Living in Hope with Polycythemia Vera

by James Briney

An elderly monk told me that faith is a gift.  That explanation satisfied my curiosity about why he became a monk.  This made sense to me, given his history as a grizzled mountain man, who had been recruited off a barstool in Montana, by an Anglican bishop.  The encounter may have been random, but it changed his life.  Polycythemia vera (PV) is a gift because it reminds us of our own mortality.  Currently PV can be treated but not cured.  With rare exception perhaps, there is no remission.  I think of PV as relatively subtle and relentless.  A similar disease took the life of my youngest sister.

A gift is something that is given to us.  Although there is no definitive evidence that my disease came to me genetically, there is a familial cluster that may be random.  My primary care physician suspected my condition on the basis of a routine blood test, that was confirmed by an oncologist.  Within days, I was accepted as a patient by the hematologist who is treating me.  Upon first acquaintance he began appropriate therapies immediately.  That was in 2009.  The reality is that without treatment I may have been dead within 18 months, so I am thankful for the timely diagnosis.

A gift may be played with as an amusement or be of some practical use.  Polycythemia vera is not a playful distraction, but the treatment does require toying with available therapies to keep it at bay.  At the onset of my diagnosis, I felt like I would die within three weeks if I went to bed and pulled the covers over my head.  Until then I had known there was something wrong with me, but I did not know what it was.  My balance, vision and mental acuity were off.  A few months before the first inkling of the diagnosis, I fell down three times in the course of running bases during a softball game.  I dismissed that as being clumsy and out of practice.  It turns out that I had blacked out each time.

When people who know that I am sick tell me I look good, I say this disease does not make a person look bad, it just kills us through an increased risk for heart attack or stroke.  I had a stroke on April 3rd of 2013.  I was not able to speak and my left cheek was droopy.  In the midst of all sorts of tests and evaluations the condition resolved itself.  The miracle is that my wife and the congregation I serve are glad I can talk again.  To avoid speculation and rumors I promised all concerned that I would provide updates, as information about my health is made known to me.

Well into the first three years of chemotherapy injections, and the occasional phlebotomy, I shared with a study group that the drugs I am using have been known to stop working after a couple of years, and that my bone marrow could stop making red cells altogether, instead of too many.  There was a gasp, followed by a woman asking me what I would do if this happened to me.  I said I was thinking about staying limber so I could bend over and hug my behind goodbye. Humor is one way for us to keep from becoming black holes of concern.  We can take the edge off with candid humor that is not coated in denial and by listening to the specific vulnerabilities of the people we know.

The flip side of humor, or a shocking smart remark, is pondering that we are connected with everyone who is dealing with something.  I believe there is more to life than life itself and that life is a journey for the soul.  There are more dimensions than meet the eye.  Prayerful contemplation of quantum and cosmic consciousness is fun.  We benefit when we do not squander our opportunities to engage serious thought in conversation.  It is not useful to give in to fear.  That’s why the gospel invites us to love with all of our minds and all of our hearts, no matter what is happening to our bodies.

Each time there has been a new development in the progress of my disease, I have embraced it as an opportunity to evaluate my priorities.  When I was diagnosed, I decided to do what my doctor advised.  I considered how I was living my life within my means and realized that I had no interest in creating a bucket list.  Instead, I resolved to stay the course I was on by earning, saving, investing and serving.  A difference is that I have become steadfast and intentional about doing such things for others.

Our disease can be liberating.  It gives us a certain focus attached to the perspective that we are not going to live forever; while having clarity and sufficient energy to endure.  That is a gift because it provides us with the choice not to succumb to despair.  We contemplate the eventuality of our own death.  Our doctors think about helping all of us.  I have thought about what it is like for them to lose patients over time as they participate in research and await trials that are apt to hold the key to a variety of cures.  I figure if the scientists and medical professionals can work and live in hope, then so can we.

I do not think of myself as battling cancer.  I think of myself as living longer and feeling better than I would have without treatment.  None of this has to be experienced as a struggle.  It just is what it is.  Faith and belief are not the same things as proof and knowledge.  Yet I believe the very same answers formed in discovery and discernment will satisfy both scientists and theologians.  When I am offered unsolicited advice about diet and homeopathic remedies by well-meaning individuals, I thank them and say that I am open to such things.  Also that I have a doctor who cares about me and that I am sticking with his protocols.

