Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Life Is Not a Dress Rehearsal

Walking with people through the stages of life is one of the greatest assets of my vocation. I have learned a lot from watching people live—and die. I have learned that there are some ways of living and dying that are better than other ways of living and dying. By “better” I mean more full of meaning and zest.

I once did a funeral for a woman who died immediately following retirement. She retired early because in 35 years she had never once taken vacation. She accrued sick leave and personal leave while her friends took trips to the Grand Canyon and Paris.

The woman was very proud to retire early. Her 401K was strong and she even had a pension. The retirement party was grand and all her co-workers were jealous. "You're set", they said. "You’ve got it made," said another, to which the woman replied "Now I will travel and go see the grandkids. I will finally reconcile with my son."

One week after retiring the woman and her husband made up their minds to build their dream home. Her life looked wide-open. Anything seemed possible. The woman felt free and finally ready to live the life that she had only dared to imagine. She planned to seize retirement by the horns.

Two months after retiring early, just as the woman and her husband bought tickets for a Baltic cruise, the woman came down with a cold, or what she thought was a cold. The cold didn't go away. She saw her internist who ran some tests. Six weeks later the woman died.

The moral of this story, which is based on actual events, is: don't put life on hold. Do not live as if you are guaranteed another twenty years, or even another two years. Plan for the future but don't live for the future—because you may not actually get to live the future you imagine.

No one is promised tomorrow. We all know this. But rarely do I meet people who live this way. If you need to reconcile with someone, do it today. If you want to see the Grand Canyon, and you have the money, make your plans. If you dream of building a home and you have the resources, call the architect.

As a man who has done more funerals than he can count, I can safely make you a promise: one day, maybe in five years or maybe in five weeks, you will die. And while death is not something to fear, for God’s arms will enfold you, dying with unfulfilled dreams is often the greatest regret of the dying.
Remember this and speak it to everyone you know: life is not a dress rehearsal.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Man Who Got It Right


His name was Floyd and he was a sailor. He lived aboard his boat. Floyd’s skin was the texture and color of pine bark and his hair white as flour. Floyd’s eyes called to mind the Willie Nelson song, “Blue Eyes crying in the Rain.” Floyd was a man who, through forty years of sailing the Caribbean, had sucked the marrow from life’s bones, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau.

I met Floyd one summer afternoon when he stopped by my study at the church. He dressed like a poor Jimmy Buffet. His manner was casual with a touch of formal sincerity. “Reverend,” he said, “I could use some help. I could use a little direction…on how to give back. I’ve been a taker for the last forty years. A rum drinking free spirit who watched out for his own skin and did whatever he liked. But the Lord has been good to me. Hell of a life, I’ve had.”

Floyd continued, as if his speech was forty years in the making. “I need to give back, but I’m not much of a church man.  I thought you might be able to help me…show me how I might help other people. That’s what my life is missing. And I don’t have much time left.”

Jesus often told his disciples that the greatest people are those who are servants of others. And the Dali Lama once said, “A more altruistic attitude is very relevant in today's world…When we say “others” and when we think of others, we will no longer dismiss them as something that is irrelevant to us. We will no longer feel indifferent.”

Floyd did not put his desire to help others in quite this way. But the soul of his desire was similar: he no longer saw “others” as irrelevant. He saw “others” as integral to his own happiness and well- being. He wanted to serve.

I found things for Floyd to do around the church and community. He became a fixture. He seemed to come alive as he helped other people. For almost a year Floyd found little ways to give back; and giving back gave his life renewed meaning.

One day Floyd didn’t show up. Several more days passed. I went looking for him at the marina. His boat bobbed like a cork in the restless wind. A week later his daughter called to tell me that Floyd died. The big “C,” she said.

Floyd taught me something: it’s never too late to serve others. It’s never too late to give back. The night that Floyd’s daughter called me on the phone I took a bottle of rum down to the beach. As the white moon rose above the horizon, I poured myself a glass and raised it in honor of a man who got it right, if only near the end.

May you learn to get it right—today.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In Honor of Mothers

We do not live in a culture that celebrates the honor and importance of motherhood. And yet, it’s impossible to overstate the value of mothers in world history, religious history—and in the life of the leaders of our own nation.

