Category Archives: personal

Dying to Live for Others

Little Sisters

Today I visited a home for the impoverished elderly in DC run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. This trip, like a previous one to their home in Richmond, was the result of a promise I made last year to a spunky Irish nun named Sister Helen Creed, when I visited her order’s Nyumba Ya Wazee (Home for the Elderly) in Nairobi, Kenya.

While the humble facility in Africa can’t compare to the ones in our wealthy nation, the love for the elderly poor in both places is the same. What impressed me most today was watching three sisters caring for a woman who was dying, talking to her, stroking her, encouraging her to eat. The nun who led my tour of the facility explained that someone stays with the dying person around the clock “until they go to God.” I thought, “What secular nursing home would do that?”

When we care for the least privileged in society, we are caring for Jesus. That’s what the Lord explained in Matthew 25:31-46. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, put it like this: “Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well. . . . Oh yes! Be kind. It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself whom you are serving.” The nuns I met in Nairobi, Richmond, and DC not only minister to the poor, they are themselves poor. They’ve chosen a life of voluntarily poverty in order to preach the Gospel, not in words but in deeds. They die to self in order to live for others. If you were to ask me where I’ve seen God lately, I’d answer in the Little Sisters of the Poor and the people they care for.

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Scared to Death

lowering-a-casket-into-grave

I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org), “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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Docility

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Africa, March 27, 2016

We often associate docility with weakness and assertiveness with strength, but the opposite is true when it comes to living the Christian life and responding to the Holy Spirit. Too often we are like a toddler fighting against a parent who is trying to lead it by the hand. We pull away. We protest. We pout. We make ourselves miserable, resisting God’s will for our lives.

When the Navy told me I would be mobilized and deployed to Djibouti, Africa for a year, I didn’t want to go. Djibouti is hot, miserably hot, and a year is a long time to be away from my family. I prayed that God would give me the grace to accept his will in this matter, even if it’s not what I want. Guess what! He did. This deployment has turned out to be a blessing, not a curse as I had feared. It has taught me a lot about God.

Docile submission to God’s will is a key to spiritual growth. This is a lesson I am still learning. I spent weeks planning an Easter trip to Mogadishu, Somalia with the goal of leading worship for a handful of American and European troops stationed there. The logistics were complicated since there are currently no commercial flights to Somalia due to safety concerns. The commanding general allowed me to borrow his plane – a Beechcraft C-12 twin turboprop aircraft. We took off on Friday, March 25, only to turn around after 45 minutes and return to base due to mechanical problems. After that my trip was canceled. I spent Easter weekend at my home base: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

Instead of grumbling and complaining, I accepted the change as part of God’s plan and asked him to show me opportunities for service. I wasn’t on the preaching schedule, so I attended all of the Holy Week services both Protestant and Catholic. On Saturday, much to my surprise, I was asked to preach the Easter Sunrise service and assist with the main Protestant service. Because my plans changed, I had some unexpected and meaningful opportunities.

As I continue to learn the importance of docile submission to God’s will, Proverbs 3:5-6 come to mind: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” My hope and prayer is that we will all grow in this grace.

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Into Africa

tree of life

Tree of Life, Walt Disney World

The one thing predictable about life is its unpredictability. Since my last post – a while ago, I know – I’ve embarked on an unexpected, and in some ways unwanted, journey. I use the word “journey” literally, not just metaphorically.

I left my church on June 19 for an involuntary, yearlong mobilization and deployment to Djibouti, Africa where I serve as the senior US military chaplain. (If your African geography is as shaky as mine, I’ll give you some help: Djibouti is surrounded by the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea in the so-called Horn of Africa.) Camp Lemonnier, my new duty station, is a US Navy base with over 4,000 personnel aboard, including all branches of our military, foreign military personnel, and civilians.