Whatever your faith may be, and whether it is weak, strong or absent, it makes sense for us to participate in our own well-being by keeping fit, and leaving room for the spirit within us that is holy.  When I think about what our doctors are doing for us, I am reminded that Jesus was not being modest when he said: ‘You will do greater things than I.’  At a genetic and cellular level all sorts of things are being surmised and explored in laboratories.  Some of my hope lies with the professionals who are not driven by profit and personal gain.  My doctor could have made more money, and had an easier time of it, had he not been called to serve his patients.  Luckily for me, he decided not to pursue another passion.  When I was wondering what may be next for me, he said: ‘I will see that you get what you need, my friend.’

I had named my youngest sister, taught her to read, and saw that she was able to go to college.  Long before I was diagnosed, I was the donor for her bone marrow transplant. When she died in the wee hours of the morning, I stepped onto the porch of her modest house on a tree-lined street.  Quietly, as her body was taken away, I looked to an ambiguous sky, and said: ‘Okay, God. Whatever else you have for me, bring it on.’  That was not a dare, merely a realization that I could not imagine anything that would be more painful for me to bear.  This is easy, this disease of mine.

Our challenge is to not become complacent or to take for granted what others are doing to be thoughtful and supportive of us.  My wife has been there for me every step of the way.  The pathway to ultimate success in terms of research, remission, and cure is permeated with a sense of transitory discouragement.  What difference does it make?  Will it make a difference in our lifetime?  Recognizing the value of advances in medicine that may be helpful to another human being is a consideration.  But in terms of self-awareness and self- interest, it is important to see there is hope in being alive longer than we might have been otherwise.  And there is hope in knowing the effort is being made to provide us with therapies that are available.

I take no satisfaction in being aware that there are people in the world with our disease who have not been diagnosed.  But knowing that I could be collapsed in an alley from fatigue, or on the streets of a village, town or city, with flies buzzing around, and people stepping over me, helps me to embrace my own situation.  I am mindful that I am living in the comfort of my own home and being cared for by a doctor who has the capacity to persevere.  That’s a big part of what I think faith is about.  In the face of challenges and in the context of uncertainty we do what we are able to do, especially when we do not know what is yet to come.

The probability that I would be diagnosed soon after my doctor moved his practice from Minnesota to Arizona is about as remote as the mountain man advised by a bishop to become a monk.  As rare as our disease is, we are not alone.  I have taken in stride the latest development that my bone marrow indicates progression and that the treatment for me remains the same.  Jesus died not knowing if his life and sacrifice had been worth it.  He drew his last breath thinking he had been forsaken by God and abandoned by the people closest to him.  Because we have doctors who care for us we have not been abandoned.  Because our doctors have hope we have not been forsaken.

*******

Rev. James Briney is the pastor and teacher for the members and friends of Oro Valley United Church Of Christ in Arizona; having served congregations in Goshen, Indiana; Luzerne, Michigan; and Medford, Wisconsin. He has earned degrees in Philosophy and Theology and has held positions of responsibility and authority in the public sector, the private sector, and the church. He has run and won 24 come-from-behind issues and candidate campaigns by relying on reason, information, and facts in an atmosphere of good faith. In 1999, 2003, and 2013, Jim established funds with community foundations to promote integrity and excellence. Dr. Ruben A. Mesa suggested that he write something for patients with polycythemia vera and the doctors who are treating them.  

(7-10-16)  Photo by Lou Waters.

Are You Mourning the Death of Normal?

by Amanda Petersen

It seems like there is a memorial that many have attended; a service for the biggest celebrity of our times. The memorial is for Normal. I seem to be watching it die all around me in the weather, politics, how culture is viewed, social norms, etc. Maybe as a second half of life issue, I’m becoming that person in the rocking chair on the front porch with my cronies, talking about Normal before Normal died.

The vows of the Benedictine society are to obedience, stability, and conversion of life. Briefly, obedience rests in a listening heart. Who are you listening to? The response is God’s and Christ’s example. Stability is to the community and all that unfolds with that. Stability centers in the listening heart. Conversion of life is both the personal and communal commitment to always be growing and moving closer to God and others.

What I love about these vows is they recognize that normal is good and yet normal is not God; that normal is always evolving into the new normal and that is a process. Like any grief process it has its stages, yet in a contemplative life, letting go of Normal is normal. That is not the focus. After all, the death of one person’s Normal might be the cause of celebration for another. Think of segregation, women’s rights, etc.

If you find yourself mourning the loss of Normal in this season of great change, know you are not alone. Honor your grieving process and cling to a listening heart because God is in the midst of the transition. Listen with your heart, stand with community, and embrace that this new Normal is an opportunity to draw closer to God and others.

