re in a Lenten Funk, a COVID extended drama. Garrison Keillor once said that if you were shy, from the Midwest, and Lutheran it is Lent all year-round. With COVID, it doesn’t matter if you’re shy, from the Midwest or Lutheran. The deprivations associated with Lent have become a reality not just for our country, but for the whole world. If ever we needed Good News, it’s now. Maybe that’s a main takeaway for Christians this Lent. We can offer hope that this journey we have been on will end in victory. That’s the message of this season’s 40 days. They end in Easter triumph. It’s the hope of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

We’re not there yet, though. Times are still tough and we need to remain vigilant, but the cavalry is coming. If we listen hard enough, we can hear the bugle call. The US cavalry and Jesus’ death on the hill named Calvary are on their way. So, we hold on, and we hope. We grasp every bit of Good News that we can and we wait with patient endurance. We foster our faith and cling to the eternal truths of the Isaac Watts’ hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” as it summarizes Psalm 90. These words ring truer to me now than they ever have before:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!

Under the shadow of thy throne,
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or Earth received her frame,
From everlasting, thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages, in thy sight,
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night,
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all who breathe away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Still be our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Ponder and look up, google or whatever you need to do to read and/or hear the great hymns and songs of the church that exude faith in tough times: “How Firm a Foundation,” My Hope is Built,” “A Mighty Fortress  Is My God,” “Stand By Me,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Amazing Grace,” “Great is thy Faithfulness,” “Leave it There,” and finish with a rousing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as you journey through this seemingly perpetual Lent. Watch the music video of “Worn” by the group Tenth Avenue North and feel the hope. Try the music video by Crowder, “Come as You Are.” God can give us what we need to get through whatever we’re facing. Hang in there and trust the Lord. Amen.

(P.S. Add to the comments your favorite soul-lifting hymns or praise songs that give you strength. Let’s share some Good News with each other!)

Hope Springs Eternal

Immortalizing Your Life

Double standards, no standards, hypocrisy, and selfish narcissism are just a few of the things that absolutely get my goat these days. No one seemingly wants to accept responsibility for their actions, and the inability to say, “I’m sorry!” has left us with enough pent-up anger and frustration that borders on the edge of explosion.

A married couple cooped up for all these COVID months were at each other’s throats. She seemingly was handling it better than her husband, so he asked her, “How do you stay so calm?” She replied, “I work off my anger by cleaning the toilet.” He then asked, “How does that help?” She replied, “I use your toothbrush.”

There’s got to be a better way, and there is. It’s called forgiveness. Though I know that I should forgive, I tend to cling to Matthew 7:6 and its admonition, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls before swine.” In other words, don’t waste good things on those who can’t appreciate them. There are a lot of mongrels and sons-of-mongrels out there, and plenty of oinkers and porkers, too, but does it help if I act like a jerk and blast rather than bless, or poison rather than praise?

It’s almost un-American to let go of revenge and anger. That’s why I like the prayer, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us; may God turn their hearts, and if he can’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” I also like the story of the big bully and the little guy. The big bully tosses the little guy over his head, and says, “That’s judo. I picked it up in Japan.” A second later the big bully whacks the little guy on the back of the neck, and says, “That’s karate. I picked it up in Korea.” Somehow the little guy squirms away and goes out to his truck and comes back in, pops the big bully on the head and says, “That’s crowbar. I picked it up in Home Depot.”

I want to say, “Yes!” because we like reciprocity, that people get what they deserve, that there are consequences to people’s actions. Rather than payback from God; i.e., “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,” we want to help out! My dad went to see my grandfather to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage. Papa didn’t even turn around and face him. He was stocking shelves in his country store, and kept his eyes on what he was doing. All he said was, “You make your bed. You’ve got to sleep in it.” He was paraphrasing the Bible, “You reap what you sow.”

Problem is, we all deserve punishment. None of us is squeaky clean. If it’s true that if you live long enough somebody is going to do you wrong, then it’s also true that if we don’t forgive them, we’re letting them do us that wrong forever. Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. If we stick with, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” there’s going to be a bunch of blind toothless people.

We are writing our epitaph every day. Paul made his life motto very clear from his Roman prison cell, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)” Is my epitaph, “Don’t get mad, get even?” I hope not, or I’m burning down the very bridge that I have to cross over myself. An epitaph is a short memoir that sums up what we hope people will remember about us. It answers a question that’s hard to answer in our pandemic panic, “What is my purpose in life?”