I arrived in Djibouti on July 16 and have adjusted to the time difference and extreme climate, for the most part (“extreme” as in extremely hot). Part of my job is traveling to wherever we have even a small number of US troops. I’ve already been on two trips: a brief one to Mogadishu, Somalia (called “the most dangerous city in the world”) and a longer stop at a base in Kenya where I saw scenes that looked straight out of The Lion King: a giant crane soars majestically over an ancient thick-trunked Tree of Life, curious little black-faced monkeys scamper around the camp looking for scraps of food, a small antelope called a dik-dik bounds through the jungle.

But, as exotic as the wildlife is, by far the greater experience has been meeting people from all walks of life: military and civilian, career military and reservists, male and female, young and old, people of all nationalities from all parts of the globe—more diverse than the flora and fauna of Africa.

I’ve often said the greatest joy of ministry is dealing with people, and the greatest challenge of ministry is dealing with people. That’s true here too, though so far the joys far outweigh the challenges.Moger in Somalia

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The Visitation

El Greco The Visitation

Last week while I was on vacation I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I visited Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown. Owned by Harvard University, the museum has a small but significant collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, reflecting the eclectic interests of its founders Robert and Mildred Bliss. I know almost nothing about Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, so I thought I wouldn’t recognize anything in the collection. But as I passed the Italian Renaissance-style music room on my way to the Philip Johnson Pavilion where the Pre-Columbian exhibit is housed, a smallish painting caught my eye. Even before I recognized the subject matter, I knew the artist: El Greco (1541-1614). Upon closer inspection I saw that it was a painting of the Bible story known as The Visitation (Luke 1:39-45). Mary, having just been told by an angel that she would miraculously conceive the Son of God, visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a miracle baby, John the Baptist, conceived beyond the mother’s childbearing years.

The expressionistic style of the painting makes it look remarkably modern, as if from the twentieth century, even though it was painted sometime between 1610 and 1614. One commentator praised the work for embodying “all the mysticism and eerie brilliance typical of the best phase of [El Greco’s] style.” In it, two nondescript figures, robed in identical silver-blue hooded garments, embrace in a corniced doorway with a white, fluted casing. There are no halos, no religious symbols. The scene is strikingly ordinary, considering the miracle it depicts.

When Mary greets her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. That experience prompted her to utter one of the most famous lines of the Bible: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” part of the Hail Mary prayer Catholics around the world pray every day. Still, as important as the story is, it hasn’t done a lot for me in the past. I guess it’s difficult for me, a modern American male, to relate to pre-modern Eastern women both of whom are carrying miracle babies in their respective wombs. Besides the fantastic-sounding conception stories, I don’t understand why Elizabeth saw the baby moving in her womb as a miraculous sign. Don’t all babies do that? Was being filled with the Holy Spirit what enabled Elizabeth to see the ordinary event of a fetal motion as a divine sign?

I’m not sure why it’s difficult for me to see God’s hand in the ordinary. Perhaps it’s because I’m not looking for it, or at least not looking carefully enough. Both my religious training and my personality have made me hesitant to acknowledge the fact that God speaks to us outside of Scripture. Too many people get caught up in Charismatic kookiness or plain old superstition, so (I reason) it’s much safer to stick with the Bible. Yet even in Scripture God speaks to his people in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s miraculous like Moses at the burning bush. At other times the means of divine communication is surprisingly ordinary like an unborn baby moving. Jesus himself drew his greatest lessons from everyday life: a farmer sowing seed, a shepherd tending a flock, a fisherman catching fish, a woman searching for a lost coin.

I am trying to learn how to find God in ordinary things, even a trip to a museum.

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Imperfect

imperfect flower

It’s easier to see other people’s faults than our own. That’s why Jesus told us to take the beam out of our own eye before we try to remove the speck from our brother’s. The tendency to cast a more judgmental eye on others isn’t all bad, however. It can provide fodder for healthy self-criticism when we recognize our own shortcomings in someone else. I first learned this lesson when I was turning 12. My cousin Keith was staying with us for the summer after his father, my uncle, died. Keith and I are both perfectionists, though I didn’t understand the extent or dangers of my own perfectionism at the time.