Pathways of Grace is in the midst of embracing a new Normal and over the next few weeks, I’ll fill you in about how it is evolving. This week, find ways to notice your relationship with Normal. How does it impact your listening heart?

Places of Health and Healing

by Karen MacDonald

In a training for faith community members and leaders, I often ask participants to name places that enhance health.  Answers usually include things like doctors, gyms, clinics, the local Area Agency on Aging, organizations addressing diabetes or heart disease or dementia, hospitals, even the place where I work, Interfaith Community Services.  Every once in awhile, in a group of faith community people, the $64,000 answer comes up: our faith communities!

Indeed, for ages, spiritual sages have seen and taught the interconnectedness of our well-being—spirit, mind, body, community. The heady Age of Enlightenment (as if previous ages weren’t enlightened in their holistic views of life) separated body and spirit, science and religion.  Still, wise ones always kept alive the whole view.

The health ministry movement gained traction in the 1970’s, largely through the work of Rev. Grainger Westburg, a Lutheran pastor and hospital chaplain, and his colleagues.  Congregations are intentionally reclaiming their role as places of health and healing.  There are classes on healthy nutrition, fall prevention, mental illness/health, spiritual practices, and more.  There are yoga, tai chi, chair exercise classes, and more.  There are healing services, prayer gatherings, spiritual direction groups, and more.  There are support groups, community gardens, labyrinths, and more. There is the understanding that everything a congregation offers is interwoven to support well-being, of individuals, families, the congregation, the community.  Through all activities is threaded faith, drawing on scripture, prayer, worship, ritual, trust in the Source of Life.  As I hear from pastors and health ministry leaders, such health-minded programs enliven the life of congregations.

For a point of interest, the Health Ministries Association, the national group for anyone involved or interested in congregation-based health programs, is holding its annual conference this year in our backyard—Chandler, AZ.  Dates are September 12-14, with a lineup of inspiring speakers, enlightening workshops, meeting and learning from other participants, caring for our spirits…..it’s always a great time together.  More information on Health Ministries Association (HMA) and the conference is at www.hmassoc.org.  (Disclosure: I serve on the HMA Board.)

To health!

Why Doing Nothing Can Be Good

by Amos Smith

A number of my peers are devoted to fishing and sailing.

I’m convinced the primary motivation for these activities is an excuse to do nothing – to just sit waiting for a bite – to just get carried by the wind. Rarely, in our industrialized world, are we afforded the time required for our minds to still – to settle into the desert quiet that fertilized the minds of the prophets – the minds of shepherds like David who wrote “God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).

Christian tradition, especially Protestant tradition, emphasizes revelation from scripture. Yet, at its root, revelation in scripture begins with silence. Silence is the fertile soil where God’s word originates. To discover the revelations of scripture we expose ourselves to scripture. To discover the revelations of silence, we expose ourselves to silence.

In silence there is revelation – revelation about ourselves. We come to the frontiers of silence and we find a number of things. Some feel discomfort, some anxiety, some feel tension in their bodies, and still others feel emotional turmoil. And most will discover above all else the wondering monkey mind and how difficult it is to still it. What we experience reveals something about our nature. The revelation of the wandering monkey mind is itself a great gift of awareness.

When our mind finally stills and enters deep silences we come to understand more and more about ourselves.

Advice for Myself in Difficult Times

by Karen Richter

As I pondered what to write this week for the blog, I was reading a lot. And much of what I was reading was, at least on the surface, contradictory. Within the same five minutes, I would read “You’re not doing enough. No one is doing enough,” and “Rest and take care of yourself. You are enough.” I like to look for moments of spiritual whiplash, because they seem like moments of growth… and these last few weeks have been a whiplash bonanza. I meandered around the edges of several different writing topics, but everything seemed to be already said, better and more eloquently, by someone more qualified than I.

So I offer this little listicle… imagine that you are eavesdropping on an inner conversation, as I try to assimilate the messages of this heartbreaking July.

 

  1. There’s a difference between guilt and shame.

This is a helpful distinction for me, from the work of Brene Brown. Guilt is that feeling you get when you do something that’s out of step with your values. Guilt self-talk sounds like, “I did X but I believe Y. People who believe Y don’t do X. I want to be a person who acts consistently with Y! This feels bad.” Healthy guilt prompts us to act with integrity and wholeness. Shame self-talk is stronger and more difficult to experience. It sounds like, “I did X because I’m a bad person. People who do X are not worthy of love and respect.” Shame might result in temporary changes in behavior, but they don’t last.