Epitaphs should be like mission statements. Like passing the T-Shirt test, as in it needs to fit on a T-Shirt, our mission statements should be short enough to be memorized, and long enough to be memorable. What short significant statement will immortalize your personality and passions? What will be on your grave?

There was a southern family who always went on a little road trip on Sunday afternoons. They would seek out cemeteries and let the kids blow off some steam by making a game of finding the oldest tombstone in the graveyard. One of the children yelled out, “Here’s an 1862!” The family gathered around and read this lady’s epitaph, “Ever she sought the best, ever she found it.” There, in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, when she could have blamed everything on something or someone else, she took the high road and looked for the best and found it. That’s an epitaph worth living!

I want to be remembered for better than what I’ve been exhibiting lately. How about you?

The Best Laid Plans

Cubic Feet per Second or CFS is how people measure how fast the flow of a river is. Thanks to COVID and all of the issues our society is facing, it feels like we’re in a flash-flood, and the CFS is out of sight. This coming week we’re taking our daughter, Narcie, and her husband, Mike, plus their two children, Enoch (13), and Evy (11) on a camping and canoeing trip in the high country of northwestern North Carolina. It will be a grand time, but if the water is running too fast, we may not enjoy things as much as I have planned and hoped for weeks and weeks.

In checking this morning, the South Fork of the New River is running around 1350 CFS. It needs to be below 1000 to be navigable and somewhat safe. It would be even better for fishing purposes if it was running around 450 CFS. We’ll take what we can get, and enjoy the experience as best we can. The best laid plans don’t stand a chance against rain, rivers, and the rigors of camping and canoeing. It is best to be flexible.

Many a time have I checked the waterflow from the safety of home, only to drive 5 hours, and find that a downpour has dangerously raised the speed of the river, and made the water too murky to fish. There are other options like playing chess or other board games under the large picnic shelter, and you can always go into West Jefferson to visit the Ashe County Cheese Company or the Churches of the Frescoes. Here’s the thing, when things are unpredictable and out of your control, you have to be nimble, adapt and adjust. You can’t get your hopes up or set your mind set on one particular set of circumstances or outcomes. Things change.

Someone said that the only constants in life are death and taxes. Another said that change is the only constant. Both statements are correct in their assessment. So, what do you do when life deals you a hand that is not what is expected. You can either fold and give up, or you can roll with it and do the best that you can.

I watched an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” last night as Ray and Deb, plus children, went with his Mom, Marie, Dad, Frank, and brother, Robert, to visit family on the sunny Mediterranean coast of Italy. Ray had talked himself into being miserable before they even left the US. Being around Marie and Frank for a lifetime can do that to you! Ray had the sniffles and was in a foul mood for most of the trip. He didn’t want to be there at all, so he sulked and moped around, until finally he started to appreciate the beauty of the setting. The tide turned in his attitude, though nothing ostensibly had changed at all. He changed, not the surroundings. I needed that episode to face the uncertainty of a well-planned and long-expected trip that may not go like I thought it should or would.

COVID-19 has been our world’s flash flood, and has created all kinds of anxiety. Everything is unpredictable about it. The science has been all over the map. We don’t know if cold weather will make it worse or better. Unlike the river, there’s not even a weather forecast model that we can follow with COVID, but we do have a choice: We can either give into the anxiety and get depressed, or we can pull out those books we’ve been meaning to read, or do those often-thought-about-but-never-done projects we’ve been putting off. As much as most of us like the comfort zone of home, it is good to have some adventure and embrace life however fast the ebb and flow.

So, on Monday we’re headed to campsite #43 (closest to the bathhouse), and we’ll see what happens. At least we will be together. The unpredictability will be a shared experience. We’ll all figuratively be in the same boat, sort of like we all are with COVID. Actually, I hope we will need to rent three boats. Our canoes will either be going down the express lane of a fast river, or we’ll go exploring and let serendipity surprise us. Life is full of marvelous opportunities, and some that are just awful. The difference is often in how we react.

As people of faith, we know that we have a known God in an uncertain world. We have a God in Jesus Christ who dealt with the worst of human fickleness, but kept his face focused on final victory. He had his times of tumult, but no one can say he didn’t roll with the punches. He struggled, but he always kept going. Put on your life jackets, grab your paddles, and go with the flow! Literally!