An ancient Jewish proverb states, "God could not be everywhere, and therefore He made mothers." Where would Jesus have been without Mary? Where would Muhammad have been without  Aminah bint Wahb? Where would the Buddha have been without Queen Māyā of Sakya? Where would Moses have been without Jochebed? World history would be vastly different without these mothers and the supportive role they played in their children’s lives.

Abraham Lincoln wrote, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." Many of us can affirm a similar sentiment. And while it’s not true that all mothers are angels, or that all mothers give us wings to soar, most mothers are, more or less, the moral and spiritual rock upon which their children stand. And yet, we do not live in a culture that celebrates the honor and importance of motherhood.

Without mothers, where would the nurture of the world come from? Certainly some fathers have the capacity to care for children. And yet, historically speaking, it has only been a recent phenomenon that fathers have assumed such a role. For the bulk of humanity’s existence, mothers have been the figures who have offered signs of tenderness and self-giving love. Children first know security and affection in and through their mother’s flesh.

I would not be the man that I am today were it not for the sustaining role that my mother has played in my life. My mother believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. She gave me courage when I was timid. She disciplined me when I lied or was disrespectful (I can still feel the switch on the back of my legs). She loves me unconditionally, though she does not always agree with me.

I believe it’s true what Saint Therese of Lisieux said: “The loveliest masterpiece of the heart of God is the love of a Mother.”  And yet, motherhood, perhaps the most important job in the world, is arguably the least valued of jobs. What did Theodore Roosevelt say? “The good mother…the wise mother…is more important to the community than the ablest man; her career is more worthy of honor and more useful to the community than the career of any man, no matter how successful.”


Thank God for your mother. If you cannot thank God for your mother, thank God for a woman who acted like the mother you wish you would have had. And, if your mother is still living, write her a letter and tell her how much she means to you. She’s worth it. 


Friday, April 4, 2014

The Art of Listening--a sacrifice of ego

Has this ever happened to you? You bump into an acquaintance. The person is likable. Good heart. Generous. But he or she can’t listen worth a darn. The conversation with your acquaintance involved nothing except your acquaintance talking about him or herself. Even after he or she asked a question of you, and you began to answer, he or she interjected for 10 minutes. You never finished answering the question originally asked.
Ernest Hemingway was correct when he remarked, “I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
There are few spiritual practices more important than listening. Imagine what would have become of the ancient Hebrews had Moses not taken time to listen to the Lord? As the New Testament book of James declares, “You should be quick to listen and slow to speak.”
I’m beginning to think that listening is out of vogue. Rarely does one meet anyone who is keener to listen than speak. As a pastor-theologian, I wonder: If we are not quick to listen to other human beings, can we listen to God?
The 20th century Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, wrote: “When you are listening to somebody completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”
It’s easy to pretend to listen to someone. You can daydream about fishing or surfing or what you will have for lunch. You can nod your head and, from time to time, say, “Uh-huh,” all the while not paying much attention to the person who is speaking. I know this because I have done it.
I am guilty of not always being the best listener to my wife, son, friends and parishioners. It’s true what Steven Covey wrote in his “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
The lack of listening is, at its heart, a moral issue. A lack of listening implies a degree of selfishness — even a sense of superiority. If I am more ready to reply than to listen, it suggests that what the other person has to say is not as important as what I have to say. This disregard for listening may indicate that I imagine myself superior to the one I am supposed to be listening to. Either way, such behavior is self-centered. Listening, real listening, requires a sacrifice of ego.
The next time you are engaged in a conversation, try to listen more than you speak. Use your ears more than your mouth. Sacrifice your need to speak, because what you have to say is probably no more important than what you ought to be listening to.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Doubt is the whetstone of faith