In this difficult July, I’ve sometimes needed to sit with guilt and feel those difficult feelings. Twelve step spirituality talks about a ‘fearless moral inventory.’ Many of us (read: white folks) need to do some fearless reflection on race and privilege.

But as much as is possible, stay away from shame.  

 

  1. Take care.  Sleep. Move your body. Eat healthy food.

I’m treading carefully here, friends. Recently, I’ve heard the expression ‘Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others…” and it feels like an excuse for selfishness. I hear friends talk about Netflix and shopping as self-care and it sounds like a cop out.

So the questions are always What is valid self-care for me? How do I balance care of those closest to me and care of the world? How will I know when it’s time to step out of the cocoon of self-care and back into the hurting world?

Tentatively, I am reaching toward a rule that if a self-care tactic gives me energy to help others, that’s a good tactic. If a self-care tactic feeds an unhealthy dependence (social media, obsession with self-image, materialism), it’s not so good. The corollary to this rule is to be gentle with myself and others.

Helpful stuff

 

  1. Reach out. Listen. Help.

Last weekend, about a dozen of us gathered at Shadow Rock. In the days and hours after the shootings last week (Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, and the officers in Dallas), many in our congregation expressed a need to be together. So despite the valid self-care of our July Sabbath, we opened the sanctuary to sing, talk, pray, and comfort one another.

And it was a good thing. But there’s a reaching out that’s beyond our comfort zone, a reaching out to people with backgrounds, cultures, faiths, and experiences different from our own. It’s hard and holy work. And it’s in this part of the list – #3 – that I feel most humbled and need to hear my own advice the most.

Helpful stuff

 

  1. Love matters.

You know all those begats in the Bible (I’m talkin’ about you, Exodus chapter 6 and Matthew chapter 1)? Genealogies are often thought of as the most boring parts of scripture. But think of this: our spiritual ancestors were parents. And for a lot of them, that’s ALL WE KNOW ABOUT THEM. And parenting in 2016 is hard work. If nothing else, everyone on the Internet and IRL seems to find tremendous satisfaction in telling you what you’re doing wrong.

But it’s so important. Raising kind and brave children and supporting parents who are trying to do the same may be the only thing I do with lasting impact.

Helpful stuff

And #4 gives me the most hope. All around me, I see adults treating children with respect. I see parents trying to parent peacefully. I see our culture slowly, slowly become more welcoming to all kinds of families and kids.

So, so all the parents out there, I SEE YOU. And you’re doing great.

 

  1. Listen to your yoga teacher: When in doubt, soften.

Breathe. Center yourself. Find some muscle to relax. Repeat as necessary.

Hungry for God’s Word

by Talitha Arnold

What are you hungry for? Chocolate? Ice cream? A big juicy steak? Grilled veggies?

Long ago, the Prophet Amos proclaimed a different kind of hunger, one for the word of God. He said his people were in the midst of a famine in their land. “Not a famine of bread or a thirst for water,” he said, but a famine of the hearing of the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:4-6, 11-12)

Amos could have been talking about our time, our land, and our world. Perhaps like you, after the last two weeks of news from Turkey and France, Dallas and Baton Rouge, and all the other violence-racked places of our world, I am hungry for God’s word–

God’s word of peace that this world seems incapable of offering.
God’s word of love that can overcome all the hate and fear.
God’s word of hope that pushes back the despair.
God’s word of courage to trust that peace, hope, and even love are still possible.

How do we hear that word? Turning off the news, at least for a while, is one way. The world and its news will still be there when you turn it back on.

Joining with others in worship to give thanks and raise our voices in song is another way. So is taking time for prayer, on Sunday mornings and throughout the other days of the week as well.

But how to pray in such a time? Here’s a prayer from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship to get started:

Jesus said, “You ought always to pray and not faint.”
God of heaven and earth, help us not to pray for easy lives;
But pray to be stronger women and men.
Help us not to pray for tasks equal to our powers,
But for power equal to our tasks and your work.
So that the doing of your work in our world will be no miracle—
But our openness to you and your power will be the miracle.
And every day we will wonder at ourselves and the richness of life
That has come to us by the grace of God. Amen.

Another one:

Dear Lord,
We pray for all the children entrusted to our care
and those throughout the world. Be good to them.

The sea is so big,
and their boat is so small.
Amen.