Resurrection Ferns on Live Oaks

The “Angel Oak” on John’s Island, SC near Charleston is a survivor. Hurricane Hugo did significant damage to it in September of 1989, but it has since recovered. It’s a huge live oak tree that everyone ought to see if they want to increase their hope and courage. That tree has been around through much worse things than COVID-19. It fits the description that someone ascribed to special trees, “Every great oak was once a little nut that held its ground.” Amen to that! With hope and courage, we, too, can survive. The “Angel Oak” is 400-500 years old. It stands 66.5 feet tall, measures 28 feet in circumference, and produces shade that covers 17,200 square feet. Its longest branch is 187 feet in length. It is the star of the American Live Oak Society.

It makes me wonder if we are the stars of Jesus’ Resurrection Society? By the way, we have a huge live oak in our yard that has what are called “Resurrection Ferns” growing on its aged limbs. When it’s too dry they turn brown and crispy. When there’s rain, the bounce back, and resurrection happens. That’s my prayer for us in our pandemic-ridden world. May we sprout God’s resurrection power, and take courage!

Frankly, I wonder if the coronavirus has done as much damage to our faith as fear has. Don’t get me wrong. Fear has its place. An abundance of caution is a good thing, but holding our ground in the onslaught of life also takes courage and more than a little bit of bravado. I was raised by a Mother who went through a lot, and it took a toll on her. Her by-word whenever I left the house was, “Be careful!” Being careful is a good thing, but life also takes daring and a lot of inspired recklessness.

Some of you recall the 2002 Winter Olympics. Michelle Kwan was the queen of world figure-skating. She was the darling of the sport, and rightly so. In 2002 there was an upstart 16-year-old at the Salt Lake City Olympics: Sarah Hughes. She skated with reckless abandon and did it flawlessly, winning the gold medal over Michelle Kwan. I remember the commentators describing how the upset happened. Michelle Kwan skated not to lose, and Sarah Hughes skated to win. One used too much caution, and one threw caution to the wind, and won. Which do you most resemble?

A lot of people absolutely love their SUV’s. Sport Utility Vehicles aren’t exactly known for their smooth comfortable ride. They aren’t as roomy as a minivan or as nimble as a regular car, but people love them. Car manufacturers have watched the SUV phenomenon with great interest. Gas mileage certainly isn’t the incentive to buy one, so what is the reason? Well, people do like the extra roominess over a regular sedan, but the primary reason people like them is safety. As a matter of fact, one SUV company has capitalized on that sentiment in their advertising: “Look upon it as a 4,000-pound security blanket.”

We want security in these uncertain times. Security companies are doing quite well in the midst of our national unrest. Gun sales are at an all-time high. We have embraced a bunker mentality, and it’s both the law and the prudent thing to do with COVID. I hope, however, that the drug manufacturers are not being that cautious in their pursuit of a vaccine. Sure, they need to be responsible and ethical in their trials and testing out of safety for the human Guinea pigs, but slow thinking and a plodding response isn’t going to help us get to where we need to be in this battle. Sometimes you have to chunk a cruise ship attitude and become a battleship.

Would you want your child who is writhing in pain to have to wait until the doctors ran every test “just to be safe,” or would you want them to go into surgery as quickly as possible and get that about-to-rupture-appendix out? Okay, so a balance is needed, but I prefer action over slow reactions and too much navel-gazing. I would much rather have a “Human Dynamo” on my team than a “Steady Freddie.”

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, preferred action, and deeds over words. One of the early American Methodist preachers is a perfect example: Peter Cartwright. One time while he was preaching a vulgar-mouthed man threw a rotten tomato at him. In his diary, Peter Cartwright said, “I pummeled him lustily while singing ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.’” My kind of guy! Another time in Cartwright’s ministry he was warned that President Andrew Jackson would be in attendance. Cartwright was told to tone things down and show the president some respect, and try not offend him. Peter Cartwright got up and spoke, “I understand that President Andrew Jackson is here today. I have been advised to be very guarded in my remarks. Let me say this the same way I would tell you all: Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent of his sin.” Everyone gasped! President Jackson walked up to Cartwright after the sermon and said, “Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could capture the world.”

Evidently Peter Cartwright was a nut who held his ground. May we be like-minded people of hope and courage so that we can look danger in the face, and skate to win! Amen.

Tombstone-Cleaning in a Pandemic: Fighting Depression

Pastoral ministry has been steady and unrelenting in this COVID-19 environment.  If anything, most clergy that I know have been working harder than ever, and there’s no break. Please be kind to your pastors as we keep leaning into these uncertain times. We weren’t trained in seminary to do all that we do in a virtual world with 24/7 digital access. It is stressful to the point of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion.