I remember my mother had us do an art project to help pass the time between more typical summer activities. It was decoupage – gluing a picture on a wooden block and then varnishing it. In the process Keith got a tiny tear in his picture. My mother assured him it was okay. No one would notice. The project would turn out fine despite the flaw. My cousin, however, was so troubled by the small imperfection that he tore up the picture. Seeing his reaction struck a chord in me. He did what I would have wanted to do had I made the same mistake. If I can’t succeed, I don’t want to continue.

Yesterday I made a careless mistake that may cost me hundreds of dollars. It sent my emotions into a tailspin and my whole day went down from there. I wish I could laugh off my mistakes. I can’t. Sometimes they weigh me down like an anchor. While I was wallowing in my self-pity, I got anxious updates throughout the day about a church member who underwent liver transplant surgery. While she was fighting for her life, I was worried about my personal failures and hurt feelings. My worries seem petty compared to her situation. Anxiety is like gas; it fills whatever vacuum you put it in. It’s my own perfectionism that causes much of my anxiety.

Perfectionism is a form of cowardice based on insecurity. It’s rooted in a fear of failure and perfectionists like me will do anything to avoid that red-faced feeling of shame that inevitably comes with it. Perfectionism makes people risk averse and hyper-vigilant.  When perfectionists are in a game and sense they can’t win, they quit. When they’re in a relationship that’s not working, they bail. Afterward they resolve never to try again. To quote one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs: “If I never loved, I never would have cried.”

I’m not as much of a perfectionist as I used to be. I still feel like giving up when things don’t seem to be moving toward measurable success. But that’s okay. Nobody’s perfect. Not even me.

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Finding Beauty

the-ascension-1801

Benjamin West (1738-1820), The Ascension (1801), oil on canvas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn.

On Friday I returned from a ten-day trip to Millington, Tennessee where I was doing special work for the US Navy. Last Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain and drove to nearby Memphis to visit the Dixon Gallery of Art. I passed through some pretty slummy areas of the city to get there. My first impression of the Home of the Blues was mostly negative until I arrived at the Dixon. This small but impressive museum was founded by the English-born cotton magnate and fine arts patron Hugo Dixon, who made a large fortune in the cotton business.

French impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Bonnard form the core of the permanent collection. There are also two Marc Chagall paintings on display and even an abstract expressionist painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) who literally colored outside of the lines, painting over the frame. But the work that has stuck with me the most since my visit is a stunning painting of the Ascension of Christ by the artist Benjamin West (above).

Conspicuously absent from the museum collection is any depiction of the laborers upon whose backs Mr. Dixon’s fortune was built. No sharecroppers. No African-Americans. No Americans of any kind for that matter. Dixon ascended to glory on the backs of the poor who have no representation in his art collection. We all compartmentalize our lives and I don’t want to be too harsh on a great philanthropist. For all I know, he may have given millions to help the poor. But a museum brochure mentions only Dixon’s generosity to the fine arts and higher education.

The day after my visit to the Dixon Gallery, I traveled to the Mississippi Delta where cotton is still king, and rural poverty, which was invisible in the art museum, is all too apparent. I went to the tiny town of Shaw (pop. 1,952) where our daughter Natalie took a mission trip during her spring break last year. Shaw’s infrastructure and buildings are literally crumbling. Along the main street stores have collapsed behind their fronts and several empty buildings have fallen prey to arsonists. This once thriving town is now in a state of decay. Most businesses left after whites moved out in the 1970s and 80s. Now there isn’t even a supermarket. The only place to buy food is at the local gas station. Many people are unemployed. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, even in the depressing surroundings of Shaw I found beauty. There’s beauty in the people who continue to scratch a living from hard circumstances. There’s beauty in the three nuns who run a tutoring center for under-performing children. As I reflect back on my trip, I can’t help thinking about Benjamin West’s image of Christ ascending. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even though parts of it look like hell, maybe Shaw is closer to heaven than it appears.

Shaw MS storefronts

Shaw, Mississippi

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