When we don’t have the words to pray, when we can’t will ourselves not to worry, when we are famished for God’s word, the prayers of others can feed our deep hungers. I hope you’re hungry enough to join in worship and prayer tomorrow. And if you can’t be there, I hope you will take time to offer these or other prayers for our time. Lord knows this hungry world needs them.

A Minister’s Empathy: A Perplexing Tool to Bring to a Combat Theater

guest post by Owen Chandler

[Editor’s note: Rev. Owen Chandler, the Senior Minister of Saguaro Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tucson, was deployed earlier this year from the Army Reserve and serves as Battalion Chaplain of the 336th CCSB in Iraq. He frequently writes letters to his home church, and is graciously open to sharing them here on the SWC Blog. This is his July letter.]

Beloved Saguaro,

My prayers and these words travel to meet you with the speed of God’s love. I miss you so. We are nearing the halfway mark and my affection for you remains unchanged. I am grateful for your continued prayers, letters, and packages. I am thankful you continue to grow stronger in your fulfillment of the vision that God placed on your hearts. That strength is contagious. It helps me when I have days here that leave me questioning the nature of my Call and the power of God’s peace.

The last few weeks were challenging in ways needed, unfortunate, and unwelcome. I spent most of the time traveling to a distant outpost. We have soldiers there that help with the supply and sustainment functions of the war effort. Nestled just behind the front lines of Fallujah, I experienced my first combat landing! This is where the plane does a corkscrew maneuver to land – and to think i was sad because I didn’t think I was going to get to ride any roller coasters this summer!

Amazingly, there in one of the austere environments we operate, I met another DOC [Disciples of Christ] chaplain, CH (MAJ) Fisher. I am biased, but i think the DOC develops some of the best ministers. After a week with CH Fisher, I am further convinced that we produce some of the best chaplains. The week I spent with him was like drinking from the font of military chaplaincy wisdom. The guy is the real deal. The soldiers there knew it, too. I watched him engage with the lowest private to the highest colonel. Each soldier left feeling affirmed by the grace of our Lord. I pray that one day I can operate with such skill.

It was fortunate that CH Fisher was there. I was able to process with him one of my most difficult moments of the deployment. As I stated, this outpost held close proximity to Fallujah, during the last days of the battle to retake the city. Each morning I awoke to the sound of cannons firing on the city. I guess you get used to them after a while, but not after only a week. Each day the sounds of war acted as the soundtrack to life on the post. At night, you could see the outskirts of the city due to the distant flashes of bombs and tracer rounds. Day after day, one would read about the desperation of the civilian population being used as shields by ISIS. I saw the faces of Saguaro in those trapped in Fallujah. They were the normal people without the means and connections to escape. My adrenaline pumped with the rage I felt at the evil of ISIS. How could one group be so depraved?

During my time there, the news stated that the battle was over. ISIS was defeated. One night, I was playing basketball with the Navy Seal team located there. In between games, they indicated the last remnants of the opposition were attempting to flee by a large caravan. The Iraqi Army had blocked their exit and there was this weird stalemate occurring just a few short miles from where I was playing. That night I stood on the flight line trying to talk my way onto a flight back to Taji. I was unsuccessful. There, under a darkened night sky, I looked to my left. Where there were once just stars, the sky illuminated, and the bowels of American military might were dropped onto the stalled ISIS fighters. And just like that, it was over; hundreds of lives gone.

It is a strange mix of emotions watching a scene like that. A minister’s empathy is a perplexing tool to bring to a combat theater. To be sure, I find assurance that those ISIS fighters are gone. I don’t understand the evil that drives them. As I told Emily before leaving for this deployment, I do not want my children to have to fight this battle. The effort to retake Fallujah is one more step closer to that reality. The event left me struggling with two issues. To start, I am uncomfortable with the anger I felt towards our enemy. Christ’s words to love our enemies stand before me like a test that I know I just failed. I guess the other thing that gets me is how complete, effective, and devastating our tools of war are in this world. We have spent so much money, intellectual effort, and time perfecting war. I wonder what would happen if we spent equal amounts of such trying to understand peace. Would our efforts be as complete, effective, and uplifting? These are the questions I spent the next few days discussing with CH Fisher. I am thankful for the honesty of these conversations and questions. I imagine I will be discussing these things within my soul for some time to come.