My temper has been short. Sleeping has been difficult. Dreams have been vivid, but not soothing. Eating my problems away has served only to compound them. Usually it is only inanimate objects that get my goat. Lately it’s been anything, everything, and everyone who gets on my hypersensitive nerves. Lucy of “Peanuts” comic strip fame doesn’t have to charge a paltry nickel to give me the diagnosis: depression.

Usually when I’m down the sure-fire cure is to get busy on a project. All kinds of projects have been done over these 19 weeks of isolation. Beyond the constancy of ministry, there have been other tasks to do. Planting blueberry bushes was one project. It had been a long time since I used dreaded posthole-diggers but I dug ten huge holes, plus amended the soil with enough wettable sulfur to make it more acidic for the blueberries. Unfortunately, in my COVID-fog, I ordered twenty bushes instead of ten, and ended up planting two per hole, plus they sent me a couple of extras.

There were lots of such projects around the house. Cleaning out and organizing cabinets, installing shelves, gardenia bushes were planted, several foundation shrubs were replaced. Unfortunately, once you start doing home projects they begin to multiply. You can’t paint one room without it making the rest look like they need it. I have dug, piddled, planted and tried to work myself out of the funk that I’m in. The plan worked until the nutsedge invasion.

Nutsedge, otherwise known as plain old nutgrass, is insidious. When you cut your lawn, it’s the nutsedge that comes back first and rises above your manicured lawn like a greenish-yellow monster. Every time you cut the grass, it gets worse because it spreads. Half my yard is infested. I bought “Sedgehammer,” an appropriately named nutsedge killer. It’s expensive stuff, like $200 per ounce expensive, and I had to purchase a surfactant additive to make the deadly stuff stick to the invading army of nutsedge. I sprayed the whole yard multiple times. Still there. Bought a different product, same woeful results. This was a project that I made worse instead of better. The nutsedge pushed me into heinous depression. This was my tipping point: Nutsedge is something I can’t fix, and I’m a fixer! Wham!

We all like projects where we can accomplish something, and see the results. I thought maybe that would help, so I have spent quite a few days social distancing with dead people in a cemetery. I have driven 18 miles from Aiken to Edgefield, SC to clean off my brother’s grave, and my Mom and Dad’s graves. I ended up cleaning off grandparent’s tombstones, great-grandparents’ and more. Fifteen wheelbarrows of gravel have spruced up the family plot. I figured out the right combo of chemicals, tools and elbow grease to get those gray-green lichens out of the carved dogwood blossoms that encircle my parent’s marker. I have a new appreciation for dental hygienists, and the need for everyone to floss. However, let me tell you that one of the most satisfying things that I’ve done during the entire pandemic is to make my family’s multiple tombstones shine like brand new. I also sprayed on enough heavy-duty year-long grass-killer to fry the rest of my scalp off like the scorching summer sun. I wish the nutsedge was as easy!

Have you been in a funk? Are you depressed? We need projects to accomplish, but sometimes they’re futile. We need one another, and we’re made by God to have human contact, but the pandemic has relegated us to lonely cemeteries. If you’re like me, you’ve either run out of projects or the brains to fix them. Depression has set in. We perfectionists, who have more than a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder, are FREAKED OUT by the chaos in our world. But, here’s the good news. God is God, and I am not! As much as I think that mantra is tattooed on my brain, I forget. God is God, and I am not! God give me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Whew!

The harried mother of a newborn reached for her cellphone and heard a loving voice say, “How are you, Darling? What kind of day are you having?” “Oh, Mom,” said the young mother while breaking into tears, “I’ve had such a bad day. The baby won’t eat. The garbage disposal is backed up and leaking. I need to go shopping, but don’t have the energy, and besides I’ve just sprained my ankle and have to hobble around. The house is a wreck, and I’m supposed to have two friends over for dinner tonight.”

The mother was shocked and full of sympathy. “Oh, darling,” she said, “sit down, relax, and close your eyes. I’ll be over in half an hour. I’ll do your shopping, clean up the house, and cook your dinner for you. I’ll feed the baby, and I’ll call a repairman I know who’ll be at your house to fix the garbage disposal and leak in a jiffy. Now stop crying. I’ll do everything. In fact, I’ll call George at the office and tell him to get over at your house and help, too.”

The young mother asked, “Who’s George?” Her mother replied, “Why, George! Your father… Is this 284-1373?” The young mother replied, “No, it’s 284-1376.” The older woman said in return, “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I have the wrong number.” There was a short pause. Then the young woman asked, “Does this mean you’re not coming over?”