Philosophy, art and poetry have always welcomed doubters. Shakespeare, the bestselling poet of all time wrote, “Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.” Unlike philosophy, art and poetry, however, religion is not always comfortable with doubt. In the Christian tradition, folks are often weary of doubt—and doubters.
One of the most notorious religious doubters was a disciple of Jesus named Thomas. In the Christian New Testament book of John, Thomas declares to his buddies (who have recently seen the resurrected Jesus), “Unless I see… I will not believe.” One week later Jesus appeared to Thomas. In most English translations, Jesus says to him (rather dryly, I imagine), “Do not doubt, but believe.”
On April 20th, Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Prior to that holy day, I would like to try and set the record straight. I want to clear Thomas’ name. I want to clarify and redeem that odious title “Doubting Thomas,” which is an inaccurate translation of the original Greek text.
In the original Greek of the phrase I quoted above, Jesus does not say, “Do not doubt, but believe.” A more accurate translation is “Don’t become unfaithful, but faithful.” The difference between doubt and unfaithfulness is important, because one can have doubts, but still be faithful.
Doubt, by definition, presumes some level of belief, for you cannot doubt that which you do not, at some level, believe. You must believe a part of something in order to doubt another part of the same thing. The issue for Jesus with Thomas, according to the original language of the text, is not that he might have doubts about the resurrection, but that he might lose his faith in the God of the resurrection.
You may wonder if I have gone off the deep end. Why else get so nit-picky about a couple of words?
The choice of words makes all the difference, and here’s why. My experience suggests that religious faith is a two-sided coin. On one side is belief. On the other side is doubt. A living faith has aspects of doubt and belief. It’s like Khalil Gibran, the third bestselling poet of all time declared, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”
Were it not for doubt, which is nothing more than curiosity or inquisitiveness, we would not grow in faith. Like a knife in need of sharpening, faith needs a whetstone to hone its edge. Doubt is the whetstone of faith.
Doubt is an intellectual gift from God. Doubt is not to be feared, but embraced, for God is greater than doubt. Indeed, God uses our doubts to lead us deeper into the mystery of our faith. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Thomas.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Going to Hell

Not long ago I was leaving my classroom at Flagler College where I teach a course on world religions. On the sidewalk I passed two young men holding inflammatory religious signs and speaking loudly at students.
The young men with signs were yelling threats of hell at students. When I tried to speak kindly to one of the young men, he rebuffed me. When I asked if we might speak privately about his method of spreading the good news of Jesus, he shouted at me, pointed a finger, and then promptly condemned me to hell.
I guess the young man had not read the latest news. A recent poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that condemning nonbelievers to burn in hell for eternity is not an effective means to convert them. The study interviewed more than 10,000 participants by phone and found that of 2,342 professed non-believers who were told they would suffer the fires of hell for their disbelief, not a single one converted to believing in God.
Hell should never be wielded like a club by religious folk. Who is going to hell, if indeed anyone is going to hell, and for what, is God’s business. It is certainly not the business of young men in suits and ties to judge college students and offer up condemnation for an array of imagined sins.
The Greek New Testament concept of hell originally referred to a garbage-dump outside of Jerusalem where fire continuously burned trash. The Greek word, Ghenna, does not appear very many times in the New Testament. In one text, hell is described as the punishment for calling a sister or brother “fool (Matthew 5:22)” and in another text hell is offered as the punishment for despising of “little ones,” i.e., “outcasts” (Matthew 18:9). Typically, when hell (Ghenna) is spoken of, it connotes generalities and not behavioral specifics.
All of this is to say that any reading of the Bible that focuses on the fear of hell as a means for converting the unchurched or dechurched is a poor tool for evangelism. But such attempts at evangelism do a fantastic job engendering negative stereotypes of Christians.
So, if you happen to be the type of Christian who points your finger at people and then beats them over the head with threats of hell, you may want to examine how many fingers are pointing back at yourself. You may also want to recall the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Friday, January 3, 2014

Babble

It’s my judgment that too many people, too many businesses, too many politicians, and too many talk-news programs speak without thinking. The 19th century English newspaper publisher Sir William Benham had it right when he remarked, “Speaking without thinking is like shooting without aiming.” As a man who enjoys shooting, I will tell you this: if you do not aim you are aimless. And to be aimless with a gun carries the propensity for death. Whether this metaphor aptly carries over to politics, religion, business, and civil society, I cannot say.
St. Ambrose, a fourth century Christian, once said, “It is easier to look wise than talk wisely.” My gut tells me there are a lot of people who hope to look wise but are not talking wisely. Talking wisely has become the exception to the rule in public discourse. And why is talking wisely on the decline? Because talking too much is on the rise. To paraphrase Shakespeare, people of few words are the wisest of people.
To be wise and to be a windbag are categorical opposites. Like oil and water. One cannot be a babbler and a sage. To talk wisely is, according to Buddhism, to abstain from idle talk and gossip, along with lies and deception.
The reason that wisdom is rarely seen among those who profusely talk is because wisdom journeys with listening. To listen is to hear another person’s ideas and needs. But in order to listen one must be silent. And silence, these days, rarely gets to speak.