These may be thoughts born of war, but my news feed tells me that maybe they are questions which we should be entertaining back stateside, too. I wish I had something profound to tell you. I am sure that the wisdom of Bill Robey has been a steadying presence in your times of worship as of late. I only have this prayer I wrote in my journal which is growing out of this war:

[with respect to war, fear, and rage] We don’t accept it. We don’t lose heart. We act in love and love alone. We are created in God’s image and this means something. The resurrection is a shared reality that our hands and feet help recreate each day. That is our job. That is our calling. War may surround us. Death may try to overtake us. Revenge and rage may try to seduce us, but these don’t strengthen our souls. Live and pray with courage. If we don’t do it, then who will?

I apologize for the heaviness of this letter. I am fine. I am safe. I am loved. I’ve attached photos to try to show you that I’m still smiling and bringing smiles to the hearts of others.

Until we meet again,

Owen

taji combat cigar club patch
The Australians welcomed me into their special club. I tell them funny stories about roadrunners and coyotes, and they tell me similar stories about kangaroos and Tasmanian devils.

 

Owen's tiny purple heart
Tall people problems: I ran into an air conditioner. The unit made this for me.

 

fire engine
I got a new coffee pot. Fifteen minutes later I got to meet the fire department. Luckily I have experience with small kitchen fires.

 

Owen Chandler with Jonathan Fisher
I was honored to meet and learn from another DOC chaplain. Our denomination represents maybe 2% of military chaplaincy, yet in OIR we make up about 30%!

 

shrapnel extracted from soldiers
The surgeons of one of our outpost showed me some of the shrapnel he extracted from soldiers over the last month.

 

drone tour
I am being given a tour of the drones (UVA). I tried to get them to let me fly it but they kept droning on about cost and liability.

 

Kat Perkins with Owen Chandler
Kat Perkins (finalist on the Voice) was great. She asked if I knew her. I told her, “Unless you were on Daniel Tiger or some other cartoon, there’s a good chance I have no clue who you are. I have kids!”

 

Finally, here is a link to the story I referenced in my letter. Thought you might be interested.

Inside look at US-led coalition’s deadliest single attack on Islamic State

Faith Nonetheless

by Kenneth McIntosh

It would seem that in recent news there’s something happening to make almost everyone afraid. Gun violence in general, the Pulse nightclub massacre, and killings connected with racism, are all viscerally upsetting. Political stakes have never seemed higher, with voters on the left and the right portraying the upcoming presidential race as near-apocalyptic in its possible outcome. Even before these recent events, Time Magazine, at the start of this year, published an article titled “Why Americans are More Afraid Than They Used to Be.” It included terrorism as a cause, along with “the politics of fear” (the trend for politicians to invoke fear as motivation for their causes). They add that the widespread loss of trust in government (on all sides) leads to the perception that citizens must handle threats increasingly by themselves — adding to the sense of anxiety.

Christians in mainline denominations have a well-established and laudable reaction to fear; we redouble efforts for justice. This certainly reflects Jesus’ priority to “seek first the Reign of God, and God’s justice.” There’s a risk, however, in passionate involvement even for thoroughly good causes—activists can fall prey to the same fears and anxieties that afflict persons who are not involved in justice work—and when that happens, people of faith lose their distinctive witness.

In uncertain times, belief in the Living God can counterbalance the temptation to fear and its attendant maladies (such as anger, desperation, withdrawal and poor judgement). Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, wrote about how his wife would teach adult classes the meaning of faith by asking them “How many of you have taught a child to swim?” Borg then notes that “Faith … is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being.” He goes on to explain “The opposite of trust is not doubt or disbelief…its opposite is ‘anxiety’ or ‘worry.” He concludes “Growth in faith as trust casts out anxiety.”

More recently, John Cobb, the famous process theologian, released his book Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed. Cobb laments that misunderstandings of God’s nature have led many liberal Christians to eschew robust faith in the Deity that Jesus followed. The unfortunate result is that such a religion “rarely challenges its members to devote themselves to God.” Cobb understands the problems that have led believers to eschew God-talk. The list of these problems includes: claims of God’s absolute omnipotence, lack of compassion, scientific unreasonableness, and exclusivity. But these problems—he says—are not attributes of Jesus’s Abba God. We need to relate to God with the same manner of faith we see in Jesus, because The pressing issues of our world require actions that will be “hard to achieve without the belief in the One who is, or relates to, the whole and is felt worthy of our total devotion.”

In Luke 18:1, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (NRSV). This seems a timely word for our situation today. We need to keep our focus on the reality of God, who is present in the rough-and-tumble physicality of our world and is constantly working to create openings for grace and redemption. Accompanying such a focus, we need to remain steadfast in time-honored practices of prayer and contemplation that keep us “tuned in” to God. The stories of faith in our Scriptures include the presence of great evil, of intolerance, and of dire injustice. We should not be surprised to see the same powers and principalities at work in our world today; and by the same token we should expect to see Abba God powerfully at work in our midst. When fear and discouragement knock at our door we can reply “we have faith in God, nonetheless.”