Are you feeling it? A lot of us are, aren’t we?  So, we pray, “Please, Lord, show up in our time of need. We don’t know what to do, or which way to turn. Save us from this pandemic; in Jesus’ name. Amen!” Thank God that we reopen the church this coming Sunday. I sure do need it!

A Family Systems Approach to COVID-19 and Every Other Drama

How have you been handling the prolonged stress of the pandemic? Has your fuse gotten shorter? It appears the whole world needs therapy. How do we survive the madness we’ve been seeing? We have taken up sides on whether to mask or not, to buck “The Man” and become libertarian super-spreaders, or to hunker down and Lysol everything. What is going on? Whatever it is, we’re becoming afraid and frayed as a society. Anxiety is rampant. World civilization is at stake at the same time as the relationships in our own homes. We need help!

Family Systems Theory may offer a helpful strategy. It gives us a macro view of our society in the midst of COVID-19, but it also goes to the micro view as family stress is in everybody’s home. We need to recognize that what we’re seeing is a personal, communal, national and international systemic crisis. Systemic crises are like sepsis in the body that causes total organ failure, one after another. It’s the domino theory made very real. Seeing and treating COVID as a systems problem may actually help us survive, and find an emotional vaccine, if not an actual biological one.

Think of it like pulling in a medical team that looks at all of a person’s ailments instead of just the presenting problem. To help the person, you need to look at multiple body parts and interconnections. Edwin Friedman is the author of the two most-used books by therapists and clergy in situations like this. These two books are helpful to anyone. The first is his seminal work, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The second book is one that anyone in a family, church, local community, or nation needs: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Most of us are individual-centered in our diagnosis of issues both in our personal family and nation. It’s like the couple that comes to see me so that their teenage son can get help. In family systems theory what happens to one member of the family happens to every member of the family. The teenage son is the identified presenting patient, but the whole family system is really in crisis. It’s like a baby’s mobile that is attached to the top rail of a crib. If you weigh one piece of the revolving objects down, it throws all the others off balance. Everything and everyone are interconnected.

The same is true in a community, church, country and world. As much as we would like to fix a particular identified patient or group, that only masks what’s wrong with the whole system. You can switch out individuals like Trump, Pelosi, Schumer, Barr, or whomever and things might seem to get some immediate relief, but it doesn’t take long before things revert to the same patterns. It’s called homeostasis or the “same state.” We try to change things, but the more that we try, inertia makes it all spring back into the same place. The names may change, but there’s still anxiety in the system. It shifts around, but that’s about it. We can blame it all on one thing like the “Deep-state” bureaucrats in the swamp, but the reality is that the whole system is a swamp, you and me included. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and they are us!” We need a cure that really works, rather than one that just shifts the blame.

So, what should we do? This is where Murray Bowen of Bowenian Theory leads the way in an overarching manner, though, frankly, practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Monica McGoldrick make family systems theory more accessible to the masses. Whether one is talking about a family, country or world, the same principles are at work. The world needs to be in family therapy right now. We need to understand that it’s going to take a group effort to analyze our condition, and work our way out of it through some serious conversations. We don’t need to focus on individuals or even be sidetracked by constant fact-checking. Most conflicts are about emotional processes, not the facts. It’s often not what we say (facts), but how we say them (emotional process).

Joe and Sue get married and bring all sorts of expectations into the marriage from their families of origin. They are more in heat when they get married than in love. Along comes Baby, and their “perfect” world changes. They fall back on instincts, primordial cross-generationally transmitted patterns of values and ways of being. Tensions rise and guess where the tension goes – to Baby. Whenever we find ourselves stressed we tend to avoid risking our relationships with our key partners, so we pull in a third party or issue to be the dumping ground for the stress in the whole system.

We create a triangle to relieve the pressure. This triangulation has been on full display during the pandemic. We’re mad as hell at one another, but to salvage our relationship we put the onus on China, W.H.O., the CDC, Andrew Fauci, the President, the Congress, the Deep State, those pesky Russians, whomever, and somebody. Triangles are normal. As a matter of fact, triangles are the most stable form of construction on the planet. The pyramids are examples, but triangulation in a family, city, or country just picks a relief valve in one corner who then gets sick on behalf of the whole system. The problem is that it keeps us from figuring out what’s really eating us.

What we need is self-definition, or as Bowen, Friedman, and McGoldrick call it – self-differentiation. We need to step away from the triangles, defect-in-place while remaining in relationship, and exhibit non-anxious presence. We continue in relationship with the other parties in our many inter-locking triangles, but we refuse to play the stupid self-defeating blame games anymore. We need to metaphorically super glue our feet to the floor, and keep our mouths shut except only to make “I-Am” statements that define who we are. Differentiation and self-definition don’t mean we’re going to take our ball and go home through an emotional cut-off or fake distancing that really doesn’t help. You can move halfway around the world and still be caught in a triangle. Rather than cutting others off or emotional distancing, we promise to stay in relationship and work through what the real culprit is in our personal, national, or international crisis. It’s called leadership, responsibility, and engagement. It’s hard work!

What we’re after is like a crime drama, a psychological who-done-it where we ponder together where the anxiety in the family system is coming from. Once we can name the real reason for the drama, we can actually demythologize it and do something productive about it. We move from subjective emotional processes to objective reasoning. We need to keep asking the same question, “What’s really going on here?” Rather than blaming, shaming, or going for the obvious easy answer, we should avoid quick fixes and look at EVERYTHING, as if we were all observant Persian cats, taking it all in and figuring out, “Ah, this is where this is coming from.”

No doubt the answer ultimately comes from John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy,” but Jesus says, “I came that they might have life to the full.” Amen, but to hear Jesus above the din of all the drama, we need to calm down and ponder. Ask the right questions. Don’t jump to conclusions. Take a step outside of yourself and take a big view of things. What is causing this, not WHO is causing this? Remember, what happens to one member of the family, happens to all. Let’s work on this together, by the grace of God!

Quit Calling People Ugly Names

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” These famous words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are spoken by Juliet, a Capulet, to Romeo from her family’s archrival house of Montague. These words and the whole play, for that matter, tell us that our name matters little compared to our character. If we love another does one’s last name matter so much? No matter what name or epithet, what matters most is not my name, but who I am and how I act. Romeo responds to her desire that names don’t matter by declaring, “I take thee at thy word; Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

If you were, in Romeo’s words, “new baptized,” what name would you want to be called? Names carry such important meanings. Remember the saying from your youth, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but they do, don’t they? Name-calling has hurt most of us at some point in our lives. Worse than saying somebody has cooties is the ugly name that sticks to us like a parasitic tick that sucks the life out of us. Even worse is when we damage others so much that calling someone “Fatso” evolves into a self-fulfilling prophecy of morbid obesity. Words are either God-given blessings or devilish curses that we heap on people made in God’s image.

Oh, how I wish we called each other endearing names that would bring out the best in us. Names stick like super glue. When I was a child I had a difficulty saying my fh, ph, and th-sounds so I went from “Tim” to “Fim,” until I put on some muscle. Truly trivial, but I have never gotten over it. I think about it every time I have to pronounce a word that starts with one of those sounds. I have to concentrate extra hard to get it right. Decency and civility should keep us from labeling others with any kind of name-calling, trivial or not. It matters to people, and people should matter to us.

I remember dealing with a family that had a wonderful son that was named after his father’s older brother. At the time of the son’s birth, the older brother was highly esteemed, but along the way fell into some bad behaviors. When that happened the younger brother transferred his disappointment over his older brother to his son. He started seeing flaws where there weren’t any, and became extra critical. The dad was afraid that since his son’s heroic namesake had fallen, he would too. A lesson in picking names wisely.

What if you were a guy like the one Johnny Cash sang about in his song, “A Boy Named Sue?” That couldn’t have been easy. Who in their right mind would name their daughter “Jezebel” or son “Judas?” Names are powerful. Samuel means “Our God Hears,” and Karen comes from the Greek, “Charis” which means “gift.” Our wonderful daughter-in-law’s name is Karen, and she is certainly a gift to our family. Her grandfather, Rev. Myron Von Seggern, and I officiated Josh and Karen’s wedding. He was such a sweet man and exuded genuine kindness, plus an added bit of good-natured mischief. He had special loving nicknames for his grandchildren and even his first born great-grandchild, Kaela, that he called “Chiclet.” The names ranged from Sugar Babe, Sweetheart, Pal, Honeycomb, Honey Bee, and more. Each name was a sign of love. It makes one wonder what one’s own name or nickname means? Where did it come from and why? Most importantly, is it good? If not, make a new name for yourself, and “be new baptized” like Romeo.