Checking My Pulse

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I’ve been quiet.

That’s likely not a big deal to you, but for those who know me, I am rarely quiet. It’s an aspect of myself that I sometimes judge, that I sometimes embrace, that I sometimes just observe. There are many rooftop shouters and I happen to be one on a lot of occasions. I’ve come to accept that about myself and let it be.

Yet… I find myself quiet in all the ways I normally echo through the halls of my life. This quiet is because I cannot figure out the first word to the next sentence that would make sense of the loss of life in these endless mass shootings.

I have been reading the words of others and watching us collectively attempt that tried-and-true five-part model of coming to terms with grief as offered by Kubler-Ross. The problem is, once we get past that first stage of denial, entering into anger, we have yet another mass killing that brings us back to that denial. We only get to two-step our way through something that requires so much more to navigate.

“What? Another one? How can this be? I blame [fill in the blank]” and we never get to that elusive next step of bargaining then depression then acceptance.

Denial. Anger. Denial. Anger. Repeat.

My first memory of participating in a collective shared grief was when I was 8 and made to attend an elementary school assembly. We were gathered because the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff and people died. I didn’t fully understand this gathering we were doing. This silence they wanted us to sit with made very little sense to me.

My fellow elementary school peers and I tried to sit quietly, but we were fidgeting and coughing, because we had no idea why we had to suddenly be quiet together. I remember looking around and wishing we could talk again. I wasn’t bored, just completely confused by the whole deal and wanting to get back to whatever we would be doing if this hadn’t happened. As I looked around I noticed that the teachers were crying. Then, the slow dawning of the devastation settled on me.

The space shuttle had a teacher on it. The teacher was going to space, literally doing something out of this world, and that teacher died. Wait, could my teacher die? I remember looking for Mrs. Likes, my favorite teacher, seeing her crying and thinking “That teacher was like Mrs. Likes! Mrs. Likes could die!”

And this was the most tragic thing my new-to-this-world brain could imagine. I was so sad and I cried so hard as I imagined my Mrs. Likes blowing up in a space shuttle.

When we see ourselves or those we love in the death what follows is such a devastation to the soul. This life that we have been taught to nurture could just go away. Just like that. And in violent, murders, someone makes it go away.

“What? Another one? But how can this be?”

I’m trans. I’m queer. I love so many people who are trans and who are queer. This makes relating to the Pulse massacre in Orlando all the more real to me. I was able to cast myself as a dancer on that dance floor without even knowing I was doing the casting. Images came to me with no provocation, like laying my body over my wife’s body because there would be no way on earth I would let her be exposed to death without trying every defense within me.

I have loved ones who are police officers. I could cast them very easily into the badges and uniforms in Dallas, imagining their last breath. I have loved ones who have darker skin than mine and they run a greater risk to die violently and prematurely every single day just because of the bias, prejudice and fear our society has endorsed since the start of our country.

Once we see ourselves and our loved ones in the rampant hate, victimization, and debilitating disparities we can never “un-see” it. And we will often do anything we can to stop it.

Denial. Anger. Denial. Anger. Repeat.

The versions of me, the versions of you, the versions of all those we love are the ones that have their pulse taken from them in places that often had served as sanctuary.

Our souls cry out in denial: “No! Not again! No!”

Our souls grapple with the anger that is oh so appropriate for this loss, “I will stop them! They will not harm me!”

Our souls begin to well up with tears as the bargaining begins, “Please…”

We only can utter the single word of bargaining as it is interrupted by yet another shooting, another body crumpling to the floor. We return to the desperate denial chorus “No! Not again! No!”

Denial.
Anger.
Denial.
Anger.
Repeat.

Then the slow dawning settles on me with an unshakable truth:
That could have been my pulse that slowed and then stopped.
That could have been your pulse that slowed and then stopped.
That could have been the pulse of every single person that we know, every single person we love, that slowed and then stopped.

I’ve been very quiet, stunned into emotional muteness, a seemingly endless moment of silence as I find a new use for my hands that once fidgeted during that assembly thirty years ago. I use those hands now to check my pulse, to feel that life force pumping through my being, to witness the miracle that keeps me breathing and to acknowledge my pulse continues where so many others have ended.