Children born 5 or more years apart from their siblings are said by psychologists and sociologists to practically be from different families because of the discrepancies in experiences. My brothers, both of whom were much older than I, were like that. My oldest brother, now deceased, was born August 15, 1940, my middle brother April 22, 1947, and I was born in late 1955. We were the “oldest only child,” the middle “only child,” and the youngest “only child.” Out of a desire to give my brothers some sense of investment in my survival, my parents gave them “naming rights” over me. My oldest brother gave me my grandfather’s name, “William,” and my middle brother picked out the name “Timothy.” I’m grateful for both, especially “Timothy,” because it means “honoring God” in New Testament Greek. When I asked him how he came up with that as an 8 ½ year old, he revealed that he actually got it from the Dick and Jane books, not the Bible. The name of the toy teddy bear in the books was “Tim.” Mama and Daddy edited it to the more Biblical “Timothy,” from whence it comes. I should be grateful. I could have been “Spot” McClendon.

All of this is to say, names are important in spite of Juliet Capulet’s wish otherwise. In the end it certainly made a difference sadly in what happened to Romeo and Juliet. When you’re passing out names, make them mean something or someone special. Everybody is, after all. What’s in a name? A lot! O Lord, help me to keep my words soft and sweet, for I never know from day by day which ones I’ll have to eat. Amen.

Purposeful Pausing in Anxious Times

In our anxiety-ridden world it’s really difficult to talk about anything without causing a ruckus. It’s almost as if you can’t say the word “love” without offending somebody. So, as tempted as I am to talk about civil rights for gay and transgendered people, racism and the dangers of being Black in America, the removal of confederate monuments and renaming forts, kneeling during the national anthem, proper policing, should we wear masks or not, how to do church restarts and prevent COVID spread in the community, I’m not going to take on any of these problems. They’re important, don’t get me wrong. They are life and death issues, but I would rather tell you about my father-in-law, Guy Mobley Godwin.

I’m not kidding. Narcie, our Methodist preacher daughter, used her “Gandaddy” in her sermon last Sunday. Without collaboration with his sister, our Methodist preacher son, Josh used him in his sermon last Sunday, too. Two different stories, and Cindy and I can’t get him off our minds either. We’ve been talking about him off and on for weeks. Why? At first, I thought it was the fact that Father’s Day is this Sunday, but other Father’s Days have come and gone since he died in the fall of 2000. He’s always been on our minds, but this year it’s been a lot more.

The reason why hit me this morning. In the midst of the societal, personal, and worldwide dilemmas that I mentioned at the outset, Mr. Godwin would have been the one we would have all turned to for advice and wisdom. He was “Mr. Godwin,” because he had been an educator and principal for decades. Hardly anyone of any age called him anything different. It was out of respect and admiration, not lack of closeness. He was the best man that I have ever known. I love my own Daddy, but Mr. Godwin was tops in every way.

He was the principal of Kingstree Senior High during desegregation. Mr. Godwin was nicknamed “McGarrity” as in “Hawaii Five-O” because he knew who did what in his school, and had a knack for slipping up sight-unseen at just the right moment. He lived Black Lives Matter. Mr. Godwin was deeply compassionate. He had a special needs high school student who was a savant of sorts, and Mr. Godwin connected with him through chess. He set up a chess board and pieces in the trophy case in the middle of the school so that he and the young man had a running game all day long. He wanted other students to recognize the young man’s uncanny intelligence.

Mr. Godwin was so smart himself. He could fix anything. We all called it, “Godwinizing.” He envisioned things in his mind, used his slide rule, drafted things out, and made it work, whether it was an added back seat to his station wagon so the grandchildren could go to Disney World, or his special lawn-mower pulled train that he made out of old school bus seats. He added wheels to each seat so that the children had their own “car” as he pulled them through “Godwin World” on a trail in the nearby woods where he had hung different eye-catchers from the trees. He was so inventive, and he loved his grandchildren. Gandaddy was their hero. He walked slower than Moses wandering in the wilderness, but he was always the first one to get up from a table at a restaurant so he could take the children outside. They went exploring while they worked off their energy under his watchful eye.

Good Lord, Mr. Godwin even taught our Rotary Club International exchange student and our children how to drive in an old dilapidated car as they barreled around one of his fields. He was a Daddy-figure to countless students and adopted children. When they came home, most of them would make a loving pilgrimage to see Mr. & Mrs. Godwin. He was a true mentor. Mr. Godwin was a quiet man of few words, but when he did say something, you made sure that you listened. He loved Mrs. Godwin, also an educator, so very much. Their banter was priceless. He adored his “Buggah’s,” Cindy and Guyeth. He endured his two preacher son-in-laws, and taught us how to be good men, too.  When he asked you if you wanted to go for a ride, you almost didn’t want to go because it would be hours of non-verbal travel from farm to farm, to his school, or a farm implement and parts store, or to Lee Cemetery where he and Mrs. Godwin lie in repose now, but NONE of us would want to miss the chance to be close to him, so we went. It was truly an honor to be asked.