As we go through the dark brokenness that has become the norm, let us never forget how rich, how powerful, how mighty and how unyielding that stubborn flow of life within is in the face of all that attempts to end it. The true grit of the heart keeps on going.

That pulse within you is ancient. That pulse has been giving a rhythm to life in this world since the dawn of time. That pulse is what unites us. That pulse that lives in you speaks to the one that lives in me. The radical act of intentional living in the face of all the destruction is the very thing that steady pulse within has been calling us to all along. And it changes our options, it changes our paths when we invite in the flow of life.

Denial.
It says Look.
Anger.
It says Be.
Bargaining.
It says Please.
Depression.
It says Love.
Acceptance.
It says Live.

Here’s to Pastors

by Ryan Gear

“So what do you do for a living?”

“Um… a… I’m a pastor.”

(Then following that awkward moment of silence to which all pastors are accustomed, in a surprised and tentative tone…)

“Oh… great. That’s great.”

It’s a snippet of small talk pastors dread. They are aware that some people wonder why in the hell a sane human being would ever consider being a pastor. It’s such a “different” line of work that defies 21st century American career categories.

When folks discover you’re a pastor, they wonder to themselves, “What kind of pastor?” Are you an intelligent, open-minded person or an angry, intolerant extremist? Do you get involved in people’s everyday lives in the real world, or do you pray all day in an ivory tower only to work on Sundays? Are you a more like a wise counselor or a manic “The End is Near” sign-wielding street preacher?  

Every pastor I know is a little hesitant to answer the “What do you do for a living” question because they know it’s often awkward for the other person. These pastors are kind, thoughtful, people-pleasing types who want everyone to feel comfortable, and they actually feel bad when other people don’t know how to act around them.

Pastors also get a bad rap because of a few intolerant blowhards who act like the moral police of society, spiritual abusers who hurt their congregations, and slick-haired televangelists who dupe gullible people into sending them money in return for oil soaked “prayer hankies.” These charlatans do not in any way represent the vast majority of pastors. There are 300,000 pastors in the United States who are honest, compassionate, overworked and underpaid leaders in their communities.

Beyond this, I’ve also found that many pastors don’t know how skilled they really are. After working as a full-time Development Director in a nonprofit charitable organization, I can assure you that pastors are incredibly skilled leaders.

For example, the typical nonprofit obtains half of their revenue from government grants. Churches certainly do not. Pastors who know how to inspire people and raise funds for a cause, without government funding, are far more skilled fundraisers than many executives in the nonprofit world. And these pastors don’t fly in private jets. Most pastors make about as much as school teachers.

On top of that, pastors are often gifted advertisers. While church is not a business, the same principles of communication that work at Apple also work in church. If a pastor effectively builds anticipation and momentum for a new sermon series or a new ministry, she or he has successfully employed the same skills used by the marketing geniuses at Geico or Anheuser-Busch. While they might lack some of the industry jargon, effective pastors could step into a marketing role in corporate America and likely turn heads with their insight.

Then, except for at the most silver-tongued of political figures, many pastors I know can give a more moving, soul-stirring speech than nationally-known politicians. There are U.S. senators who wish they could give a speech half as good as the average pastor’s weekly sermon. Whether the topic is secular or spiritual, effective communication is effective communication, and many pastors are far better at it than they realize.

Finally, when it comes to leadership, and I really mean this, pastors are some of the best leaders on the planet. Why? According to leadership gurus like Peter Drucker, Ken Blanchard, and John Maxwell, it’s because they lead volunteers. When a leader depends on volunteers, she or he can’t threaten workers with a cut in pay. Instead, an effective pastor leads by inspiration and example, and this is the pinnacle of leadership. Even pastors who consider themselves to be average leaders can beat the socks off of a corporate manager who drags along paid employees only because of a title and fear of a bad review. If you can lead volunteers, you’re in the upper echelon of leaders. Period.

So, in spite of awkward introductions at parties, most pastors are giving, selfless leaders who are far more gifted than they realize, and their skills could propel them to success in many fields.

If you’re a church-goer, why not send your pastor a thank you email this week? Let her or him know that you appreciate the long hours, the wise guidance, the time they spend with people in the deepest valleys of life, and the way they inspire you to be a better person.

If you are a caring and thoughtful pastor, please hear this…

Well done, good and faithful servant. Thank you for working nights and weekends, for your thick skin, for your M.Div. student loans, for your perseverance, for your family’s commitment even when it hurts, and for your personal sacrifice that makes people’s lives better.

Here’s to pastors.