It was such an honor to be left with him in the ER when Cindy and her mother talked to the doctor when, at age 67, he had his last heart attack. He asked me to take his shoes off. I never felt so unworthy in my entire life, and yet so close to the man I admired more than any other. He had 5 heart by-passes when he was 52, and 4 more when he was 57. His father died of a heart attack at 43, his next oldest brother with a heart attack at 39, and his mother died of the same thing at 52. Mr. Godwin’s physical heart may have been less than stellar, but the width and breadth of his love knew no boundaries.

So, Mr. Godwin, you’re on our minds a lot right now, not because of Father’s Day, but because you would be the only person with the wisdom to make sense out of this crazy time in our world. Your students’ first nickname for you was “Rock,” for that was what you were, and still are. You pondered, reasoned things through, and excelled in purposeful pausing. We need more people like you, but, I want you to know how much I see you in your girls and grandchildren, even great grandchildren right now. They are so much like you. It’s the highest compliment I can give them. It makes me cry with appreciation for your life. Thank you.

It’s a Mell of a Hess We’re in!

“It’s a mell of a hess we’re in!” said the preacher trying not to cuss. This “woke” society and world can be one of the unintended consequences to come out of the tragedies of injustice that we have witnessed, but when should the protesting stop? How long does it take? This is too simplistic, but it strikes me that the Golden Rule is a good first-stage answer: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Then comes the second-stage answer: “Treat others BETTER than you want to be treated.”

Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author, said that there are four stages to community: 1. Pseudo-community is the stage where everyone is being nice, congenial, and having a honeymoon of sorts. 2. Chaos is when the honeymoon is over, and we find out about those annoying large or little quirks someone has, and we dare voice it. We protest! 3. Emptiness is the stage when we actually lay aside our “rightness,” and try to see everything from another’s perspective. 4. Real Community is when we have worked through the sham of Pseudo-community, borne the brunt of Chaos, and embraced Emptiness like a cried-out child in a mother’s arms.

My problem, and maybe yours, is that sometimes I get stuck in Pseudo-community, “Let’s play nice, y’all!” We fake concern and care until BOOM, we could care less, plus it, whatever “it” is, makes us mad as a hornet. But, if we stick with the process and don’t get stuck in any stage along the way, we just might make it to real community where we can live and let live with respect and value for one another. It doesn’t have to be my way or the highway. It can be our way and what’s best for everybody.

What stage are we in as a society right now? What stage should we be? Is it time to move on in the news cycle? I think not. Sure, I do not want to stay in chaos, but unless we let it work itself out, it will sooner or later rear its head again in an explosive way. So how do we deal with conflict and chaos? How do we make it to emptiness? I hesitate to even say that at all, because you can’t uncork 400 years of pent-up frustration in a few weeks’ time. It’s too early yet.

That being said, there are some of you, me included, that feel like we just can’t say anything without losing a friend. We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t, so we start repressing our feelings and guess what’s going to happen down the road? Another explosion. Can’t the church and Christian community be a place where we can tell our truth, our story, in love, and nobody judges us immediately. I did something last week that I’ve never done since being on Facebook. I took down a post. My words may not have been polished, politically correct, or even helpful, but, whether you believe it or not, I meant well, but I was silenced or, rather, I chose silence over the drama of vitriol.

I don’t like being shushed. Can’t we see that’s the problem for everybody right now, and here’s what I think we’re missing. Our main enemy isn’t a politician (I wish it were that simple!), not a bunch of agitators, rednecks, or certainly not whole races of people, and not even Russia, and China. Our main adversary is not COVID-19, although I think it has amplified this perfect storm of angst that has caused our country to reel. Our primary adversary is evil! Remember Jesus’ words in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Lay the blame on the devilishness that’s in all of us.

Jesus shows his rescue plan to free us all. It’s emptiness! He gives us its essence in John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Laying down our lives is maybe the only way we can get past the chaos of our world. Jesus gave us that as an example when he laid down his life for us. Community can’t happen until we do the same.

So, let’s let the chaos bring a healing catharsis to the pain that is present. Let’s be careful to speak truth in a way that hits the nail on the head, but doesn’t split the wood in the process. After all, every person you see is somebody for whom Jesus died. The question is whether or not we would do the same and lay down our lives for them.